Australian films strive to thrive at the box office

Loveland hits the cinemas, as we probe the performance of the other Australian films.
Ryan Kwanten as Jack in Loveland. Image: Bunya Productions.

Let’s dispose of the mainstream list quickly. Top of the tree is still The Batman with $29.3m in three weeks. Dog oozed sentiment about soldiers, a dog and a funeral to make number two with $1.33m off 343 screens; Jujutsu Kaisen 0: The Movie got its dark manga fantasy clutches into around 70,000 people to debut with $929,000 off 140 screens.

At last, Loveland

The big news for the week is the launch of Loveland, written, directed, shot and edited by Ivan Sen, with Ryan Kwanten, Hugo Weaving and Jillian Nguyen leading the cast. The producers are David Jowsey, Angela Littlejohn, Greer Simpkin and Ivan Sen. Screenhub saw the potential of this film when the trailer came out last August.

Read: Film Review: Loveland lingers on a minor key

It is easy to link this with Bladerunner with an edge of Wong Kar-wei, but that lays too heavy a burden of expectations. Instead, Ivan Sen brings both a unique approach to filmmaking and a searching aesthetic which runs from the the micro-budget Toomelah to the respectable Mystery Road and its ABC series versions. Audiences need to take it as a cinematic experience from a true auteur. Or, if they have a feel for pop culture, an Indigenous Australian sci-film shot in Hong Kong.

Read: Ivan Sen on filming Loveland: ‘It was just a joy’

It came out on 22 screens, made $2,500 on its first day and $22,000 over the whole weekend. My first reaction? This is a colossal failure, a disgusting comment on our national taste, and a reason for shame. As I frothed, a shard of common sense came into my mind.

How well does Wong Kar-wei do in Australia? His last film is The Grandmaster, now a confirmed cult classic of its kind. It opened on three screens in 2014, made $6,100 in its first weekend and finally made $37,000. It made $9m in the US, so it did much worse here, even though most films released in both territories do better in Australia on a per capita basis. It made $75m in China, even eight years ago, when the market was much smaller.

Other Australian films on screens now

There were eight Australian films which played on at least one screen last week:

  • Wash My Soul in the River (12 screens this week, total box office $34,000)
  • Chef Antonio’s Recipes for Revolution (6 screens, $5,900)
  • Friends and Strangers (4 screens, $8,000)
  • Ruby’s Choice (50 screens, $141,000)
  • Rosemary’s Way (1 screen, $18,000)
  • Never Too Late (1 screen, $968,000)
  • Here Out West (1 screen, $52,000)
  • When Pomegranates Howl (1 screen, $34,000)

It is a grim result, for the usual reasons – COVID, floods, audiences out of the habit, lack of tentpole films, lack of marketing support. Let’s not forget that the usual assets around any mainstream film are crafted internationally with huge budgets.

Read: ‘Here Out West’ deserves greater support

Never Too Late and Ruby’s Choice are very mainstreams with known casts like Jane Seymour and Jackie Weaver. You could take your grandparents to both of them, and your grandchildren if they could be convinced to watch old people being old.

When Pomegranates Howl and Friends and Strangers have a high-art edge to them, but are perfectly accessible to any audience. The documentaries are all cheerful and uplifting, and see human problems in a positive way.

Every one of these films had an Australian festival launch, though Never Too Late had an ultra-precise grab for an audience via Adelaide’s Young at Heart Festival.

Chef Antonio’s Recipe for Revolution is only the second co-production between Australia and Italy and is about to run in some Italian cinemas. The reviews for Friends and Strangers are all over the place, but it was nominated for a Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival along with other niche honours at the International Film Festivals in Beijing, Valencia and Jeonju, where it won the Special Jury Prize.

Read: Euro-success for ultra-indy Friends and Strangers

Meeting the quality challenge

When we look at these films individually, the results are challenging. But something different happens when we clump them together. Here we have eight low budget local films which are all worthy of respect. Every one of these films would sit happily on a streamer’s catalogue. They may well do so, but producers are keeping quiet rather than cruel the pitch for the cinema release.

I haven’t done a comparison with any other block of time – which one would I choose? How would I find it? – but I feel in my bones that we would not find another sample like this. These are eight films needing no excuses, which can stand up and be counted as tellers of Australian stories. The woopsies and the yes-but films are not there, and that is a sign of increasing screen maturity.

Meanwhile, of course, the international competition gets fiercer, and all the other screenmaking cultures are producing a new generation of digital natives who are better educated, supported by cuter toys and are more cosmopolitan.

The system is getting better everywhere.

Will River break through?

Next weekend sees the preview screenings of River, the second film by Jen Peedom about a grand natural spectacle. As distributor Madman says,

RIVER is the sequel to the 2017 hit documentary MOUNTAIN, reuniting the creative team of director Jennifer Peedom, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, narrator Willem Dafoe and writer Robert Macfarlane.

Mountain opened on 30 screens in 2017, for $102,000 in its opening weekend, which ultimagely yielded $2.03m, the highest gross for any non-IMAX Australian cinema documentary.

Producers are Jo-Anne McGowan and John Smithson, who runs the UK partner Arrow International Media. UK sales agent Dogwood is handling international action. The group first collaborated on Sherpa, a thrilling production story of its own:

Read: Sherpa – an avalanche of production challenges

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.