Every Friday at 5pm, students of the Australian Film and Television and Radio School – Australia’s national screen arts and broadcast School, along with film buffs and interested members of the general public, take their seats in the AFTRS theatre for a free talk and occasional screening with the best practitioners from the Australian world of screen arts and broadcasting. In Part 1 of this feature, we learned about producer Jan Chapman’s early career. In Part 2, Australian screenwriters talked about the challenges of moving from home to work in Hollywood. In this final part, filmmakers talk about financing and promoting their works.
The question of financing, especially in a small market, comes up often in the talks, especially with leading Australian producers like Emile Sherman. Sherman’s films include Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), Candy, Disgrace (2008, John Malkovich) and The Kings Speech (2010), the latter through his new entity See-Saw Films. Through See-Saw, Sherman founded finance company Fulcrum Media Finance, providing, among other support, gap financing and cash flow presales.
‘The independent film industry is not a real business in most countries around the world,’ he explains. ‘It’s largely underpinned by government incentives and each country does it in a different way. Film really is a terrible structure as a business. You do all the work to develop, finance and make the film, then you literally have to start again with each project.’
‘I don’t think the argument should be around whether you make comedies or dramas or thrillers or whatever but whatever you decide to make needs to be thought through and have an audience. A wide-release film in Australia is competing with all those huge Hollywood movies. It’s a tall order, so you need big international stars, or you need big Australian stars, or you need something that’s going to make it compete head on out in the multiplexes.’
‘Candy and Disgrace have got a theatrical release all around the world, pretty much every country. That’s because, although they’re not blockbusters and are unlikely to ‘break out,’ they at least know what they are. They’ve got a core audience; they’re very specific, strong, art house films.’
‘Festivals are a key to securing or boosting sales with an art house film. If a film’s been in official competition, in Berlin for instance, then good reviews set the tone for the film and it gives the confidence to the buyers that this is going to be a critically acclaimed movie.’
‘I’m very in favour of co-productions if it’s right for the project. I’ve got an office and partner in London now. London is much more connected with other countries and co-productions are almost the norm, whereas Australia can be a bit protective, as if bringing in other countries dilutes the cultural worth. But it’s just so hard to compete that you want to produce projects that have the strongest ability to find a defined audience so pulling in the creative talents and the financial resources of two countries often really makes sense.’
Writer/ director Robert Connolly has definite views on costs and financing Australian films from his own experience on creating films including Balibo (2009), starring Anthony La Paglia, and Romulus my Father (2007), starring Eric Bana.
‘There’s no doubt that Australian films cost too much in terms of world cinema, in terms of how much money they make back, in terms of their ambition versus the conservative way of making them that happens when you’ve got too much money. My experience is that the more money you have, inappropriate for the size of the film, the more it gets trapped into a very traditional process that stifles the creativity.’
‘Balibo was made for $4.7 million. It’s an eight-week shoot, it’s got international stars, it’s shot in a foreign country, it’s a period war film. $4.7 million is the usual budget that you would have for a small domestic drama in Australia. We can’t keep making films for far more money than they can have any chance of ever recouping. I made the film Romulus my Father for $6.5 million. It made $2.6 million at the Australian box office and sold for about $2 million worth of international sales. I should have made that film for less. Governments won’t continue to justify investing in films just for the artistic cultural agenda though it should always remain the driving factor.’
Connolly’s Balibo is about five Australian journalists who went missing while covering the pending invasion of East Timor by Indonesia but Connolly took the story far beyond a parochial interest.
‘The script began in its earlier incarnations as just the Balibo Five story,’ Connolly explains. ‘The early drafts were just about these five Australian men that went to East Timor, but I always had the uncomfortable feeling of it turning into one of those white men saving the third world, so as the development of the East Timor aspect of the story grew, the Timorese characters grew stronger. In the back of my mind was the issue of balance between our national interest through the Australians that died and the Timorese that died.’
Connolly took care to cast locals in the Timorese roles and writer/ director Claire McCarthy was also mindful of casting local people in the Calcutta location of her recent film The Waiting City (2009). The film, a story about a power relationship between an Australian couple who are waiting for an adoption stars Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom), Radha Mitchell (Finding Neverland) and Isabel Lucas (Transformers), and is the first Australian film to be shot entirely in India.
‘Many of the characters in the film are from the local area of Suddah Street from where many of the local women and children in the film were cast,’ says McCarthy. ‘We would also shoot on locations, not on sets, in situations that we approached in an almost documentary style. The setting itself is really important to antagonise the couple and propel the drama of the story. So, proximity to Calcutta and a sense of intimacy and insight about this unique city was crucial to the film’s point of view, message and meaning.’
‘As a Westerner you can’t help but be beguiled by the unashamed display of life that we’re not privy to usually in the West. Understanding your own mortality, your relationship to death, just seeing everything on display – dripping wealth in all its disgusting glory versus someone dead on the street; it was a minefield treading that but I feel that the film is optimistic and hopeful and respectful.’
A directing graduate of AFTRS in 2001, McCarthy’s first feature film Cross Life was nominated for an IF Independent Spirit Award, but she is still a relative newcomer when it comes to having the pull to finance a feature. Her producer Jamie Hilton (Sleeping Beauty, 2011) explains, ‘As far as financing films, cast is probably the most critical element unless you have a really A list director. However I would say that even with a significant cast like Radha, Joel and in the current market, it’s a tough sell. We’re lucky that we’re here in Australia with a subsidised industry and we were grateful to get some of this funding.’
‘The sales agent component and presales is such an important aspect and if I had my time over I would certainly be working with a sales agent who was able to bring a significant amount of money in presales, not too much because then that will affect your upside, but some significant territories so that we’re comfortable as film makers that our film’s going to be seen internationally. Fortunately we have sold the Waiting City reasonably, but it’s very nice to be sitting on a few major territories.’
The last word from Friday on my Mind’s rich and generous talks goes to Connolly who told his audience that, at the end of the day, film making is about story telling, and must touch on universal themes regardless of what country they originate from.
‘You are always looking for stories that somehow touch the heart,’ he reminds us.
All quotes are extracts from transcripts published in Lumina : Australian Journal of Screen Arts and Business, published by AFTRS, 2008-2010