You could be forgiven for entirely missing the release of the Australian film Tracks at the beginning of March this year. Despite decent reviews and a marketing campaign that spanned bus shelters all over the country, the film detailing the journey of Australian woman Robyn Davidson travelling 1,700km from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with four camels and a dog hasn’t proven to be a commercial success.
As far as Australian films go, Tracks appeared to have potential. The story is relatively well-known thanks to Davidson’s popular 1980 book and the international fame she received from the related National Geographic cover story and newspaper coverage. The film also starred well-known actors including Mia Wasikowska from Alice in Wonderland and Girls star Adam Driver. Even the American director—John Curran of the 2006 film The Painted Veil—holds his own in cinematic history.
After its release on the 6th of March, the film quickly dissolved from mainstream cinemas due to poor crowds and found itself in the less lucrative world of independent cinema. Box office figures have been scarce: Box Office Mojo suggested that the film has made only $1.6 million in Australia. This is a disappointing figure considering its $12 million budget. Tracks’ reception abroad is also not expected to be any better than that in Australia given the fact that the film will only receive a limited international release at the beginning of May and that the hype generated by its showing at the Vancouver Film Festival last October is well and truly gone.
Following the supposed ‘Golden Age’ of Australian cinema in the 1970s and ’80s that produced critical and commercial successes like Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Gallipoli and The Man From Snowy River, Australia was in prime position to cement a place in world cinema. Yet somehow, we’ve ended up with an industry plagued by a lack of confidence, lack of funding, and lack of public support. In Peter Craven’s 2006 article in The Monthly that still has resounding relevance today, he describes a phenomenon in international cinema wherein Australian films are “perceived as foreign and art house”—a viewpoint that restricts them from the mainstream markets regardless of their potential for success. Tracks has found itself the victim of this trend.
Contemporary Australian films that have been commercially successful seem to be characterised by their overuse of aggressively ‘Australian’ iconography and themes. A film like Australia is an obvious case in point, and its generally negative reception domestically was a direct result of this. Red Dog followed in the same vein but still managed to receive a solid reception locally. The international attitude towards Australian films as niche has resulted in the high-profile films that do make it overseas having an artificial ‘okka’ feel to them. Australian filmmakers are being given the choice of making a film about anything they want, or attaching a big sign to their production that says ‘AUSTRALIAN’ through the liberal use of stereotypes, as in Red Dog.
Domestic funding for Australian films is still very low. A 2009 Screen Australia survey of the industry found that 57 per cent (or $224 million) of funding for Australian and co-produced films comes from overseas investors. And although Screen Australia is the main government funding body, its contribution over 2012 and 2013 amounted to a total of $24 million, dramatically lower than the total of $140 million from the government in 2005/06.
As far as making a profit goes, the only Australian film of 2013 that has made back its money is the Australian-American co-produced The Great Gatsby. None of the purely Australian films of 2013 did particularly well at the box office, and almost none received attention from overseas. After the ’70s and ’80s when Australian filmmakers made films that Australian people wanted to watch, we’ve reached a point where most of our films are too art house and foreign for overseas markets, but too inauthentic for domestic audiences.
You may ask what’s so bad about Australian films dying out. You may prefer Hollywood blockbusters or foreign masterpieces anyway. Is there any reason to go for the local stuff? Here’s one: film offers a unique opportunity for Australians to share their stories. Maybe they’re adventurous and set in the outback like Tracks or maybe they’re in the middle of a city, as far removed from stereotypes as you can get. The point is that Australians have stories that are worth telling, and without local and government support, they will never get told. Without the right kind of support, stories like Tracks will never reach the audiences that they really ought to.