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Part 1: Performance in Australian cinemas

Six ingredients that can deliver big audiences.

The Quick read

It would be a wasted opportunity to examine the overall commercial performance of a big bunch of films without seeing if the success stories share characteristics that might help explain their success.

Making a film that’s very popular in Australian cinemas is a big achievement. Six key factors emerge that are common to the majority of the 10 biggest hits.

The average budget of the top 10 films was $12.89 million, nearly twice that of all 94 films in the sample. Eight films already existed in another form, that is, they were adaptations or sequels. There was a preponderance of drama and all the films were classified G (general), PG (parental guidance) or M (mature). The level of experience within the director/writer/producer team was significant. The majority of the films had cast beloved by Australians. All but one of the films was released on more than 220 screens.

When applied to the 10 next most popular films in Australian cinemas, these six factors stand up pretty well.

There is not necessarily a strong connection between local gross box office revenue and overall commercial success because manufacturing and distribution costs between films vary wildly and because how a film performs internationally is crucial to the bottom line. That only four of the top 10 hits in Australian cinemas are among the top 10 commercial successes proves the point.


Six ingredients that can deliver big audiences

Enormous focus is put on how much filmgoers across the nation spend on tickets whenever a highly anticipated Australian film is released in local cinemas. It’s as if the theatrical release is the be all and end all of the film’s success. It is not.

Gross revenue from cinemas – in industry lingo, gross box office (GBO) – is woefully inadequate as an indicator of overall commercial success because it doesn’t take into account:

  • how much revenue exhibitors take;
  • the cost of manufacture, that is, the film’s budget;
  • the cost of getting the product to market, that is, the film’s marketing and distribution charges and expenses;
  • that the film earns revenue across many platforms;
  • that the film earns revenue from overseas; and
  • that the commercial life of a film continues for many years.

This analysis of 94 independent feature films is all about overall commercial success. (See here for details about the sample.) Despite the tentative connection between GBO and commercial success, GBO is a logical place to begin:

  • it makes sense chronologically because although films are now accessible across a range of platforms, those that attain some level of recognition are still usually first shown publicly on local cinema screens;
  • marketing, media and critical attention peaks as a film opens on the big screen and if it succeeds there it can generate positive word of mouth that helps expand the film’s reach; and
  • how a film earns revenue over its lifetime and where that revenue ends up is complicated and explaining the Australian situation first will make the international business easier to comprehend.

The films most popular in their own backyard

Ranking Film Title Distributor Classification Genre Time of Release Max. No. of Screens Gross Box Office (AU$)
1 Red Dog Roadshow PG Family Aug 2011 245 $21.47m
2 The Dressmaker Universal M Comedy
Oct 2015 384 $20.28m
3 Lion* Transmission PG Drama Jan 2017 245 $19.82m
4 The Sapphires eOne PG Comedy
Aug 2012 270 $14.53m
5 Tomorrow, When The War Began Paramount M Action
Sept 2010 342 $13.51m
6 Oddball Roadshow G Family Sept 2015 289 $11.08m
7 Paper Planes Roadshow G Drama Jan 2015 253 $9.65m
8 Last Cab to Darwin Icon M Drama Aug 2015 221 $7.41m
9 RED DOG: True Blue Roadshow PG Comedy
Dec 2016 305 $7.38m
10 The Railway Man Paramount
M Drama Dec 2013 109 $7.28m

Source: Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia.
*Lion is now at the top of the chart having overtaken Red Dog and The Dressmaker since 14 February 2017.
For clarity the comma in Tomorrow, When The War Began has been dropped here and throughout this article.

The average Australian GBO for this top 10 is $13.24 million, compared to the $2.26 million average GBO for all 94 films in the sample. The average number of tickets sold to the top 10 is 995,467 – very close to a million. (The average ticket price for the appropriate year was used for this calculation.) The extent of repeat viewings is unknown.

Being among the local films most loved on the big screen in Australia is no guarantee of immediate – or eventual – riches. As stated in the overview no film in the full sample has gone into profit. Obviously that includes these top 10.

Two have returned – in film language “recouped” – more than 65% of their production budgets, five have recouped between about 20 per cent and 50 per cent, one has recouped only a few per cent and two nothing. The average is 35 per cent.

Only four of these films are among the top 10 biggest commercial successes within the 94 films. Bear in mind that films early in their life cycles are disadvantaged and that these figures are a moment in time as revenue will continue to flow in for years from Australia and abroad.

The rest of this article examines what the top 10 films have in common, applies those factors to an extended list of hits then goes deeper on GBO in relation to commercial performance.

The Sapphires

Teasing out the reasons for success

Deciding on the reasons for a film’s performance – good and bad – is fraught with danger. While looking for patterns, this thought hit often and hard: “This film did very well but if it had done very badly there would be just as many reasons that could explain why”.

Innumerable factors determine whether an Australian film gets big audiences or not.

A poor turnout may be completely unrelated to the film itself: a particularly nail-biting Australian Open or perfect summer days across the country after a lot of miserable weather may keep potential audiences away for a week. This would affect all films but in exhibition land there’s little time to test what might have been.

There may be happy coincidences: the film taps into the zeitgeist because its themes might be getting a lot of media airtime or the lead actor has just won a slew of awards or there is a lot of attention around an Australian director coming home after decades in Hollywood.

Family films suit school holidays, an example of how the date chosen for a film’s release has a big influence. So does how many other films are targeting the same audience at the same time and the appeal of the marketing campaign, including the trailer and poster.

And then there are the murky, subjective areas of quality, originality and entertainment value. Many in the industry have theories about what an Australian film has to have to attract very big local crowds. The writers of this analysis think it has to pull a little at the heart strings and be a bit daggy (SG) and to appeal across age and gender and suit the shared experienced that is cinema (BR). Screen Australia’s distribution manager Anthony Grundy says there’s no secret formula: to cut through the clutter and become the audience’s first choice, a film has to be highly entertaining, authentic and well-made but most of all have a strong emotional hook.

There are no guarantees that a film will be popular, that is just the nature of the business, but once an Australian film catches alight, it can take off like wildfire. That’s what a distributor dreams of when releasing an Australian film, which requires a lot more work than an import.

That said, here are six factors common to most of the top 10 hits.

<em>Oddball</em> Oddball

1. Eight of the top 10 are adaptations or sequels

Eight of the top 10 films already existed in another form, providing built-in recognition for audiences. Red Dog, The Dressmaker, Lion, Tomorrow When The War Began and The Railway Man are adaptations of books. The Sapphires and Last Cab to Darwin are adaptations of stage plays. Red Dog: True Blue was made after Red Dog and is a prequel.

Also, that there were original versions of these films means that story and character was already well developed, increasing the chance of making a well-honed film.

For the record, six of the top ten got development assistance from Screen Australia.

Paper Planes and Oddball were the two films made from original scripts, although Oddball was based on a true story that had been covered in the media. That would deliver some familiarity.

2. Seven of the top 10 cost more than $9 million

The budgets of the films in the top 10 list are higher than usual: an average of $12.89 million compared to $6.86 million for all 94 films. The range of the top 10 is $4 million to an unusual $28 million – the second most expensive cost $21.6 million. The range of the sample is $560,000 to $28 million.

Seven of the top 10 had budgets of more than $9 million. Nothing guarantees success. And so it is with budget. There are 24 films with budgets of $9 million or more among the 94 films.

3. Nine of the top 10 are dramas; none have a restricted classification

All the films in the top 10 are dramas of some kind with the exception of Tomorrow When The War Began, which is categorised as action/adventure.

Four of the nine dramas are suitable for the whole family. In fact, no restricted classifications were applied to any of the films. In other words, they are either G (general), PG (parental guidance) or M (mature) rather than the legally enforceable MA 15+ (mature accompanied) or R 18+ (restricted).

There are many manifestations of drama and there’s a lot of humour in this top 10. Whether that means the films are comedy dramas or dramas with an Australian sense of humour is debatable.

Note that if distributors and Screen Australia are principally supporting drama then the likelihood of drama excelling is increased. Generally distributors are wary of Australian genre films.

4. A great deal of experience resides behind the camera

A high level of experience is evident at the writer and producer level and also at the director level. The directors of half of the top 10 films had previously directed three or more films – though two of these five films were directed by the same person. The directors of the rest had significant experience, particularly in television or theatre.

Kriv Stenders had directed four features prior to Red Dog and six by the time he got to Red Dog: True Blue. Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker), Robert Connolly (Paper Planes) and Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man) had directed three each previously.

Jeremy Sims (Last Cab to Darwin) had directed two films prior and was able to draw on his extensive acting and theatre directing experience.

The remaining four films are directorial debuts but each director already had a pretty impressive track record. Stuart McDonald (Oddball) had directed a lot of television and so too had Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) and his short films were festival hits. Stuart Beattie (Tomorrow When The War Began) was a writer with extensive Hollywood experience including on several Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Garth Davis (Lion) co-directed the very high-profile television series Top of the Lake.

<em>Tomorrow When The War Began</em> Tomorrow When The War Began

Five films had one writer only and in four of these cases that writer had scripted a minimum of three produced films – only Oddball had a debut writer. The other five films had two writers each with a spread of experience but it is easy to argue that at least one of the writers on each film was at the top of his or her game.

On six of the films at least one of the producers had made three features already. Of the 24 producers across the 10 films – not counting executive and associate producers or co-producers – the level of experience was generally high. Only three of the 24 producers had not made a feature previously but all were deeply embedded in film and television. Five films had three producers, four films had two producers and only The Dressmaker had one.

There was an overlap of roles within the writer/director/producer triumvirate on half the films. The directors of The Dressmaker, Paper Planes and Last Cab to Darwin worked on their scripts but alongside one other writer – only on Tomorrow When The War Began was the director the sole writer. On Paper Planes and Last Cab the director/writer also took one of the producing credits. On The Railway Man one of the producers was also a member of the writing duo.

(The experience of the heads of department has not been analysed but it would be valid to do so.)

5. The cast of six of the top 10 are very popular locally

It’s a subjective judgement but six of the top 10 films contain actors that greatly appeal to mainstream Australian audiences: The Dressmaker (Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Liam Hemsworth); Lion (Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, David Wenham); The Railway Man (Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth); The Sapphires (Deborah Mailman); Oddball (Shane Jacobson); and Last Cab to Darwin (Michael Caton).

Popular actors can be a magnet for attention but can’t guarantee success: Nicole Kidman starred in Strangerland, Ewan McGregor in Son of a Gun and Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in The Rover and all are in the 94-film sample but neither in the top 10 nor the top 20. (The extended list is below.)

Neither does success require popular cast, the best example being Red Dog, the biggest hit of all at Australian cinemas in this analysis as of 14 February 2017. (As mentioned Lion has overtaken both it and The Dressmaker since.)

Red Dog, Red Dog: True Blue, Paper Planes, and Tomorrow When The War Began, which had an ensemble cast without big star punch, are regarded here as not getting attention via much loved cast. There are always qualifications and uncertainties around casting, however, and the biggest question mark hovers over Paper Planes and Sam Worthington. He hit the big time in the US film Avatar but how much pulling power did he have in this family film? Did parents or children drive the decision to go?

6. Nine of the top 10 got a wide release

Success at the cinema depends on a film being accessible. Being on at one or two screens in a couple of cities severely restricts reach. All the films in the top 10 except one opened on more than 220 screens. The exception, The Railway Man, opened on 109 screens and rose to 190. The average across all 10 films was 266 screens.

Once upon a time a successful “platform” release was possible. A film would open on a limited number of screens, achieve high screen averages, get booked onto additional cinema screens each week and eventually became a hit. Now there is enormous pressure for films to perform from the outset or be displaced – unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Figures have not been sought on what each of the distributors of the top 10 films spent on national marketing and publicity but it could have been as much as $3 million. Spending big capitalises on a wide release to give a film a fighting chance but it is a high-risk gamble.

Nobody puts themselves through the expense and challenge of making and distributing a feature film without high hopes. The level of confidence and expectation swirling around most of the top 10 is particularly high, however, and this can be seen in the factors discussed so far.

The calibre of the distributors that attached themselves at script stage also shows a high level of faith. When a film, once completed, is deemed as having potential but the distributor has little spending power it can represent a wasted opportunity. All the distributors attached to the top 10 hits have grunt, should they wish to exert it.

The Railway Man

Applying the six factors to the next biggest cinema hits

Here’s the next 10 films that did best at the Australian box office.


Ranking Film Title Distributor Classification Genre Time of Release Max. No. of Screens Gross Box Office(AU$)
11 Kath & Kimderella Roadshow PG Comedy Sept 2012 285 $6.08m
12 A Few Best Men Icon MA 15+ Comedy Jan 2012 236 $5.30m
13 Animal Kingdom Madman MA 15+ Drama June 1010 48 $5.00m
14 Wog Boy 2 Paramount/Transmission M Comedy May 2010 203 $4.90m
15 Wolf Creek 2 Roadshow MA 15+ Horror Thriller Feb 2014 218 $4.73m
16 Mental Universal MA 15+ Comedy Drama Oct 2010 269 $4.08m
17 Charlie & Boots Paramount/Transmission M Comedy Drama Sept 2009 182 $3.87m
18 Oranges and Sunshine Icon M Drama June 2011 101 $3.85m
19 Beneath Hill 60 Paramount/Transmission M Drama April 2010 164 $3.22m
20 The Blinky Bill Movie StudioCanal G Family Comedy Sept 2015 197 $2.91m

Source: Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia.
Australian features that received production investment from Screen Australia.
Gross revenue from ticket sales as of 14 February 2017.
Mao’s Last Dancer, Bran Nue Dae and Samson & Delilah were released during the same period as the films in the sample (taking $15.44m, $7.68m and $3.19m respectively) but were financed by Screen Australia predecessor agency the Film Finance Corporation.

<em>Last Cab to Darwin</em> Last Cab to Darwin

During the period these runner-up Australian films were released about a dozen non-Australian films grossed more than $40 million each in Australian cinemas. All were big-budget US studio films and nearly all were continuations of major franchises.

This is mentioned to flag that: some will think the GBO of these films is excellent given their relatively small budgets, independent status, the modest national annual slate and the cut-throat competition; while others will think it mediocre given that Australian films ought to be able to tap into local culture in a way that foreign films cannot.

The following notes briefly detail whether the six common success factors equally apply to this supplementary list of 10 films.

  • Five films are adaptations or sequels – compared to eight in the top 10 list. There are no stage adaptations, fewer came from books and several grew out of television.
  • The average budget of the films on this supplementary list is $10.26 million compared to the top 10 average of $12.89 million, but that’s still high compared to the full sample.
  • This list is not so family friendly – although it includes the animated Blinky Bill Movie. There are four films in the list classified MA 15+ which means the films are legally restricted to persons 15 years and over whereas there were no restrictions on the top 10. Drama doesn’t dominate as it does in the top 10; rather, comedy comes into its own. Wolf Creek 2 is in the list despite general agreement that horror isn’t welcome in Australia.
  • The experience and arrangement of the directors, writers and producers involved in the films in this supplementary list is not wildly different to the top 10. Again there are four debut feature directors but all have strong directing credits in other disciplines. Again four directors got a scriptwriting credit – but two (Animal Kingdom, Mental) rather than one were writing alone. There was a little less collaboration generally on the writing front. The similar number of producers across all 10 films – 26 rather than 24 – had even more experience this time around.
  • Again it’s subjective, but the films in this supplementary list are more awash with loved-in-Australia cast than the top 10, some because of their television personas, Kath and Kimderella being the best example.
  • The average size of the initial release was 190 screens rather than the top 10’s 266. The smallest was 48 but the distributor added about 30 screens. There were no slouches among the distributors. Across all 20 films: Roadshow distributed six; the Paramount/Transmission joint venture four; Icon three; Universal two; and eOne, Madman, Paramount, StudioCanal and Transmission one each.

popularity does not always equal commercial success

Generally, before investors see any profits, exhibitors take a big slice of ticket sales revenue – two-thirds or more – distribution costs have to be fully paid back, then production costs. On one hand doing everything on the cheap therefore makes sense; on the other it runs the risk of limiting locations, casting, marketing and so on, thus diminishing audience appeal. It’s a balancing act.

In all there are 51 films among the 94 that were made for less than $5 million. The top 10 most popular in Australian cinemas are Paper Planes (2015), Last Cab to Darwin (2015), both of which are on the top 10 hit list, Wish You Were Here (2012), The Turning (2013), Snowtown (2011), Matching Jack (2010), A Month of Sundays (2016), Goldstone (2016), Charlie’s Country (2014) and The Waiting City (2010).

These 10 films grossed an average of nearly $2.5 million, well down on the $13.24 million average of the top 10. But with the average budget being $3.21 million compared to the top 10 average budget of $12.89 million, these films have a lot less to pay back. The amounts the distributors advanced for these less-than-$5 million films – the average was nearly $178,000 – was also much more modest and the marketing costs probably were too. Plus, two of the less-than $5 million films didn’t secure rest of world advances so get to keep more of their international earnings.

At this point in time there are two less-than $5 million top 10 films that have yet to recoup any of their budgets. Across the whole 10 films the range is zero to about 40 per cent and the average is 11 per cent.

There are no production line style savings in filmmaking: each new film is like a prototype that never goes into manufacture. No wonder risk reigns.