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Part 2: The thinking behind the 2014/15 crop

Examining the individual decisions made in 2014/15 illustrates how the theory behind the question of what to fund and why is put into practice.

As said in the preamble, this discussion aims to help applicants better understand why Screen Australia supports one feature film over another.

This part 2 looks beyond the need for excellence and what’s in the guidelines and examines a year’s worth of films that successfully applied for funding through the prism of the eight considerations discussed in part 1.

The films backed in 2014/15 were chosen for this exercise because all are finished and readers can get a sense of them by looking at their trailers – links are provided. That said, and to state the obvious, funding decisions are made when films are still in planning and the creators and their business partners are dreaming of huge hits.

Nineteen features received production or completion funding during 2014/15, excluding documentaries. With applications submitted for about 50 different films, that’s a success rate of about 40%.

An Australian gross box office (GBO) revenue figure (as of 1 February 2018) is included with each entry below. (Thanks to the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia for permission to use them.)

Generally, the films in the sample did not perform strongly in local cinemas but Australian GBO is just one performance indicator. Here’s two examples of others: Netflix bought streaming rights for all available territories for Berlin Syndrome on completion; and The Little Death has been remade in two countries. Also, some of the films performed very well on the festival circuit. (This research digs into how nearly 100 Australian films have performed using various indicators.)

A) INVESTMENT AND GRANTS FOR PRODUCTION

2:22

The trailer via US distributor Magnolia Pictures.

Director: Paul Currie. Writers: Todd Stein, Nathan Parker. Producers: Paul Currie, Steve Hutensky, Jodi Matterson, Bruce Davey. Sales agent: Good Universe International.

“Screen Australia welcomes Australians back wherever they live and to some degree 2:22 was a talent escalator,” says Caplan. Screen Australia’s support meant LA-based Australian producer Paul Currie got to direct his second dramatic feature, a decade after his debut One Perfect Day. He was also one of the producers. The film was attractive for another reason too: “Bill Mechanic, who used to run Fox (he was chair and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment), had raised a lot of money and the project had scale. It was market driven and had the potential to be commercial.” Two other features filmed or part-filmed in Australia around the same time – The Moon and the Stars (also known as The King’s Daughter) and Hacksaw Ridge – also involved Mechanic and Currie. Of the three, only 2:22 had investment from Screen Australia. Given the limited scale of the Australian film industry, Caplan says she takes notice when applications come in from anyone with the capacity to bring more films to Australia and an interest in doing so.

  • Screen Australia investment: $1.19 million (no development finance).
  • To be released in Australia cinemas by Icon on 22 February 2018.

Ali’s Wedding

The trailer via Australian distributor Madman Entertainment.

Director: Jeffrey Walker. Writers: Osamah Sami, Andrew Knight. Producers: Sheila Jayadev, Helen Panckhurst. Sales agent: Beta Cinema.

“This was an excellent script. It was funny and poignant. It also fitted our aim of depicting the diversity of Australian society, in this case a Muslim community.” Ali’s Wedding is based on the life of Osamah Sami. He played the lead role, co-wrote the film and was author of the autobiographical book Good Muslim Boy, so Screen Australia had no reservations about authenticity. Caplan says Ali’s Wedding was also important in the producing career of Sheila Jayadev. She had worked as an entertainment lawyer and in-house executive and produced shorts – but not a feature. Director Wayne Blair was attached when Screen Australia agreed to invest. “We were also pleased to support Jeffrey Walker’s step up into features, after his many years of directing television, including in the US.” Ali’s Wedding was Walker’s feature debut and he has since directed Dance Academy.

  • Screen Australia investment: $1.81 million. (Ali’s Wedding received development finance.)
  • Australian GBO: $1.41 million (released 31 August 2017 by Madman).
  • Recognition: audience award for best feature, Sydney Film Festival, 2017; The Age critics award for best Australian feature, Melbourne International Film Festival, 2017; Film Prize, CinefestOZ, 2017.
  • Other: top film (out of the 11 films with Screen Australia investment) in terms of revenue from Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) post-financing sales (as of 1 February 2018).

Berlin Syndrome

The trailer via production company Aquarius Films.

Director: Cate Shortland. Writer: Shaun Grant. Producer: Polly Staniford. Sales agent: Memento Films International.

“This film was market driven. On the page it was a good thriller. Well-executed thrillers can do well overseas and sales agents liked it a lot. The director Cate Shortland is a proven talent, the producer was female and it had a female protagonist that overcame adversity. In fact, a woman triumphed.” Caplan often says that films with female protagonists are welcomed by Screen Australia and, in the same breath, usually adds wryly that it’s preferred if they don’t get chopped up. Shortland previously directed Somersault and Lore, each of which earned considerable festival attention and awards. “Universal bought several territories and Netflix scooped up ROW (rest of world) for a healthy fee.”

  • Screen Australia investment: $2 million. (Berlin Syndrome received development finance.)
  • Australian GBO: $265,000 (released 20 April 2017 by Entertainment One).
  • Recognition: in competition, Sundance Film Festival, 2017; in Panorama, Berlinale, 2017.
  • Other: top film (out of the 11 films with Screen Australia investment) in terms of revenue from ROW post-financing sales (as of 1 February 2018).

Blinky Bill The Movie

The trailer via sales agent Studio 100 Group.

Director: Deane Taylor. Writer: Fin Edquist. Producer: Barbara Stephen. Sales agent: Studio 100 International.

Binky Bill is a koala that dates back to a series of books published in the 1930s and has appeared often on screen since the 1990s as an animated character. This makes him a national Australian icon with cultural weight. “The project was also market driven. Production company Flying Bark’s parent company is Studio 100, a large independent family entertainment company based in Europe, and it invested significantly in the production.”

  • Screen Australia investment: $1.2 million. (Blinky Bill received development finance.)
  • Australian GBO: $2.91 million (released 17 Sept 2015 by STUDIOCANAL).
  • Other: top film (out of the 11 films with Screen Australia investment) in terms of both Australian and ROW GBO and recoupment as a percentage of budget (as of 1 February 2018).

Breath

The trailer via Australian distributor Roadshow.

Director: Simon Baker. Writers: Gerard Lee, Tim Winton, Simon Baker. Producers: Mark Johnson, Jamie Hilton, Simon Baker. Sales agent: Embankment Films.

Based on an iconic novel by an iconic Australian author, Caplan saw Breath as having real cultural value to Australian audiences: when the book won the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 it was the fourth time for author Tim Winton. “It was also career building for Australian actor Simon Baker and a big step up for producer Jamie Hilton. Simon had directed some US television and this would be his first feature.” The film was also seen as commercial: in part because Baker also appears in the film and is very well-known as an actor in the US; in part because acclaimed US producer Mark Johnson was on board. “It was also set and filmed in regional Australia – in this case Western Australia.”

  • Screen Australia investment: $2 million. (Breath received development finance.)
  • To be released in Australian cinemas by Roadshow on 3 May 2018.
  • Recognition: official selection, Toronto International Film Festival, 2017.

The Daughter

The trailer via Australian distributor Roadshow Films.

Writer/director: Simon Stone. Producers: Jan Chapman, Nicole O’Donohue. Sales agent: Mongrel International.

The Daughter allowed theatre director Simon Stone to step over into film, making this project all about new talent and career building. It also saw Nicole O’Donohue build on her producing skills by working alongside Jan Chapman, one of the country’s most admired creative producers. It is also a film that looks and feels very Australian – that’s not a rule but it is preferred.”

  • Screen Australia investment: $1.61 million (no development finance).
  • Australian GBO: $1.75 million (released 17 March 2016 by Roadshow).
  • Recognition: closing night film, Venice International Film Festival, 2015; special presentation, Toronto International Film Festival, 2015; in competition, London and Sydney film festivals, 2015; awards for actors Odessa Young, Miranda Otto and others.

Down Under

The trailer via distributor STUDIOCANAL Australia.

Writer/director: Abe Forsythe. Producer: Jodi Matterson. Sales agent: Embankment Films.

There was a good cultural reason for making Down Under: it was an exploration of Sydney’s 2005 Cronulla riots, a significant event in contemporary Australian history. And given that the antagonism that underpins the story was between Anglo-Saxon and Lebanese Australians, the film was going to have on-screen diversity. The approach taken was also very appealing: “It was delicate subject matter and to use that material to make a comedy is innovative and risky,” says Caplan. “How much they’d asked for was reasonable too given the film. I’m proud Screen Australia supported this film.” Down Under was also seen as career building for 30-something writer/director Abe Forsythe, who was in his early 20s when he directed and starred in his debut feature Ned. “The director’s current film, Little Monsters, was financed with the assistance of a large equity contribution from a US financier, purely on the strength of their admiration for Down Under,” says Caplan. “Likewise, leading sales agent Protagonist. Down Under has many fans.”

  • Screen Australia investment: $1.66 million (Down Under received development finance.)
  • Australian GBO: $162,000 (released 11 August 2016 by STUDIOCANAL).
  • Recognition: best picture, best director, Fantastic Fest (Austin, Texas), 2016.

Jasper Jones

Trailer via the film’s website.

Director: Rachel Perkins. Writers: Shaun Grant, Craig Silvey. Producers: Vincent Sheehan, David Jowsey. Sales agent: Mongrel Media.

The title character is an Indigenous Australian – as is director Rachel Perkins – and the best friend of the central character is Vietnamese Australian. As such, there is a lot of diversity embedded in the film. The source material, Craig Silvey’s book of the same name, is well known and widely read, in part because it is or has been part of the curriculum of many schools, giving the film cultural value. (Recent analysis indicates that adaptations and sequels have a better chance of reaching Australian audiences than other films.) Other matters in Jasper Jones’s favour from Screen Australia’s point of view was that it was set in regional Western Australia, and would be filmed there, and that it had a director who was both female and a proven talent.

  • Screen Australia investment: $1.63 million. (Jasper Jones received development finance.)
  • Australian GBO: $2.7 million (released 2 March 2017 by Madman).

Jasper Jones.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation

The trailer via Australian distributor Titan View.

Director: Sotiris Dounoukos. Writers: Matt Rubinstein, Sotiris Dounoukos. Producers: Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Reeder. Sales agent: Urban Distribution International.

“This was a compelling true story based on an iconic Australian book and it was being made with the support of the author,” says Caplan, referring to the cultural value of Joe Cinque’s Consolation. That author was Helen Garner, one of the country’s most acclaimed writers of true crime. The debut film, about how a young man came to die at the hands of his girlfriend, was a big opportunity for director Sotiris Dounoukos, who had won praise for several of his short films and was raised in Canberra, where the events occurred. His Greek heritage – and the Indian heritage of the main protagonist Anu Singh – also meant the film reflected the diversity of Australian society on and off screen.

  • Screen Australia grant: $500,000. (Joe Cinque’s Consolation received development finance.)
  • Australian GBO: $225,000 (released 13 October 2016 by Titan View).
  • Recognition: Discovery section, Toronto International Film Festival, 2016.

Jungle

The trailer via Australian distributor Umbrella Entertainment.

Director: Greg McLean. Writer: Justin Monjo. Producers: Todd Fellman, Greg McLean, Dana Lustig, Gary Hamilton, Mike Gabrawy. Sales agent: Arclight Films International.

“We saw this as a commercial, market-driven film that had attracted Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame for the lead role” says Caplan, “and we thought we could make some money back from it.” The film had a budget that supported its creative and commercial aspirations, she added.

  • Screen Australia investment: $1.65 million. (Jungle received development assistance.)
  • Australian GBO: $66,000 (released on 19 October 2017 by Umbrella Entertainment).
  • Other: top film (out of the 11 films with Screen Australia investment) in terms of revenue from presales – as a result a very high proportion of Jungle’s worldwide GBO came from outside Australia, to date, thanks to Russia in particular.

Killing Ground

The trailer via Australian distributor Mushroom Pictures.

Writer/director: Damien Power. Producers: Joanne Weatherstone, Lisa Shaunessy. Sales agent: Playtime (formerly Films Distribution).

“Our support was entirely for career building: Damien Power had made several striking short films and this was an opportunity for him to make a low-budget debut feature and it served its purpose,” says Caplan, referring to how Killing Ground was invited to screen at Sundance, picked up by IFC Midnight for US distribution and lead to Power subsequently being signed up by LA agent CAA. The film was also career building for producer Joe Weatherstone. “Personally, I didn’t love the story, but whether a film is my cup of tea is irrelevant. Damien and Joe did a great job on a low budget. There is a market internationally for this kind of genre film.”

  • Screen Australian grant: $433,000 (no development finance).
  • Australian GBO: $73,000 (released 24 August 2017 by Mushroom Pictures).
  • Recognition: Midnight sidebar, Sundance Film Festival, 2016.

Looking for Grace

The trailer via Australian distributor Palace Films.

Writer/director: Sue Brooks. Producers: Alison Tilson, Lizzette Atkins, Sue Taylor. Sales agent: Shoreline Entertainment (originally Fortissimo Films).

“The film was regional, cultural and female leaning,” says Caplan. “It was to be directed by an established, admired female director, and it launched actor Odessa Young, who has since become known as a rising star. The team only asked for a small amount of money.”

  • Screen Australia grant: $200,000. (Looking for Grace subsequently received $50,000 for post-production. It received development finance.)
  • Australian GBO: $578,000 (released 28 January 2016 by Palace).
  • Recognition: in competition, Venice and Adelaide film festivals, 2015; inaugural Platform section, Toronto International Film Festival, 2015; awards for actors Odessa Young and Radha Mitchell; Australian Directors Guild/Directors Guild of America Finders Award.

A Month of Sundays

The trailer via sales agent Visit Films.

Writer/director: Matthew Saville. Producers: Nick Batzias, Kirsty Stark, Matthew Saville. Sales agent: Visit Films.

“Matt Saville is a good director – he’s done some great television – and we were supporting talent. He’d also secured Anthony LaPaglia for the main role. The script had strong elements and Madman was on board.”

  • Screen Australia investment: $417,000. (Now, post a policy change, all funding of $500,000 or less is regarded as a grant. A Month of Sundays didn't receive development finance).
  • Australian GBO: $837,000 (released 28 April 2016 by Madman).

Scare Campaign

The trailer via sales agent Playtime.

Writer/directors: Cameron Cairnes, Colin Cairnes. Producer: Julie Ryan. Sales agent: Playtime (formerly Films Distribution).

“There was a lot of tension in the script of this horror/thriller from the Cairnes brothers,” says Caplan, “and they are talented filmmakers who deserved the chance to make a second film after 100 Bloody Acres. Also, the team wasn’t asking for much money.”

  • Screen Australia grant: $450,000 (Scare Campaign didn't receive development finance).
  • Australian GBO: special screenings only (released in early 2016 by Bonsai).
  • Recognition: best film, best direction and best script, Monster Fest, Melbourne, 2015.

Spin Out

The trailer via Australian distributor Sony Pictures Releasing Australia.

Directors: Tim Ferguson, Marc Gracie. Writers: Edwina Exton, Tim Ferguson. Producers: Marc Gracie, David Redman. Sales agent: Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group.

“When Sony appeared on the scene with Spin Out they hadn’t done an Australian film for a long time. They were putting in a lot of money and guaranteeing a big p&a (marketing) spend. You can’t ignore it when a big US-owned distributor gets involved in the local market. It was a commercial market-driven decision.” Caplan also thought that audiences might relate to the film given that B&S (bachelor and spinster) balls are quintessentially Australian.

  • Screen Australian investment: $1.27 million (no development finance).
  • Australian GBO: $685,000 (released 15 September 2016 by Sony).

Tanna

The trailer via sales agent Visit Films.

Directors: Bentley Dean, Martin Butler. Writers: John Collee, Dean, Butler. Producers: Dean, Butler, Carolyn Johnson. Sales agent: Visit Films.

Tanna told a story developed by two documentary makers in collaboration with the people of Tanna, an island in Vanuatu. The method of production was unorthodox – and innovative from Caplan’s point of view. “They used a lot of the money we’d given them for development for filming – which we didn’t expect – and when it came in for more production money it was charming and quite different to how it was originally. I never thought it was commercial but it went on to get an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film (a first for an Australian feature). The film also added to the diversity of our slate.”

  • Screen Australia grant: $420,000 (Tanna received development finance).
  • Australian GBO: $90,000 (released 5 November 2015 by Contact Films and Bonsai; re-released by Umbrella post the Oscar nomination.)
  • Recognition: audience award, Venice International Film Critics’ Week, 2015; in competition, Adelaide Film Festival, 2015; nominated, best foreign language film, Academy Awards, 2017; Australian Directors Guild Award for best direction in a feature.

Wyrmwood.

B) GRANTS FOR COMPLETION

When filmmakers apply for finance from Screen Australia for films that have been shot or partly shot, the quality of the material becomes key to the decision. The cap on completion funding is $250,000.

“As is always the case, a film has to have a clear audience and a path to that audience,” says Caplan. “And if a significant film festival is sniffing around, that (positively) influences our decision.”

The Little Death

The trailer via production company Ticket to Ride.

Writer/director: Josh Lawson. Producers: Jamie Hilton, Michael Petroni, Matt Reeder. Sales agent: LevelK.

The Little Death fell into the innovation/risk category because, as Caplan puts it, “if it wasn’t handled well – and the director was a first timer so there wasn’t much to judge his work on – the film could have been regarded as very distasteful, and we would have been criticised for backing it.” She also saw the film as career building for Josh Lawson, who had worked in front of the camera both inside and outside Australia. That the producers only wanted a modest sum for completion helped their case.

  • Screen Australia grant: $200,000 (no development finance).
  • Australian GBO: $309,000 (released on 25 September 2014 by Entertainment One).
  • Recognition: winner, audience awards, South By Southwest (Austin, Texas), 2015, and the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, 2014.
  • Other: remade in Lithuania and Spain and remake rights acquired in a further three countries.

UnIndian

The trailer via Madman Films, which holds non-theatrical Australian rights.

Director: Anupam Sharma. Writer: Thushy Sathi. Producers: Lisa Duff, Anupam Sharma. Sales agent: The Yellow Affair.

UnIndian was set within Australia’s Indian community and directed by an Indian Australian, giving it diversity on screen and off. “The production team didn’t ask for much completion money and that increased their chance of getting it.”

  • Screen Australian grant: $250,000 (no development finance).
  • Australian GBO: $213,000 (released 15 October 2015 by Friends India Entertainment).

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead

The trailer via production company Guerilla Films.

Director: Kiah Roache-Turner. Writers: Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner. Producer: Tristan Roache-Turner. Sales agents: XYZ Film Sales (North America), Altitude Film Sales (ROW).

“This was all about talent development,” says Caplan. “Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner made this film for several years on credit cards before we got involved. They just went out and did it. It was a zombie film, it was clever and it had a lot of heart." A distributor has to be attached to get completion funding and their deal was with STUDIOCANAL Australia. The filmmakers now have a massive following and Screen Australia has since invested in Nekromancer.

  • Screen Australia grant: $250,000 (no development finance).
  • Australian GBO: $153,000 (released 13 February 2015 by STUDIOCANAL).
  • Recognition: official selection in a range of festivals in 2014 including Fantastic Fest (Austin, Texas), Busan (Korea) and Sitges (Spain).

“I think if you’re trying to enter a very saturated market you have to enter into it with an original concept,” says Kiah Roache-Turner here. He’s referring to one of the narrative ideas central to Wyrmwood: strapping zombies to cars and using the methane they emit as a replacement for petrol.