New trends watching films in Australia
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New trends watching films in Australia

By David Griffiths

2020 was supposed to be an epic year of cinematic blockbusters. It was a year where the box office was supposed to be dominated by some of the biggest franchises in cinematic history. Daniel Craig was set to return as the iconic James Bond, the Marvel juggernaut was set to roll on with the release of Black Widow while their rivals DC Comics were set to release Wonder Woman. Then of course there was also Christoper Nolan’s new film Tenet, while the cinematic territories that I write the most for, Australia and Thailand, were also eagerly anticipating the releases of Mulan and a new Fast & Furious film.

Then a global pandemic hit and for both countries the cinema screens went dark for the first time in a generation. Thailand’s lock-down was short lived, the virus was brought under control relatively quickly and cinemas quickly opened with restrictions in place. Australia’s experience though was very different. While most of Australia was able to follow in Thailand’s footsteps, a dangerous second wave of the virus in the state of Victoria saw cinemas go through a soft re-open before closing again. At the time of writing this, November 1st 2020, Victoria currently has outdoor drive-in cinemas while indoor cinemas remain closed with no re-opening date yet announced.

At the same time this was happening, the major studios were changing release dates left, right and centre. Some movies were moved to late 2020, then pushed back to 2021 while other films like Mulan and Trolls: World Tour were released as video-on-demand. By the fact that Melbourne’s drive-in cinemas managed to sell out the first week of screenings for Trolls: World Tour when drive-in cinemas re-opened in late October you could argue that the online release was not as successful as hoped.

The re-opening of cinemas at a time when major distributors were delaying the release of their blockbusters opened up a market in Australia and Thailand that nobody expected – suddenly local product and indie films were pushed into the spotlight in a way that they had never experienced previously.

A new trend

The first sign that the cinema re-openings were starting a new trend was when Thailand’s SF Cinema chain announced that it would be screening new Australian crocodile horror film Black Water: Abyss. In the three years prior to this, no Australian film had been released in cinemas in Thailand. That announcement then led to an even wider release for the film. “It ended up selling right around the world,” says director Andrew Traucki. “It sold to China, then Europe, then America and then to the UK. It went out on one hundred screens in the UK and once again that was a Covid thing because normally a film of this size would never get that kind of release, but because of Covid we did. Despite the Covid restriction the film was also among the top films at the box office during its opening weekend.”

Back in Australia Black Water: Abyss also did well at the cinemas that were open at the time and it started a trend that few would have predicted. Suddenly Australian films like Rams and Never Too Late became hot property with commercial television and radio even promoting the films, something that has been a rarity for Australian cinema over the past decade. By the time top-rating news program The Project were doing a feature piece on local documentary The Leadership it was finally clear both local and indie product had now very much found a place at the forefront of “pandemic cinema”.

That extra exposure in the media has also transferred to much higher box office success for locally made films. Comedy film Rams, which stars Sam Neil and iconic Australian actor Michael Caton made $1.27 million in its opening weekend placing it right up alongside American films like Tenet and After We Collided.

The news thrilled Joel Pearlman who is the CEO of Roadshow Films in Australia. “Roadshow has continued to support Australian Exhibition throughout this difficult year, and RAMS’ opening weekend result proves that Australian audiences are enthusiastic to return to cinemas,” he said in a written statement. “We are thrilled with these numbers and anticipate that strong word of mouth carries these results through to the end of the year, especially once Victoria’s cinemas are deemed safe to re-open.”

The movement wasn’t only clear with cinemas and drive-ins either. Australian genre film Blood Vessel shot to worldwide attention on streaming platforms right across the world while it seemed like the up-and-coming platforms were falling over themselves to acquire new product – no matter the size of the budget.

Award-winning Indie director Jake Horowitz was certainly one filmmaker who noticed the smaller streaming services becoming more open to showing indie and local films. “I actually released two films during the pandemic,” he explained to me. “My first film, All About Who You Know, was released back in May when all of this was very new to us. That one really got lost in the pandemic so with my second film, Christmas comedy Cup Of Cheer, we wanted to make sure that everybody would get a chance to see it safely, whether that be at Drive-In cinemas or watching it in the comfort and safety of their own home on VOD.”

“But of course at the moment the big streaming platforms are only looking for films with stars in them,” he says as we discuss how the smaller streaming platforms are dealing with the pandemic. “They are not willing to even consider smaller movies, no matter the quality or the reception or anything… they won’t even look at it. So we had an exclusive deal to screen on Tubi for a few weeks, and like you said it is a huge up-and-coming platform and they are a real competitor for Netflix. This is the kind of movie that we think people will really love and it will be spread by word-of-mouth and by letting it screen on Tubi which is free for subscribers we thought that would really work.”

More recognition for local productions

That of course leaves a big question – will the trend of local and indie cinema receiving a wider audience continue once cinemas re-open with Hollywood product or will things return to normal. Australian film journalist Kyle McGrath says he believes the movement has triggered a change that will be permanent when it comes to what the average cinema watches and how they go about watching films.

“There has always been that knowledge when it comes down to whether a cinema patron will watch a new Australian film or number 10 in a franchise of superhero films that the superhero film will win,” he says. “With films like the new James Bond and the latest Fast & Furious film being pushed back by more than a year it means that people will be more open to these films if they want to see something new. While the real cinemaphile might go and see a film like Space Jam at a retro cinema like The Astor, the average cinema goer wants something new so the result will be that Australian films will be getting more recognition.”

McGrath is a member of the Australian Film Critics Association and during a career which has spanned nearly twenty years he has worked as a producer on Arts And Entertainment television show X-Wired as well as being recognised as a film critic on the popular The Popcorn Conspiracy podcast. He says that this is one of the biggest changes he has seen in cinema over those twenty years. That leads me to ask him whether he believes that people being exposed to more Australian films might actually see the stigma that “Australian films are bad films” become eroded in the local market.

“I think it will, yes,” he says. “People are always going to notice the difference that happens because of the fact that the Australian films don’t have the same budget as huge blockbusters. But I think that stigma will go which I see as a positive because you have films like Danger Close which I felt was one of the best movies of last year but it was largely overlooked by the local audience. If something like this (the pandemic) had happened last year then a lot more people would have gone and seen it, they would seen that it was a great movie and that would have challenged their negative view of Australian films. I am hoping that is something that really does come from this.”

For a similar reason McGrath says he feels that people being exposed to open air cinemas and Drive-In cinemas may also change the way a lot of people want to watch their films going forward from here. “For a lot of people this will be the first time in their lives that they have ever attended an open air or drive in cinema,” he explains. “Now people are being encouraged to do that more and a lot of them discovering that it provides them with a really unique experience. In fact for people in Victoria it is more than just be encouraged, it is the only way that they can see new movies right now so they expand their horizons and realise that there are other options out there rather than just going to your regular multiplex cinema over and over.”

He added, “People are going to realise that the drive-in experience is very different to the cinema experience, they can talk in the car, they can have fun with their friends – it is not as cramped, the seats aren’t sticky, they aren’t being forced to sit next to a complete stranger – the things that people often hate about cinemas. Some people will realise you don’t have any of that at a Drive-In and they won’t want to go back to the cinema.”

“Having said that though,” he says continuing. “There are some films that I think are better for people to watch in an actual cinema. I would never dream of watching Tenet at a Drive-In. That is the kind of film that needs the full cinema experience so while some people will frequent Drive-Ins a little more I don’t think it will ever do away with cinemas.”

While the pandemic has also seen a rise in the number of people subscribing to streaming platforms, McGrath says he believes the jury is out on whether that is one trend that will continue or not. “I think they will,” he says when I put it to him that people might let some of their subscriptions lapse once cinemas re-open. “The past would suggest it may. Disney+ found that when people had finished watching The Mandalorian season one they let their subscription end and then took up a subscription again when season two was released.

On the flipside though a lot of distributors are really looking at ways to enhance that digital experience, that was obvious with what they did with Mulan and Trolls: World Tour, but there is certainly going to be a drop off with people subscribing once people can return to cinemas and get out of their homes more… that is only natural. For streaming to remain alongside cinema both have to focus on bringing out new films – that way people will always be able to expand their horizons.”

While many people have basically just written 2020 off when it comes to cinemas it is clear from talking to film journalists, distributors and filmmakers that the events of this year may have just opened up a future for cinema that no-one saw coming. It seems likely that there will be a chance for people to watch movies in more ways, to be more open to local and independent films and to do it all in a way that they feel more comfortable with. At the end of day that certainly cannot be a bad thing.

Dave Griffiths has worked internationally as a film journalist for over twenty-five years now. During that time he has been a film critic on television, radio and print and has been recognised as an expert in Australian and genre cinema. Currently he writes for The Book, The Film, The T-Shirt in the UK and for The Phuket News in Thailand. In Australia, he has a weekly radio show on J-Air and is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for HEAVY Cinema and Subculture webzines. Dave has also been a member of the Australian Film Critics Association for over ten years and is currently the organisation’s Treasurer.

Photo: Jackson Stock Photography

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