Australian Cinema as ‘Outward-Looking’

NB: This was a presentation for university I’ve reworked into a post. The content is the same, but the format is different.

Historically, Australian cinema was dominated by films emphasising the representation of cultural identity. Films were interested in sharing Australian stories, histories, characters and landscapes.  However, Goldsmith states over the past 20 years, Australian cinemas’ international relationships and production policies have become more complex, leading him to characterise contemporary Australian cinema as ‘outward-looking.’ This refers to how an Australian film can ‘outwardly look’ Australian but be produced, funded, and collaborated internationally (or vice versa).

Two examples of this include The Great Gatsby and Happy Feet, which are among the top 20 highest-grossing Australian films. They are not dominated by an Australian cast, crew, story, landscape, etc. but The Great Gatsby was filmed in Sydney by an Australian director and Happy Feet was an international collaboration between the USA and Australia.

Goldsmith argues that a film can be Australian if it also acknowledges the cultural objectives of the government’s legislation in place to showcase Australian identity and story spaces.

Stratton uses the iconic example of The Castle and how it is clearly Australian – centred around an Australian family and their father.

It’s known for its, “Australian and dry humour,” its well-lived space, and its sincerity and honesty which comes across as relatable to its audience. The Castle is made by Australians for Australians; as evidenced by how actors wore their ugg boots and jeans, and dialogue was taken from familial interactions the cast had with their families themselves. It also makes use of the typical Australian trope of the underdog.

Another Australian film that Stratton discusses is The Rabbit-Proof Fence. This film for many Australians at the time of its release was their first direct experience with the stolen generations – shocking audiences with how brutally First Nations families have been torn apart.

Interestingly, another example of an Australian film Stratton gives is The Devil’s Playground. It explores the raising of children and how they navigate their identities while going through puberty as religion and physical needs influence them. Although this film can be easily globalised with regard to its setting and characters, it is still an Australian film.

Therefore, the idea of diversity in Australian characters is important to discuss. Common tropes seen include the ‘underdog’ and the ‘battler,’ the latter usually being a working, middle-class white man. However, Australian peoples are much more diverse.

For example, his diversity is seen in Paul Cox’s films, which are based upon auteur theory (so Cox as the director is considered the ‘author’ of his films). He aims to explore the lives and loves of ordinary people. His film Innocence is an Australian film that follows the lives of love of two Australian seniors, differing from the typical age range of main characters shown on screen in Australian films.

Nowadays, as Gaunson explains, films that are government-funded because of policies in place informed by the national identity agenda, emphasise cultural prestige and middle-class respectability over commercialism or pure entertainment. Screen Australia also states its dedication to diversity on screen and within film crews to explore different Australian identities and represent a modern Australia. Since 2008 Screen Australia has also been prioritising audiences and commercial filmmaking, causing a much broader range of films to be made.

Gauson states that this shift has been reflected in the last decade as more diverse genres, stories, spaces, and characters have been made such as The Sapphires, I Am Mother, Paper Planes, and more.

For example, Paper Planes explores the life of a young Australian boy suffering the loss of his mother – discovering a talent and love for aerodynamic paper planes and committing to competing in the regional finals of a paper plane flying competition.

This isn’t to say though that all recent Australian films have to explore something aside from common Australian tropes involving things like the outback, bush, ‘battlers’ and underdogs. For example, Rams, takes place in remote Western Australia and explores the communities and lives of two estranged brothers who raise sheep.

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic heavily affecting how people work, Australian films have been dominating the film industry. In early February 2021, four of the top five films were Australian: The Dry, a crime mystery set in a small Victorian town, Penguin Bloom, where a family whose mother is suffering from an accident lives are touched by a magpie, Long Story Short, a comedy romance where the groom is sent back in time, and High Ground, where a local Aboriginal tribe is threatened by a settlement post-WW1. All are very different stories and even genres but are distinctly Australian with their characters and spaces.

Each film, like Australian films that are not involved in international collaboration such as Hollywood productions, does not have a large budget and therefore limited marketing opportunities. What Australian films such as these do benefit though from include positive word of mouth.

Ryan and McWilliam further discuss how they believe the Australian screen industry is ‘booming’ currently. Due to Queensland and Northern Territory’s continued ability for film productions to continue across 2020. Additionally, Australian production studios have been gaining lots of work, especially in cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast. Existing studios, Ryan and McWilliam state, were also already booked for some time and they show no signs of slowing down. Australia’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the delayed vaccination goals, has proven attractive to Hollywood in particular.

Ryan and McWilliam say that current Australian movies without international collaboration dominate Australia’s current film market and are increasingly focused on telling local stories in new ways to explore Australian spaces and identities. However, the demand for production studios to work on international films is also not slowing down. One of such films in production currently is the Mad Max prequel, titled Furiosa, which is, “expected to become the biggest film ever to be made in Australia.”

Mad Max is a Hollywood movie filmed and collaborated with Australian companies – and is part of the action genre. For Hollywood films filmed and produced by Americans, the action genre Howell argues only emphasises, “spectacular representations of bodies in motion,
physical confrontations, and challenging feats.” However, Howell explains that the action genre is also a part of Australia’s cinema history.

Action however for Australian films tends to be blended or hybridised among genres; including action-comedy, action-mystery, and action-adventure. This is seen in Australia’s highest-ever grossing film, Crocodile Dundee, a 1986 action-comedy film. This blended genres approach to action is something that Australia offers to action films that are being produced internationally though Howell argues. They use the example of Mad Max: Fury Road, stating that it is not typical Hollywood ‘faceless’ entertainment. Howell argues that Australia’s blockbuster action success with Fury Road evidences Australia’s different attitude towards action, distinct from Hollywood’s.

Howell also argues that action genre films collaborated with Australian production, “channels Australian cinematic themes and imagery in cinema,” and suggests that this is a positive Australian cinema has to offer transnationally going into the future.

Ryan and McWilliam’s statement that current Australian productions without international collaboration are increasingly focused on telling local stories in new ways to explore Australian spaces and identities is also reflected in the film Blaze, which is currently showing in cinemas. However, despite the positive response to this film and its selection and screening at the 2022 Sydney Film Festival and 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, it suffers from scarce marketing and screenings in cinemas.

In Sydney only three cinemas, in Melbourne three, and in South-East Queensland four cinemas are playing the film. The official trailer for the movie was not even released until one month prior to its release date and was only posted to a small YouTube channel owned by the production company’s owner with 123 subscribers. It has been unable to generate much ‘word of mouth’ or reviews on popular websites.

It seems that local Australian cinema will continue its struggle in the future of reaching box office mass success when competing with international films, but networks such as SBS and Paramount+ in particular do buy these Australian films to maintain their policy quotas for airing diverse Australian entertainment and representation; and local Australian stories will continued to be made due to federal funding and policies.

However, the demand for production studios to work on international films is also not slowing down as Ryan and McWilliam state. Elvis, despite being a Hollywood movie, is an Australian film because it’s produced by the Australian Bazmark Films production company, which is owned by the Australian director Mark “Baz” Lurhmann (who also directed The Great Gatsby). Lurhmann’s company proudly displays its Australian status, as its logo in the Australian coat of arms. Elvis has been much box office success internationally, grossing over $275 million, making three times over its budget.

Works Cited

Barton, Del Kathryn, director. Blaze. Causeway Films, 2022.

Blair, Wayne, director. The Sapphires. Goalpost Pictures, 2012.

Connolly, Robert, director. The Dry. Screen Australia, 2020.

Cox, Paul, director. Innocence. Cinemavault Releasing, 2000.

Faiman, Peter, director. Crocodile Dundee. RimFire Films, 1986. “Family.” David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema, directed by Sally Aitken, season 1, episode 3, ABC, 2017. Informit, Accessed 27 Aug. 2022.

Featheringham, Rowan, director. Paper Planes. Arenamedia, 2015.

Gaunson, Stephen. “Australian cinema is reaping box office rewards during the pandemic. Can the trend continue?” The Conversation, 18 Feb. 2021, Accessed 27 Aug. 2022.

Goldsmith, Ben. “Outward-looking Australian cinema.” Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 4 no. 3, 2014, pp. 199-214, Taylor &Francis Online, doi:10.1386/sac.4.3.199_1

Howell, Amanda. “The Action Genre and the ‘International Turn’ in Australian Cinema.” Australian Film Genre, edited by Kelly McWilliam & Mark David Ryan. Routledge, 2021, pp. 26-37. BlackBoard,

Ivin, Glendyn, director. Penguin Bloom. Screen Australia, 2020.

Johnson, Stephen Maxwell, director. High Ground. High Ground Pictures, 2020.

Lawson, Josh, director. Long Story Short. StudioCanal, 2021.

Luhrmann, Baz, director. Elvis. Bazmark Films, 2022.

Luhrmann, Baz, director. The Great Gatsby. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2013.

Miller, George, director. Happy Feet. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2006.

Miller, George, director. Max Max: Fury Road. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2015.

Noyce, Phillip, director. Rabbit-Proof Fence. Rumbalara Films, 2002.

Ryan, Mark David, & McWilliam, Kelly. “International franchises love filming in ‘Aussiewood’ – but the local industry is booming too.” The Conversation, 28 Jun, 2021, Accessed 27 Aug. 2022.

Schepisi, Fred, director. The Devil’s Playground. The Film House, 1976.

Sims, Jeremy, director. Rams. WBMC, 2020.

Sitch, Rob, director. The Castle. Working Dog Productions, 1997.

Sputore, Grant, director. I Am Mother. Penguin Empire, 2019.

Whitman, Kirsty. “The ‘Aussie Battler’ and the Hegemony of Centralising Working-Clas Masculinity in Australia.” Australian Feminist Studies, vol.28 no. 75, 2013, pp. 50-64. Taylor &Francis Online, doi:10.1080/08164649.2012.758026