Australasian Films, Australia, Combine, Crocodile Dundee, Don's Party, film industry, For the Term of His Natural Life, Happy Feet, Hungry Miles, Jedda, Kokoda Front Line, Mad Max, Moulin Rouge, Muriel's Wedding, On Our Selection, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Royal Commission, Screen Australia, Shine, The Adventures of Priscilla, The Great Gatsby, The Sentimental Bloke, The Story of the Kelly Gang, They're a Weird Mob, Union Theatres, Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit
The Australian film industry led the rest of the world in the first decade of the 20th century. ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’, released in 1906, was the world’s first feature length movie. It tells the real story of bushranger Ned Kelly and his family and friends, and their many run-ins with the law. The industry grew rapidly and by 1911, Australia was producing about 50 narrative films a year. There were plenty of cinemas and little competition from overseas.
A series of mergers and takeovers in 1913 resulted in the monopolistic ‘Combine’, comprising Australasian Films as distributors and Union Theatres as exhibitors. It had little interest in film production, making only seven films from 1913 to 1918. Instead, it concentrated on distribution and exhibitions, and showed mainly overseas films rather than those of Australian producers. The ‘Combine’ was criticised for this, but claimed that few Australian films were good enough to screen. Only four narrative films were produced in Australia in 1914.
A ban on bushranger films in 1912 did little to help the local industry. But by the time of World War I, the biggest threat came from overseas. Films could be bought cheaper from the United States. A tax on imported films didn’t stop a flood of Hollywood productions from being screened at Australian cinemas by the ‘Combine’. American films dominated the local market during the war and the 1920s, crippling the Australian film industry. US and also British film interests took over local distribution and exhibition companies.
Despite this, Australia still produced some excellent feature films in the silent movie era. One is ‘The Sentimental Bloke’, released in 1919, a film about a young larrikin, Bill, who promises to stop his constant gambling and drinking after he falls in love with pickle factory worker Doreen. Another is ‘For the Term of His Natural Life’, screened in 1926, which is about an English aristocrat transported to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) for a crime he didn’t commit.
A Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry was held in 1927. It looked at censorship, taxation, tariffs, and quotas of Australian films, but it did little to improve the viability of the industry. Just 13 films were produced in 1928. The introduction of sound to movies (talkies) in the late 1920s led to higher costs and this, together with the 1930s Depression, almost brought the industry to its knees. Another inquiry in 1934, the New South Wales government Inquiry into the Film Industry, had as its main recommendation an Australian film quota system. Overseas distributors lobbied hard against the quotas and within a few years legislation was withdrawn.
The release of ‘On Our Selection’ in 1932 temporarily revived the local industry and was followed by more films based on the Dad and Dave characters of Steele Rudd. Australia’s first Academy Award was in 1943 for the documentary ‘Kokoda Front Line’, a look at the Australian campaign in New Guinea during World War II. A milestone was achieved in the film industry in 1955 with ‘Jedda’, the first local film to be in colour and the first to have Aboriginal actors in lead roles. Another notable success was the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, the first union-based film production unit in the world. It made 14 films between 1953 and 1958, including ‘Hungry Miles’, which show wharfies living in slum conditions near the Sydney waterfront.
Overall, the Australian film industry had been weak for decades and almost came to a halt in the 1960s as it couldn’t compete with the huge American film industry and also that of Britain. Regardless, films were produced in every year of the decade, although perhaps the only really successful one was ‘They’re a Weird Mob’ in 1966, about an Italian immigrant who tries to understand the Australian way of life, its values, rituals and language.
The governments of John Gorton and Gough Whitlam came to the rescue in the early 1970s. Various federal government bodies were set up to assist the industry, including the Australian Film Development Corporation in 1970 and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in 1973, as well as some at state level. There was also some restructuring in the industry itself. Greater Union once again invested in local films from 1975 and became Australian owned again in 1981. Hoyts reverted to local ownership in 1984. The industry was given a further boost with the introduction in 1981 of a 150 per cent tax deduction for investment in local films, reduced to 100 per cent in 1989.
From 1970 to 1985, nearly 400 films were produced in Australia, more than the total of the previous seven decades. Outback and contemporary settings were predominant. Many excellent Australian films were produced in this era. ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (1975) tells the story of a group of schoolgirls on a picnic in the countryside who disappear without trace. ‘Don’s Party’ (1976) features a rowdy private gathering to celebrate an imminent win by a political party, but the party loses and the drinking and the sex stories increase. New wave film ‘Mad Max’ (1979), starring Mel Gibson, is about a motor cycle gang riding the almost empty highways in a lawless future setting. ‘“Crocodile” Dundee’ (1986), a comedy set in the outback with Paul Hogan as the star, was the highest grossing film in the world in that year and second highest in the US.
In the 1990s, Australia continued to release excellent films. ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ (1994) looks at the struggles of a socially awkward and overweight daydreamer who is still in the ABBA era. It achieved worldwide success. ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ (1994) is about a drag queen who travels across half of Australia with some other odd folk in a bus and meets a variety of outback characters along the way. ‘Shine’ (1996), which won an Academy award for Geoffrey Rush, tells the story of brilliant pianist David Helfgott who suffered a mental illness.
Outstanding Australian films since 2000 are many. These include the romantic musical ‘Moulin Rouge!’ (2001), in which a young English writer falls in love with the Moulin Rouge star, played by Nicole Kidman. It won two Oscars. Another Academy award winning film was the animated ‘Happy Feet’ (2006), about the lives of a group of penguins. This film was the top grosser in the US for three weeks, a feat matched by only one other film that year. The romance film ‘Australia’ (2008), set in northern Australia in World War II and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, became the second highest grossing Australian film after ‘Crocodile Dundee’. ‘The Great Gatsby’ (2013) was an international success at the box office.
Today, the Australian film industry is reasonably successful, although it still struggles against the American industry with its huge home market and abundance of films that dominate Australian cinemas. Several government film funding and development bodies merged to become Screen Australia in 2008. There are various federal tax incentives and several state government bodies also assist the industry. Most funding comes from the industry itself, while overseas companies are increasingly co-funding local films.