Australia at Berlin: Smaller Screen, Brighter Prospects

Patrick Frater
·4-min read

Posh frocks, smoldering sexuality and a trail of intriguing but ultimately frustrating clues made for a great mystery back in 1975, when Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” first appeared on the big screen. The tale of schoolgirl disappearances, deception and voyeurism remains a beacon of Australian cinema and launched Weir’s directing career.

But these days, those narrative qualities are being explored in greater depth on the small screen by top screenwriting and directing talent. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” has itself returned as a new TV miniseries piloted by FremantleMedia and picked up by Amazon for the U.S. and the BBC for Britain. Pay-channel Foxtel has it in Australia – where the novel of the same title is a classic of Australian literature – and sees the show as a subscriptions magnet.

“Picnic,” which opens the Berlinale’s TV strand Monday, is the highest-profile Australian project in Berlin this year. The lineup from Down Under comprises one feature-length documentary, four short films and five TV shows or web episodes, but no full-length fiction.

Australia already produces more television, both scripted and factual, than feature film and federal funding. Regulatory body Screen Australia was one of the first government funds to back online creators. Of the organization’s 150 digital originals to date, Berlin has this year picked comedies “F***ing Adelaide” and “Other People’s Problems.” And four emerging Australian directors – all women – have been selected to participate in the Berlinale Talents program.

“Australian TV has always been popular in other territories as it depicts our unique geography and way of life,” said Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason. “But in the past couple of years, our local industry’s focus on making premium drama has been particularly successful, led by ‘Top of the Lake’ at Berlin and Cannes, followed by ‘Cleverman’ in 2016 and now ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock,’ ‘Romper Stomper’ and ‘Safe Harbour.’”

“Romper Stomper” is another spinoff from a feature film, the movie of the same name that put Russell Crowe on the map. Tellingly, the show is a Roadshow Productions title presented as an “original” by streaming service Stan.

“Expect to see this focus on making high-end product for a global market continue from Australian producers, particularly since incentives for both local and co-productions continue to be very generous,” Mason said.

The emphasis on international business and production services may be necessary if Australia is to sustain a screen entertainment industry of its current scale, because Australian audiences are doing little to help.

In 2017, market share for Australian films in their home market doubled to 4.1%, with more than half of that coming from “Lion.” But take out that title and a grimmer picture emerges. Of the 55 Australian films released last year, just six grossed more than $800,000 (A$1 million) Down Under, and only 25 exceeded $80,000 (A$100,000).

The causes are to be found in Australia’s English-language openness, the programming strategies of the multiplex chains, and audiences hungry for Hollywood blockbusters. Underfunded marketing campaigns may also hamper many Australian films’ results.

Screen Australia says that the Hollywood studios have more than doubled their share of the Australian ticket sales in the past decade and can count on a 50% share. Other U.S. titles grab 35%, leaving all indies, local and foreign, to fight over a 15% share.

“These are the new rules in which we must compete. We’re not only looking for exceptional Australian stories, but stories with a considered path to audience at the cinema, and then beyond the cinema,” Screen Australia said in a review of the 2017 industry.

That seems to point to more Australian TV at future editions of the Berlin Film Festival.

Australian content at the Berlinale

TV and Web

• FremantleMedia Australia’s drama “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” starring Natalie Dormer (Berlinale Series)

• Roadshow Rough Diamond’s “Romper Stomper,” a Stan original series, already sold to BBC Three and Sundance TV (EFM’s Drama Series Days)

• Closer Productions’ comedy series “F***ing Adelaide” from director Sophie Hyde (EFM’s Drama Series Day)

• Seymour Films’ web series “Other People’s Problems” (EFM’s Drama Series Days)

• Matchbox Pictures’ SBS series “Safe Harbour” (EFM’s Drama Series Days)

Short Films

• Closer Productions’ “A Field Guide to Being a 12-Year-Old Girl,” written and directed by Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Generation Kplus)

• Wabi Sabi Studios’ “Lost & Found,” from producer Lucy Hayes and directors Andrew Goldsmith and Bradley Slabe (Generation Kplus)

• Australian/Korean “Paper Crane” (Generation Kplus)

• “Tangles and Knots,” starring Odessa Young, produced by Janet Brown and written/directed by Renee Marie Petropoulos (Generation 14plus)

Documentary

• 6 Season Productions’ feature-length “Gurrumul” (Berlinale Special, presented in co-operation with NATIVe)

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