Last year I created a survey to gauge people’s viewing habits in regards to Australian films. The aim of the survey was to see what sorts of films people have or haven’t seen, as well as what films they have or haven’t heard of. The survey was created partly to satisfy my own curiosity, but also in service of the mission of Down Under Flix to illuminate films that are underseen and/or under the radar. I want to ensure that in choosing what to cover on this site I’m not making elitist assumptions about the general public’s viewing habits, or over-servicing films with comfortable legacies while dis-servicing those that could use some attention.
Overall, 52 people responded to the survey and I’m grateful to each and every respondent. The gender mix of respondents was fairly even: 52% male and 48% female. Unfortunately, none of the respondents were under the age of 24, but the age range above that was a nice mix: 19% 25–34, 35% 35–44, 23% 45–54, 10% 55–64, and 13% 65+. Without further ado…
Survey Part A results
There tends to be an Australian film each year that builds some buzz and becomes a conversation piece, enticing viewers to make the pilgrimage to the multiplex. For example, 2015 had a pair of these films in Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dressmaker. Consequently, it makes sense that over 50% of respondents see an Australian film theatrically at least once a year (though some probably took last year off, as only one Australian film, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, made it into the top 50 earners at the Australian box office for 2016, scraping in towards the bottom of the list). A small number of respondents indicated that they see multiple local films theatrically each year between those marquee titles, but most don’t and some don’t see any at all.
“Occasionally” attracted the lion’s share of votes for home viewing habits, likewise not too shocking in an era when the biggest and best films the world has to offer are available in people’s homes via streaming, as well as an era where television seems to have surpassed movies in terms of cultural cachet. Still, there’s a dedicated percentage that often watch Australian films regularly at home, and I’m glad that most people do watch Australian films at home, even if only occasionally or rarely.
For the purposes of this website I watch items in various formats, but if you look back over my reviews of the past seven months, you’ll see that most films watched for Down Under Flix were viewed on DVD. So count me pleased, as a physical media loyalist, that DVD and Blu-Ray remain the most common platform for watching Australian films at home, though free streaming services like SBS On Demand and YouTube, subscription services like Stan and Netflix, and illegal torrents are gaining ground and will no doubt surpass physical media within the next few years. In this climate, I hope Ozflix takes off and is a massive success.
People’s preferred genres of Australian film appear to be, historically speaking, what Australian films and filmmakers do best: dramas, comedies, arthouse, and historical (see The Dressmaker for all of these categories combined). While there are many successful films in less-preferred genres, many of them listed above – Mad Max and its sequels for action/science-fiction, Wolf Creek for horror/thriller, Red Dog for children’s/family films, Moulin Rouge for musicals – those genres are American specialties (see the corporate powerhouse quartet of Disney/Marvel/Star Wars/Pixar) and are predicated on a certain level of spectacle which Australian films, with their budgetary constraints and “chronic understatement”, to borrow from Adrian Martin, tend to shirk. Consequently, these Australian offshoots are often anomalous, and/or infused with an international flavour minimizing their Australianness (see Moulin Rouge and Mad Max: Fury Road).
What are the last three Australian films you recall watching?
14 mentions: The Dressmaker
9 mentions: Mad Max: Fury Road
7 mentions: The Babadook
4 mentions: Australia, The Great Gatsby, Muriel’s Wedding, Red Dog
3 mentions: The Daughter, Mad Max
2 mentions: Beneath Clouds, The Castle, Gallipoli, Happy Feet, Japanese Story, Lantana, Red Billabong, Samson and Delilah, These Final Hours, The Water Diviner
1 mention: The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Animal Kingdom, Another Country, Backyard Ashes, Blinky Bill, Broke, Bullets for the Dead, Burning Man, The Crossing, Daybreakers, The Dish, Don’s Party, Fair Game, Ghosts of the Civil Dead, Girl Asleep, Goldstone, Hacksaw Ridge, Hounds of Love, Last Cab To Darwin, Les Patterson Saves the World, The Little Death, Looking for Grace, Love and Other Catastrophes, Mad Max 2, Malcolm, Mental, A Month of Sundays, Moulin Rouge, Mystery Road, Oddball, One Eyed Girl, Paper Planes, Paradise Found, Patrick, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Roadgames, The Sapphires, Snowtown, Spin Out, Strange Behaviour, Strictly Ballroom, These Final Hours, Tomorrow When the War Began, Wake in Fright, Wolf Creek 2
Given their currency and widespread acclaim, it was somewhat expected that The Dressmaker, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Babadook would feature high on this list, with 14, 9, and 7 respondents stating they’d seen them recently. All three are relatively new releases, generally well-liked, critically acclaimed, and have attained a certain marquee status (albeit belatedly after its theatrical release in The Babadook’s case). Among the titles that cropped up four, three, or two times apiece, there were likewise popular releases from recent years – Australia, The Great Gatsby, Red Dog, The Water Diviner – along with beloved catalogue titles – The Castle, Muriel’s Wedding, Mad Max, Lantana – but also some interesting curveballs, like monster flick Red Billabong, apocalyptic thriller These Final Hours, and the Indigenous-themed Beneath Clouds and Samson and Delilah. This pattern also surfaced among the films that were listed once apiece, making for a truly fascinating line-up. Once again, there were brandspanking new releases – Girl Asleep, Goldstone, Looking for Grace, and Hacksaw Ridge (which I suspect more people saw but didn’t realise was Australian) – as well as other recent fare – Animal Kingdom, Tomorrow When the War Began – and popular staples like The Dish, Moulin Rouge, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Strictly Ballroom. The rest of the list was quite eclectic, with recent curiosities like sex comedy The Little Death rubbing shoulders with cult classics like Wake in Fright and minor gems like the early Russell Crowe flick The Crossing. There were a few intriguing titles I hadn’t heard of – Backyard Ashes, Broke, Burning Man, Hounds of Love, One Eyed Girl – which have been added to Down Under Flix’s future viewing itinerary, and a healthy dose of family flicks (Blinky Bill, Oddball, Paper Planes) and genre fare (Bullets for the Dead, Patrick, Roadgames, Wolf Creek 2).
On the whole, I think these results testify to several things: the way that certain recent releases can dominate and monopolize attention, becoming the token “to watch” Australian films for a stretch; the ubiquity of certain older titles in our Australian film diet, as well as certain filmmakers like George Miller and Baz Luhrmann; but also the diversity of options out there for those wanting to watch Australian films and the sheer eclecticism of the content available to viewers, as well as an appetite among many viewers for something a bit different.
Survey Part B results
The next section of the survey involved respondents identifying their relationship/acquaintance with a number of Australian film titles. Results are shown via percentage. Of the 58 films mentioned in this section, some have been covered on Down Under Flix already and some are in the review queue for 2017 and beyond. I tried to mix recognised classics and commercial successes with films that are lesser known or niche, and have hopefully provided a reasonable representation of Australia’s cinema output.
Are you familiar with these genre films (action, thriller, sci-fi)?
As noted above, local audiences have never particularly warmed to Australian “genre” (i.e. action, thriller, science-fiction, horror) fare. Mad Max is easily Australia’s best-known action/sci-fi export, which is reflected in the tally above. Everybody who completed the survey knew of its existence (in fact, it’s the only film of the whole survey to score 0% in the “Never heard of it” category); 82% of respondents have seen it; and the majority of those respondents liked it, though there were a few very vocal detractors. BMX Bandits was the second most recognised title and second most viewed film (39%), while Roadgames was the third most seen title (19%) and disliked by none who watched it. But generally this category amassed the largest number of “Never heard of it” votes, with Subterano ranking as the most obscure film (85%), followed by Resistance (77%), The Time Guardian (74%; reviewed here on Down Under Flix), and Money Movers (73%). In fairness to respondents, eight of the titles in this list derived from the 1970s and 80s and only one (Subterano) from the 21st century, though a number of the titles have some Ozploitation cachet thanks to featured appearances in Mark Hartley’s seminal documentary Not Quite Hollywood.
Are you familiar with these period/historical films?
A Peter Weir double bill dominates this list, with Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock tied as the period/historical films most viewers have seen: 78% of respondents have seen these films, and the majority liked them. Moreover, they’re also the most recognised titles in this field, with only 2% of respondents having never heard of Picnic at Hanging Rock and 4% in Gallipoli’s case. Breaker Morant was the third most watched title (64%), followed by My Brilliant Career (49%), with Sirens nibbling at its corset (48%; reviewed here on Down Under Flix). The splits on Breaker Morant and My Brilliant Career between those who recognised the titles but hadn’t seen them and those who’d never heard of them were fairly even (18%/18% for the former, 24%/27% for the latter). The Lighthorsemen was the historical film most knew of but had never seen (47%), closely followed by We of the Never Never and Burke & Wills (46% each). Burke & Wills was also the least viewed title of the assortment (only 17% had seen it), while Black Robe, an internationally flavoured film from Bruce Beresford about Jesuit missionaries’ struggles in early Canada, was the historical film most viewers hadn’t heard of (53%). Overall, these historical films showed better name recognition than the action and genre films discussed above, which was somewhat expected given that Australian cinema carved its reputation largely on the period films of the Australian New Wave. It’s also nice to see the films commonly heralded as stone cold classics – Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Breaker Morant, My Brilliant Career – still carry cachet.
Are you familiar with these films about Indigenous Australians?
Australia’s body of films by and/or about Indigenous Australians generally fared slightly better than local action and genre cinema, though not nearly as well as historical and period films. Interestingly, those that overlapped with the historical film genre tended to fare better. Rabbit Proof Fence was by far the most seen film in this field: 64% of respondents had seen it and the majority admired it. Phillip Noyce’s acclaimed film also carried the heaviest recognition factor of this group, with a very small minority (4%) having never heard of it. Fred Schepisi’s period drama The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was the second most viewed film, albeit a distant second at 36%, with Ivan Sen’s contemporary Beneath Clouds (reviewed here on Down Under Flix) a close third at 34%. However, Schepisi’s period film carried greater name recognition than Sen’s modern-day film, with only 35% having never heard of it compared to the latter film’s 58%. Manganinnie was the least recognised title (79% had never heard of it), followed by One Night the Moon (62%; reviewed here on Down Under Flix), The Fringe Dwellers (61%; reviewed here on Down Under Flix), and Radiance (60%; reviewed here on Down Under Flix).
Are you familiar with these comedies and family films?
A list containing the lowbrow likes of Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie alongside genial family fare like Red Dog and Blue Fin isn’t perhaps the most cohesive list, but the films comprising this table are, for the most part, a delightfully non-conformist lot. The two most widely seen Australian films of the whole survey can be found here: The Castle takes first place, seen by 88% of respondents and liked by most, followed by Strictly Ballroom, seen by 86% of respondents and similarly liked by most. The Castle is also the most recognised of the comedies, with only 4% of respondents having never heard of it. Rob Sitch’s underdog comedy was closely followed by a literal dog in this category, Red Dog, which only 6% of respondents hadn’t heard of and which was the third most widely seen film on the list, viewed by 59% of respondents.Except for the original Mad Max which 12% of respondents didn’t like (it’s certainly not to all tastes), the comedy category featured more notches in the “Seen it, loathed it” column than any other. The high rankings of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Alvin Purple, and Welcome to Woop Woop (reviewed here on Down Under Flix) in this column (10% each) is indicative of some cultural cringe at play, a commonplace when it comes to Australian comedy. Again, some of these films are acquired tastes. Garage Days was the comedy that most respondents haven’t heard of (61%), followed by Starstruck (53%; reviewed here on Down Under Flix) and the perennially maligned Welcome to Woop Woop (52%). To quote the late Donald Wolfit, dying is easy, comedy is hard. Which brings us to our final genre…
Are you familiar with these dramas?
Modestly budgeted contemporary or quasi-contemporary drama is a default genre in Australian cinema. There are several reasons for this, among them budgetary constraints that prohibit Australian filmmakers not named “Baz Luhrmann” or “George Miller” and the aforementioned audience preference for overseas rather than local escapist fare. But while drama’s a staple genre, the huge successes tend to emerge from other genres. The most seen title in this crop, Shine (70%), makes sense: it was an Australian Film Institute Awards juggernaut, an Oscar contender (and winner for its lead), and helped propel Geoffrey Rush from stage veteran to international character actor fixture. Lantana, another AFI juggernaut featuring a more subdued Rush, comes in second with a respectable 52%, well below the second most viewed titles in the comedy and historical categories but well above those in the action and Indigenous categories. The third most seen film was Proof, though the number of respondents who’d seen it (38%) was almost tied with the number of those who hadn’t heard of it (35%). The films most unfamiliar to respondents were Metal Skin (reviewed here on Down Under Flix) and Man of Flowers, both tied at 72%, while the films highest ranked in the “Heard of it, but never seen” category were The Coolangatta Kid (39%) followed by The Delinquents (37%). As a child of the 1980s, I was madly in love with Kylie Minogue and demanded my parents buy me the video of The Delinquents, which I then proceeded to never bother watching, so I’m firmly in that category.
To recap, here’s a summary of the most and least seen Australian films across all genres from the titles discussed above, as well as those most respondent had heard of but never seen:
The films seen by most respondents are a solid mix of populist commercial successes, New Wave classics, and award winners, with some titles straddling all three categories. As suspected, the least seen films derived largely from the action/science-fiction/thriller and Indigenous film categories. There are a few films I’m rather disappointed to see in that column, and I’d particularly recommend readers check out the delightful martial arts action romp The Man from Hong Kong, as well as The Fringe Dwellers and Dead Heart (my top two films featured on Down Under Flix in 2016). The list of films that most viewers were aware of but hadn’t seen is headlined by three prestige period films with recognisable titles/about recognisable subjects (The Lighthorsemen, Burke & Wills, We of the Never Never) which I suspect would feel like homework for many viewers. The other films in the line-up carry a certain level of brand recognition, whether through the presence of future stars (Nicole Kidman in BMX Bandits, Kylie Minogue in The Delinquents) or popular success (Alvin Purple, Red Dog). Several of the films listed in these columns will be reviewed on Down Under Flix in 2017, including Resistance, Subterano, Hoodwink, Manganinnie, BMX Bandits, The Coolangatta Kid, We of the Never Never, Burke & Wills, Alvin Purple, and The Delinquents, as well as other films covered in the survey.
As intimated throughout, it’s clear from the survey results that a small number of Australian films tend to dominate the conversation, whether through historical significance and prestige (e.g. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli), popular appeal (e.g. The Castle, Strictly Ballroom), critical acclaim (e.g. Shine, Lantana), or sheer brute force of iconography (e.g. Mad Max). And all those films are great and deserve every lick of attention they’re afforded. However, as the eclectic sampling of films listed throughout the survey attests, Australia’s film output is much more diverse and varied than it’s often given credit for. Moreover, as the variety of responses to the question “What are the last three Australian films you recall watching?” attests, people’s viewing habits of Australian films are also more diverse and varied than generally given credit for. But once again, we see a small number of films monopolize the conversation: The Dressmaker, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Babadook etc. So while viewing habits are diverse, and I think most readers are eager to support Australian films, certain films do dominate the foreground and those in the background, while watched by some, aren’t necessarily widely watched, sought out, or even known about, and many older titles fall completely out of rotation.
The fact that so many Australian films go unnoticed isn’t unique to Australian cinema: all national cinemas have to compete with and exist in the shadow of Hollywood, bar perhaps India and China, which like American cinema are financially autonomous, non-government-subsidized entities. I teach at a university college, and last year I talked to European students and mentioned the Dendy and Palace cinema chains in Sydney that show a lot of European films. They thanked me, but professed they were way more interested in Captain America and Batman v Superman and American films generally, with their bigger budgets and mythic storytelling and visual polish and oomph. Last year’s results at the Australian box office reinforce this theme.
But there seems to be a real movement percolating to ensure the bulk of Australia’s cinema history survives the slings and arrows of time and doesn’t fall through the cracks, exemplified by the newly launched streaming service Ozflix – conceived with the aim of making every Australian film ever made available to stream online – but also websites like Ozflicks: Australian Film Guide and podcasts like The Last New Wave. It’s gratifying to see that movement and play some small part in it, because when films fade into obscurity, not only do we lose the films but the talents behind and in them. Looking at the survey results, certain folks are safe: Miller and Luhrmann and Weir, and Mel Gibson and Bill Hunter and Helen Morse, and Michael Caton and Sophie Lee and Paul Mercurio, whether you want him or not. But what about the late John Hargreaves, one of the best local stars of the 1970s and 80s and a palpably charismatic performer? 96% of respondents hadn’t seen Hoodwink, and only 34% knew of it. Don’s Party and Careful, He Might Hear You fared better, seen by 39% and 30% of respondents respectively. Those three films, incidentally, will be covered on Down Under Flix in the coming months.
With Ozflix rolling out wide on 26 January (Australia Day), 2017 is going to be a big year for revisiting Australia’s film history, and it’s going to be a bumper year on Down Under Flix too. There are lots of films in the pipeline, as well as guest reviews and interviews. But there are also films out there deserving of attention that I don’t know about. If you have any to recommend, let me know, and if you’re a filmmaker with a film needing some attention, let me know.
Thanks for reading, thanks for participating if you took part in the survey, and see you back here in February…