Australian-produced films are raking in more at the cinema despite the ongoing shift to streaming services, with 2021 domestic box office earnings more than tripling to $71.5 million as industry leaders forecast another big year in 2022 with the release of numerous movies including Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic which is due in June.
According to a year in review released by Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason, drawing on data from the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia (MPDAA) and Numero, the highest grossing Australian films last year were Peter Rabbit 2 ($21.97 million) and The Dry ($20.12 million).
Each of these blockbusters earned almost as much as the entire Australian feature film industry at the box office in 2020, while other hits included Mortal Kombat ($9.31 million), Penguin Bloom ($7.48 million) and High Ground ($2.97 million).
Ticket sales for locally-produced films represented 11.8 per cent of the total local box office share in a year plagued by lockdowns, particularly in NSW and Victoria which traditionally represent half the market.
In 2021, 52 Australian films were released, and 513 foreign titles including large studio tentpoles that had been held back by the pandemic. Six of the top 10 performing Australian films were supported by Screen Australia.
"Australian audiences came out in force last summer to enjoy the theatrical experience. While we have encountered further challenges in the pandemic, it’s great to see how much people love getting out to the cinema when they are able to, connecting with local stories for young and old," Mason said.
"I encourage Australians to continue enjoying the immersive big screen cinema experience and supporting Australian films this year.
"Australian films also achieved great success in leading film festivals with particular international success for The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson premiering at SXSW, Playing with Sharks at Sundance, Nitram at the Cannes Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival favourites Girls Can’t Surf which received its world premiere as well as Blind Ambition which won the Audience Award, River premiering at Telluride and The Power of the Dog winning prizes and acclaim everywhere."
The box office figures may follow the unprecedented year of uncertainty that was 2020, but they are also higher than the $39.8 million achieved pre-COVID in 2019 when Ride like a Girl, Top End Wedding and Storm Boy were the highest grossing local films.
"While box office, television ratings and online viewership figures over the past year remain valuable in measuring the overall health of the industry, similar to 2020 we can’t rely solely on these," Mason said.
"It is key to consider the impact the pandemic wrought - particularly on our friends in cinema distribution, who went from having three Australian films at the top of the box office in February, to state-wide lockdowns in NSW and Victoria six months later.
"It’s not surprising to see the flow-on effect of this in the full local box office figures. More and more content also continues to premiere on streaming services, who keep viewing figures internally, but also have global reach."
Screen Australia expects feature film to shine in 2022.
Here Out West was released last week (3 February), followed by Wyrmwood Apocalypse on 10 February. The upcoming slate also includes Falling for Figaro (24 February), Ruby’s Choice (24 February), Mother Mountain (28 April), The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (5 May), How To Please A Woman (26 May) and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic (23 June).
This year production for director Dr George Miller’s Mad Max prequel Furiosa kicks off, which is set to be one of the biggest movies ever to shoot in Australia.
Following Screen Australia's Drama Report released in late 2021 that highlighted $1.9 billion was spent on drama productions in Australia, the organisation noted upcoming series were in the offing such as Troppo, After the Verdict, MaveriX, The Secrets She Keeps Series 2, Surviving Summer, Darby and Joan, and the much anticipated third season of Mystery Road.
"The calibre of the local television shows hitting our screens in 2021 was outstanding, including The Newsreader which took home five AACTA Awards and Fisk which not only reached the top-viewed free-to-air drama, but was awarded Best Series in the Comedies Competition at Series Mania," Mason said.
"Our television continues to sell and engage with international audiences; some of our top performing drama’s this past year were children’s series 100% Wolf: Legend of the Moonstone and Kangaroo Beach and mini-series RFDS, The Newsreader and The Unusual Suspects."
This success is due in part to the national industry's ability to adapt to the pandemic world and seize opportunities to attract projects despite the challenges, and governments rose to the task as well. Screen Australia administered two targeted Federal Government funds that have been extended into 2022: the $50 million Temporary Interruption Fund (TIF) and the $20 million Supporting Cinemas' Retention Endurance and Enhancement of Neighbourhoods (SCREEN) Fund.
By the end of 2021, 77 applications had been approved for coverage under the TIF across every state and territory. Of this, 69 productions have so far completed their shoots with production budgets totalling $482.79 million.
Applications for the SCREEN Fund opened in April 2021 and by end of December, 199 independent cinemas across Australia had been approved grants worth more than $10.44 million to support their continuing viability and recovery.
Screen Australia also welcomed additional funding from the Australian Government to further assist the sector. In 2022 the agency will be allocating additional production funding to help projects and producers connect to audiences, after receiving an additional $30 million spread over 2021-22 and 2022-23.
The agency has already allocated additional funding towards script writing and development, after receiving an additional $3 million over three years from 2020-21.
Screen Australia also looks forward to working with the screen sector in 2022 on the implementation of changes to the Producer Offset, a rebate that Screen Australia administers on behalf of the Federal Government. This follows the announcement in December that Parliament passed the bill to raise the Producer Offset for television productions to 30 per cent.
"This is a historic moment in our industry and one many have worked hard to achieve," Mason said.
"This was a welcome piece of positive news for many going into Christmas, and the new 30 per cent rebate for small screen productions is a major increase in support.
"We will be providing more information in the coming weeks, but producers will also need to be mindful and budget for extended timeframes as our Producer Offset and Co-production Unit work through a glut of applications during this busy time."
The agency also plans to release a follow-up to the landmark 2016 report Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV.
"When this report releases, we hope it will provide the sector with an empowering tool to continue to push for a more inclusive industry. It is our job, not just at Screen Australia, but as screen practitioners, to reflect a true representation of Australia. Audiences deserve to see themselves on screen, and to explore a wide range of fantastic stories," Mason said.
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