Schembri declares State of Emergency

April 16, 2008

Daniel Scharf sent me this article (below) by Jim Schembri, Age film critic.

I like Jim Schembri, he has criticised the Australian film industry in the 00’s. He has now embraced and is espousing what we have been saying – the genre philosophy in Australian film making – as outlined in the MUFF manifesto and elsewhere. This theory we have seen proven many times in practice in this country and this decade (see his article). While many critics walk around praising crap like Black Balloon, Clubland, Blueberger, September, etc. Schembri stands firm and tells it like it is.

Here is his article (in blue) with my comments after:

Tough lessons for the film industry

  • Jim Schembri
    April 16, 2008
Australian industry is failing to attract audiences and needs to acknowledge its problems.

AUSTRALIAN cinema is in a fragile and perilous state. So, with the 2020 Summit soon to be upon us, let us now cast our eyes towards the future with great hope — and great fear.

The hope is that by 2020 Australian cinema will be doing what it should be doing now: producing films that are engaging, vibrant, intelligent, distinctive, well-made and — most of all — popular.

The fear, however — accompanied by the dread of the inevitable — is that the year 2020 will find Australian cinema precisely where it is now: lost in the shadows of the arthouses, playing to empty theatres, addicted to government funding and still desperately scraping to make itself relevant to an audience that barely knows it exists.

The Australian film industry needs a lot of things to survive, but the last thing it needs is for the 2020 Summit to recite yet more rhetorical rote about how important film is to our culture and how it must tell Australian stories in Australian voices to Australian audiences. We know that.

Trouble is, Australian cinema produces far too many flops and bad films to justify any more flatulent motherhood statements about what its job is. What is sorely needed is the open acknowledgment that it is not doing its job, that it is failing in its duty to the one thing it was created to serve — the public.

Let us pray that somewhere during the 2020 Summit — maybe in a back room somewhere or during a coffee break — a resolution is made about how films are made and who they are made for. What Australian cinema needs by 2020 is a new mindset that is no longer blinded by rhetoric to all the dross it produces. It needs to face up to its failure.

It needs to hit the refresh icon on its vocabulary. It needs to learn that “entertainment” and “art” are not mutually exclusive terms, that “popular” and “commercial” are not dirty words. It also needs to do away with its automatic contempt for the conventions of genre.

We hope that, by 2020, everyone in the Australian film industry will have learnt an important lesson that some savvy local filmmakers have already twigged to — that applying the principles of genre and understanding how successful formulas work can enhance, not diminish, the distinctive Australian character of their stories.

Wolf Creek was a horror film, The Proposition a western, Crackerjack and The Castle were situation comedies, Strictly Ballroom was a musical, Muriel’s Wedding a comedy-drama, The Man from Snowy River an adventure romance, Crocodile Dundee a fish-out-of-water comedy. All are examples of proficient genre filmmaking and none could be faulted for compromising their local flavour. By 2020, genre films should be the rule rather than the exception.

If the 2020 Summit could achieve just one thing it would be to put an end to the industry of excuse-making that surrounds the industry’s shortcomings. Apparently, the reason Australia produces so many bad films is because the industry goes in “cycles”, as though a high quota of bad films is somehow inevitable and necessary for the good ones to get made — a bizarre philosophy peculiar to the Australian film industry.

The popularity of these films also expose the oft-spouted fallacy that the local market is too small to support a self-sustaining film industry, that there’s just not enough Australians to make Australian films profitable on their own turf.

Yet every week the Australian box office figures prove beyond any question that there is a huge audience out there. If unexceptional pieces of American multiplex fodder, such as Step Up 2, can make $7.6 million in four weeks on a regular basis, why can’t Australian films? Why are there month-long droughts when Australian films aren’t even in the top 15 list? Why does something like 95 cents in every dollar spent at the Australian box office go back overseas?

Plenty of reasons, apparently. American cultural imperialism, blockbuster marketing budgets, audience conditioning to Hollywood product and so on and so forth and such like. The little Aussie film just gets squeezed out of the picture by all these unstoppable forces. The one thing that never gets mentioned, of course, is lack of storytelling skill — of understanding such narrative principles as foreshadowing, pacing, scene building and structure. We do it so well on TV, but on film we’re mostly at sea.

Let’s also pray that in 2020 the endemic handout mentality nurtured by decades of government funding will long be over and that filmmakers will raise their own budgets, thus giving them a powerful incentive to connect with audiences rather than having the taxpayer pick up the tab when the film bombs.

Australian cinema has long neglected the interests and needs of its audience. By 2020 the prayer is that our filmmakers will be serving them so well that the only money they give them is when they buy their ticket.

Jim Schembri is an Age senior writer who specialises in film.

What do you think of that?

Schembri is not describing a ‘problem’ with the local industry, this is a full scale Australian Film Industry Crisis he is describing! As spelled out, yet again in the MUFF manifesto of three years ago. Schembri is right the status quo will just continue to 2020, unless something is done. He’s right if Step Up 2 can take in 7.6 million, there is no excuse.

I have been shouting such notions since 2000 so much, that my voice is hoarse. What have I got in return? Some enemies. And for what? Caring enough about our screen culture to speak up about it!

One of the main problems is the people in the funding bodies. Who are they? These faceless bureaucrats? Never made a film, wouldn’t know how to, professional political spongers pulling down a 100G or double that (!) a year. Don’t get me wrong these organistaion have some great people in them. But are they the decision makers? Many know nothing about making films and hold endless committee meetings to discuss all that they do not know.

We could do away with the whole system and just give slabs of dough with executive powers to build slates of films along a Producer driven model. For example establish different funds for ten films or so with happening producers like Daniel Scharf, Pete Ford, Mark Pennell, John Brousek, David Lightfoot, the Jacobsen brothers and many others. And see what happens. If one Producer fails on a slate of ten films to bring in a hit, we try fresh blood. Soon you would see a lot of interesting work and an industry to rival any small country in the world.

We need to lead the world in Cinema like we once did in the 70’s. We could be making crazed action films like those from Korea, violent horror films like the US, bizarre sex films like the Europeans, gritty crime films like the British. On I could go on…

As for the 2020 conference…

Who are the representatives from the Oz Film Community at 2020? Robert Connolloy director of The Bank and Three Dollars and Ana Kokkinos director of The Book of Revelations. Three of 00’s absolute worst Oz film stinkers. They will guide us out of the quigmire?

Cate Blanchett, creative rep on the steering committee of 2020, should do something. Is this role purely a symbolic one? Get some real innovators from the film industry in at 2020!

Marcus Westbury got a late minute call up to 2020 last Friday… I received an email from him about it. They added him to bring some much needed spice to the arts debate.

I’ll say the obvious, why not invite Jim Schembri, for a start?!

While your at it, where is my invite? I’ll give you more than a bit of paprika, too. I’ll stick some much needed Roman Candles up certain comfy exec posteriors and light the long needed to be lit fuses. Then we can just sit back and watch the fireworks, while plotting a real future for our cinema. More on this later!

Is this the image we will see (below) of the 2020 creative forum or something different?

Click on picture and tell me you don’t laugh!

6 Responses to “Schembri declares State of Emergency”

  1. badMike said

    As a big fan of both The Proposition and Muriel’s Wedding, I hope you blokes can get Australian cinema back on track, too. The world needs more movies like those two.

    By the way, the FULL title is “Step Up 2 the Streets.” You people need to get that right. However, if they only released it as “Step Up 2” in Australia, then my apologies. That’s probably why it did so poorly down there. Only $7.6 mil in four weeks?? It made $52 mil here in the States. That’s takin’ it to the streets, baby!

  2. Rupert said

    I would have written the same article easily ten years ago, easily twenty years ago despite the few successes, besides all that we know we are capable of we’ve lost the audiences here, and we are still thinking we have an identity crisis, if films tried instead to be representing what it is to be “UnAustralian” then perhaps the earth might move a little bit for us in our cinema seats, but then solid anthropoligical filmmakers like Dennis O’Rourke get shot down whilst Michael Moore wins an Oscar.

    Where are our B-Movie Cinemas? Not Arthouse or Independent but Trash Movie Houses screening late night efforts of our Industry regardless whether or not two maybe three people are sitting there at 3am in the morning, why do the majority of filmmakers live on the Southside of Melbourne (Palm Trees a Film Industry do not make), and why when I joked at the St Kilda Film Industry Trivia Night to a rival table “Red Nights going down” did none of them know which film I was referring to?

    Rups 🙂

  3. Rupert said

    Please ignore my atrocious spelling mistakes, I make b-grade films not spelling bees.


  4. Phil said

    Jim Carrey. The Cable Guy. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I saw that movie 9 times. It rules!

    I like what Jim Schembri has to say. It is quite relevant to the documentary I am currently producing (

    badMike – I am not sure what the full title is but if “Step Up 2 (the streets)” made $52M in the states, then it did really well here as the comparison between US box office and Aus box office is usually about 10% give or take.

  5. badMike said

    Phil: Really? That’s an interesting statistic that I didn’t know. Thanks.

  6. Chopper said

    Hi Richard, can i just correct one thing – contrary to what you imply in your comment, Jim Schembri actually liked “September” (a lot). See his 4 star review at

    This doesn’t mean of course that the industry is not in a crisis. The fact is, that Jim doesn’t even mention September in that article. It is clear that you thought September was ‘crap’, however, it is quite misleading for you to imply that Jim Schembri also thought it was ‘crap’ when in fact Jim praised it very highly.

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