Australia Coronavirus pandemic spurs Australian movie producers to favour feel-good films

00:46  08 april  2020
00:46  08 april  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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Veteran Australian film producers are shelving violent movies in favour of feel-good drama and comedy, anticipating strong demand for uplifting cinema once the COVID-19 lockdown ends.

David Lightfoot is the producer of one of the most terrifying films to come out of Australian cinema in 20 years: the outback horror-thriller Wolf Creek.

But you won't find him working on anything like that now.

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He is putting violent films on the backburner to focus on uplifting drama and comedy, hoping to anticipate what audiences will want when the COVID-19 pandemic has let up enough for the cinemas to reopen.

"We wouldn't dare to go making [a] Wolf Creek[-style film] after the virus has settled, because it's just going to scare the living daylights out of people," Mr Lightfoot said.

"It's just not going to fly … the market wouldn't touch it.

"People have to recover from the trauma of all this virus stuff."

Mr Lightfoot said he and other veteran Australian film producers were taking their cues from history.

He cited the dominance of slapstick comedy — Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the like — in the decade following the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918, and the success of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire musicals following World War II as evidence that cinema-goers want films that uplift them following a global crisis.

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"For over 100 years the same thing [has] happened after every disaster … entertainment and the arts … predominantly lean towards making people feel good," Mr Lightfoot said.

"We're quite sure that it's going to happen again.

"We are going to want heroes again … [and] we're going to want the modern version of Love Actually."

The film industry has, in large part, shut down in Australia because of coronavirus restrictions: it's near-impossible to film scenes when actors must stay 1.5 metres away from one another, and when few people can gather in one place.

Releases of major blockbusters — including the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, and Disney's live action remake of Mulan — have reportedly been delayed, while production has been shut down on other major films, including Warner Brothers' The Matrix 4, The Batman, and the Harry Potter spinoff, Fantastic Beasts 3.

In the meantime, Mr Lightfoot and his colleagues are doing what they can — working with government film investment agencies, developing ideas and scripts, and editing, remotely.

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Tim White is another leading Australian producer expecting a shift towards "entertaining, uplifting, inspiring" cinema in the aftermath of the pandemic.

His credits include the Heath Ledger action-comedy Two Hands, the 2003 historical drama Ned Kelly and last year's popular sci-fi thriller I Am Mother.

Mr White said Australian audiences could expect more films in the vain of last year's biographical drama Ride Like a Girl — about the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup — and the romantic comedy Top End Wedding.

"Most people want to go to the cinema in particular for either a great, big … rollercoaster experience [such as a Marvel comic book film] or something that's generally going to be uplifting," he said.

"The great thing about the cinema is, it's a collective experience … it isn't the same to go watch a comedy sitting on [a] couch. It's just not the same."

Sydney-based producer Louise Smith, who worked on Dance Academy: The Movie and Riot, said she regularly worked on "feel-good" films in any case.

"I'm in the fortunate position where I haven't had to pivot," Ms Smith said.

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"A lot of the projects that I have already been developing have a greater chance of survival … because I think people are looking for optimistic [cinema]."

Ms Smith stressed that nobody could really know what audiences might want in several months' time, but films that make people feel good were probably a good bet.

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The biggest question, she argued, was what proportion of the Australian film industry would be in a financial position to make movies again once the worst of the pandemic is over.

"The thing that none of us know is how long it will take," Ms Smith said.

"I don't think any of us have ever experienced a crisis like this."

Screen Australia chief executive Graeme Mason agreed audiences would likely want "broader-playing" films after the shutdown.

"I'd be thinking there'll be more things like Priscilla [Queen of the Desert] and Strictly Ballroom for a period," he said.

"It would be foolish to not think that people will not want slightly broader-playing things for a period of time, particularly in Australia where we've had the drought, bushfires, and now COVID-19."

Mr Mason said filmmakers were in the process of "working out how to keep going" and what government support might be available to them, like many Australian workers and businessowners during the COVID-19 shutdown.

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"They're looking at what they can do for themselves and what they've got on and what federal and state moneys are available to them, I think everybody will be just working out how to keep going," Mr Mason said.

"We're looking at ways to support them to get something from state and federal grants and how can we help them get going again when this over."

Screen Australia last week announced it would more than double funding for its high-budget story development grants program.

Other government film agencies are also offering support, including the South Australian Film Corporation, which will fund business resilience training for freelance cast and crew, and look to establish connections with universities to encourage paid guest lecturing opportunities.

Films must be 'remarkable'

Another Sydney-based producer, Rosemary Blight (The Sapphires, Invisible Man) said she was not deliberately pivoting away from violent films because of coronavirus; rather, she was focusing on films that would allow viewers to "escape" their realities.

"People want great, dramatic stories … to escape into [another] world," she said.

"Whether that world is a feel-good world or … it's a world that scares the hell out of you … people will want engrossing stories.

"We're looking at a slate that's quite an eclectic [mix of genres]."

Melbourne-based long-time executive producer and film lawyer Bryce Menzies (Ten Canoes, Muriel's Wedding, Red Dog) said that, with the advent of major streaming services like Netflix, Australian films had to be "extraordinary … out of the box" productions to make it to cinemas in the first place — no matter which genre they occupy.

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"Because your standard fare is available on Netflix, people will not go to the cinema … unless it's remarkable," he said.

"Going to the cinema isn't enough — [the film] has to be an experience.

"Films have to be extraordinary, one way or the other."

Different demographics 'want different films'

Mr White said films that appeal to older women — a demographic that traditionally frequents specialist cinemas in high numbers — would do particularly well in a post-shutdown world.

"I'm confident that the person with the next [the Best Exotic] Marigold Hotel will really find a willing audience … determined to uplift themselves out of a fairly traumatic period," he said.

However he said it was unclear how long it might take for them to return to the cinema, since older people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 — and some smaller cinemas were unlikely to survive.

Meanwhile younger audiences, Mr White said, were displaying "an insatiable appetite for really smart, engaging drama of a serious nature" and watching it on streaming services.

But that demographic was "not really going to the cinema except for the latest Marvel or DC movie".

Mr White stressed that although he expected a pivot to more feel-good cinema in coming months, that did not mean horror films and psychological thrillers would not be made — because they are especially well-received internationally.

"You'll not see those types of films disappear … they absolutely have commercial application beyond these shores," Mr White said.

He concluded that although the Australian film industry would inevitably "contract" during the coronavirus crisis, it would also adapt and survive.

"It's a challenge that we've got to meet," he said.

"I'm actually optimistic … the people who are talented and dedicated will ride through this."

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