Stories from a dumbed-down land

If you arrive at the advertised starting time for a movie in your local multiplex this weekend, you're likely to have an experience that will make you feel embarrassed to be Australian. I'm not talking about The Sapphires, an Oz flick that's a bit clunky and a bit corny but great fun. (Indeed, the audience at my session last Sunday burst into applause at the end, and 200,000 other Australians agreed with them during the week - see The Flicks, right.)

The experience that will embarrass you will be two trailers you'll glimpse among the forest of commercials before your chosen film. They will make you wonder if the latest answer to the age-old question ''How do we get Australians to see their own stories?'' is: ''Make the movies as stupid as the audience.''

You'll recall that in the early noughties this country generated a number of taxpayer-subsidised films about cancer, suicide, drug addiction and the mistreatment of Aboriginal people. They were critically acclaimed and won awards but rarely sold enough tickets to cover their budgets.

When asked why they didn't like locally made movies, Australians tended to reply: ''Because they are depressing and wanky.''

So, in the past five years, the more commercially minded producers tried other pathways to our hearts and wallets. They played the patriotism card - because, after all, Aussies loved Gallipoli and Phar Lap - but found that the most successful attempts, Beneath Hill 60 and The Cup, made less than $4 million at the local box office.

They tried romantic comedies - because, after all, Aussies loved Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge - but I Love You Too made only $2.4 million, despite the work of the charismatic Peter Dinklage, and Any Questions for Ben? (from the creators of The Dish) made an embarrassing $1.5 million. The film's star, Josh Lawson, went on to be a deep south dilettante in the Will Ferrell comedy The Campaign, suggesting once again that Australian actors do best when they don't play Australians.

The producers tried gritty crime drama - because, after all, we loved three Mad Max films - but the Oscar-nominated Animal Kingdom barely cracked $5 million and Snowtown managed just $1.1 million. They even tried vampires, at the peak of Twilight frenzy, only to find Daybreakers made much more in the US than the $2.4 million it scored in its homeland.

Their biggest successes came from grand spectacle (Australia made $37.5 million), sci-fi (Tomorrow, When the War Began made $13.5 million) and pretending not to be Australian (Mao's Last Dancer made $15.4 million, with Balmain substituting for Houston, Texas).

But the budgets required to try again in those genres are not sustainable in our small market. So, apparently, the producers have arrived at their last resort: complete stupidity.

This year's first manifestation of this desperate logic was A Few Best Men, in which Priscilla director Stephan Elliott persuaded Olivia Newton-John to go way over the top. It made $5.2 million in February this year.

The next two manifestations are now previewing in the multiplexes: Housos vs Authority, written and directed by Paul Fenech, and Mental, written and directed by P.J. Hogan, who gave us Muriel's Wedding.

Fenech is a niche-marketer. His TV shows (Pizza,Swift and Shift Couriers and Housos) are perfectly pitched at partially deaf 13-year-old boys with IQs below 85. His first film, Fat Pizza, made $3.5 million in 2003, which was more than most of the art-house flicks could generate at the time. His financial backers have judged that the time must be ripe for another loud look at suburban stereotypes.

The second trailer presents Toni Collette as a colourful character named Sharon Thornbender, hired to babysit the hysterical offspring of a character named Barry Moochmore. It's good to see the versatile Collette back on home turf, but the trailer suggests the only accent she cannot do convincingly is broad Australian.

Of course, you shouldn't judge a flick by its trailer. We'll wait until we've seen the entire movie before we decide if Hogan thinks Australians want subtle and sophisticated or slapstick and sentimental.

Australia's all-time top ticket-sellers

1. Crocodile Dundee (1986)
2. Babe (1995)
3. The Man from Snowy River (1982)
4. Crocodile Dundee II (1988)
5. Australia (2008)
6. Gallipoli (1981)
7. Alvin Purple (1973)
8. Mad Max 2 (1981)
9. Moulin Rouge (2001)
10. Happy Feet (2006)
11. Strictly Ballroom (1992)
12. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
13. They're a Weird Mob (1966)
14. Young Einstein (1988)
15. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
16. Phar Lap (1983)
17. Muriel's Wedding (1994)
18. The Dish (2000)
19. Mad Max (1979)
20. Red Dog (2011)

For links to the trailers, and to discuss what Australians want at the movies, see

The story Stories from a dumbed-down land first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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