(Note: An edited version of this post was previously submitted for my AFTRS Screen Culture course, Genre Task, August 2010)
Genre Film has long pushed the boundaries of the cinematic medium. It may be presented in strange forms from gore-ridden horror to alien infested sci-fi or even to more highly regarded streams such as film noir. Despite its different forms and conventions in each case it is essentially used as a mould by filmmakers to ask questions of humanity and reflect societies self-conscious. The result is a mirror image of our world, which has been sifted through a particular genre's iconography. As adaptations and franchises become ever more popular, genre has become less of a dirty word but unfortunately its reputation is still not crystal clean.
The Black President
While 2008 marked the year that the 1st official African-American president was elected to govern the United States of America, Barak Obama was far from the 1st in popular culture. As I sit here with 1998's Science Fiction film "Deep Impact" playing on the TV, it is none more present than through Morgan Freeman's portrayal of President Tom Beck, an entire decade before Obama was sworn in. Sci-Fi films have themes, plots and characters that are a direct response to social anxieties. They not only push the boundaries in terms of fictional science, they also push the boundaries of story telling.
By playing with the conventions of the genre, filmmakers who operate within the world of science fiction are able to ask questions that are larger than life but which seem plausible. As AFTRS Screen Culture lecturer Mike Jones puts it 'they make the improbable possible'. James Cameron has expressed how he deliberately simplified the story of "Avatar" to give his audience an easier entry into the world of Pandora. In this instance it was the revolutionary 3D and visual effects that were to push the medium, and this is to the films ultimate downfall. As 'Summer Movie' goers we expect to see simple stories with big special effects, but with Science Fiction we expect more than just that. Behind the robots, aliens, men in suits, weapons and gadgets, spaceships and air compressed doors, it is the questions asked by the filmmaker in genre films that are the real driving force.
The Australian Landscape
Now the AFI and Screen Australia will tell you that genre is not a dirty word, but they don't seem to practice this belief. We have the occasional 'Mad Max' and 'Saw', but overall genre films are still undoubtedly classified as 'risky' in our environment. I have never understood this statement when all the evidence seems to be pointing in the opposite direction. Now when an Australian art-house drama film is made and release at art-house cinemas they generally do fairly well in comparison to films released with the same conditions. And yet they are so far from even breaking even that it seems insane to continue funding such similar material. When our biggest blockbusters in box office history even fail to reach this low benchmark, as outlined by Allen Palmer here, how on earth can art-house films released at art-house cinemas expect to do different?
Based purely on the 23 word concept of each film produced in Australia, I feel it is fairly easy to predict what film is going to bring in the box office. Mao's Last Dancer, Bran Neu Dae, Animal Kingdom. All achieved well because they do not fit this art-house film + art-house cinema description. Now this is not a negative look at the wonderful art house cinemas across Australia nor the creative talent in our industry producing these features, but it is clear our industry still lacks a positive direction in terms of box office success.
The Australian Industry
At 2009's Oz Film vs. Oz Audience forum hosted by Metro Screen at the Chauvel Cinema, it was clear that certain members of the art community in Sydney at least were not willing to even express that there is a fault in our production line. To admit that what we are doing is not working and is not going to grow the industry. Even the very fact that this was a debate of Oz Film VERSUS Oz Audience is unfathomable. How can there even be such a division? The very purpose of a film, of any kind, is to be seen. To consider it a fight between the film and audience is a ridiculous statement and a pure sign of a crack in our industries infrastructure.
At last years AFI Awards Screenings, I can safely claim to be the only person in the entirety of Australia to watch all 26 feature films, 4 documentaries, 4 shorts and 4 animations in full. Not even the members of our industry choose to sit through watching what they produce. Sure some may have seen much of the content throughout the year, that I am not denying, but they for sure didn't rush out to see them for a second viewing. We need to develop features that make people passionate about watching them over and over, and genre films, films that often rise above the cult, can provide this.
The Australian Film
Indeed we have the odd low budget horror film, but that is independent filmmaking, that is not genre filmmaking. Australian films for years have long existed in a time and place that does not exist. They may appear to be based around a small quirky town but things don't feel right. They take place in no particular time or city. They seem to want to express their Australian-ness but at the same time want to hide it. It is because they do not have a set purpose or target audience. They may be classified as for the 16-24 market but nothing beyond this. It has often been said that Australia has middle class film-makers who write about the lower class, but for what purpose other than to satisfy a person ambition? When I took Allan Palmer's terrific Cracking Yarns: Introductory to Screen-writing course offered at WEA nearly every other class member seemed to have a personal story about their life that they had some underlying passion to tell. None seemed to have ever even considered if the audience would want to watch it. If the screenwriters within our industry do not create a world for a story to take place in, then the story will not hold up.
Genre film can provide this infrastructure for creative and successful stories. Audiences are more willing to accept. Writers are more willing to create. These are two points that we must stress to see our industry grow. Our filmmakers must learn that genre is indeed not a dirty word, and not only that, it is a special word. It is a guideline to be constantly addressed during development. It is the mortar to the bricks of screenwriting and an aid to establishing a convincing ordinary world. Allen talks about how Animal Kingdom and Beneath Hill 60 both fail to create their ordinary world and I completely agree.
Now here is my take on revolutionising the genre and pushing boundaries of the medium in which our industry can take note from. The Fan Chan Pictures film that people talk to me most about, the one that has the most views on YouTube, the one that gathered the most support from the audience was "Postcode 9". It was not the black & white art-film "4907" which has screened at festivals in various states. It was not the Eternal Sunshine-esque drama "Night" which was our most technically proficient film. It was the comedy-drama-action-horror-sci-fi-spoof-remake-foreign-subtitled-short-film, a blend of various genres.
The Australian Revolution
The people in our industry have long been too dependent on funding and neglectful of those outside the art community. I write this impassioned blog, something I have no interest in doing, as I wish to see this industry grow to great levels. I believe it truly can, but at the same time I fear for it greatly. Unlike the Football community which has come along in leaps and bounds over the last 6 years, we do not have a Frank Lowy spearheading our revolution. Indeed there may never be such a figure who can have such an influence, so it is up to those from within to revolutionise it.
We need more Craig Foster's who are willing to speak out about the wrongs and push us in the direction to fix it. Film Criticism and Journalism in general in this country is appalling. A Senior Official at Screen NSW has even expressed about the limitations in grammar and spelling amongst applicants for its funding programs, and I'm a clear example of that fact and would be completely inept without spellcheck. We need to develop a Screen Culture in which its inhabitants are able to speak out about what needs to be fixed and how to fix it. To admit that Accidents Happen is fucking awful and that accidents do happen in our industry. To properly criticize this industry when it is due and to not expect positive friendly reviews for your film so it makes more money (I'm looking at you Rachel Ward).
Programs such as Robert Connolly's White Paper and John L Simpson's Guide to Distribution are headed in the right direction. Groups like Kino, 12 Step FC and The Filmmakers Factory need to reach beyond just the art community. Because the fact of the matter is, more than just the art-house, more than just the cult, appreciate and are excited about genre film. We need our audience to immediately recognize the iconography, narrative structure and emotional content of the films we are producing, and not to identify it as 'an Australian film'. Genre film can be the pre-built infrastructure that aids our screenwriters and directors to making more productive features. After all, genre film is rule governed territory.