This time last week, These Final Hours looked like being Australia's next hit film.
Following acclaim at festivals, solid reviews and an expensive marketing campaign, the apocalyptic drama was expected to take at least $5 million at the box office and confirm that Australian releases can find audiences in multiplex cinemas as well as art-houses.
But instead of a $1 million-plus opening weekend, Zak Hilditch’s debut film limped to a disappointing $207,000. Now questions are being asked around the industry again about why even strong Australian films are struggling in cinemas.
At a time when Australians are watching so much local television – with House Husbands, Offspring and Winners & Losers all having more than 1.3 million viewers last week – a series of local films have failed to work at the box office this year.
While a wider variety of films are being made than five years ago – and many of them are being critically praised and winning awards around the world – cinema audiences have largely overlooked the five Australian features and three documentaries released in the past 12 weeks.
The most successful Australian films this year have been The Railway Man (which has taken more than $7 million since Boxing Day) and Wolf Creek 2 ($4.7 million).
But since The Great Gatsby ($27.4 million) last year, nothing has gone close to the break-out success of The Sapphires ($14.5 million) and Red Dog ($21.5 million) in the two previous years.
While financiers have argued for years that Australians should be making more films based on best-selling books, Tracks, about Robyn Davidson's outback camel trek, took just $2.4 million.
Despite the star power of Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce, the futuristic drama The Rover has taken only $520,000.
There have been even more modest results for the acclaimed David Gulpilil drama Charlie’s Country ($440,000), the Don Hany drama Healing ($480,000), the action fantasy I, Frankenstein ($390,000), the horror film The Babadook ($250,000) and the dramas 52 Tuesdays ($140,000) and Galore ($30,000).
One of the producers of These Final Hours, Robert Connolly, said he was both disappointed and baffled about why the film had not attracted the under-25 audience.
‘‘Australians watch a lot of Australian TV and listen to Australian music and every now and then they race out to see an Australian film, so it’s hard to find a rhyme or reason for it,’’ he said.
Connolly said These Final Hours had sold around the world so was still expected to be profitable – a rarity for an Australian film.
He praised the ambition to compete with Hollywood blockbusters in multiplexes rather than just make films for the art-house audience.
‘‘Maybe what we’re seeing is you’ve got to be in the top couple of films out there,'' he said of a weekend dominated by Hollywood's Lucy and Hercules.
Producer Brian Rosen, a former chief executive of the Film Finance Corporation, took a different approach when he gave the Christina Ricci drama Around The Block a digital and DVD release last month. He said that will prove to be a more profitable way of exhibiting the film than a cinema release would have been.
‘‘These Final Hours is really well done for the money they spent on it, but that’s the rub – the money they spent on it,’’ he said. ‘‘For that kind of a movie, you’re paying the same kind of money as if you’re going to see Transformers.’’
Mr Rosen believes the fact it was about the end of the world was a turn-off for younger viewers looking for escapism.
‘‘I think a lot of films [from around the world] aren’t getting an audience. Obviously blockbusters spend big and they’re nearly foolproof but for anything else, I just can’t predict any more.’’
Top Australian films at the box office this year
1 The Railway Man ($5.53m*)
2 Wolf Creek 2 ($4.73m)
3 Tracks ($2.41m)
4 The Rover ($517,000)
5 Healing ($482,000)
6. Charlie's Country ($441,000)
7. I, Frankenstein ($388,000)
7 Charlie's Country ($360,000)
8 The Babadook ($251,000)
9 Hidden Universe 3D ($240,000*)
10 These Final Hours ($213,000)
Source: Screen Australia/MPDAA.
* Opened last year; box office is for 2014 only.