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Why Australia is a Dud

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 7, 2008 at 9:03AM

Well, Australia's second-weekend drop indicates that it isn't doing well enough with adult audiences to ever make it into a success here.
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Well, Australia's second-weekend drop indicates that it isn't doing well enough with adult audiences to ever make it into a success here.

Here are some of the reasons this movie couldn't make it.

The heart of the movie--the part that works--is the story of the half-breed Aborigine boy (Brandon Walters). But in order to make a Hollywood epic of big-budget scale and scope, Baz Luhrmann had to embellish that core, adding a western cattle drive, a bodice-ripping romance, wicked villains, an air battle and CG effects. How could any movie sustain all that?

Australia proves yet again that it's dangerous for a studio to back art-film epics. Remember Memoirs of a Geisha? Zodiac? The Assassination of Jesse James? Australia is the sort of movie that supervising exec Peter Rice would have known how to do--or not do--at Fox Searchlight.

I don't want the studios to give up on making these risky movies. But there is certainly an argument for not taking the risk on the big-budget version of them.

Another problem, as Patrick Goldstein pointed out in the LAT, is that the movie starred Nicole Kidman. The ads actually stressed Hugh Jackman, more than Kidman, one of our great actresses, but not a movie star. Never has been. She's made some hits. But she's not the reason people go to a movie. She doesn't put butts in seats. But just to make it clear: nobody does these days. (Seven Pounds, a tragic romance a la Love Story, will be an interesting commercial test of the one star we do have, Will Smith, who seems to be able to open anything.)

Truth is, Jackman's stardom is based on his he-man role as Wolverine. He's a one-franchise guy who isn't worth as much when he leaves that role. He can do anything, and I am thrilled that he might do a musical (as Mark Antony in Steven Soderbergh's Cleo). But stardom is about the persona audiences want to see.

Big art-house movies require another thing. Reviews. Many critics killed this movie, which earned 52% on Rotten Tomatoes. (Here's David Denby's New Yorker slam.) That won't get you into the Oscar race. Technicals are all they can hope for, which won't boost box office.

The other thing that went wrong was the marketing. The movie looked old-fashioned, period, tonally confusing. Was it comedy or tragedy, western or romance? Moviegoers like to know exactly what they're getting.

But Luhrmann also dive-bombed Fox's chances of making Australia a success by not handing the movie in early enough. This trend of directors hanging on to their movies until the last minute and studios letting them get away with it should stop. This was not the kind of movie that could be sold in one weekend with ads. It needed longer careful nurturing. But when movies cost $120 million or more, studios talk themselves into the notion that the only way to make their money back is to go out big with lots of P & A. Not always true. The smaller, less chaotic version of this movie might have had a better chance. Too bad.

One solution suggested by a friend of mine: Australia the musical. Fox should put the Broadway show into development forthwith.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

This article is related to: Box Office, Reviews, Headliners, Genres, Romance, Period, Nicole Kidman


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.