Thirty years after it debuted in local picture theatres Crocodile Dundee remains the biggest box office smash in Australian cinema history.
According to film industry peak body, Screen Australia, the movie grossed $47.7 million at Australian cinemas, roughly $10 million more than Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 blockbuster, Australia.
When adjusted for inflation, Crocodile Dundee’s takings at domestic cinemas equated to $118.3 million in 2014.
There is a fair chance the film will never be tipped from its perch because the digital age has transformed the way movie fans consume film entertainment.
Official research published by Screen Australia shows that the country’s 475 cinemas accounted for only 16 per cent of all movie viewings in 2011.
Most of us are more likely to watch local films on free-to-air TV or on a DVD or Blu-ray player.
Popular local films released this century, such as Happy Feet and Moulin Rouge, increasingly generate most of their revenue through a range of digital viewing platforms that have eroded the importance of the box office to commercial success.
The bottom line effect of these developments is that performance at the box office is no longer an accurate signpost of a film’s popularity or even its financial success.
The mass-market appeal of films made in the new millennium can only be measured by adding the value of DVD purchases and internet downloads to their box office takings.
When Crocodile Dundee was released, cinema-goers accounted for more than 80 per cent of a film’s revenue.
For this reason the Aussie blockbusters of the future are unlikely to match its box office success because cinema is now in strategic decline as subscription television takes command of our eyeballs.
The top 10 highest grossing films in Australia cinemas
- Crocodile Dundee (1986) – $ 47,707,045
- Australia (2008) – $37,555,757
- Babe (1995) – $36,776,544
- Happy Feet (2006) – $31,786,164
- Moulin Rouge (2001) – $27,734,406
- The Great Gatsby (2013) – $27,383,762
- Crocodile Dundee II (1988) – $24,916,805
- Strictly Ballroom (1992) – $21,760,400
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – $21,685,344
- Red Dog (2011) – $21,467,993
Netflix and Stan trigger another cull of movie theatres
The demise of cinema-going in the past forty years is most reflected in the rationalisation of picture theatres.
Independently operated cinemas that flourished in the 1970s began losing patrons when home videos hit the market in the following decade.
In 1980 Australia’s population of 14.5 million was serviced by 713 cinema venues that collectively housed 378,000 seats.
At the end of 2015 cinema operators were marketing 493 theatres to 24.1 million Australians.
The ascent of home DVD and Blu-Ray players in the 1990s exposed theatre operators to even greater financial pressure.
Now, internet-based streaming services such as Netflix and Stan are poised to turn up the heat again.
In 2014 cinema attendances across the United States slumped to their lowest level in two decades, and many experts cited the popularity of Netflix as the primary cause.
While digital innovations seem to be eroding the box office earnings of film producers, they have made the business of selling films to the public a multi-faceted activity and potentially more difficult to measure.
A great example is the iconic 1997 Australian film The Castle.
The movie grossed $10.3 million in cinema ticket sales, which puts it outside the top-20 local films for box office takings.
However, the long-tail returns from DVD and Blu Ray sales at retail stores in the past 20 years make it one of the greatest commercial successes in the industry’s history.
Data collated by Screen Australia indicates that DVD sales of The Castle easily surpassed those of many recent popular films such as Australia and Happy Feet even though they each enjoyed bigger returns at the box office.
Netflix’s gaping hole
There are now more than 2 million Australian households that subscribe to Netflix, making the online streaming service a potentially lucrative platform for screenings of domestically made films.
The commercial success of The Castle on DVD suggests it might someday be spinning handsome returns on streaming services as well.
But the value of Australian films is yet to be really tested online because none of the leading streaming providers offer much in the way of local content.
If you’re a devotee of classic Aussie movies, the streaming platforms are not likely to sate your appetite.
Netflix’s offerings are particularly sparse.
None of the twenty all-time top box office earners are available on its site and there are hardly any award winners from the past either.
The only Aussie movie that would be considered a classic in the Netflix collection is Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 film, My Brilliant Career.
There’s plenty missing in the Stan repository also, but the locally-owned streaming service has a much wider range of classics for subscribers to watch including, Happy Feet, Mad Max, the Crocodile Dundee movies, Crackerjack, Snowtown and Australian Rules.