Gatsby’s effect on the local industry

Ed GibbsBaz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby may be crass, vulgar and, to some, disposable, but the broader benefits of its box-office success should not be underestimated says Ed Gibbs in a piece that first appeared in Encore.

He readily admits that critics rarely like his films. So it came as no surprise to Baz Luhrmann when The Great Gatsby opened to a critical mauling in the US and, more recently, in Europe, where it opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival. 

Yet this latest, so-called ‘critic-proof’ movie has far exceeded studio expectations, sailing past the $US100m mark at the US box office in just 14 days. Add the more recent international (ie non US) takings of $US64m to that, and the film has recouped its official budget ($US100m) and, almost, its taxpayer-funded grants and initiatives (said to be a further $US80m). Key territories such as Japan, Mexico and Brazil are due to follow shortly as the film is released in Australia today.

It would appear, then, that Baz is having the last laugh. Certainly, he was prepared to face the world’s media at Cannes, eloquently fielding whatever was thrown at him, defiantly standing his ground on the Croisette. I myself didn’t like the film one bit (‘blancmange’ best summed up my review from Cannes). Yet I couldn’t help but respect the man for having the audacity to tackle such a project, only to then turn up at the world’s biggest festival with a film swamped with scathing notices.

Lest we forget, Gatsby opened the Cannes Film Festival – a rare feat for any Australian film-maker (Baz last had that honour in 2001, with Moulin Rouge!). No matter how damning the reviews were, everyone was talking about it. Pre-empting the buzz, Screen Australia shrewdly shifted its festival HQ – an effective industry meeting point for cutting deals and talking shop – to directly opposite the action at the Palais (ditching its traditionally more expansive and costly digs further on up the Croisette).

Screen Australia’s CEO, Ruth Harley, was understandably upbeat about the benefits of Gatsby’s box-office clout and exposure. “I don’t think we need to worry too much about the reviews,” she said. “It is enormously important for the local industry because it showcases what you can do in Australia. You can make one of the films that is in the top 10 box office right now. It just gives you a frame of reference, like a halo on the rest of the industry. It’s hugely beneficial.”

Indeed, the view of screen professionals on the ground at Cannes was that the film was having a positive effect on business.

“When the world gets to see The Great Gatsby, an American classic, set in the 1920s, all shot in Australia, there is a sense that anything is possible,” Robyn Kershaw, producer of Save Your Legs! and Bran Nue Dae said.

Michelle Carey, artistic director of the Melbourne International Film Festival, was equally effusive, saying: “He has such vision, whether you like it or not. I love his ambition. And he knows how to put on a good party, so it was perfect for opening night.”

Indeed it was. Although it had opened in the US a week prior – a rare sign, perhaps, of a US distributor refusing to comply with the festival’s wishes – there was a palpable sense of excitement when Baz joined Leonardo DiCaprio and his co-stars on the red carpet. As with Luhrmann’s previous outing, the similarly panned Australia, it was simply impossible to ignore.

But how it will ultimately benefit the local economy remains, to some extent, in the hands of government. A comprehensive policy package is needed to lure US productions back to our shores, rather than the one-off, case-by-case tax-break strategies that lured Gatsby (and The Wolverine) to shoot in Sydney.

For creatives, Luhrmann has revived an aspirational philosophy (albeit one with generous handouts). Broadly speaking, it is to think big, then act even bigger. It certainly worked on the sports field, so why not on screen?

Ed Gibbs is a film critic, journalist, broadcaster and curator based in Sydney.
Encore Issue 16This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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