The Dry set to break Australian box office drought

Kelly Burke
·3 min read

After a year of Covid-19-enforced shutdowns, the Australian film industry has entered 2021 in a strong position – with The Dry grossing almost $13m at the box office since its opening on 1 January.

The Robert Connolly film – financed though Screen Australia – had the fifth-highest Australian opening day for a local film in history, and has outperformed Hollywood blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 and animated family film The Croods: A New Age for the third weekend in a row.

Another Australian film, Penguin Bloom, directed by Glendyn Ivin and starring Naomi Watts, also recorded a strong opening result, grossing $2.5m since its release six days ago.

Screen Australia’s CEO Graeme Mason said the commercial success of The Dry was a heartening start to the year.

“It’s one of those titles that comes along where Australians see themselves and respond incredibly well,” he said.

“We have one or two of them a year and I think The Dry is definitely one of them. And it’s the first time in a very long time Australia has had the No 1 and No 2 films at the box office.”

Hoyts CEO Damian Keogh said he would not be surprised if The Dry topped $18m – which would see it outperform Australian classics such as Muriel’s Wedding, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Man from Snowy River.

Although cinemas in most states are still operating at less than full capacity, The Dry’s commercial success has not happened in spite of the pandemic, Keogh said, but partly because of it.

“It’s an excellent film, but there’s definitely not as much competition as there would generally be around January, so it’s getting more screen coverage,” he said.

“Because of Covid, Hollywood is holding back a lot of films at the moment, which is putting some pressure on our industry – so these great Australian movies are very welcome for us right now.”

Top Gun: Maverick, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway and the latest in the James Bond franchise No Time to Die are just some of the Hollywood blockbusters that were expected to be on Australian screens by now, but their release has been delayed as the US continues to reel from the devastating effects of the pandemic, which has infected more than 26 million Americans.

The Guardian’s film reviewer Luke Buckmaster praised The Dry as a gripping and polished drama, with lead actor Eric Bana delivering a “morosely convincing” performance. Penguin Bloom, based on a true story, has received mixed reviews.

Another Australian feature, Stephen Johnson’s High Ground – starring Simon Baker, Yothu Yindi’s Wityana Marika and Aaron Pedersen, and filmed in Arnhem Land and Kakadu – opens on Thursday.

Australian films took $22.6m at the local box office in 2020, with The Invisible Man, which was shot in Sydney between July and September 2019, accounting for more than one third of the total.

That’s less than half what locally made films made on average each year prior to the pandemic, Keogh said; they usually account for just 4% of box office earnings.

Mason said Covid-19 had a “seismic impact” on the local film industry in 2020, resulting in an 18% dip in Australian expenditure on drama production across film and television.

Related: High Ground review – Simon Baker narrowly escapes white saviour tropes in colonial Australia

To some extent that was counterbalanced by a number of big budget overseas productions – including Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder and Paramount’s Shantaram – relocating to Australia as the pandemic swept though the US and Europe.

“[The 18%] is not such a big drop considering everything just shut down,” Mason said.

The federal government’s $50m Temporary Interruption Fund announced in June 2020 enabled 35 projects to restart, after the pandemic brought all production to an abrupt halt in March.

“What it shows is that [before the shut down], we were actually on target for a record year.

“I think if you look at 2020 and 2021 together, it will show both those years will end up being very strong.”