Continuum

Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 2, 1989
Performance Theory Australia
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Re-imaging Australia: Crocodile Dundee overseas

Stephen Crofts

If Crocodile Dundee's huge international success is common knowledge, it is not so well known that the world outside Australia sees some five minutes less of the film than are screened in this geo-political space. The re-editing was required by Paramount, the film's US distributor; Twentieth Century Fox, distributor for the rest of the world, made no further changes. In the words of the New York Times, Sidney Ganis, President of Marketing for Paramount, "saw the biggest problem with Crocodile Dundee as 'convincing an American audience to see an Australian movie'. Para- mount's solution was to disguise as much as possible the fact that it was an Australian film." In citing this I'm not trying to raise the hackles of the diehard Australian cultural nationalist, merely to indicate that outside Australia Hollywood expectations modified even this little Aussie triumph. Crocodile Dundee had to conform to the standard (i.e. Hollywood) sense of what a feature is. In order to contextualise the re-editing of the film, three sets of remarks are necessary. The first two set out the two ends of the unequal cultural exchange between Australia and the US: Hollywood's controlling interest in film distribution and exhibition in Australia; and US cultural disinterest in Australia and its own limited distribution of Australian film. The third section considers Australia's attempts to counter the predominant flow by exporting film to the US, and Crocodile Dundee's place within this endeavour. The final section demonstrates how the cuts made to the film had very little to do with any imperialist conspiracy to suppress Australian culture, but concerned instead the "entertainment" imperatives of mainstream film directed to a world-wide, family market. This article will thus break down into the following sections:

1. Hollywood's controlling interest in Australian film distribution and exhibition

2. US cultural uninterest in Australia and its limited distribution of Australian film

3. Exporting Australian film to the US

4. The precedence of aesthetic criteria over those of cultural specificity in the re-editing of the film

1. Hollywood's controlling interest in Australian film distribution and exhibition

This is the basis for the predominance of imported over Australian feature films exhibited in Australia; and for "imported", read predominantly Hollywood. As such, it contextualises the boldness of Crocodile Dundee's conspicuous, but still tiny reversal of the predominant cultural flow. Hollywood has had seventy years' experience of dominating world film distribution. Its control of feature film distribution in Australia - and hence, given the structure of the industry, of film exhibition as well - is longstanding. Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka estimate - no precise figures are publicly available - that in the mid-1980s 85% of Australian theatrical screen time was occupied by American-produced films. Meaghan Morris puts the share of 1985 theatrical rentals at 78%. Australia has remained for the US the eighth largest source of revenue in absolute terms, and the highest in per capita terms. Perhaps the most striking evidence of American preference for films American in Australia is the frequent "dumping" of Australian films by US-controlled distributors such that films like The Night the Prowler have barely been shown theatrically.

2. US cultural disinterest In Australia

The US may have military-strategic and economic interests in Australia, but these are certainly no guarantee of concern for Australian culture. The US, after all, is not renowned for its sensitivity to other cultures, as witness Vietnam and Nicaragua, and white America's treatment of the original

Indian population bears comparison with white Australia's treatment of Aborigines.

US indifference to the specificity of Australian culture can be seen in the assumptions and ignorances of its custodians of film scholarship and film distribution. On the scholarship front, first: my favourite item in the prestigious Museum of Modern Art's Film Study Centre is a slip of paper inserted into a file of cuttings on Australian cinema. It reads:

"AUSTRALIA. Miscellaneous film periodicals related to this subject can be viewed on request. They may be in the original language."

US film distributors have encountered a perhaps unexpected difficulty in Australia films: Australian accents. These seem sufficiently unfamiliar in the US to warrant a rewriting of George Bernard Shaw's famous aphorism about England and America such that Australia and America are two countries separated by the same language. In 1979 Mad Max was dubbed for US release. Sunday Too Far Away has never been released theatrically or in the more specialised cable market because of its "almost incomprehensible" accent. Ralph Donnelly, the New York exhibitor more responsible than any other for getting bums on seats in front of Australian films, seems unable to distinguish between Australian and London accents: "Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.. . I didn't understand five words in the whole film. It needed to be dubbed into English or subtitled. But I get the feeling that lately [interview in 1982] the Australian producers are more conscious of the problem, or I guess that since I no longer hear the Cockney in there, that's what must be happening." Australian producers seem during the 1980s to have been increasingly mindful of the importance of trans-Pacific comprehensibility.

Four categories of Australian film have been virtually ignored by US distributors. In each category, cultural specificity appears to have been the sticking-point. As the most culturally specific, the social realist genre (F.J. Holden, Mouth to Mouth, Stir, Hard Knocks and others) is a predictable nonstarter. The only ocker comedies shown, Alvin Purple and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, received scathing reviews and minimal exhibition. A third category that has remained invisible has been the independent feature instanced by Backroads, The Office Picnic and Palm Beach. The fourth category is independent feminist film. Greetings from Wollongong, for instance, has received only film society screenings, and Serious Undertakings none at all. The genre by which Australian film is best known in the US is of course the period film, whose cultural blandness guarantees its international inoffensiveness. These distribution choices underwrite Pauline Kael's trenchant comment: "'Made in Australia' is almost like a seal of Good Housekeeping on a film".

3. Exporting Australian film to the US

Australian cultural nationalism tends to exaggerate the impact of Australian exports on the other side of the globe, where the principal markets are the US and the UK: witness the nationalist triumphalism of White's Australian Movies to the World. The film export drive is no Canute holding back the US waves; it more resembles a few rips against the prevailing tide. Tim Burstall, experienced revival film director, describes the US market as "the most lucrative, but ... also in some way the most insular and the most closed". Hard-fought forays into the US market established only a few successes prior to Crocodile Dundee: on the arthouse exhibition circuit, My Brilliant Career and Breaker Morant; and in mainstream entertainment venues, Gallipoli, Mad Max 2 (retitled The Road Warrior) and The Man from Snowy River.

The film export drive arose partly from well-known cultural factors national self-esteem, and concerns to develop foreign trade and tourism but also from a complex of economic and demographic factors. These comprise assumptions about budget size, the size of the domestic market and the extent of state subsidy of production, factors which were summed up in the advice offered in Australia by John Huntley, a visitor from the British Film Institute and author of Railways in the Cinema. He opined that in order to be self-supporting an indigenous film industry needed a population of eighty million people. By this reckoning Australia would need to expand its population fivefold. It is a reckoning which presupposes budgets maybe cheaper than, but still comparable with those of Hollywood, Britain or France: in line with such logic, Australian feature budgets averaged $600,000 in 1979, and $3 million in 1982. (Reminders of the possibility of perfectly respectable feature production on much tinier budgets are Chan is Missing, made in 1982 for a minuscule US $22,000, and most of the French Nouvelle Vague.) State subsidy buffered the Australian production industry less and less from such expectations of self-sufficiency through the 1970s, and the 10BA tax schemes enacted in May 1981 urged a more directly commercial orientation. As the figures above indicate, production costs escalated, suggesting a need to recoup more costs through overseas sales at the same time as pre-sales and distribution guarantees increasingly locked Australian product into overseas, and thus particularly US, markets. The 1980-1 US successes of Breaker Morant, Gallipoli and The Road Warrior fuelled the growing mid-Pacific orientation. Witness the 1982-7 figures of 143 Australian feature films released in Australian cinemas, and of 75 released in US cinemas.

Crocodile Dundee is Australia's first ever major marketing success in the US. Right from script conception it evinces a boldness lacking in what Susan Dermody has called the "American Express limbo culture," of most 10BA films. Setting itself in both Australia and New York and dumping on neither, Crocodile Dundee "salvages the cultural assertiveness [of the cultural nationalist film] and all the economic pragmatism" of the mid-Pacific 10BA film epitomised by Roadgames, set on the Nullarbor and "starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach and a dingo". With Hogan established as something close to an Australian national institution through the Hoges persona of The Paul Hogan Show, he and producer John Cornell were so confident of success as to issue their prospectus without pre-sales or distribution guarantees; and it was oversubscribed. After the Australian opening on 26 April 1986, they took the film direct to a Los Angeles film market research company before approaching any major studios. National Research's test screenings supplied evidence that "audiences loved the humour, the hero and the outback photography", and gave Hogan a rating considerably above stars of the order of Robert Redford.

By July 1986, as the film was on the point of becoming the most popular ever film in Australia, Cornell and Terry Jackman, the film's sales representative, had signed the American distribution contract with Paramount. The financial details are a fairly well-guarded secret: Paramount paid between $5 and $11 million for American (including Canadian) theatrical distribution, TV, video and cable rights, and spent between $8 and $10 million advertising the film in print and, unusually, on television. The reediting was reported not at all in the Australian press, and in only three papers in the US (New York Times, LA Times and Washington Post). Once the deal was done, Hogan and Paramount's President of Distribution, Barry London, worked in Australia on the alterations detailed later in this article. Publicity prior to the 26 September 1986 New York premiere of the film took two forms. First was Hogan's informal campaign via TV ads in eight key cities for the Australian Tourist Commission: "Put another shrimp on the barbie". These made his face, if not his name, widely known. There followed the Paramount campaign. Apart from the press and TV ads, they staged sneak previews at no fewer than 500 cinemas across the country on 20 September, and had Hogan do a 3-day press tour to accompany the film's release. After its New York premiere, it was opened at 879 US and Canadian theatres, increasing to 1485 by 17 November (compare 75 cinemas in Australia; and, indeed, 2500 in US and Canada for Crocodile Dundee 2!). Crocodile Dundee has become the highest-grossing foreign film ever in the US. This ranks it at 26 in Variety's 1988 All-Time Rental Champs (the closest Australian-directed films are Witches of Eastwick at 120 and Witness at 145).

4. The largely aesthetic criteria of re-editing the film

The following analysis suggests that aesthetic criteria took precedence over considerations of cultural specificity in the re-editing of the film. The tables below set out a narrative breakdown of the Australian and world versions of Crocodile Dundee, the general categories of the changes, and a detailed analysis of the 24 alterations.

[Due to the technical difficulties involved, the tables in the seven pages which follow in the printed version have not been scanned for putting up on the Web. The html author/editor suggests that the argument is clear without them. If the data is required they are available in the printed journal.]

It will be seen from the preceding that narrative streamlining accounts for many cuts, and that this is principally why the Australian outback half loses more than its New York half. In the words of Barry London, "we accelerated the pace to the taste of the American consumer". The world print also boosts the formation of the Dundee-Charlton couple at the expense of Australian atmosphere. This promotion of human over outback is enhanced by the sound mix. Within the couple, a number of alterations play up the American and play down the Australian. Several cuts excise Australian slang and less becoming behaviour in the interests of a more WASPish audience.

Overall, then, it was an aesthetic rather than a cultural agenda which determined Paramount and Hogan's cuts. The aesthetic considerations are those applied to mainstream entertainment film. As such these expectations are more stringent than those applied to the majority of Australian films shown in the US, which are exhibited in the US as "art" films, as being different from standard Hollywood (or Hollywood-modelled) fare, films distinguished by their good taste, respectability, elegant mise-en-scene, promotion of characterisation over plot and so on: all with the special advantage for a US audience of not having to cope with too foreign a language. If US editing of such films is unknown, this is because it is not sections of films which are cut, but whole films which are not taken up by US distributors. Four such categories of films are described in Section 2 above. The acceptable genre - the period film - is less culturally specific than the four excluded categories, but somewhat more so than the mainstream entertainment successes of Road Warrior, Man from Snowy River and Crocodile Dundee. Road Warrior and Man from Snowy River conformed to the mainstream generic expectations of the action film and the Walt Disney Western respectively. Adopting a less familiar generic mix, Crocodile Dundee was not surprisingly tailored for US distribution. In this context, Australian cultural specificity of necessity loses out; aesthetic criteria do have cultural consequences. Hogan at least would see that as a tiny price to pay for Dundee becoming the highest-grossing foreign film in the US, as well as a monstrous success in the UK, in France, and in countries as unexpected as Denmark and Japan. Cultural nationalists may bewail the loss of true-blue Australia from the film. A more realistic view would recognise prevailing and very strong international film distribution arrangements.


Notes

1. New York Times, 14 October 1986.

2. See Kristin Thompson, Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907-34, (London: British Film Institute, 1985).

3. Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia, Volume 1 (Sydney: Currency Press 1987, p.l58).

4. Meaghan Morris, "Tooth and Claw: Tales of Survival and Crocodile Dundee", Art and Text n. 21, p. 42.

5. Dermody and Jacka, op.cit., p.l10-11.

6. Richard Freadman, "Down Under Films Coming out on Top", On Cable, January 1983.

7. Interview in Peter Hamilton and Sue Mathews, American Dreams: Australian Movies, (Sydney: Currency Press, 1986) p.l94.

8. Interview in ibid, p.25.

9. Fontana Australia and Cinema Papers ,1984.

10. Tim Burstall, "Twelve Genres of Australian Film", in Albert Moran and Tom O'Regan (eds.), An Australian Film Reader (Sydney: Currency Press, 1985) p.217.

11. Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: the First Eighty Years (Sydney: Angus t~ Robertson and Currency Press, 1983) p.220.

12. Dermody and Jacka, op.cit., pp.67-8.

13. Australian Film Data, Australian Film Commission 1988, pp.34-5.

14. Part of her lan McPherson Memorial Lecture at the 1985 Sydney Film Festival, which drew on material from volume 2 of Dermody and Jacka, The Screening of Australia, which Currency Press published in 1988.

15. Morris, op.cit, p.43.

16. Bulletin, 15 July 1986.

17. Variety, 20 January 1988. Apart from specific references cited above, this paragraph draws on the following sources: Variety 3 July 1985 and 5 November 1986, Washington Post 20 November 1986, New York Times 14 October 1986 and Paramount Press Release, 17 November 1986.

18. New York Times, 14 October 1986.


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