The nature of film distribution and promotion has been changing from the traditional model, and now viral ideas and guaranteed fan bases take priority over perfectly executed ideas in the minds of distributors. The objective quality of a film is less important than whether a film can generate enough interest to ensure support and success upon release and distribution, from a business standpoint, and this is how many are approaching film making today. With more clever promotion strategies and ways to get the audience interacting with the content, creatives are competing for fan bases rather than good reviews, because fan bases largely determine notoriety, and monetary return success. One of the earliest examples of this being the case is the 2005 Greg McLean film, ‘Wolf Creek.’ Though it received mixed reviews from critics, and despite its limited budget, clever marketing and a dedicated cult following guaranteed great monetary reward as well as a sequel being made, ‘Wolf Creek 2.’ This case study will explore the success of Wolf Creek, and how the hype and support generated for the film opened opportunities for the film maker.
Despite being a low budget film, Wolf Creek made $27.8 million USD at the box office, a huge amount more than its budget of $1-1.5 million (Box Office/ Business for Wolf Creek’). However, it was not made during a run at various cinemas across the world in 2005, rather, it was distributed to various countries over the span of four years, from January 2005 to August 2009 (Wolf Creek IMDB). Premiering at Sundance Festival, it made its way to Cannes before premiering in its country of origin, Australia. Director, Writer and Producer, Greg McLean suggested “it was successful in Australia because it was successful overseas. Its success relied on overseas distribution. As a result people in Australia were desperate to see it” (Nowell 2014). This implies that Australian distributors only became interested in the film once it had a following and support from overseas. This could be seen as some assurance that the film is good and that there is validation of that, but reviews for the film actually weren’t very impressive. Australian distribution companies supported this film not because of its positive reviews, but because it already had an emerging fan base. There was security in promoting this film despite its average reviews from critics, as it had already proven to be popular among movie goers. Regardless of technical brilliance, the audience formed a cult following around this film, and engaged with it. McLean suggests this may be due to the nature of the horror film, stating that “the great thing about horror films is that they’re audience reaction movies. […] comedy and horror are very much focused on getting reactions from the audience. If you make either of those films you can tell whether they’re working or not based on what’s happening in the audience” (Eeles 2014). This means that audiences were more likely to get attached to the film because of the exciting reaction of experiencing it. Memories of horrific imagery linger in their memory and illicit an emotional response long after the film is over. But perhaps the cult following emerged from a fascination with the premise.
Wolf Creek generated a lot of interest due to its basis on a true story, and heavy Australianism. Many elements of the story were based off of the Ivan Milat case (Wolf Creek; Interview with Director Greg McLean), including one of the film’s most popular and iconic scenes, the ‘head on a stick.’ Taglines for the film include “30000 are reported missing in Australia every year. Some are never seen again.” And most popularly, “based on true events (Wolf Creek IMDB),” which was featured on posters and promotional images. The reality of what was happening in the story made the film feel more immediate to the audience, thus scarier, which also directed attention toward the place of the films creation, as well as where these murders occurred; Australia. McLean talks about how the films are “government-funded. A horror film, by definition, should be semi counter-cultural, content-wise. So to have a government making a film which criticises or destroys the very culture they’re building, just isn’t going to happen” (Fear Dinkum!). But in this case, the film drew attention and interest to Australia. Traditionally, it is thought that “ﬁlms with positive themes inspire tourism while ﬁlms with negative themes scare travellers away. Those working in the tourism industry, however, acknowledge that this is a logic that has yet to be proven: on the contrary, tourism research shows that frightening or negatively themed ﬁlms have been able to create travel to ﬁlm locations, and not scare people away” (Blackwood 2007). The horror elements combined with the heavy emphasis on Australianisms seemed to engage the audience. Overseas, there is a recognisable image of the ‘Australian Person,’ and the way the antagonist, “Mick Taylor epitomizes and contrasts from the stereotypical ideal of the hypermasculine ‘Aussie bloke’ that has been successfully commodiﬁed in the recent marketing of the nation” (Blackwood 2007), creates an icon that is both familiar and unsettling. The idea that this person could really exist and possibly has enhances the experience of the film and the story. The combination of image and confronting reality creates a novelty for overseas audiences, but also allows Australian audiences to identify with the film. The sense of ownership and national pride of such a successful film is perhaps what caused Wolf Creek to become so successful within Australia, but the stereotypes that entertained and connected with overseas audiences were still appealing to audiences at home. McLean thinks “Australians are as sick of the whole stereotype as anyone else, to a degree. Despite the movie being such an aggressive cinematic experience, it’s been fun to put a huge cliche up on screen, then tear it right down” (Fear Dinkum!). Though Mick Taylor embodies the stereotype strongly, both Australian and foreign audiences were able to enjoy the fresh take on a recognisable figure, and engage with the realism of the premise.
The twist on an overused Australian stereotype also may have contributed to the film’s success in Australia. The ‘true events’ marketing, and the film being based on a true Australian story brings the narrative closer to home for Australians. But what makes it so relatable is the nature of Mick Taylor; the murderer. Before the main tonal shift in the film, he behaves mostly like the Australian bloke stereotype would inform. Greg McLean explains he “tried to blend clichés and icons from Australia – the Steve Irwin or Mick Dundee character, all of these big broad Australian characters recognizable in the States” (Wolf Creek; Interview with Director Greg McLean). The friendly, laid back Australian figure that is so widely regarded as typical Australian. This iconography is impossible to separate from Australia, thus the success of the film was felt and celebrated here. The love for the film overseas instilled a different, more patriotic love in Australia afterwards. This angle of playing with who is supposed to be the ‘typical friendly Australian,’ also enhanced the horror for many. The figure is recognisable, and it is plausible that the protagonists would grow to trust him. “When people would meet him he’d be the nicest guy in the world because he had to be nice enough to get them to come with him in the first place” (Wolf Creek; Interview with Director Greg McLean). The truth in much of this story was strongly promoted, and the horror stemmed from that idea, “If this stuff goes on every day, what would it be like to watch it? (Fear Dinkum!)” The reasons for the successful promotion overseas and home in Australia both stem from the idea of the ‘true story,’ and the way the film incorporates Australian stereotypes. The combination of the two, which were both heavily promoted for the film led to more interest and excitement regarding it. Bur how important was this following in terms of the films overall success?
The critical reviews for Wolf Creek do not align with the popularity it gained from the general public. Online, the popular film websites provided mixed reviews, Rotten Tomatoes giving it 53%, IMDB with 6.3/10, and Meta Critic with 54%. Prominent figures such as famous film critic Roger Ebert gave the film a thumb down, and commented how he “wanted to walk out of the theater and keep on walking” (Ebert 2005). However, the film is still thought of fondly by fans, is widely recognisable as an iconic Australian film, and had great success at the box office. In this case, general popularity proved more powerful than the reviews, with average to poor reviews not reflecting the success and love the film received. Whether the film is good or not is a subjective choice, however, this didn’t seem to matter in regard to success on this occasion. “there were some comments from people who said it was slow at the start. [Greg McLean] actually believes that’s one of the best parts of the movie, [and he] thinks people are commenting on it because it’s unusual. Producers or studios would push to get into the action a bit more or sooner” (Wolf Creek; Interview with Director Greg McLean). It’s these technical decisions about the films quality that would traditionally be of paramount importance in the decision making process of whether a film should be supported by the company or not. Whether it is a worthwhile investment or not. But investments on films such was Wolf Creek have paid off without the critics praise. The general public are the people who will be seeing the film, talking about it and promoting it amongst each other, and if the film already has their support, production companies, such as the ones in Australia, are more confident in investing in the film. The Australian distributors that took an interest in Wolf Creek did so because of its success overseas, and support for the film in Australia, which was found through clever marketing of true stories and recognisable, even disturbingly relatable characters. And “thanks to Wolf Creek and its world famous outback serial killer, Mick Taylor, Greg Mclean has become one of Australia’s most recognisable directors” (Eeles 2014). Additionally, a sequel has been made; Wolf Creek 2, with a bigger budget than the original (Box Office/ Business for Wolf Creek 2 IMDB). McLean “had an offer right away to do a sequel” (Taylor 2014). This illustrates that the success and fan base surrounding the film was powerful enough to provide financial backing and enough interest for another feature length film. It has become a career defining film for McLean, and continues to be remembered as iconic and successful, not by the reviews it received.
This shift in importance between technical brilliance and popularity has a great effect on how distribution is approached. Distribution companies have been shown, through the study of Wolf Creek to place a lot of value on secured popularity and success, and the existence of a fan base before the film is even released, as was the case in Australia. The film did not receive much interest there until it already had generated a following. This following grew and the same situation occurred in various other countries, with distributors taking interest and feeling confident supporting the film that had already found success from the general public. This led to the film being released over the course of 4 years, across different countries at different times. The implications of this importance on popularity is the opportunities afforded to low budget films. Distribution companies traditionally would feel more confident backing a film from a large production company that had proved itself to be successful, but Wolf Creek shows that low budget films can find the same broad distribution through the help of a fan base. Generating interest from people before the film is released means the distributors see the film in question as a more secure investment.
It is however worth speculating on the nature of hype, and the implications of this type of promotion. Hype is a form of hysteria, and typically doesn’t last for a long time. “Leaving aside the inevitable scepticism about whether a sequel can live up to the original, a more pressing question, in the case of Wolf Creek 2 (also directed by McLean), is whether Australian audiences actually care” (Culver 2013). Despite the novelty of scaring overseas audiences that came with the first film, “It could also be that the common Australian horror concept of our landscape as a deadly and dangerous place doesn’t impress us in the same way it does audiences abroad” (Culver 2013). The success of Wolf Creek is undeniable, but the type of promotion it had turned it into a novelty. This opened many doors for the film, but after 8 years the hype appears to have dissipated to an extent. Wolf Creek 2 received a lot of media attention, but only made $4.3 million at the box office, this time having a $7 million budget (Box Office/ Business for Wolf Creek 2 IMDB). Carody Culver ponders the nature of horror films and longevity.
“Wolf Creek perhaps offered audiences something a little different, combining the popular trend for ‘torture porn’ horror with the Australian tradition of films that unsettle us with landscape rather than crazed killers. The fact that Australia seems to have made an unfortunate name for itself as the place where backpackers go to die might have helped boost the film’s appeal, in a grisly, I-bet-this-could-totally-happen kind of way.
Maybe the sequel wouldn’t have gone ahead if the international market hadn’t shown such appreciation for John Jarratt and his pathological hatred of young travellers. But does this mean it’s simply going to pander to popular blood lusting tastes, rehashing the original with even more blood, torture and pig shooting? And will Australian audiences care?” (Culver 2013)
All valid questions about the success of the first film and how that affected the second film, if at all. Hype and popularity may be excellent ways to get noticed, but particularly in the horror genre, they may not guarantee long lasting success. This type of promotion is becoming more prevalent recently, with promotion and distribution being driven by fan bases and security of audience. But how long will these fan bases last? Have we sacrificed the drive for a technically perfect film for creating a hugely popular one? Wolf Creek is an example of how there has been a shift in the way distributors and audiences think about films and how they find their way to success and notoriety, by placing more importance on existing fantasies than potential, but not guaranteed ones.