Well, there ain’t no getting around it now*; after three weeks, the much-hyped Australian comedy film Any Questions For Ben is a flop:
Roadshow’s latest local comedy Any Questions For Ben? had a 66 per cent fall on last weekend, grossing $103,030 from 146 screens. After opening on February 9, it has taken $1.4 million – a less-than-expected result from the creators of Australian favourites The Castle and The Dish (Working Dog).
In contrast, the somewhat less fancied Australian comedy A Few Best Men has made over $5 million since it opened on Australia Day**. With that kind of box office drop-off Ben won’t be around past mid-March at the latest, meaning it probably won’t make much over $1.5 million. To put in even more depressing context, the Marky Mark and the Smuggling Bunch movie Contraband made more money ($1.9 million) in its first week in Australia.
Of course, box office returns – much like ratings – don’t mean anything artistically, even if box office returns are loads more accurate than ratings and a firm indication of actual money-in-someones-pocket financial returns. All that this figure means is that Ben didn’t make a lot of money. Who cares, right? Everyone knows audiences have no taste and classics are often ignored first time around. Just so long as it’s funny, it’s a win for comedy.
Well… not exactly. Whatever you might think of the film itself – and it does kinda seem that the somewhat obvious problem of asking audiences to go see a film where a guy who has everything wonders that it might not be enough for him turned out to be an actual problem – the fact is that this was the third film from the first Australian comedy figure(s) to make a third film since Paul Hogan (okay, Yahoo Serious). Like it or not, there was a fair bit riding on this film; Australia hasn’t had a comedy hit since Kenny, and that hardly created a comedy dynasty.
Ben‘s flop is akin to the fizzle that was Angry Boys: a former big name (and obvious go-to example for anyone trying to claim that Australian comedy can draw in a big mainstream audience) comes back after a decent absence only to prove that they have feet of clay. This kind of high-profile failure from a seemingly sure thing makes it that much harder for anyone else to have a go at making something aimed at the general public – what, you thought it was a coincidence that the ABC’s entire 2012 comedy line-up is compromised of shows that, whatever their actual quality, will only appeal to niche audiences?
We’re now stuck in a frankly insane situation where broad, crowd-pleasing, mainstream comedy is seen as a risky audience-alienating venture; if the upcoming Kath & Kim movie Kath & Kimderella flops as well, Australian big-screen comedy will be as dead as… well, as dead as it’s been since 2003.
*Actually, there are loads and loads of ways to get around it – overseas sales, television deals and DVD / Blu-ray profits could all push it a lot closer to breaking even. If the rumors are true that much of the financing was done in-house by Working Dog burning off their profits from selling the Thank God You’re Here format pretty much everywhere, then they may be able to eat much of the eventual losses as a gamble that didn’t pay off rather than a massive black mark that will prevent them from getting financing for anything movie-length ever again. You wonder why Mick Molloy is only ever just talking about making a third film even though Crackerjack was a big, big hit? Because once you make a dud in Australia, you never get the money to make another film here.
**Sadly, A Few Best Men isn’t the kind of film whose success helps Australian movie comedy all that much: it was a UK co-production, it stars actors rather than comedians, was directed by a director-for-hire rather than a committed comedy creator and was written by a UK screenwriter based on a previously successful formula (he wrote the very similar Death At A Funeral). It’s like claiming Bridesmaids as a boost for Australian comedy because it features two Australian actresses – it’s certainly a success, it’s just not a success story local comedy creators can replicate.