Oprah, Australia, and Tourism: Defining 'Nation' as 'Product'

Since 2008, the "Oprah connection" has helped market Australia-the-product and illustrates an intriguing link among nations, television, film, and successful tourism.

In early September 2010, Oprah Winfrey ushered in her talk show’s 25th anniversary (and final) season with a huge announcement: 300 fans will accompany her to Australia in December. At least two special Oprah episodes will be filmed at the Sydney Opera House before a large Australian crowd, and the US visitors will have the opportunity to tour Sydney. As her website proclaims, “there really is nothing like Australia,” and Oprah seems determined to share her appreciation for the continent with citizens across the US, a potentially large tourist market. As well, because Oprah Winfrey is the name behind this event, international media are far more likely to pick up the story at several points: after the initial announcement, during filming, and before broadcast.

The trip Down Under may take place in late 2010, but its seeds were planted a few years earlier, when, through her TV show, Oprah enthusiastically introduced the US to Baz Luhrmann’s then-new epic film, Australia. The film certainly was a product of its home country, but, conversely, Australia had become a product lovingly filmed for international consumption, its history the subject matter for a love story that spans races, generations, nationalities, and classes. Through her talk show, Oprah has helped promote Australia-the-product twice: initially through promotion of the film and later by a dream vacation to show Australia to more Americans in her entourage and her viewing audience.

Australia’s tourism industry is a force behind both ventures. Its involvement with the film included more than mere marketing; some film critics suggested that the plot’s complexity and film’s length—two common criticisms—stemmed from the involvement of too many investors, like those metaphorical cooks, stirring the plot. The film’s multiple backstories and (mis)directions portrayed Australia as part-dream world (a la its recurring Wizard of Oz allusions) and part- real-world geographic wonderland (through beautiful cinematography of the Outback). Although the film beautifully showcased the country’s natural wealth, the story suffered as a combination history lesson, love story, war story, and heartwarming family tale.

In any case, Australia quickly became more than a movie—it carried the nation’s (including the tourism industry’s) hopes of promoting their country as a place where tourists could live their own adventure. Although Australia failed to become the blockbuster and Oscar winner Australians had hoped for, it did win the nation new fans and potential tourists—including television icon Oprah Winfrey, whose influence has helped publicize many products, including Australia and Australia.

Australia and Oprah in 2008

Australians are aware that well-marketed films can boost the economy. Australia was the highest grossing Australian film in 2008, earning $26.9 (Australian) million by year’s end, and in January 2009 was poised to surpass previous third-place high earner Happy Feet’s $31.7 million. Crocodile Dundee, with $47.7 million, remains the box office champ, with family-friendly Babe in second place with $36.7 million (all figures adjusted for 2009 dollar value); those films were made several years before Australia, and none in the top rank could be considered “nationalist” films.

Instead, Happy Feet, Babe, and Crocodile Dundee represent coups for family entertainment with lots of comedic value, despite a few serious moments; none attempted to summarize national character (at least seriously). Crocodile Dundee, while an international crowd pleaser that launched star Paul Hogan’s US film career in the '80s, sometimes made high-brow Aussies cringe with its comedic depiction of “authentic” Outback characters. Although this cinematic exaggeration of (and humor in playing with) an Australian stereotype was billed as a comedy and thus didn’t seriously represent Australians to the rest of the world, the film’s huge success ensured that this image of Australia and Australians would endure internationally.

Babe and Happy Feet don’t seem uniquely Australian and aren’t meant to represent the nation; the family films, while perhaps offering some educational information (e.g., Happy Feet’s messages that plastic rings from soda cartons can kill wildlife, or global warming affects more than humans), are meant to be entertaining. Australia gains distinction as a high-earning nationalist film that has been able to compete well against such all-time hits.

Despite criticism of the film, in some countries more than others during its international series of premieres and nationwide release dates, Australia successfully made money around the world, as well as at home. By the end of 2008, Australia had premiered in more than 40 countries worldwide, from Australia to Austria, Norway to New Zealand, the United States to the United Arab Emirates; it reached audiences on every continent. Its distribution expanded Australia’s reach into even more nations, including India, China, and Russia, through February 2009, and its DVD release for the US was set for early March 2009.

Almost anyone in the world could learn something about Australia—or at least Luhrmann’s perspective of it—by watching Australia. With the film’s DVD release, the story became even more accessible to a wider audience and, furthermore, could more easily be studied by everyone from film critics to media students to the general public. The images immortalized in this “epic” permanently color non-Aussies’ perceptions of a vast continent and its 20th-century history.

Although Australia didn’t become the blockbuster to sweep the Academy Awards, as Australian officials, distributor and co-financier Fox, and, possibly, Luhrmann and the cast had hoped, the film did receive several nominations and some awards. Luhrmann’s partner, Catherine Martin, ironically achieved with Australia what Baz could not—that coveted Oscar nom—but for Best Achievement in Costume Design. More often, the film brought acclaim to newcomer Brandon Walters, who movingly portrayed young Nullah; his performance secured the (US) Critics Choice nomination for Best Young Actor/Actress and the Chicago Film Critics Association nomination for Most Promising Performer.

The country portrayed in Australia, as well as the talented professionals who brought it and its citizens to the screen, received accolades, too. Mandy Walker was nominated for Best Cinematography by the Chicago Film Critics Association and won the Satellite Award in the same category. The Satellite Awards were good to and for Australia, which was nominated for best costume design, film editing, sound, original score, original song, and original screenplay, and won for cinematography, visual effects, and art direction and production design. Of course, the International Press Academy’s Satellite Awards may not be as media oriented or well known as the Oscars or BAFTAs, but they did present Australia with the opportunity to be feted critically at a time when Luhrmann’s work was being criticized as uneven.

With a perhaps-unfortunate title like Australia, the film also took on the tourism industry’s expectations for helping to market the country through its cinematography, if not its story. (Luhrmann’s reach for that Oscar—and a comprehensive pre-World War II Australian historic epic—ended up exceeding his grasp of history. The film was criticized in particular for its portrayal of Aboriginal history.) By the time those critical assessments and often-lukewarm opening day reviews in major cities, especially in the US, resulted in a less-than-expected box office, Australia’s tourism industry had already invested a great deal of money in the film and its ability to market the continent as a prime tourist spot. Thus, the industry continued to promote the film through magazine articles with beautiful cover shots, television appearances by the film’s stars, and print and online news articles touting the beauty of the country, as lovingly filmed in Australia.

The film was emphasized in the media first as a sweeping epic and later, after criticism about the plot, acting, and historic accuracy surfaced, as a cinematic love letter to a beautiful, still-rugged country. Consensus deemed that tourists most likely would be wooed by the imagery rather than the story, and most travelers likely wouldn’t be familiar enough with Australia’s history to know if or how much the story stretched the truth (and might not have really cared anyway). The images shown in film clips, on posters, in magazines, and online portrayed Australia as a desirable, isolated, unspoiled land of sweeping vistas—a now-dead myth of the American West brought to life on another continent via the cinema.

In the US, one of the most-publicized photo ops for the film took place on Oprah. In hindsight, now nearly two years after the hour featuring Australia and its stars, that episode had longer-ranging results than the tourism industry could have foreseen. Because Oprah Winfrey enjoyed the film so much and helped to promote it through her television show, Australia the country (or Australia the “product”—a desirable tourist destination) ultimately benefited far more than the film, its director, or its cast.

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