Oprah, Australia, and Tourism: Defining ‘Nation’ as ‘Product’

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.

Behind the Scenes

In the days before Australia’s US debut, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman appeared in a highly publicized Oprah episode dedicated to the film. Oprah gushed about the film’s epic feel and swooned over Jackman’s physique in the “shower scene.” She told the audience, who were treated to an advance screening, that the film “made her laugh, cry, and sit on the edge of her seat. ‘It literally swept me off my feet … You don’t see movies like that anymore.’” Such an Oprah endorsement of a book or film is often enough to persuade audiences at least to take a look at the product, and the studio audience shown on camera clearly seemed as swept away by the film—and the actors touting it—as Oprah had been.

Kidman and Jackman related behind-the-scenes stories and discussed their friendship, which helped lead Jackman toward the role. Throughout the hour the actors seemed open and happily discussed the film, of which they were proud, making US audiences—especially women who watch Oprah—aware of the film as more of a “chick flick” than a history lesson.

Oprah gave women, in particular, a chance to see a more personable Kidman, one who clearly enjoys her work but, more importantly, adores her baby girl. US audiences were well aware of Kidman’s marriage to country singer Keith Urban; the couple maintains home in the US and Australia. Urban’s rehab stint and Kidman’s pregnancy made headlines on many a tabloid in the months leading to the film’s release. In fact, Kidman jokingly attributed her later-in-life fertility to something in the water during Australia’s filming. Seven female cast and crew became pregnant after swimming in the waterfalls at Kununurra, and tourist-hungry entrepreneurs sought ways to market the water’s apparently potent powers.

Around the time of the Oprah interview, Jackman faced headlines of his own. Audiences got an eyeful of the actor on People magazine’s Sexiest Man cover; the magazine announced its selection just a week prior to the film’s Thanksgiving 2008 release and played up Jackman’s sex appeal and Australia’s romantic elements. This publicity again proved a boon for the tourism industry, which could market gorgeous, rugged Outback blokes and romantic getaways as additional ways to lure tourists.

The use of Australia to market Australia was not the director’s original plan. As a filmmaker, Luhrmann worked to make a historic epic while dealing with the question “What does it mean to be Australian?” For him (and the government helping to fund the film), Australia is represented by a coming together of diverse cultures. In his film, “outcasts” or “outsiders” take the leading roles: British woman Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman), the rough-and-tumble no-name Drover (Hugh Jackman), and the Aborigine (although half-caste) Nullah (Brandon Walters). When this diverse, unlikely trio overcomes their fears and prejudices, they form a formidable family. They, like World War II Australia, unite against attacks from those who would destroy their home. The story is told as a fairy tale—somewhere over the rainbow, a land far away (as in Lady Ashley’s Faraway Downs). Making the Ozfantasy an Oz reality becomes an important unifying theme for the movie—and a likely marketing hook.

Showcasing the Outback, in general, as a potential tourist destination is one aspect of marketing Australia-the-product; bringing tourists specifically to see where the film was made is another. Australia tries to juggle the personal virtues of fortitude, perseverance, love, hope, and unity with national pride in a beautiful (still-untamed in some places) land. The landscape that shapes Australian character (and Luhrmann’s characters) provides beautiful images that encourage tourism and can make remote terrain a more important, profitable “product.” Romantic descriptions and mythic characters became the focus for a series of magazine covers and articles, a Phase II of marketing Australia as the location of filming and the source of rugged individualism and attractive individuals. Although these themes also became insinuated into the Oprah promotional segment, print media, with an emphasis on still photography and in-depth interviews, provided greater depth to the country’s marketing.

Australia’s less-than-glowing reviews at home might not have mattered if less had been riding on the film’s monumental success. As a result, the image of Australia visualized on film became more important than the film itself. As The Ageconcluded, “Our Government is spending a large sum to promote tourism on the back of this movie. Australia is long at almost three hours, but a lot quicker than traveling here from the US. But when you get here, Australia, the reality, is not much like Australia, the movie, at all.” That may be the film’s biggest problem—it could not adequately portray the nation, past or present, with historic accuracy and with an eye toward marketing it as the perfect destination for a visit or immigration. By taking a “middle” approach, neither presenting a scathing look at the country’s history nor by promoting the nation as an idyllic spot “over the rainbow,” Luhrmann couldn’t please everyone. For many, Australia wasn’t Australia at all.

Nevertheless, even within Australia, the film proved to be inspirational to some and enjoyable to many. Jackman received a letter from a 12-year-old Aborigine boy who expressed his pride in being aboriginal when he saw the film. The Australian ambassador to Turkey, Peter Leo Doyle, heralded the film during its debut within that country, telling the press that “’My Turkish friends here keep telling me how far away Australia is… But, I hope the film, which showcases the beauty of the Australian landscape, will encourage people to go there and have a closer look at Australia by themselves.’”

Several magazines supported this desire to bring more tourists who, because of seeing the country’s beauty on film, would want to visit Australia. The December 2008 issue of Australia and New Zealand linked the film to tourism through numerous articles and advertisements. The magazine described Bridge and Wickers’ “Sunsets, Saddles & Shiraz” tour, asking readers “Fancy trying your hand at cattle droving like Nicole Kidman in her new film Australia?” Actor Brandon Walters (Nullah) was profiled, along with a synopsis of the film.

More important, a multi-page feature article included more than a dozen color photographs from shooting locations. Although natural beauty was highlighted, the article also summarized key scenes set in these locales and concluded with a preview of a follow-up article in the January 2009 issue as well as a link to the movie’s web site. The film was prominently described throughout the article, but, as a headline emphasized, “the astounding locations of Baz Luhrmann’s new epic, Australia, are the true stars of the film.”

Even in a featured interview with Men’s Journal, cover boy Jackman proclaimed the joys of being Australian and was described by co-star Kidman as having “enormous Aussie charm” and “a laid-back swagger,” presumably characteristics of ideal Aussie men. As well, Australia was described as “something of a national endeavor, not unlike the effort that went into Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which put neighboring New Zealand on the map.” Luhrmann received praise for filling “the marquee with an entirely Aussie cast and crew and pair[ing] up with Tourism Australia so the film could be used as bait for international visitors.” Tourist information entitled “How to See the Australia of Australia” was provided even at the end of this article in a men’s, not a tourism, magazine.

Gracing the cover of Cowboys & Indians in November 2008, Jackman touted the about-to-be-released film as an old-fashioned epic, and several color photos throughout the feature article played up Jackson as Drover—the macho, horse-riding, cattle-driving he-man of the film. The interview not only emphasized a very different side to Jackman’s career—as a “cowboy” rather than a song-and-dance man—but also linked the actor to an image of the ideal Australian man: tough outside but tender inside, a drover by day but a lover by night.

Appearing in as “American” a magazine as Cowboys & Indians, the actor and his character became linked to stereotypes associated with the American West; the similarities between the Aussie Drover and the American Cowboy prepared US audiences to relate to the authentic Australia via Australia. Although, in retrospect, this approach didn’t win more US audiences to see the film, the article indicated just how far publicists felt they must go to connect such a nationalist film as Australia with iconic American characters in order to make their film better received.

Confusingly, Australia had to be promoted as a uniquely Australian story and setting while becoming close kin to the romanticized myth of the American West. Trying to be unique and similar to the US may seem oxymoronic, but conventional marketing wisdom dictates that even another country’s nationalist film must become desirable to US audiences if a film is to be considered a success. Australia certainly gained attention on the covers of tourism- and entertainment-related magazines in December 2008 and January 2009, in which the beautiful cinematography of Australia was copied in color stills to entice readers to check out the country, if not the film.

Still from Australia

Australia and Oprah 2010

Fast forward to September 2010, during premiere week of the final season of Oprah. As a special surprise for her most loyal audience, Oprah announced that she and 300 guests will head to Australia later in the year. Among the special guests announced for the visit are, appropriately enough, Australia’s Baz Luhrmann and Hugh Jackman. The film and the country made a powerful impression on her, one she planned to share with as many of her viewers as possible.

As with the initial Australian tourism industry’s backing of Australia, taxpayers immediately wondered at the cost of this down-home Down Under promotion. News agency Reuters reported that Australia’s tourism minister estimated a $3 million price tag for the visit from Oprah and friends. Other estimates, such as one published in the Sun Herald, indicated that taxpayers from Victoria would chip in around $500,000, but the national total would be closer to $4 million. That total included $1.5 million in federal funds and $2 million specifically from the government of New South Wales.

Sites like Embrace Australia reminded readers that the trip could generate millions (or even hundreds of millions) of dollars for the country’s tourism industry. After all, Oprah Winfrey generates a lot of publicity, thus providing Australia a virtual showcase through the segments of her talk show to be filmed during the momentous trip. As well, the lucky viewers selected for the trip will likely tell their friends and family (and probably the media) about their exciting Australian vacation. In theory at least, the outlay of tax dollars seems a reasonable risk, given the benefits most likely to be reaped from Australia’s association with Oprah. The Sydney Herald labeled the event as “the biggest tourism coup for Australia since the Sydney 2000 Olympics.”

The marketing of Australia led to some questions from taxpayers and criticism or humor by commentators. Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch published tongue-in-cheek estimates of the many “national products”—at least those stereotyped as representing Australia to the rest of the world—Australians could have purchased for the same amount. The list included 83,115 pounds of shrimp and 4,700 barbies on which to grill them. Public debate, especially through blogs and discussion boards, undoubtedly will continue through Oprah’s early summer (December 2010) Australian visit.

Shortly after the announcement, Oprah’s website invited travelers to share their memories of Australia and gave fans the chance to take a quiz about the continent. Press releases and clips from the show not only self-promoted the premiere episode for those who missed it (or wanted to re-live the excitement) but publicized Australia, in particular Sydney. The site acknowledged US sponsors as well as the collaboration between Tourism Australia and Oprah, who planned the event for more than a year. Clearly, Oprah and Oprah are deeply invested in this event, which can provide a key promotional tool for Australia on US television, press releases, and the Internet.

When Australian tourism got behind Baz Luhrmann’s Australia before its 2008 debut, they couldn’t have known that the investment in the film—which didn’t pay off as well as anticipated—could lead to an even bigger investment but potentially larger payoff a few years later. In many respects, Oprah is a less risky investment than an epic film that may or may not do well at the box office. As a commodity, Oprah continues to generate high ratings, overwhelming viewer loyalty, and instant name recognition. The down side is that the episodes, even if broadcast more than once or immortalized on the web, are not as long lasting as that epic film, however critics or ticket buyers reviewed it upon its debut. Film has a much longer lifespan than episodes of even a famous television series, and the scenery (and its sweeping scope) captured on film for posterity makes Australia a much clearer, and more romantic, vision of a nation.

Still, the Oprah connection likely will have an immediate impact on Australian tourism, crucial at a time when casual travelers may have to think more than twice before committing their cash to a vacation, especially one halfway around the world from Europeans and North Americans. The links between and among nation, television series, and film illustrate increasingly savvy ways to market a nation using multiple media, including film and television, beyond traditional marketing measures. In particular, the intriguing Oprah connection helps keep Australia-the-product in the public eye, especially in the US, and suggests additional ways for countries to cross-market themselves as an internationally viable product.

References in order of their in-text links and context within this feature:

Oprah’s Ultimate Australian Adventure.”

Bodey, Michael. “Baz Luhrmann’s Australia Helps Top Local Film Box Office.” The Australian. January 16, 2009.

Oprah. November 23, 2008. Syndicated. Also, photographs and information from this episode appeared on the show’s web site at Oprah.com

Nicole Kidman Credits Fertile Water with Pregnancy.” Film.com. September 24, 2008.

Costello, Peter. “Hoist on Its Own Grand Ambition.” The Age. December 10, 2008.

Coleman, Oliver. “A Child’s Moving Letter to Hugh Jackman.” OK. January 25, 2009.

“Australia Beckons Turkey with Film”. DailyNews.com. January 29, 2009.

“Cattle Droving in South Australia”. Australia and New Zealand. December 2008, p. 14.

“Down Under Star”. Australia and New Zealand. December 2008, p. 16.

Henly, Susan Gough. “Australia on Film”. Australia and New Zealand. December 2008, pp. 24-36.

Miles, Jonathan. “You Don’t Know Jackman”. Men’s Journal. November 2008, pp. 96, 98.

Leydon, Joe. “Australia.” Cowboys & Indians. November 2008, pp. 116-125.

“Oprah’s Big Adventure in Australia to Film for Her TV Show”. Herald Sun. September 18, 2010.

Staskiewicz, Steve. “Oprah’ Premiere: Australia Poised to Spend $2.8 Million for Trip. Didgeridoo or Didgeridon’t?” Entertainment Weekly. September 14, 2010.

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