New research based on 10 years worth of Australian films shows that a typical adaptation has a good chance of outperforming a typical original in its home market.

That said, originals have a greater propensity for exceptional performance —recent examples include the Hollywood-financed Australia and Happy Feet — and a higher failure rate. In other words, they are more volatile.

Matthew Hancock presented his report, Mitigating Risk: The Case for More Adaptations in the Australian Film Industry, today to publishers and producers under the 37º South Market, the business arm of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

His research covered the 200 local dramas released in local cinemas in the 10 years up to and including 2008.

The 38 films or 19% defined as adaptations were those based on an existing creative work, such as a book, play or poem, and also remakes and franchises.

They took 25% of box office returns, although the figure peaked at 46% in 2003. In contrast, adaptations accounted for about half of all films released in the US and attracted about two-thirds of box office returns.

Lantana (2001), which grossed A$15.3 million, was the highest grossing adaptation in his sample, followed by Looking For Alibrandi (2000). Three were bunched up in third place: Ned Kelly (2003), Crocodile Dundee in LA (2001) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).

Hancock argues for greater diversification of film source material to increase the potential to deliver more consistent box office earnings. “What constitutes a healthy slate was one of the things I was interested in,” he told ScreenDaily.

Immediately after presenting his findings he joined a panel discussion delving into why the number of adaptations were falling instead of rising, the barriers, and how the links between the two industries could be strengthened.

Martha Coleman, development head of Screen Australia, believes Australia has not developed the habit of making adaptations. Her guidelines were recently changed to include meeting the cost of options — and fast tracking applications if there is competition involved.

The research indicates that the median budget of original films was A$3.5m compared to adaptations at A$7.2m. The added scale of adaptations may account for their stronger box office but the extra expenditure appears worth it: a doubling of the budget resulted in a tripling of median box office (A$370,000 for originals compared to A$1.1 million) and returns for every dollar of expenditure for adaptations was 44% higher than for originals.

Hancock is assistant manager of strategy and research at Screen Australia but did the research in his own time as part of a Master of Arts program at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

High profile upcoming Australian adaptations include Stuart Beattie’s directorial debut Tomorrow When The War Began, adapted from a book by John Marsden and releasing on Sept 2, Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole, based on books by Kathryn Lask and releasing on Sept 27, and Fred Schepisi’s The Eye Of The Storm, from a Patrick White novel, which is in post-production.