Production company: Michael Jordache Enterprises presents/Summer City Production/Avalon Films Production
Budget: A$200,000 (Oxford Australian Film). This figure was the one producer Phil Avalon put around to the press at the time of the film's release. In an interview in the DVD release, Avalon claims the film was made for cash in hand of $30-40,000, made up of Avalon's own money and investor friends, and $25,000 loaned to complete post production by the owner of the Century Theatre, a total budget of c. $55-65,000 (the ASO website puts it at $66,000, while David Stratton in The Last New Wave peddles the $200,000 figure)
Locations: Sydney and Newcastle coastal locations, and the town of Catherine Hill Bay, about 100 kilometres north of Sydney on the Wallarah Peninsula.
Filmed: shooting is dated by many databases as beginning October 1976, but producer Phil Avalon says the film was slotted into the NIDA Christmas break to suit the availability of Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley, and it is listed as 'filming' in the January 1977 Cinema Papers production survey. 3-4 week shoot (according to Phil Avalon). David Stratton puts the shoot in summer 1976-77.
Australian distributor: Self-distributed
Australian release: Premiere Century Theatre, Sydney, 22nd December 1977, and thereafter other cinemas. Screened on network 7 on 22nd September 1980 in a 9.30 pm time slot.
16mm - to 35mm for theatrical release. Colour
Running time: 85 mins (Oxford Australian Film)
DVD time: 1'21"26 (Umbrella and Madman editions)
Box office: The film is not listed in the Film Victoria report on Australian Box Office, but given that producer Avalon and his associates promoted the film themselves - thereby containing distribution and exhibition costs - there is no reason to doubt Avalon's claim that the film went into substantial profit.
According to Avalon, the average box office at the Century Theatre was $1,100 a week, and in the film's first week it only took $3-3,500. So Avalon turned to Mike Willesee for help - Willesse was then hosting a current affairs television show. A Friday night feature about the show generated a box office record of $16,000 for one week at the Century, which turned into a six month run, which was used to finance more prints, wider release, and a four walling of the show in regional cinemas.
The film also enjoyed a good life on VHS - especially when Mel Gibson's career took off and he could be the featured actor on the cover - and it still tickles the till with assorted DVD releases.
That said, the ASO site makes claims regarding the film's profitability - "more than one million dollars at the Australian box office" - which perhaps should be taken with a hearty serving of Avalon salt:
Summer City did extraordinarily good business, earning more than one million dollars at the Australian box office. At drive-ins it played on a successful double bill with the British rock’n’roll nostalgia piece That’ll Be the Day (1973). Avalon also took a 16mm print on a profitable ‘roadshow’ tour of the Australian east coast. Internationally, Summer City was widely distributed on video cassette (340,000 units were shipped for one release) but few of the profits were returned to the inexperienced Avalon and his team. ’We were young, we didn’t know how to collect’, he recalls. (here at the ASO).
The film first experienced a long shelf life on VHS in a number of territories.
The film was then released in region four on DVD by Madman in an undistinguished 4:3 image which does however remain true to the film's origins as a 16mm shoot.
The extras provided were a 20'26" retrospective interview with Phillip Avalon and the theatrical trailer.
This was then turned into a 3 disc Collectors' Edition by Beyond, featuring the movie, the interview and the trailer, and a CD of music "from and inspired" by the movie.
Unfortunately Avalon is a good couple of frames out of synch for the entire interview ( he doesn't look quite so rubbery in the Madman edition).
The third disc is a DVD dedicated to Phil Avalon's Breaking Loose, which for the sake of marketing is given the title Summer City 2, though in reality the film has nothing to do with Summer City, as even the DVD slick acknowledges that it is "more a legacy than a sequel to Summer City".
About the only connection between the films is that they both feature a 'surfers' storyline, and serial 'TV soap' breast and nipple revealer Abigail turns up in both.
The best that can be said for the package is that this is a handy way to pick up both films, with the CD of period Summer City music a bonus (though none of composer Phil Butkis's underscore makes the cut).
If your idea of watching a feature-length film is to watch a few clips, then the ASO has three here, but this seems slightly perverse given the availability of the actual film in a presentable DVD package.
Phillip Avalon, the writer, producer and co-star of the film, was born in Newcastle, and became a male model, actor, film-maker and surfer.
His script is derived from his memories of making surfing trips to Catherine Bay Hill in his youth. He remembered it this way in his DVD interview:
The script for Summer City began in 1974. I was working on a television program at the time called Number 96 and I kept reminiscing about my times as a teenager in Newcastle, travelling down to a place called Catherine Hill Bay with a bunch of buddies on these wonderful surfing weekends.
A couple of stories were told about Catherine Hill Bay, about someone lived up on the hills and if you were there at night you could be carved up into little bits and flung into the ocean, all these wonderful stories that frighten the hell out of you when you're a young kid. So I tried to incorporate a little bit of fiction with a little bit of realism when I was doing the screenplay but remembering I was very young at the time and very, very green.
Avalon's first production was the telemovie The Double Dealer, which he produced, wrote and acted in, and which featured drug-trafficking and the 'white slave' trade. He later went on to make a number of other, usually low budget feature films such as Sher Mountain Killings Mystery, Fatal Bond and Exchange Lifeguards.
A 124 page novelisation of the film was written Ben Mitchell, using a number of illustrations from the film, with the tag "based on an original screenplay by Phil Avalon".
Mitchell was then a writer for TV Week who had done a number of stories on the film:
I'd met Ben through TV Week, he was doing quite a few stories on us and the film through TV Week and I just said to him one day, "would you like to do the book Ben?" and he said "Terrific" so Ben Mitchell ended up doing the novel of the film, so we had the novel out there and the 45 and we had the film and away we went and that was the supporting materials to help get us publicity, to let people know the picture was playing ...
It was released as a paperback by Horwitz in 1978. (Mitchell later, in 1986, edited The Ultimate pin-ups magazine, and then edited a book on TV soaps in 1991 TV soap presents the best of Australia's daytime TV).
(Below: the film tie-in - more details about this book at Trove here).
Raising the finance was a classic story of indie struggle street, as told by producer Phil Avalon in his DVD interview:
When we decided to budget the film, I didn't have a lot of money at the time and there wasn't any government agencies supporting local productions, in fact there wasn't really an Australian film industry in the seventies, and so I ran around with a hat, and saw all of my friends from business and a lot of my school buddies and said you know can you put in some money because we want to make this movie and I managed to raise about $20,000 through that method, and then I was also working in a television show at the time so I was putting all my money from that into the production, as well as I'd had some male modelling assignments which - a couple of them were fairly highly paid - so the fees from that went into the film as well (amongst other things, Avalon posed nude for women's magazine Cleo).
So I had the grand total of about thirty to forty thousand dollars which in 1975 was a considerable amount of money. I mean you could certainly buy a home unit, and a very nice home unit on Palm Beach for that in those years. So anyway we had a little bit of money in the tin and then (began) the casting process...
Casting was an equally haphazard process:
I'd spoken to John Jarratt and we wanted John to play Sandy. I'd seen him play a very small role in a picture called Picnic at Hanging Rock and he'd done an incredible job and so I spoke to John, and John said he'd be delighted to take the role of Sandy, which was the university student, the lynch pin of the story and he mentioned that he'd seen a couple of young actors at NIDA, which would be worth a look.
We also had another actor at the time to play the role of Scollop, a chap by the name of Nick Papadopoulos who was a bright young actor and he'd expressed interest in playing the role of Scollop in the film, but closer to shooting period, Nick had a few personal problems and dropped out and because John Jarrat had mentioned these NIDA students, I thought well let's have a look at them, so Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley turned up to read, and they were terrific, they were both right for the roles and they were cast on the spot. I played the other role of Robbie of course and so there we had the ensemble ...
So there, but for a twist of fate, Nick Papadopoulos would have played the role Mel Gibson played.
As a result, the film is notable for a number of firsts. It was the first feature for Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley, who took time off from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) to do the show. Gibson was reported to have received $400 for his role.
James Elliot, who played the murderous father, came via Avalon's Number 96 connection, as did 'TV soap' serial breast and nipple revealer Abigail (she had also done a stage play with Avalon, as well as the TV soap).
It was also the first and only feature film for director Christopher Fraser, who had made commercials and worked at Fontana. Fraser had approached Avalon with a script for a movie he'd written himself, and Avalon said he'd produce that one for him, if he'd direct this one for Avalon.
In his DVD interview, Avalon spins a number of yarns about the production of the film, mainly what a smell-of-an-oily rag production it was:
- He tells a story of asking Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley to clamber down a cliff at Tamarama beach to milk fuel from a car which had crashed the night before, so they'd have enough to fill up the tank in the Chevy and get it and themselves to the location at Catherine Hill bay ahead of the crew;
- He tells of the Chevy being donated to the film by Lionel Slutzkin, "the PR guy on the film", who'd persuaded a used car salesman to swap Slutzkin's Renault for the appropriate period Chevy (another version is that the vehicle belonged to Ross Bailey, a Newcastle surfer, who played Nail, and acted as stunt surf double for Gibson);
- He tells of hiring an RSL hall at Catherine Hill Bay at a hundred dollars a week, and scattering 30 to 40 mattresses in the hall for cast and crew. They lived in the hall, and shot the "stomp" in the hall, except when evicted one Saturday night for a wedding party. Avalon claims Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley mooned the wedding party, and then took off into the night, pursued by irate wedding party guests;
- He tells of hiring the local takeaway shop to do the catering, serving three solid meals a day, for six dollars per head per day. But Avalon ran out of money for catering after the first week, and claims that he then did the catering for the rest of the shoot, using whatever he cooked one day as the basis for a stew the next, into which he'd fling whatever was to hand - spaghetti, baked beans or weetbix;
- He tells of shooting the water tank seduction scene in what was the town's water supply, and being asked how he'd got permission to do this. He answered that he'd got permission off a guy he'd met down at the pub who said he was one of the town's councillors. (Avalon doesn't mention if the councillor also sold him the harbour bridge).
For trivia buffs, the film features footage of the vintage pop show Bandstand, hosted by Nine presenter and newsreader Brian Henderson, and then popular radio DJ Ward "Pally" Austin also makes a cameo appearance - another Avalon connection.
The film did some theatrical business in Australia on its release, with producer Phil Avalon making money the hard way by four walling:
I'd completed the film, and I'd spoken to Lionel Slutzkin who was doing the publicity on the film and I said 'Look I don't have enough money to get the prints to put them into the cinemas' and he said 'let me introduce you to another friend of mine who actually's got a lease on this cinema called the Century, the Century cinema in George street and he also owns pinball parlours, let's go over and see him', so we went over to see Alan Gray (?sp) and Alan said 'yes, I'll loan you the money, how much do you need?', and we needed about twenty five thousand dollars to finish the mix and strike the prints of the film, so Alan lent us the money and then said we could use the cinema to play the film and we could repay him out of the proceeds of the cinema, so that was the first stage ...
Avalon even used a strike at the theatre to generate publicity for the film, posing behind the counter, and showing the film-makers selling tickets and taking the money (and never mind if this might be construed as strike-breaking, the show had to go on).
... And the second stage I'd met a guy called Austin Levy who was working for Village Roadshow at the time, he was a nineteen year old hotshot, and he said 'Look I understand distribution, why don't I jump in and help you distribute the film', so between Austin Levy, and Alan Gray and Lionel Slutzkin and myself, we had a little office under the Century and we got the film into the Century cinema and it did very well, and then we got more prints, and then went into more cinemas, and we were bringing box office records in certain places, so the more the turnstiles ticked over, the more prints we spent it on, so every dollar that came in, we'd just buy more prints, and go into more cinemas, that's the way it was released, and after the cinema run, which ran about six months, I then put it in the back of a Kombi wagon and did the coastal run, and so I learnt distribution the hard way and by four walling cinemas or halls where we'd just hire the hall run the film, you know, stand at the box office and take the money and that's the way the film played throughout the country...
This sort of four walling would become a feature of the 1970s Oz 16mm surf movie circuit, in which Avalon also played a role.
The film has subsequently enjoyed a long life on VHS and DVD because it featured Mel Gibson in his first big screen role (it also featured Steve Bisley who went on to achieve his own share of cult fame as Goose, alongside Gibson in Mad Max).
This means that the press routinely returns to the film every so often.
In 2005, for example, the UK Times newspaper discovered that the film featured Gibson's first kiss and that it was gay.
The story quoted Gibson as saying It was a cheap, nasty movie that was cranked out in three weeks on a tiny budget, along with a complaint that he never received the additional $450 promised for doing the deed with Steve Bisley.
This report might have led some Gibson fans to needlessly watch the movie. (The story is now blocked by the Times' paywall, but the story was also picked up by a number of movie gossip column sites)
Producer Avalon has continued to trade on the fact that he managed to score Gibson in his first feature film role, and this coup is heavily featured in later material promoting the film in ancillary markets.
Like that other early down under road movie, the 1976 Oz (A Rock 'n' Roll Road Movie), Summer City was an example in the Australian revival of classic pop music being used as a cross-promotional device.
But it wasn't without difficulties. According to Avalon, on the DVD, Johnny O'Keefe gave him a couple of songs for use in the film, but just before it was due to be released, he sent Avalon a note saying that he'd like to be paid a very large amount for their use.
But Avalon didn't have the money to pay for them, so he sent back a note to O'Keefe saying that he wouldn't use the tracks, and instead he'd fill the hole in the soundtrack with a couple of songs from another artist, whom Avalon knew O'Keefe didn't like at all. He received a note from O'Keefe saying that he could use his tracks, he was only trying it on ...
Avalon himself sang the eponymous title track, Summer City, which was released on a 45, but didn't do great business. However Avalon didn't use the song over the head or tail credits - the opening music is a low key guitar and mouth organ mood piece, while the closing music is a lyrical piece using guitar and strings.
A new CD of music from and inspired by the film was released to coincide with the film's release on DVD.
For more details, see this site's pdf of the full music credits.