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Mick’s Schtick: on the construction of Crocodile Dundee

Read Saturday, 23 Apr 2016

On the 30th birthday of Australia’s highest-grossing movie of all time, Anthony Morris looks back on the myths and the marketing of Crocodile Dundee.

Photo of Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee
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Movie poster for Crocodile Dundee

Thirty years since we first met Paul Hogan’s loveable knockabout larrikin Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee, and Crocodile Dundee remains the pinnacle of Australian commercial filmmaking. Though maybe not because of its treatment of Aboriginal people. Or women. Or trans people. Or the outback. But hey – the ‘that’s not a knife’ scene is still more memorable than 99.999% of Australia’s cultural output since federation. No wonder it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Plus, it made a mind-boggling amount of money. In Australia alone it made $30 million, having only cost $10 million to make (it was the first Australian film to make a profit in the Australian market alone). It ended up bringing in US$320 million worldwide, a sum made even more incredible by the fact that producers Hogan and John ‘Strop’ Cornell largely raised the money from 1400 regular investors – including, the New York Times reported, ‘brokers, a few wealthy cricketers, the rock singer Michael Hutchence from INXS’, who all got a share of the profits. No wonder pretty much all we’ve heard about Hoges in the 21st century has been about his struggle to figure out how to manage his massive fortune.

Everyone knows that duplicating a massive success is all but impossible in movies, especially one that came out of nowhere (does anyone know what the guys behind The Gods Must Be Crazy are up to these days?). In 1988, Crocodile Dundee II was successful at the box office, though the novelty had worn off with critics. The party was well and truly over by 2001, when Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles flopped. After reportedly knocking back the lead in Ghost, then appearing in a string of duds (Almost an Angel in 1990 and Lightning Jack in 1994), Hogan’s movie career eventually faded away. Australia’s had a handful of out-of-nowhere successes since – the less said about Young Einstein the better – but Crocodile Dundee remains the benchmark as the highest-grossing Australian film of all time.

A still from Crocodile Dundee II
Tough act to follow: a scene from <em>Crocodile Dundee II</em>

You could even argue that at least some of the international successes overtly Australian (or overtly Australian-looking) films have had since then are due to Paul Hogan’s strength in defining a national brand. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) can be seen as a shock twist on the Hoges-driven idea of Australia as a nation of uncomplicated manly blokes. Even 30 years on, for a hefty slice of the world, Australia’s image is still anchored to that which Hogan projected. How’d he manage to pull that trick off?

Crocodile Dundee wasn’t a one-off fluke; it was the culmination of a decade-long advertising campaign for Paul Hogan’s knockabout Aussie larrikin character.

What’s been largely forgotten today is that Paul Hogan – bonza Aussie bloke – was already a global celebrity before the first Crocodile Dundee movie hit cinemas. In Australia, he’d built a career on being just a regular guy, a rigger on the Sydney Harbour Bridge who was dared to go on TV talent show New Faces by his mates, and ended up winning the program’s 1973 grand final. Then, from 1973 to 1984, he starred (with Cornell) in his own sketch vehicle, The Paul Hogan Show. Plenty of guys who are funny down the pub couldn’t make a sketch show work – especially not for 12 seasons – but clearly there was an appetite for the Hoges persona: a regular, straight-talking, fair dinkum bloke. A bloke who also sold stuff.

Under the guidance of Cornell, who’d been a producer on A Current Affair when the pair had met, Hoges used his image to market a handful of products that played into his regular guy persona. In Australia, he became the face of Winfield cigarettes – popularising the slogan, ‘Anyhow, I’ll have a Winfield’. In the UK, he was part of a hugely successful campaign for Fosters Lager.

But it was in the US that he had his biggest advertising success, fronting an Australian Tourism Board campaign in 1984. It was the first time Australia had tried to market itself overseas as a tourist destination, and the campaign was an attempt to surf the early 80s wave of interest in Australia (we’d won the America’s Cup, and bands like Men at Work and AC/DC had put our music on the map). With Hoges saying ‘G’day’ and offering to throw ‘another shrimp on the barbie’, the campaign had a massive impact both on tourism and popular culture. Americans even tried out Vegemite.

Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee
Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee

So, when Crocodile Dundee hit cinemas in the US, it wasn’t a movie starring some oddball foreigner nobody had ever heard of – it was the guy everyone knew from a series of massively successful commercials coming to America. There’s little doubt Hogan and Cornell knew exactly what they were doing with the film, having worked for years on a successful sketch comedy show. They knew the character Hogan was playing, they knew what worked with him and, cleverly, they built a movie around showing him off to his best advantage to an overseas market.

Crocodile Dundee wasn’t a one-off fluke; it was the culmination of a decade-long advertising campaign for Paul Hogan’s knockabout Aussie larrikin character. Three decades on, no Australian film has come close to matching its success – because in three decades, no-one’s managed to put together a marketing campaign that’s anything like it. The film itself is clearly a product of its time – like the booze and cigarette commercials that made Hoges a worldwide celebrity – but the marketing behind it is still relevant today. So, who wants to put Luke McGregor in a tourism campaign?

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Centre stands. We acknowledge and pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their Elders, past and present, as the custodians of the world’s oldest continuous living culture.