Tom O’Regan, much loved scholar and author of the ground-breaking book Australian National Cinema,[1] died in July 2020 after a short illness. Tom made extraordinary contributions to media, communications and cultural studies scholarship. His range of publications and collaborations, his expert editorial eye, his mentorship and support for emerging scholars have nurtured and shaped ideas and careers for decades and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Those who knew him, loved him and were exasperated by him – and we are legion – will forget neither him nor the experience of “being Tom’d”. Chance meetings or chats over coffee would become intense, discursive dialogues often lasting for several hours. He was endlessly interested in everyone and everything, and always able to surprise and delight with some obscure trivia or telling anecdote about any subject at all.

Tom will perhaps be best known to readers of Senses of Cinema for his work on Australian film. No serious article written in the last thirty years on Australian film texts, histories, industrial/policy/critical formations – and indeed on the manifestations and intricacies of “national cinema” in the broad sense – is complete without reference to and engagement with O’Regan’s ideas and scholarship.

Tom was a deeply learned historian of Australian film. But while questions around both of these terms either separately or in combination occupied much of his thinking, his natural curiosity, his voracious and catholic reading appetite, and his knack for riffing on ideas drawn from multifarious fields meant that film alone could never contain him. His numerous books and articles included highly original and influential work on television, radio, comics, film criticism, audience studies, audience measurement, cultural and media policy, international film and television production, media transformations, and much more besides.

His work is multi-dimensional and multi-directional – always suggesting new relations or altered perspectives, emphasising the “messiness” of things, never their simple coherence. To give just one example, take the paper he delivered at the third Australian History and Film conference held in Perth in 1985, which drew on his recently completed PhD and prefigured his approach in Australian National Cinema. Tom analysed what he termed “the Australian film complex not so much as a unitary phenomenon but as one made up of diverse, semi-autonomous, but nonetheless related institutions, strategies, sectors, and discourses”. This is how I think of Tom and the stories he would tell: not a “unitary phenomenon”, but (to borrow a favourite Latourian concept) a “hybrid assemblage” made up of diverse, semi-autonomous but related ideas, urgencies, and enthusiasms all with the potential at any moment to spin off in to something quite new.

Tom was born in to a large farming family in the small town of Gayndah in Queensland’s North Burnett region in 1956. He boarded at a Catholic school in Armidale, NSW. In the 1960s, his parents bought a property near Rockhampton, and Tom later worked for a time as a blacksmith’s striker on the Queensland railways. These country roots shaped his thinking about media and provided valuable correctives to the metropolitan bias of film and television commentary and scholarship in Australia that (still?) can ignore or belittle the contributions, knowledge and experience of those beyond the (sub)urban coastal fringe. In a tongue-in-cheek introduction to an interview with Tom for a project on Australian film theory and criticism, Deane Williams wrote that “despite hailing from rural Queensland Tom is renowned for his incisive critical faculties and a breadth of knowledge that ranges across multiple disciplines and for his immense contribution to Australian film theory and criticism”[2]

In 1975 Tom was among the first intake of undergraduate students at Griffith University in Brisbane. He dabbled in experimental film production and was, in his words, “much exercised by what it meant to ‘make films politically’”[3] Tom worked with two of his lecturers at the time, Dugald Williamson and Ian Hunter (among others) to produce “counter-texts”: – “a kind of film criticism using the film text […] a form of textual criticism and an experiment in doing these things rhetorically” by adding alternative commentaries and narration to existing films. “Countertext to Three Days in Szczecin” (originally a Granada Television docu-drama about a 1971 strike in Poland) was screened at the first Australian Screen Conference in 1978, and a transcript was published in The Australian Journal of Screen Theory.[4] Another of Tom’s films critiquing the controversy around Tom Haydon’s documentary The Last Tasmanian was shown at the second Australian Screen Conference in Perth in 1980; O’Regan’s essay on the film and the issues it raised in particular around the politics of the representation of Aboriginal peoples and histories by non-indigenous filmmakers, was published in the collection An Australian Film Reader, which he coedited with Albert Moran, in 1985.[5]

The Last Tasmanian

Upon graduation in the late 1970s, Tom applied unsuccessfully to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. He was offered a scholarship to do a Masters degree at Griffith – “I didn’t expect that,” he later said, “and I thought: well, I haven’t finished with academia after all”[6] – far from it. He subsequently went on to doctoral studies, with his PhD eventually awarded in 1985 for one of the first applications of discourse analysis to film studies. In his time at Griffith University, Tom studied under three of Australian film’s principal public intellectuals: film critic and journalist Sylvia Lawson, media historian Albert Moran, and cultural policy and creative industries maven Stuart Cunningham. All would remain deeply loved friends, interlocutors and collaborators for the rest of Tom’s life.

King of the Coral Sea

It might all have been so different; as Tom wrote in a typically thoughtful piece about King of the Coral Sea (Lee Robinson, 1954) for a Cinema Papers series on “Films we Love” in 1994:

Back in 1974, I had a decision to make: to go North to the “exotic” that was already familiar and work on cattle properties and prawning boats in the Gulf, or to go South to the equally exotic “big smoke” that was Sydney and the snow. Each was appealing. If my mate hadn’t pranged his car, we would have gone north. Alone, I went south. I never made it to the snow, and I never did go scuba diving. I became a critic writing about a film, King of the Coral Sea, whose life world I once wanted near.[7]

A story begins as one thing, and becomes something else. A car crash, a detour and a passing nod to phenomenology. So very Tom. As with so many of Tom’s autobiographical stories, there is a sense of surprise and almost of melancholy about how things worked out. He was a deeply sentimental, nostalgic soul; in his office he only drank lapsang suchong tea, not I think because he was particularly fond of it but because it had been the drink of choice of a dear, long departed friend, and this was Tom’s regular ceremony of remembrance.

Entirely appropriately, though again somewhat surprisingly to Tom at the time, it would be another critically unloved but popular Australian film that would catalyse his early academic career. In 1982, ill and impoverished at the end of his scholarship and rutted in mid-PhD hell, Tom returned to the family farm seriously entertaining the idea of turning his back on academia to go to work with his father on the land. One day, at a cinema in Rockhampton, Tom saw the film that would – to his mind – change his life. Actually, that is not quite true. It was not the film itself but rather the experience of watching The Man from Snowy River (George Miller, 1982) and thinking about how audiences beyond the metropolitan centres responded to it that re-set Tom’s PhD journey and led to him being offered his first job at Murdoch University in 1984.

The Man from Snowy River

Tom had been struck by the contrast in 1982 between “how some ordinary people were talking about and connecting with [The Man from Snowy River]” and the “holier than thou criticism coming out against it”.[8] Encouraged by his mentor Sylvia Lawson, Tom submitted a polemical article to Filmnews.[9] He argued that even though the film did not fit “the conventions and expectations as to what constitutes a well made film that works through the reviews of Cinema Papers, The Bulletin, The Age, The National Times and the Courier Mail (Brisbane)”, it could not simply be written off as a “bad” film. The popularity of the film challenged the critics’ preferred version of “culturally acceptable Australian feature filmmaking”, exposing that as largely a metropolitan, bourgeois fantasy that was wilfully blind to the tastes, attitudes and interests of the “ordinary” Australians who found The Man so captivating. The article laid out the reasons for the film’s success – its creators’ backgrounds in Australian television and its appeal to “the same audience that makes Cop Shop, A Country Practice, The Sullivans and A Town Like Alice ratings successes […] the same audiences that made Star Wars the highest grossing film in the Australian theatrical market”, its localisation of generic conventions, the ways it picked up on and resonated with aspects of (largely non-metropolitan) Australian popular culture (“the rodeo circuit, bushwalking, country and western music, c & w radio stations, hobby farms”), the marketing savvy of Michael Edgley International, its portrayal of the bush not as threatening, alien, dangerous, but rather as “a commercial, ecological, desirable, pleasurable, traversable, and indeed acquirable space” – in other words, everything that the high culturalist vision of Australia and Australian film was not.

Although at the time Tom felt that the article on The Man from Snowy River might have been his farewell note to academia, it turned out to be his ticket to a long and storied career. Tom worked at Murdoch University in Perth from 1984 to 1999, raising a large family of his own with his wonderful wife Rita Shanahan in a Fremantle home famed for its views, its built-in pizza oven and the many social gatherings the ever-hospitable O’Regans hosted for friends from around the world.

In 1987, with Brian Shoesmith, Tom co-founded and edited the journal Continuum,[10] just one of many ways in which he played a pivotal role in the networks of film and cultural studies scholars that grew out from Perth and spread around the world at the time. This was a highly productive period for Tom, beginning with work on the history of film and television in Western Australia,[11] and collections of articles and documents co-edited with Albert Moran that remain key texts in Australian film historiography.[12] In 1993 his book Australian Television Culture opened up new approaches to the small screen, before his magnum opus, Australian National Cinema was published in 1996.[13]

In 1999 Tom moved back across the country, returning to Griffith University in Brisbane when he was headhunted to succeed Tony Bennett as Director of the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy (CMP). He would remain at his alma mater for five years, working closely with many of those he had studied with and under in the 1970s. In 2002 he was appointed Australia’s UNESCO-Orbicom Professor of Communication, and in the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

I was a postdoctoral researcher at the CMP when Tom arrived in 1999. From the outset he was an extraordinarily generous mentor, an exemplary collaborator, and above all a loyal and caring friend. We first worked together on a report for the former Australian Broadcasting Authority on the future of Australian content regulation on television.[14] We wrote a report for the Australian Film Commission in 2003[15] that received such rave reviews from Queensland’s Pacific Film and Television Commission that Tom suggested it be purchased en masse by the Commission and placed in every hotel room on the Gold Coast. This would evolve two years later in to The Film Studio.[16] By this time, Tom had moved on to the University of Queensland where a new collaboration would form with Susan Ward, building on her work on film production on the Gold Coast.

Local Hollywood

The manuscript for Tom, Sue and my 2010 book Local Hollywood[17] was knocked back in its original form by the publisher after my introduction injudiciously promised a down under (and downright misleading) version of Kenneth Anger, a local Hollywood Babylon if you will. Tom, Sue and I reacted to this setback true to type: I despaired, Sue was sardonic and determined, and Tom rewrote the whole book in about 24 hours. It is a testament to Tom’s generosity and collegiality that he insisted that we should retain the original order of authors even though the published version would not exist were it not for his steerage of the project throughout and his last minute salvaging of the work.

He collaborated with, supervised and mentored colleagues from around the world, diligently nurturing connections and lifelong friendships built during visiting fellowships in the US, Ireland, Wales, Macedonia and South Africa. One of Tom’s last major publications was the culmination of another decades long working partnership and friendship, this time with Mark Balnaves, on the history and business of audience ratings.[18]

Some of his most recent work pondered the similarities between Lazarsfeld and Katz’s and Mark Zuckerburg’s visions of the “audience commodity”, “influentials/influencers” and robust and reliable audience metrics. A 2018 recorded presentation of this work at the University of Queensland in 2018 is peak-Tom: overflowing with enthusiasm and mischief.[19] Funny and charming, bursting with ideas, he flips effortlessly across time and territory. He has an assiduously prepared slide presentation to which he hardly refers. It takes him less than a minute to wander off course. Stories meander and double-back on themselves. The glorious extreme-off road performative mode he himself called “Mad Tom” is just about kept in check. Here he is more late night radio Tom, inviting his audience to gather round and reflect on how audiences are and have been made and measured and packaged for sale. He was at heart an historian and a storyteller, deeply learned, incredibly well-read, with a memory for facts and anecdotes like no one I’ve ever known. He will be fondly remembered, and is very sadly missed.

Vale Tom.

Farewell mate.

Thanks for all the everything.

Endnotes:

[1] Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, (London: Routledge, 1995).
[2] Deane Williams  ‘The Circulation of Ideas: An Interview with Tom O’Regan,’ Screening the Past.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Dugald Williamson, Ian Hunter and Tom O’Regan, “Countertext to Three Days in Szczecin” (transcript of videotape), Australian Journal of Screen Theory 8 (1980), pp. 7-33.
[5] Tom O’Regan. ‘Documentary in Controversy: The Last Tasmanian’ in Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (eds.), An Australian Film Reader (Paddington: Currency Press, 1985), pp. 127-36.
[6] Williams, “The Circulation of Ideas”, op. cit.
[7] Tom O’Regan ‘King of the Coral Sea’ Cinema Papers 101 (1994), pp. 16.
[8] Williams, “The Circulation of Ideas”, op. cit.
[9] Tom O’Regan “Ride the High Country: The Man from Snowy River and Australian Popular Culture”, Filmnews, September 1, 1982, pp. 8-9.
[10] https://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/readingroom/continuum.html
[11] Brian Shoesmith and Tom O’Regan, The Moving Image: the History of Film and Television in Western Australia 1896-1985. See also Tom O’Regan and Brian Shoesmith, eds. History on/and/in Film (History and Film Association of Australia, 1987).
[12] Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan, eds. An Australian Film Reader. Sydney: Currency Press, 1985. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan, eds. The Australian Screen. Ringwood, Vic: Penguin, 1989.
[13] Tom O’Regan Australian Television Culture. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1993. Tom O’Regan Australian National Cinema, London: Routledge, 1996.
[14] Ben Goldsmith, Julian Thomas, Stuart Cunningham and Tom O’Regan, The Future for Local Content? Options for emerging technologies¸ Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Authority, 2001.
[15] Ben Goldsmith and Tom O’Regan, Cinema Cities, Media Cities: The Contemporary International Studio Complex, Sydney: Australian Film Commission.
[16] Ben Goldsmith and Tom O’Regan, The Film Studio: Film Production in the Global Economy, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.
[17] Ben Goldsmith, Susan Ward and Tom O’Regan, Local Hollywood: Global Film Production and the Gold Coast (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2010).
[18] Mark Balnaves and Tom O’Regan, with Ben Goldsmith, Rating the Audience: The Business of Media (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).
[19] http://vimeo.com/267974353

About The Author

Ben Goldsmith co-authored several books and articles with Tom O’Regan including The Film Studio (2005) and Local Hollywood (2010). He is a co-editor of two volumes of the Intellect series Directory of World Cinema. He currently works at Bournemouth University.