That Crocodile Dundee Reboot: Here’s the Whole Story Behind the Movie That Wasn’t

Confused? So was Chris Hemsworth

Chris Hemsworth and Danny McBride starred in the Super Bowl ad—there’s no movie—from Tourism Australia.
Tourism Australia

Back in November in a place called Adels Grove, deep in a remote corner of the Australian state of Queensland, Chris Hemsworth and Danny McBride were shooting a scene with a water buffalo.

The beast had blocked the road the pair was driving down in their Land Rover, and it was a problem. Leaving Hemsworth inside, McBride ambled out front, attempting to hypnotize the thousand-pound animal with that thumb-and-pinky trick Mick Dundee used so memorably in the 1986 movie Crocodile Dundee.

But for such a perilous cinematic moment, there was an obvious problem (apart from the screwy McBride having been cast as Mick Dundee’s son, that is). Hemsworth, a consummate screen professional, was wearing a grin wider than his bushman’s hat. At one point, he looked ready to crack up and blow the scene. And this, as it turned out, was indicative of a larger problem for the box-office hunk.

That buffalo trick: Paul Hogan in 1986 and McBride now

“I kept asking the director, ‘Hang on. So I know it’s a movie, but it’s not a movie but a commercial. And I’m playing a—wait … at which point am I playing a character or playing me?” Hemsworth recalled on a recent afternoon in New York.

“And in the end, [the director] was like, ‘We don’t really know, either. Just have fun with it.’”

Hemsworth’s understandable confusion about Dundee, the film he was ostensibly shooting, was an unintended foreshadowing of what’s been going on throughout the United States in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. As was finally settled by the spot that aired in the second quarter of Super Bowl LII on Sunday, Dundee isn’t a real movie.

Which means Hemsworth’s Wally, Jr., and McBride’s Brian Dundee weren’t real characters. It also means the movie trailers on timed release since mid-January weren’t real trailers, either.

And while there’s been rumor and reporting aplenty about a fake film for the past couple of weeks, it’s now unimpeachably clear that the whole thing was a water buffalo-sized piece of marketing for Tourism Australia, which retained ad agency Droga5 last year to come up with a way to re-energize stateside tourism by creating something memorable.

And that, they certainly did.

But the ambitious staging of the would-be movie, not to mention the rumor mill it generated, is also a kind of textbook definition for marketing in the social-media age, specifically that fooling a web-savvy public isn’t easy, and all buzz is good buzz. As Droga5 founder and creative chairman David Droga told Adweek weeks prior to the big game, “I’m not saying I want [the secret] to get out—but if it gets out, it’s all still good.”

Translation: Maybe the promised but ultimately fictitious Dundee movie made you hopeful, happy or just pissed you off—but it did get you thinking about Australia, didn’t it, mate?

And that, from the get-go, was the whole point. And this is the story of how it happened.

The Land of Oz

Droga has worked for Saatchi & Saatchi in Singapore and London and Publicis in New York, but he was born (and, in fact, got his first agency job) in Australia. Even in a city full of transplants like New York, it seems unusually hard to shake Australia out of the Aussies who’ve come here. So when the phone rang at Droga5, the eponymous agency Droga founded in 2006, it felt like fate itself was calling.

Tourism Australia, the government agency charged with drawing international visitors to the land Down Under, was cooking up a new push for the North American market and inviting proposals.

“We wanted to make something really unique that was going to cut through,” recalled the bureau’s CMO Lisa Ronson. “This is the biggest thing we’ve done, and we wanted to make sure we had the best concept.”

It was music to a creative’s ears—and to Droga’s especially. “It’s the phone call you want to get,” he said. “And, as an insanely proud Australian—and there are a lot of us here—it felt like a chance to do something important.”

“I think, at the time, I said, ‘If we don’t win this, I have to fire myself,'” Droga continued.

The fact that Australia was issuing such a huge RFP to start with was a function of the global economy. In recent years, Tourism Australia had focused on luring the growing middle class in China. The effort was successful. Today, 54 percent of Australian’s tourism revenue comes from Asia. But as a result, it had been over a generation since any major Australian marketing effort had landed on American shores.

Americans learn to say g’day

If you’re over 40, chances are you remember a campaign called “Come and Say G’Day” featuring Australian TV star Paul Hogan. Created by Sydney-based ad shop Mojo with an assist from N.W. Ayer in New York, it featured the rugged, handsome Hogan romping through Australia’s panoply of attractions and, with that infectious accent of his, promising viewers that if they came to visit Australia, he’d “slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for ya.”

And come, they did. Over the campaign’s first three years, tourism to Australia doubled, according to the Association of Travel Marketing Executives.

In 1986, Hogan’s script about an outback bushman who finds a different kind of wild adventure in New York morphed into Crocodile Dundee, which became the second-highest-grossing movie in America that year (to Top Gun) and went on to make nearly $178 million. At the time, Americans weren’t fully aware that the movie, though not officially an ad, essentially functioned as another piece of marketing for Australian tourism.

“You ask anyone about Australia, and they go to Crocodile Dundee,” Droga said. “There has been no better ad for Australia than that movie.”

The Droga5 team came up with three different ideas to bid for the job, but really, there was only one: They would propose an epic remake called Dundee. It would follow the fish-out-of-water theme the original movie used so successfully but reverse itdropping an American in Australia this time. From the presentation material: “Crocodile Dundee is back. Well, actually, he’s missing in the Outback. And the only person who might be able to find him is the loudmouthed American son no one knew he had.”

Selling the idea

This “ultimate adventure in the land Down Under”—which was to co-star Chris Hemsworth as the son of Mick Dundee’s business partner Wally Reilly—was so ridiculously Hollywood that, during the presentation, it even fooled the brass at Tourism Australia, who nodded along, if perhaps a bit uncomfortably, thinking of what an actual motion picture would cost.

“The first half of presenting this idea was like the first half of this campaign, where you treat it fully like it’s a real movie,” said Droga5 creative director Chris Colliton. “To their credit, they stuck with us to the moment where we were like, ‘But this isn’t gonna be a real movie!’'”

Hogan's split-second cameo, in his original gear

It almost wasn’t a real campaign, either—not because the executives at Tourism Australia didn’t buy the pitch (“we loved the concept straight away,” Ronson said), but because any Crocodile Dundee retread (faux or no) required the benediction of Hogan.

“Once they bought in, it sort of hinged on most importantly Paul Hogan agreeing to do it,” Droga said. While the original Crocodile Dundee had spun off two sequels, the last of those dropped nearly 20 years ago, and Hogan had resisted at least three different overtures to make more.

“After we pitched [Droga5’s concept] to the board, Lisa [Ronson] and I spent a lot of time courting Paul,” said John O’Sullivan, Tourism Australia’s managing director. It took several meetings, in fact—one in Los Angeles, another in a Sydney coffee shop and another at Hogan’s house, where the 78-year-old actor held court with his dog.

In the end, Hogan went for it. He even agreed to a cameo, though just a split-second one, wearing his original getup. “He was protective of not overplaying it,” Droga said. “Because everyone wanted him to remake the film, and that was the joke about this whole thing. We were saying, ‘You know what’s going to happen at the end of this? Hollywood’s going to try … someone’s going to try to make this film.'”

Shooting the movie that wasn’t

But, for the time being, Droga5 had to make a Super Bowl spot. And since they were going to pretend the project was a bona fide movie, they’d need all the accouterments of your usual Hollywood extravaganza.

They needed the name of a real-life production company (in this case, Rimfire Films, which was behind the original Crocodile Dundee in 1986), and they also secured a nod from Screen Australia, the government agency that funds film projects Down Under. And of course, they’d have to set up multiple trailers to run in a staggered release, just like a real movie would have.

They also needed to do on-location shooting, since only Australia’s breathtaking scenery would suffice (for a movie or a tourism ad). “We were in Australia for a month,” Colliton said, shooting in most every region of the country to show off the marvels of the land and seascape. “We took 20-plus flights—[to the] East Coast, West Coast, the middle of the Outback. We flew four hours from Sydney to a coal-mining city and took a bus for six hours into nothingness.”

So there's no movie, but the boys have a nice vacation.

But perhaps more than anything, they needed famous faces, preferably Australian ones, because nobody would buy the idea of a big-budget film starring a cast of never-heard-of-’ems. Melbourne-born Hemsworth was a no-brainer, and it didn’t hurt that he’d already been doing commercial work promoting Australia.

“They were looking at launching a unique, different campaign, and they had this, I think, incredibly creative, pretty funny idea about tying it into the Crocodile Dundee film,” Hemsworth recalled. “And I loved the initial pitch basically from Day One.”

And while the Droga5 team had written a near-complete script for the commercial-cum-blockbuster, one look at the way Hemsworth responds to the controlled chaos of McBride’s acting—particularly as he tries to subdue the water buffalo—makes clear that the script was what one might call a living document.

“Most of it was ad-libbed,” Hemsworth said. “Most of it was just kind of riffing and playing with it, taking these iconic, recognizable scenes from the movie and just playing with them.”

The secret that wasn’t

While the Super Bowl spot would contain a needle-scratch moment at which the actors admit they’re not really going to make a movie—just go on vacation in Australia instead—the teasers felt like, well, real teasers. They began appearing on social media on Jan. 17, with the final one showing off a cast full of marquee names including Russell Crowe, Margot Robbie, Hugh Jackman and Isla Fisher.

But it was the casting of the buffoonish McBride, whose screen credits include the HBO comedy series Vice Principals and the 2008 stoner flick Pineapple Express, that not only added humor, but just enough WTF? factor to make audiences wonder if—just maybe—this whole Dundee thing wasn’t really a big-budget bait and switch.

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