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.

Granted, to make good with the proffered movie plot—Mick Dundee’s unknown American son comes to Australia to track down his missing father—a stateside actor was needed. But McBride playing a swashbuckling action hero? That’s a stretch. So much so that it’s worth pondering whether part of McBride’s role was to tip the production’s hand, prompting fans to doubt the legitimacy of the “film” from the start.

Was it? Well, maybe a little.

McBride was “totally inappropriate on some levels for the character,” Droga conceded, adding that there was a lot of internal talk about how he’d be received.

McBride himself admitted, “I was not the first person that would jump to my mind to do an ad for Australian tourism,” yet he pointed out, his playing the son of the legendary Mick Dundee did make sense—in the context of American popular culture, at least.

“That’s what I thought was so brilliant about their concept,” he said. “It just seems like something insulting enough that Hollywood would do [it.] There was something that was so silly about that casting that I felt like it made it seem more like something they would do.”

In the end, the creative team’s conclusion was that McBride would generate “excitement,” if perhaps not believability, and in the end, excitement was a higher goal than fooling the public.

At Droga5 headquarters a few weeks before the Super Bowl, this reporter suggested that if the secret were to get out early, would that really be the worst thing in the world?

“Really, it’s not,” Droga said. “If we could choose, I’d love [the secret] not to come out. But we’ve also thought, like, if it does come out, it’s still such a bold idea, and there’s always other layers to it. So even if it got out just with the first teasers, it just takes it to another level. I hope it doesn’t get out, but it doesn’t live or die by that.”

The Trojan kangaroo

Good thing that the concept didn’t depend on the ruse holding, because fans were suspicious of the film’s legitimacy pretty much from Day One.

Granted, the marketing support was there. Stars like Russell Crowe took to Twitter to gush about his role: “Was pumped to get to work on a project with Danny McBride.” There was an “exclusive first look at the mysterious project” in People’s online movie vertical. (It ran as editorial, though the magazine was in on the joke.) And of course, there was the de rigeur official website that even featured behind-the-scenes photos form location shoots.

But fans were wary, not least because this major Hollywood production didn’t happen to have an IMDb page and, uh … Oh yeah, nobody in Hollywood movie circles had heard of the project. Two days after the first trailer dropped, Scott Wampler of the popular cinema site Birth. Movies. Death. spoke for the mumbling masses when he tweeted, “There is no way in hell this is a real thing.”

That fans were leery of the project didn’t surprise McBride.

“It would be pretty hard—for a movie with that many people, involved with that property—for people not to know,” he said, adding, “but that’s what was fun about it. Even just the idea that it allowed people a chance to be like, ‘Where’d the hell did this come from? Did they do this?’ I don’t know. That’s what’s great about the Internet.”

Then, inevitably, there was the story, one that cited “industry sources,” in Australia’s Brisbane Times. The headline: “Crocodile Dundee Reboot Outed as Advertising Campaign for Tourism Australia.”

A behind-the-scenes photo from the 'movie' shoot

And that was that. Fleet-fingered aggregators and the relentless churn of the news cycle quickly made Dundee the movie into Dundee the latest big-budget marketing play set up for the Super Bowl.

To be fair, it’s hard to imagine a hoax of this scale surviving intact for 18 days (the elapsed time between the first trailer and the game) and certainly not in the era of social media. What’s more, from a marketing standpoint, the effort wasn’t a failure in any sense. Just days before the Big Game, data firm Amobee announced that, from the week of Jan. 12 to the week of the 19th, digital engagement for Dundee rose by 1,256 percent.

And was this not the goal? As Droga5 originally envisioned it, the Dundee movie, which Droga smugly refered to as his “Trojan kangaroo,” wouldn’t only generate plenty of buzz, but set the stage for Australian tourism’s second coming to American shores. The objective, he said, was never “just the Super Bowl alone. It was, like, how do we build an ecosystem?”

The problem now is that Dundee may have done just that. After fans got done grumbling that the movie wouldn’t be made, thoughts invariably turned toward the desire that it should be. Once the news of the fake film broke, one Redditer wrote, “A lot of people seem genuinely disappointed by this news and that includes myself. On paper, this is an easy concept that could potentially work well if executed properly. … Like many, I talked myself into wanting this movie.”

For better or worse, Tourism Australia saw it coming, too. “One thing we’ve been thinking a lot about,” Ronson said, “[is that] some people might be disappointed that the film’s not actually being made. There could be pressure to make another Dundee film.”

“In which case,” her colleague O’Sullivan cut in, “we look forward to receiving our royalties.”

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