The Minister for the Arts George Brandis has announced that he will allow the US Disney Corporation, the world’s second largest broadcasting and cable company, to use $21.6 million of Australian taxpayers’ money to produce Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Previously allocated to Disney for a much postponed remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the money was originally announced by Labor arts minister Tony Burke in April 2013. Should Disney now direct the money toward production of Pirates, it could comprise less than half of an estimated total Australian contribution of around $40 – $50 million — the remainder flowing to the producers from the location offset — just one of the rebates with which the Government subsidises screen production in Australia. Rebates are refundable tax offsets that include producer, location and post, digital and visual effects offsets.
Meanwhile, Screen Australia, the Australian Government’s screen funding body, has had its appropriation cut by $38 million dollars over the next four years. It has elected to accommodate this cut by reducing staff and marketing activities, capping investments and by cutting monies available to support emerging screen talent, for interactive games development and for production of Australian documentaries. However its CEO Graeme Mason says the agency will do more to help producers raise finance from Hollywood studios and other international sources.
Among those to walk the plank because of Screen Australia’s reassessed priorities are the Screen Resource Network organisations: Open Channel in Melbourne, MetroScreen in Sydney, the Film and Television Institute in Perth, Media Resources Centre in Adelaide and Wide Angle Tasmania. Collectively they will lose $1.2 to $1.5 million from the end of 2015 — all of the federal funding they previously received through Screen Australia. Currently financed by State and Federal Governments and by revenues generated from their activities, they are unlikely to survive the withdrawal of such a significant component of their budgets.
Open Channel was established in Melbourne 40 years ago. The youngest Screen Network member is Wide Angle Tasmania, created in 2004. Formerly known as Screen Resource Organisations, the Screen Network agencies are widely acknowledged for the role they play in developing talent for all levels of Australia’s screen sector. They provide on the job experience, mentoring, training and equipment to emerging filmmakers, in some instances to fill an experiential gap between film schools and the paid workforce, in others to provide access to training and production opportunities for Australians not fortunate enough to attend the Sydney based AFTRS or other of the nation’s media production courses.
They have been an entry point to the screen sector for many well known film and television identities, with an enviable track record in encouraging indigenous and female talent, those from non-English speaking backgrounds and others who’ve traditionally faced difficulties breaking into the highly networked and centralised arena of screen production. They are perhaps especially significant in states like Tasmania where there is no alternative tertiary-level production training and only a nascent “industry.” They support diverse and innovative Australian programs, and a socially inclusive and highly creative screen sector.
Despite all reassurances to the contrary from Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason (as in his June address to the Currency House Arts and Public Life Breakfast — Daily Review June 18, 2014), the decisions he and his board have taken — especially in relation to funding for developing emerging talent — threaten not only Screen Australia’s ability to meet its obligations in terms of creativity and diversity, but also its obligation to support development of a commercially sustainable industry.
In a recent review of its own Enterprise Program, Screen Australia reported that industry viewed “talent regeneration” as a key factor affecting sector viability. In response the agency announced that $1 million annually would be made available for 10-15 “early-career” writers, writer/directors and creative producers to be placed with production companies for one to two years. As yet there is no precise definition of “early career” in the guidelines for this new “Enterprise People” scheme, nor published evidence to indicate why this strategy will prove more effective than the demonstrable successes of the Screen Network which, in 2013, provided opportunities for hundreds of people to gain experience of many kinds on more than 300 separate productions.
It’s highly likely that some of the money will go to companies which have previously received funds under the earlier Enterprise Program, established in 2009 to assist screen businesses to expand. Since then a total of $19.5 million has been handed out to 29 companies (50% of them in NSW) and is reported to have been successful in increasing the consistency and profitability of their production activity.
Not so much that they don’t require ongoing subsidy it seems…
The Enterprise companies continue to be regular recipients of direct production subsidies available through Screen Australia. So do a number of foreign-owned companies that receive Screen Australia production monies in addition to substantial amounts harvested under offset schemes. Now, by offering to fund placements in those companies, Screen Australia has devised yet another way to hand over even more cash to already well-supported screen businesses.
The Australian screen sector has long been complicit in the deception that subsidy will one day not be necessary, that screen businesses funded today will grow to a point where tomorrow they will no longer require government assistance. Of course that sustainable future continually recedes, leaving the industry to argue its case for subsidy on the basis of jobs — usually short-lived — and other economic multipliers. Many of these are difficult to verify given tax secrecy laws that prevent us from knowing the exact amounts of offset monies rebated to qualifying productions, or amounts of tax paid. In addition to the multiplier effects, screen business cases largely depend on the international market appeal of Australian productions, rather than old arguments about “market failure” with which subsidy to Australia’s screen producers was once justified.
Today’s industry arguments, and the policies of the sole Federal screen funding agency, might be a better fit in the Industry portfolio, than that of Arts. Despite claims that a viable Australian screen culture depends on a viable screen industry, there seems less and less evidence that this is the case. Screen production in Australia is increasingly determined by decision makers in US, UK and European media companies, executives with little stake in developing local Australian culture, beyond the easy public money that Australia offers.
Of course not every producer agrees with the direction that Screen Australia has taken. Not every producer wants to work in the corporate/industrial model of production that the agency mandates. Some of our most notable filmmakers continue to produce great (and usually less expensive) work in smaller companies and ensembles; the “cottage industry” and artisanal style arrangements that once characterised the Australian screen sector. Many are still concerned that our talent pool should remain diverse, that creative men and women from all kinds of social and cultural backgrounds, from all parts of the country, have opportunities to participate in Australia’s screen culture. To this end some of our most experienced film and television makers freely give their time and knowledge to screen network organisations to mentor and support talented folk who wish to enter the screen sector.
But with the rise of heavily subsidised screen businesses the remaining small producers might also soon be walking the plank. Some have a not unreasonable fear of being metaphorically keel hauled should they speak out in opposition to Screen Australia policy. Since 2008, when three federal agencies were merged to form Screen Australia, it has been the sole agency making subsidy decisions.Practitioners fear for the future of their own projects should they go public with their objections to Screen Australia policies and practices.
So, if Disney decides to film in Australia, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 will get our money, and screen businesses will take more and more of Screen Australia’s limited resources using a variety of “sustainability” pretexts. This latest, “Enterprise People”, will see profit-focussed companies take on the responsibility of talent development despite the fact that they’re not in the best position to take risks, encourage experiment or permit failures. They will be given this responsibility –critical to the future of a diverse and innovative screen sector — even though the majority of such companies are based in Sydney, most work principally in “old media” and some are not Australian owned. Meanwhile decades of training expertise, goodwill and public investment will be lost when Screen Network organisations lose funding.
The Minister for the Arts professes great concern about piracy when it involves individual Australians illegally downloading content. If only he were similarly concerned about the Disney pirates and their ilk, and about media businesses rapidly plundering what remains of Screen Australia funds once allocated to supporting a creative, diverse Australian culture.