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Film funding: Just who will be walking the plank?

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 5Previously 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.

Also read Adelaide raises alarm over threat to emerging filmmakers 

21 responses to “Film funding: Just who will be walking the plank?

  1. Sharon Connolly quite rightly challenges the current funding arrangements. Gifting Disney money for a one-off production only creates short term employment. And at the same time the Coalition has withdrawn support to local car manufacturing, a policy I support, it is giving money to Hollywood studios to shoot in Australia. At least the car industry generated secure long term employment and heavy investment in infrastructure. Disney like all the studios trawls the world looking for subsidy and we are stupid enough to give it to them, no strings attached.

    Subsidy for Australian films was an initiative of the Gorton government over 30 years ago and was intended to be a cultural subsidy to allow Australians to make and watch their own feature films, dramas and documentaries. It was never envisaged as a manufacturing subsidy. What the current bureaucrats have done with a Coalition government is to try to wrap it in the hyperbole of economic development and sustainability. This is and will always be nonsense. But it has got far worse. It has redefined what an Australian film is so for the first time we see Australian taxpayers subsidising an American classic novel, The Great Gatsby and Leonardo de Caprio being nominated for an AACTA award for best actor in an Australian film. For those veteran filmmakers who fought hard to persuade Australian governments of both political persuasions to support Australian stories this was the low point for the industry. We now have a system where we don’t even know how much taxpayers money is going into these productions because it is commercial in confidence through the tax office rebate. To change it requires government legislation. To reduce Screen Australia’s funding for real Australian stories can be done without legislative change, just by a stroke of a pen before each Budget night.

    It is about time there was an independent review into Federal subsidy of film and television and to ask just what is the policy basis for it. The conclusion likely to be reached is that Australia cannot afford a race to the bottom to subsidise Hollywood with short term benefits but can afford to spend far less money to support a small, cottage industry that tells Australian stories some of which occasionally break out and help define a culturally diverse Australia, a country which can produce Crocodile Dundee, Man From Snowy River, Strictly Ballroom, Priscilla, Lantana and most recently Charlie’s Country and many fine television mini-series and documentaries. And which can also afford to provide very minimal financial support to community, non profit screen training organisations. It is a back to the future plan, philosophically focussed, sensible and cost saving.

  2. The same thing has happened here in Florida, USA. The state legislature decided to give their meager incentive money to features rather than television shows. So there is a nonsense “blink and you’ll miss it” scene in Iron Man Three that was partially shot in Miami and Palm Beach but we lost 3 TV shows all at the same time: Burn Notice (which was probably ending anyway). The Glades (which final episode had its best ratings) and Magic City which didn’t have great ratings, but I feel the Starz network would have kept it on if there were incentives for television.

    TV series have longer lasting jobs over several months. Iron Man Three was probably shot in two weeks.

  3. We need it all, we need local stories for local and international audiences, we need big budget movies to spread the work around and obtain credits, we need foreign money to fund “even if subsidised” productions to go further as an industry. I have heard many an Australian filmie from actor to sound engeneer etc say the Australian industry has been down for so long. AUD was extrordinarily high for some years during the GFC and has now lowered, lets take what we can from the past and go forward. Would we benefit if Pirates 5 went to New Zealand, Malaysia or Singapore, come on everybody, look on the bright side of life. Times are changing especially with short films and IPTV etc, we are aussies and can adapt to anything like our past generations to leave something for future generations regarding culture in this multicultural society we live in now.

    1. We only need local stories if there is a market for them. In most cases, Australians aren’t interested in “Australian” stories (other than TV and the odd movie exception). Its time for filmmakers to get real. Sorry, but I don’t see the point of funding something that people don’t want to watch. Filmmakers need to stop being self-indulgent. Make content that people want to watch and then you will get investment – because there is a market for it and you can become commercially successful.

      1. True in one sense but we are the only ones who will make Australian stories. TV and movies are high risk and most don’t rate or get enough money back to make a profit. This isn’t just in Australia but everywhere from Hollywood down. The producer offset was meant to encourage Australian productions and in a sense having a Disney movie here is good for a short term employment hit but Disney won’t leave anything long term here and the latest Pirate movie is hardly an Australian story!! If we are going to use government money to encourage any Australian business then it must create long term viability. The real estate industry has been sustained by negitive gearing for example over many years and the cost to the tax payer is billions!! Until the ping pong movie industry game between the Labor and LNP stops nothing much will change!!!

  4. If I read this right, the money was allocated under Labor and is being used by the producers for an alternative production. Did the same howls of outrage take place when Labor allocated the original sum – or is this another tedious Lib bashing session? As a producer, I think the most frustrating thing about funding has been the boys network where the funding always goes to the same old people. Emerging producers don’t get the funding anyway so its hard for us to feel sorry for the old establishment. I’m disappointed about the flow-on effects, especially for young people, and I’m not convinced its the right strategy either, I think a better strategy would be for Screen Australia to only fund films with an international audience so the industry stood on its own feet, instead of relying on Government handouts the whole time.

    1. trouble is you don;t find out who the audience actually is until after it has been distributed. Till then its guesswork. Its best if the funding bodies take a hands off approach and just fund Australian projects.

    2. Fiona, I take the point re the establishment, which unfortunately operates still in too many areas in Oz. However, I did not sense the MetroScreen meeting about the cuts in Sydney was a Lib bashing exercise nor a Screen Australia bashing; it was trying to explore viable solutions. Two questions: Are there any developed countries where above and below-line ‘support’ for film is totally absent? Regarding international audiences, would your strategy be via film festivals or direct marketing, or both?

      1. Hi Jan,
        My comment regarding Lib bashing is due to the wording of the article above, not a meeting in Sydney (which I didn’t attend anyway). My point was, the money was already allocated, so a promise of funding already made by Labor. If Disney shifts around the deckchairs, why blame the Libs? It’s just dumb IMHO. Onto my second point, and I will probably get howled down here for being politically incorrect, but Screen Australia helped fund the Ivan Milat story. And the Snowtown bodies in the barrel film. Here’s just two examples and why were these ever funded? Neither of these productions will export overseas. What overseas audience wants to pay for South Australian bodies in a barrel, for example, when they can laugh at a rom com or be amazed by some Marvel superhero? Nobody I know in Australia paid for a movie ticket to see Snowtown, so why would an international market want to fork out for it? I know I’m cherry-picking examples, but the principle remains the same, projects are funded that have no hope of being exported successfully, they have no hope of recovering investment, and a bit of common sense will tell you as much. In my opinion, its better to fund projects that have a commercial wide-ranging appeal, therefore get the whole industry working and self-financing itself through market demand, and then you have the luxury of being able to invest in cultural projects. Its no different to top end directors and actors that do independent projects for the love of it. They have established their commercial credentials first. Australia needs to do it – and Australia of all countries can, it just chooses not to. In terms of distribution, its a demand driven business. Make something that consumers want and it will be bought. Again, it comes back to the type of content Australia produces and whether it focuses on commercially-appealing projects or “arthouse”.

        1. Fiona – whilst your comments about the Snowtown film etc are not politically incorrect, they are factually so. Snowtown was actually ‘exported successfully’, gaining a small but significant theatrical release here in the UK, as well as in the US and other territories. The theatrical box office might have been small (although it was the highest grossing non-mainstream release in UK cinemas during its first week), but I can guarantee that it is precisely the sort of film that sells well on DVD/VOD, figures for which are very rarely taken into account by people trying to ascertain a film’s ‘value’.

          As for your suggestion that ‘its better to fund projects that have a commercial wide-ranging appeal’, if you can find a magic formula to do so, I know several US studios who will give you a job in an instant. The simple fact is that – the realities of industrial monopolies and biases aside – film production remains something of a gamble. Many films that fit your rather vague definition (after all, what is ‘commercial wide-ranging appeal’) do get made in Australia, and often sink quicker (and leave even less of a trace) than films such as Snowtown.

          It’s also worth mentioning that Snowtown made over $1m at the Australian box office (a significant achievement for any locally-produced film these days), so someone must have gone to see it.

  5. I am a long term media professional and I have produced several feature films.
    The writing has been on the wall for some time for filmmakers.
    This is why I have been involved in the creation of Flick Funds.
    It is to help connect projects with our base of investors who are after specific genre films in all genres.
    Have a look at
    We want to help you create your dreams in film.

  6. Let’s stick to Sharon’s point on cuts to Screen Australia which has had knock-on effects to other parts of the industry including the emerging sector support organisations which often act as a bridge between tertiary courses and the screen sector, ie making short films where they learn how to manage the team, creative multi-media stories etc. Crucial stuff. I venture to say that people who do practical courses at these community-level organisations do not all go directly into the film/tv sectors but also into the wider education sector, to name one beneficiary.

  7. In order for this to be a balanced and informative article, please could you include details on how much of the Australian government subsidy to Disney will be spent in Australia on Australian film crews and filmmaking resources (I’ll give you a hand – ALL OF IT) and how much OVER AND ABOVE that the US studio will be spending here on Australian crews and resources (I’ll give you a hand – lots). Australian film crews and facilities need these big movies in order for us to have a viable and varied film sector. We will only secure them if we are able to offer competitive incentives. The multiplier effect means they pay for themselves several times over.

    1. heres a wild idea – why not crew and resource Australian films instead with much bigger multiplier effects. Sure crew can’t boast they have Matrix etc on their resume as they try and get jobs in hollywood.

      Why on earth would Disney be shooting in Oz with the very high $A unless they were getting a big handout.

  8. Nice article, I liked the part where you assessed the commercial viability of recent Austrlian-made films (eg. These Final Hours).

    Oh wait…

  9. Hear hear.
    Pity the film bodies only supported their politically correct mates and and not truely alternative filmmakers who actually pushed the envelope.
    The disappearance of a swag of producers whose main skill was filling out film funding body forms will not be missed.
    Bring back 10BA so the real Australian film entrepreneurs can get out there raising finance and making films that the general public will actually bother to see.
    An industry that makes conservative progressive films only a tiny percentage of the local population wants to see was always an emperor pretending to have clothes.

    I am not advocating the transferral of funds to American mega corporations though.
    Surely Australia pays enough protection money to the USA through one-sided trade agreements, overpriced half-working military hardware, sycophantic UN votes and sacrificing grunts in dead-end foreign jaunts?




  11. I wrote the following in 1982 about “The Pirate Movie”. Not much has changed, alas:
    The Report of the Interim Board of the Australian Film Commission is quite clear about this:
    Australia, as a nation, cannot accept, in this powerful and persuasive medium, the current flood of other nations’ productions on our screens without it constituting a very serious threat to our national identity.

    The Commission should actively encourage the making of those films of high artistic or conceptual value which may or may not be regarded at the time as conforming to the current criteria of genre, style or taste, but which have cultural, artistic or social relevance.

    Some may not become commercially successful ventures, but these may include films which posterity will regard as some of the most significant films made by and for Australians.

    Profit and entertainment on the one hand and artistic standards and integrity on the other, are not mutually exclusive. In the long term the establishment of a quality Australian output is more important for a profitable, soundly based industry that the production exclusively as what might be regarded as sure fire box office formula hits.

    Over the years this guiding philosophy has been eroded by one that gauges a film’s success primarily in terms of box-office receipts. This has led, quite logically, to a belief that we must make our films for an international market. David Joseph, one of the prophets of the new age of Australian filmmaking, is not alone when he says of THE PIRATE MOVIE (which he produced):

    ‘A truly international film is a film that you look at and wouldn’t know where it was made. When you see (THE PIRATE MOVIE) you wouldn’t know apart from the last credits that it was made in Australia…We’ve got all the talent that’s necessary to make good films Now we’ve got to start thinking about what the rest of the world wants and not be so involved in what Australian audiences want to see and we’ll be in the film business.’

    It is not necessary to resort to arguments which might be considered parochial or narrow-mindedly chauvinistic to discredit this philosophy; it simply doesn’t make economic sense. Mid-Atlantic, ersatz Hollywood and essentially non-Australian films such as THE PIRATE MOVIE have had less box-office success overseas than films considered to be distinctively Australian. Unfortunately this has done little to undermine the belief in some sectors of the industry that we should ‘internationalize’ our films.

    Why is it important that Australia have a film industry? Which is the operative word – ‘industry’ or ‘Australian’? Is the industry’s function merely to provide steady work for writers, producers, directors, actors and technicians or should it serve the development of an indigenous Australian culture?

    The problem with the word ‘industry’ is that it leads others (and ourselves) to have expectations of Australian films that are not (with a few exceptions) being met – namely that they yield a profit to their investors. The industry runs at a loss each year and there is little likelihood that this will change. Australian taxpayers are not just investing in another industry; one that will, in time, be self-supporting. They are investing in that difficult to define entity – Australian culture – the dividends of which may not be immediately apparent but which will be appreciated by future generations. We do not speak in terms of opera, ballet, literature or arts industries or insist that our art galleries yield profits because we recognize that these activities are, in some way, important to the life of a nation. So it should be with government subsidized film and television.

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