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SPAA 2008 – LET'S LIFT OUR GAME: GINNANE

We’ve been making, in the main, dark, depressing, bleak pieces that are the cultural equivalent of ethnic cleansing. Nobody goes to see them. If they premiered most of the Australian films of the last 24 months on an airplane, people would be walking out in the first 20 minutes, quipped veteran producer Antony I. Ginnane to 700 of his filmmaking peers at the annual screen production conference on the Gold Coast (Nov. 12 – 14, 2008). Here is his inaugural speech as President of the Screen Producers Association of Australia in full.

Twenty two years ago at a mountain resort conference center at Thredbo, halfway between Melbourne and Sydney, before approximately 100 delegates, then SPAA President Ross Dimsey opened SPAA’s first conference. “Take One” we called it.

Some producers here today, myself included, were at that historic event, and some media and bureaucrats. We all just look a little older.

That first conference took place during a time of significant change in film and TV industry financing models. The industry was moving, or being pushed with some reluctance, from its prior reliance on tax-based subsidy via Division 10BA into a direct finance subsidy model initially dubbed the “film bank”. It became the FFC and that model of direct subsidy introduced in 1989 (tweaked from time to time) survived through June 30th this year.

Change is always challenging

Now, once again, we are in the midst of another major change in the audio visual financing landscape. Change is always challenging and for some people it’s scary. There are some who won’t accept it. There are some who can’t accept it, but most producers are visionaries and I know they will embrace these changes and work with them.

We remain grateful for the extraordinary and bipartisan support for our industry over 40 years by the governments in power, and the oppositions. They know, as we do, that there is no more powerful medium for cultural expression than the film and television industries and, if content is well chosen and marketed, a more potentially profitable domestic and export industry.

But we are heading into a new era and the “offset” is the word on everybody’s lips; closely followed by “Screen Australia”.

At SPAA we believe the offset is a magnificent opportunity for us. It can move the power center in the industry from government bureaucracies to producers. But its introduction comes in the midst of an economic climate that’s the toughest since the depression. International banks are pulling out of the film sector left and right, while we are gamely trying to introduce banks and financial intermediaries to the offset to enable it to become an integrated part of the new funding process.

We have to make it work and I believe we can

In my lifetime there have been three different subsidy models supporting our industry. The offset is the fourth. We have to make it work and I believe we can; but it will take some adjustments on our part and some adjustments to the offset.

On our part, while we recognize the industry is a big tent with many participants with a range of views and that catholicity of taste is to be encouraged, we also have to recognize that the feature film side of our industry has for some years now almost completely failed to connect with, and find, an audience. This must change.

We cannot continue to simply expect $100 million plus worth of support a year to be handed over by government if our share of the theatrical box office remains an appallingly low 2% - 3%. Yes, there’s DVD and TV and the internet – but all these media are still driven by theatrical results. I’m a big supporter of the direct to DVD model and TV movies also, but they alone do not make an industry; nor do they alone create a profile, a buzz and an expectation of entertainment.

Right now the mainstream multiplex audiences have had too many bad experiences with Australian films: “Happy Feet”, “Moulin Rouge”, “The Dish” and “Wog Boy” notwithstanding – some of the very few that did Australian theatrical box office over $10 million. Most films lose money as you work down the food chain; that’s why subsidy of one form or another has been a given in almost every jurisdiction. But our feature film industry has of late been spectacularly unsuccessful.

As producers we have to present a regular and consistent diet of entertaining and provocative materials to cinema goers – both multiplex and specialty – because, even if you are of the persuasion (I am not) that believes we can maybe only make Anglo European art house titles and not mainstream pictures, we aren’t turning out “The Counterfeiters” or “Mongol” or “Juno” either.

the cultural equivalent of ethnic cleansing

We’ve been making, in the main, dark, depressing, bleak pieces that are the cultural equivalent of ethnic cleansing. Nobody goes to see them. If they premiered most of the Australian films of the last 24 months on an airplane people would be walking out in the first 20 minutes – and that’s not good.

However there are signs that producers are getting the message. Young emergent feature film producers and some seasoned campaigners, do want to connect with audiences. If we do not, I believe we may be in for a shock in coming years. We have an ageing population and the global recession will increase the demand for social services. Film subsidies will be increasingly in the political line of fire.

Three weeks ago, as a judge in SPAA’s digital feature film project DigiSPAA, I watched 19 Australian and 3 NZ feature movies made without a penny of government subsidy. Some were dark, but many were extraordinary, exhilarating, visceral and audience friendly. One of the titles cost $1 million; many of the others didn’t even cost $100,000.

These mavericks get the offset and will use it – more will if SPAA is successful in its initiative to reduce the entry level for offset utilization from $1 million (a completely arbitrary figure) to, say, $500,000.

vibrant export industry in children’s TV and animation

The TV sector of our industry is to be congratulated. It is punching well above its weight in both the free and pay TV segments forcing non triple “A” US and UK product out of prime and access prime and on free TV repeatedly grabbing 1-2 million viewers (or more) with consistent regularity.

Well done to “Underbelly”, “Australian Idol”, “Packed to the Rafters” and “The Circuit” on free TV and “Satisfaction” and “Chandon Pictures” on Pay.

Moreover we have created a vibrant export industry in children’s TV and animation.

To go back to the offset and its application to features and documentaries. Not only do we have to change our theatrical mind set, but components of the offset need ‘tweaking’.

I’m happy to report that the Screen Australia executives interfacing with SPAA have been open, helpful and collaborative. Their ears are open.

there’s the ATO. They’ve been the industry’s best friend (NOT!)

Firstly we need to figure out a mechanism to get the offset easily and affordably discounted. It’s a bad time for banks and they’re getting all kinds of help already. SPAA is suggesting Screen Australia provide an underwriting facility to commercial lenders against any shortfall or default on the offset (A pretty unlikely scenario. Fraud aside there’s never been a Canadian default under their similar arrangements.).

Secondly there’s the ATO. They’ve been the industry’s best friend (NOT!) over 40 years and now we need their help again. Right now the acquittal of the offset is calibrated on a financial year (June 30th) 12 month basis. Great if you get your final certificate in May. Lousy if you get it in July. Many of us remember the negative effects of bunching post production under 10BA. We don’t need this again and we don’t need additional costs that don’t go on screen.

The UK IRD acquits quarterly. We have to convince the ATO to handle the offset similarly. SPAA is leading the charge here. We need non partisan political support on this one.

Screen Australia needs to look at exhibition

The initial draft guidelines are out and SPAA is broadly comfortable. There are some issues to address and individual members have particular biases against some of the proposed changes and eligibility criteria and the restructuring that is taking place. But the outsourcing of programs and the new EIS scheme will empower producers and, properly handled, give us a shot at the “sustainable businesses” Minister Garrett is focused on.

One caveat with regard to the guidelines and their implementation: we should not rush or be rushed. Timelines are being set and we endorse them but as I speak, we don’t know the splits and allocations that Screen Australia proposes to make between production, development, marketing and cultural support. (I have suggested a 30, 30, 30, 10 split) Until we do, we can’t totally sign off on what is proposed.

Also we have to see the detail on marketing and distribution involvement and assistance. The first draft of the Guidelines is silent on this and it’s vitally important.

I’ve long argued that one of the major impediments to 10BA being more successful than it was, was the concept of “non deductibles” which penalized marketing and sales components of budgets and that philosophy continued into the FFC regime.

In their glory days in the 1970s both the then AFDC and the NSWFC treated marketing as importantly as production and development. Alan Wardrope at the AFDC, as head of marketing, had equal stature with John Daniel, their production head and at the NSWFC their US-based marketing heads (Sam Gelfman and others) were integral to production selection.

The integration to a greater or lesser degree of production and distribution may be the only way for our films to learn how to click with Australian theatrical audiences as happened in the 1970s when Tim Burstall and Alan Finney at Hexagon partnered with Village Roadshow; David Hannay and Brian Trenchard-Smith co-partnered with John Fraser and Greater Union and I did the same with Robert Ward and Filmways. There were exhibition links, too, in each case and today, with the changeover to digital in the wings, Screen Australia needs to look at exhibition and continue and upgrade the AFC’s good work in bringing ‘E’ and ‘D’ cinema to rural Australia and small communities.

We have to begin to learn how to make films of scope and vision with a global cosmopolitan scale. We need to build aggregated corporate structures to enable a real sustainable industry to thrive. The cottage industry/suitcase producer model has failed. We need to build an export business that can utilize the incredible talents of our actors, producers and directors who already enthrall worldwide audiences in US-backed motion pictures and who can, and want, to do the same for us if we give them the material, the resources and distribution muscle.

The new CEO of Screen Australia, Dr. Ruth Harley, takes office on November 17. SPAA welcomes her on behalf of the industry. I have known her for a decade as Head of the NZFC. She’s intelligent, collaborative, knows her stuff and has done much to advance the cause of film and TV in NZ. Now she’s on our team.

SPAA will continue to engage with Screen Australia and there’ll be back and forth and sometimes we won’t always agree; but we need each other to make our industry strong.

Documentary

Our documentary members focus on the big and small issues pertaining to the heart of this nation and recent productions like “Rampage”, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, “Monash the Forgotten Anzac” and “Two in the Top End” have achieved stellar results, so its fantastic news that the new regime passes this responsibility out of the hands of government structures and into the hands of credentialed, resourced producers.

The documentary division of SPAA has always been provocative, controversial and unafraid to speak its mind. I’m happy to say many of our doco members feel enthusiastic about the future.

In the service sector the location offset has been reinvigorated by the fall of the US dollar and we can expect confirmed growth in inward production activity. The PDV offset continues to be of value to our members and Omnilab, Animal Logic and others are blazing trails in the digital production area. These businesses are on the move.

Over the next two days we’re going to be given the opportunity to hear from senior practitioners both local and international with up to the minute insight into aspects of where we may be able to go both commercially and creatively in this new world.

Published November 20, 2008
 

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Antony I. Ginnane, President of the Screen Producers Association of Australia

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