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OZIWOOD - PART TWO

YELLOW BRICK ROAD (18 ct) OR DOOMSDAY SCENARIO?
Hunter Cordaiy takes stock of his prophesy, made in these pages a year ago, and continues to debate the risk of the Australian film industry morphing with Hollywood. Editor Andrew L. Urban joins in….

The Australian movie industry is fast becoming a combination of ‘ours’ and Hollywood .... Oziwood. The resonances of this concept are beginning to be considered in public, and I suspect in private some are already benefiting whilst others are wondering how they can find their place and earn a living in the new conglomerate. A year ago this magazine published Welcome To Oziwood, an article which may have been seen as a warning - or a far-sighted piece on the future directionof the local industry.

Is it good to be prophetic? Whilst it might be momentarily flattering to have predicted what comes true, there is a mixed blessing in being able to see over the horizon. Who, for instance, wants to be the bringer of bad news a year in advance?

No matter which way you look at it (and there is no consensus here about what is happening to our film industry, especially concerning the cultural implications of our progress), the article needs to be re-assessed in the light of recent developments. The article pointed to three facets of the industry which suggested a future direction - the star system, awards, and the influence of special effects and studios on local production and film styles.

A few weeks ago (in early November 1998) in the week of the AFI Awards, George Lucas announces the next two Star Wars will be made at Fox studios, Sydney, making theOziwood prophecy come true. I never imagined when writing the article that a series as prestigious and profitable as Star Wars would be made here so early in our merger with Hollywood - my caution took me to imagine some sort of Battleship Galactica versus Superman TV spinoff rather than the commercial power of an Industrial Light & Magic production. Now, in order to move the Oziwood debate forwards I would like to suggest that the range of opinions be gathered into two basic 'corners' - those who support the latest direction as a form of prosperous yellow brick road, and those who see it as a doomsday scenario, bereft of any cultural value except profit.

The Third Way, a popular phrase in current Australian political circles, would say that accommodations can be reached between these two positions and a sense of inevitability will be offset by safeguards in cultural policy.

But the Third Way will quickly become irrelevant as commercial realities fuel the roller-coaster of production. The days of innocence are over and what we have instead is a clearer division between industry and culture than ever before - the dollars are ringing loud and clear and whoever doesnot dance to their tune will be marginalised. That applies to critics as much as industry professionals actually making 'product'.

The Alamo of cultural principle is fast approaching. What will we do? How will we handle the inevitable clash between national cultural needs and a profitable industry?

The yellow brick road position says that whatever happens is good as long as it makes us all money - the overt commercialisation and Americanisation of our film industry is natural, inevitable, and profitable for us. It will bring training, work, prestige, and a viable industry.

The associated developments will be also beneficial - an Awards ceremony that looks and sounds like a 30 fps version of the Oscars (no need to extend the audience’s expectations of a prize by showing clip of the contenders) and the emphasis on films which 'travel' in the American market.The doomsday scenarists would say that whilst all the above is true the problem is that the wages stay in Sydney but the profits go to Los Angeles.

What we get out of two Star Wars features is a trained workforce of Star Wars film technicians who do not own or profit from the production. No royalties flow into our local banks from Star Wars. Australia, in cultural terms, becomes a colony once more.

The other problem is that with studio and technical assets being so booked, local productions might be locked out and forced towards more primitive and essentially non-commercial (in box office terms) techniques in order to get anything made and on the screen. The present situation has brought the industry to an obvious crossroads where the natural maturation of an industry, on the one side, inadvertently or deliberately creates the colonisation of the industry at the same time. The tension is explosive. If films like Dark City and the Star Wars sequels become the dominant style of Australian film production, what room will there be for the smaller quirky films which have established our reputation so effectively over the last 20 years?

The once important notions of a cultural integrity, and a national voice are in danger of being subsumed by the overwhelming attraction of the Hollywood version of success and profitability.Is there no other way? Is there no other model for a film industry worth considering even on a minor scale - is there no previous experience from other industries which we could consider as we develop our own film industry in this new direction? What, for instance, can we learn from Japan,Canada, France, Italy, or India? How do these countries structure the balance between national cultural interest and profit, between indigenous production and servicing other cultures?

The cultural debate between the continuing search for national identity and the effects of globalisation on our culture will be stormy, especially when the signs of our merger with Hollywood become obvious. In the present climate commercial values are overtaking cultural value at an alarming rate, and the film industry is the litmus test for the resulting change. Oziwood might become a comfortable illusion which replaces real meaning and genuine ideas if we surrender idealism solely to profit.

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A READER'S RESPONSE

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EDITOR ANDREW L. URBAN COMMENTS:
To avoid being morphed out of all recognition by Hollywood, the Australian film industry needs to operate on several levels. The big budget, studio pictures like George Lucas’ Star Wars, enlarge the business and the larger the business, the larger the fringe – or smaller scope projects.

They also deliver the benefits outlined in Hunter’s article. (As for the profits, no we don’t get them, but then profits are the rewards for risk; if we are not the investors, we are not the profiteers. There is nothing unusual about that.)

The Government supported filmmaking activity, from low budget (Million Dollar Movies) to mid and high-mid budget films (Passion, In A Savage Land, Paperback Hero) continues to meet cultural - and even commercial objectives, although the latter is somewhat harder to attain then the former. There is no evidence that the large budget, Hollywood funded projects will somehow squash these films. At the production conference in November, Australian producers confirmed they had no trouble crewing their projects even while major offshore productions were in full swing this year (Babe: Pig in the City, The Thin Red Line, Pitch Black and The Matrix, among them). There is quite a crowd of foreign distributors queuing up to take on Australian feature films for international sales, from Miramax and Goldwyn, to PolyGram and New Line, Scanbox and Sovereign. Local distributors like Beyond and Southern Star are also operating in the market. All the best ones say explicitly that it is the Australian, culture-specific films that have the greatest promise. This is where the national identity issue is answered.

The third level is the so called guerilla movement, recognised at the production conference by the creation of a special membership division. These low budget filmmakers are now an accepted part of the business, making movies for as little as $40,000 cash (Occasional Coarse Language) – and a whole heap of determination. There were 18 made in the past two years, all without the usual Government funding. They are all uniquely Australian.

The only problem is getting them into the marketplace. And this is the real challenge – not the making of Australian films, but the distribution of them.

Any ideas? Suggestions? Comments?

WRITE RIGHT HERE

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