The Australian filmmaking community has worn the label of 'industry' for almost three
decades now, a convenient but hardly accurate description. It would like to become an
industry and Australians would like to see it work as industry , but it is a cottage film
industry. Australian filmmaking is seen as a vital part of our cultural activity, a
necessary outlet for 'telling our own stories with our own voices'. This is the crucial
motivating force -and is perceived as perhaps being at odds with the reality of turning
filmmaking into an industry. It need not be - as I suggest later.
"ensure the project is fair dinkum, true blue
The mainstream activity of film production (see note at left) is largely possible
through Government (taxpayer) sourced finance. This is provided under certain provisos
that ensure the project is fair dinkum, true blue Aussie. Fair enough in theory, no doubt.
But confusingly enough, for Government funding to be unlocked Australian film producers
are also required to find a commercial distributor willing to pay for distribution rights
for the film at script stage. The prime objective of this device is to make sure the
script has enough commercial potential (in the opinion of market operators) and that the
film gets distributed in the commercial marketplace. And already we can see the internal
conflict of motives and policy: on the one hand, Government supports Australian
'culture-driven' filmmaking, for the national good. On the other, it seeks to make these
investment decisions based on profit-driven market decisions.
This confusion in public policy is easily explained and forgiven - but it remains a
burdensome hinderance to the future of Australian filmmaking. It is explained by the
historical fact that Government support is essential for some sort of filmmaking activity
to proceed in Australia.
This brutal fact has never been questioned by anyone, not even in the least informed
corner of politics. It is forgiven because it has evolved into what it is through the
growth and expansion of our abilities and interest in producing feature films since the 70s.
It is not only the policy itself that is confused: so is much of the media and the
"commercial failures invariably shake the faith"
The notions of a film industry and a film culture are confused and overlaid on each
other: we (Australian society) assess the success of our film output on commercial terms,
like the Americans. How many bums on seats? How much did it take? How many countries
bought rights to it? And we also respond to international festival attention, although
(unless it's at Cannes or Sundance) to a much lesser extent. As for Canberra (pollies and
the mandarins in Finance) the confusion is even greater: there is enormous lip service
paid to the cultural worth of films, yet commercial failures invariably shake the faith.
Indeed, there has been no public debate on what the criteria should be for ongoing
funding other than the perceived success of the so called industry in a vague, warm and
Is there a cultural commissar to check the cultural value of our yearly output of
films? On what basis should we assess what is acceptable as an Australian story? Should we
try - or should we let Australian filmmakers decide? In other words, should our filmmakers
be restricted to stories set in Australia or about Australians? Should they still be
restricted to using Australian cast and crew? Should they be supported on a scale relative
to their films' box office track record? Or on the perceived 'cultural' value of their
Should we impose limitations on the genre and themes of films to be made? Are action,
adventure, thriller, horror, noir or erotic films not 'cultural' enough? How should
expatriate Australian filmmakers be treated when making films in Australia?
The problem of a confused policy on the subject is the result of well meaning decisions
to weld the cultural imperatives to commercial demands. And while there is a lack of
cultural assessment, there is a real commercial one. In order to justify risking
taxpayers' money, we have asked for some basic insurance that these culturally valued
films have some commercial viability. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it. But the result has
been underwhelming as a device to maintain a genuine industry. What has resulted is a
horse with two heads - one at each end. It won't fly.
"ignores the realities"
The existing funding structure has imposed limited budgets (currently in the range of
around $2 -$5 million per film) and restrictions on content (it has to have an
"Australian" certificate). Other restrictions to qualify for funding include use
of local crew. While this is politically rational and arguably comfortable, it ignores the
realities of filmmaking as a business. These restrictions and limitations do not, for
example, encourage our most successful filmmakers and actors to continue to work in
Although generous by world standards, present levels of Government subsidy are not
enough to make ours a film industry - it is the kindergarten for a grown up industry,
perhaps, with nowhere enough financial rewards for those in the production process, from
writers to producers and directors (and others). It is, moreover, limited by political
realities: Canberra daren't increase funding precisely because it is seen as a 'cultural'
expense, not as hard nosed industry-building. (As we can see, the television industry has
fared better on local content production (mixed with imports), because it enjoys a
different commercial structure. It has ad revenues as well as subsidies.)
In Australia's corridors of power (and elsewhere), filmmaking is seen 'merely as art'
rather than as art in commerce: big problem. This perception has helped restrict the
revenues that the filmmaking community receives for its work. Government doesn't want to
be seen rewarding filmmakers with market-level incomes, thus ignoring the reality of
business. The public is uninformed on these issues, due to a lack of public debate. (And
some say that public debate will always be stifled because the industry participants don't
want to rock the shaky boat of Government subsidy.) There are several successful tv
production companies, but very few film producing ones. George Miller's Kennedy Miller
operation is one (perhaps the only one) which has forged a real and profitable business
out of film production in Australia, and has done so without 'selling out' or
'internationalisation' or Americanisation of its productions. It can be done, but it
requires a valid business model as well as talent, hard work -and good scripts. KM is
profitable enough to spend money on script development; that's like mining companies
spending money on mineral exploration.
Australian budget limitations (partly due to fear of failure, partly to insufficient
funds to cater for larger budgets) impose a sort of penalty on those who can command their
real market value in the real industry in Los Angeles or elsewhere. The shooting budgets
are also too skimpy to provide the fat necessary to entice lengthy script development, and
script development is the essential oil that will light up a screenplay sufficiently to
attract the best talent. Nor is there a studio system which develops scripts. Nor is there
enough recognition (in cash or in kudos) for writers and producers; their role in the
filmmaking process is largely underestimated in a culture that has deified the director to
the exclusion of all others.
The other factor that influences talent is the ability to work with the world's leading
cast and crew, which Australia's policies largely deny them. (That's perhaps one of the
unsung benefits of Fox Studios in Sydney hosting major productions, enabling Australian
crew and cast to work with a range of international players -including writers and
producers, great and not so great. It all helps.) If we want Scott Hicks, Phil Noyce,
Bruce Beresford, John Seale, Dean Semler, Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and
Russell Crowe to lend their talents to Australian projects, this issue will also need to
[Note: Fox has ensured that Baz Luhramnn's next project, Moulin Rouge, is made in
Australia by financing it and hosting the shoot at the studios. There is no Government
subsidy and Baz is free to hire whom he likes for cast and crew. There are English (Ewan
McGregor, Jim Broadbent) as well as American (John Leguizamo) actors alongside the
Australians (Nicole Kidman, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham). One wonders whether this
project, a mainstream musical, may have been considered too commercial for Government
funding: such is the confusion over funding objectives viz an Australian film 'industry'.]
"infrequent commercial successes"
Yet, for all the circumscribed nature of the funding available, filmmakers still live
in fear of funding cuts, which may be triggered by either too much success or not enough.
The infrequent commercial successes have become the mantra for filmmakers to chant at
Canberra: Priscilla, Muriel, Strictly. ...Surely these successes show that it's worth
investing in this cultural activity, the filmmakers suggest. And while everyone applauds
their commercial success and their cultural value, there is scant recognition for films on
purely cultural grounds, which did not achieve commercial success as well; (perhaps that's
because very few people get to see them. ) If Australian society wants Government funding
provided only for cultural reasons, perhaps it should consider un-hitching the commercial
requirement from the funding mechanism. It hasn't helped ensure commercial success for the
majority of projects thus funded.
Alternatively, we should build a funding model -still using Government funds, but in
tandem with the private sector - which is designed to create a miniature film industry.
Like any other manufacturing industry, it should be complete with full marketing and
export plans. This might require imaginative modeling and lateral thinking, but
Australians excel at that - that's their famous 'can do' attitude that identifies them
around the world in all sorts of endeavours, filmmaking being one. Just ask in Hollywood.
It will require a brand new approach to Government assistance, one that is less driven
by cultural imperatives and more by business objectives. It is not an easy task.
"creative and marketing energy"
In the developed West, America alone has managed to build a film industry, recouping
its manufacturing and distribution costs at home, effectively earning its profits in
exports, which now represent over 50% of total box office revenues for American films (as
a whole). And - after 80 years or so - it is still an industry that needs every ounce of
creative and marketing energy to keep it afloat, and the deep pockets of private sector
investors who seek blue sky profits. Industry wisdom has it that only one of seven studio
films make a profit.
It is pretty clear that there is not room for more than one full scale (Western) film
industry, when such an industry needs a global market to sustain itself. Even the Brits,
with a population three times ours, and with the marketing advantage of the English
language, have been unable to give birth to a healthy one. The French do have one, but
it's mostly a domestic business, heavily supported by public funds and a keen
cinema-attending public, and still limping under the language-limited export difficulties
and the ever-present American imports.
It is a staggering naivetee to believe Australia can build a self funding and self
sustaining film industry. But we could build an assisted mini industry, one that was
intended to be a business, with real investors and real business plans, cashing in our
chips of experience to date. We just need to debate the objectives and innovate a relevant
The irony is that the most successful film industry - Hollywood's - is also the one
most vehemently and most frequently accused of exporting American culture. It seems they
didn't need guidelines for it to happen; it happens naturally. We should take note of
this. A nation's culture is not defined by or limited to the obvious elements of place and
time and history and customs: it is just as potently reflected in what we discuss, when we
discuss it and how we discuss it; in what stories we tell and how we tell them.
"stop feeling culturally threatened"
In this last year of the 2nd Millennium, Australia can stop feeling culturally
threatened by Americans or anyone else, and can stop being so darned defensive as to
prescribe requirements and elements to its filmmakers. Take it from a migrant who sees it
more objectively, this is a robust and unique society that can withstand celluloid
Just look at the record of Australian filmmaking.
But we can't call our filmmaking activity an industry just yet.