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The Arts Minister has no vision and the Arts Department has “effed up” the merger of the three Government film agencies and is wasting millions of our dollars, says Brian Rosen, who as the last CEO of the Film Finance Corporation should know. David Tiley reports.

Brian Rosen, passed over as CEO of Screen Australia in favour of Ruth Harley, is not a bitter man. He is annoyed that he was told on June 26 that he had to finish by June 30, and that the FFC board would not perform its role after that date either. He says that is rude, and that government bureaucrats are actually as rude as people in Hollywood.

Brian is known to have been ambiguous about the job anyway, having said he would do five years, but then became involved with the convulsions of a new agency. He is currently working on his golf, losing some weight, and preparing for a move into producing and executive producing large projects, in what he calls “an offset world, with equity investment as well.”

Given that he describes Scott Meek (Managing Director, ABC) as “one of the greatest creative execs we have in Australia with a phenomenal knowledge of structure and character,” we can expect to see the two in cahoots at the big end of town.

“there is no vision for the agency - the minister doesn’t have it”

Rosen is quick to point out that “Ruth Harley is good at her job, but she will have her work cut out for her. She will need the support of the industry.” But he does have a bone to pick with the direction of Screen Australia.

As he said to us, “the department has probably fucked up the merger.” And he is careful to blame the bureaucracy. “I still think there’s a great opportunity to turn Screen Australia into a modern agency. And there’s people on the board that want that. At the moment, I’m worried there is no vision for the agency - the minister doesn’t have it, that’s for sure.

"I blame the department, which is turning it into a bureaucracy. My continual argument is for a minimal public service mentality. They want everyone to be a public servant - it’s a matter of attitude. They want to remove the contract system, and replace it with the APS system, so that 75-80% of the jobs will be public service.”

“horrified by the level of overheads”

“They spend money in the weirdest ways, and they save money in the weirdest ways. I’ve never fathomed that in bureaucracy - to save pennies and spend dollars on bad decisions. They are even now taking all the tissues and the water away in the agency. And drinks on Friday, forgetting the value of the morale and wellbeing for the staff.”

He is horrified by the level of overheads, and the scale of the staff, currently at $30m this year, with 180 staff. He reckons a natural size is less than a hundred people, with overheads of around $15m.

As a benchmark, he claims the old FFC, which ran on one person per $2m outlay. The AFC had one per $1m; at the moment it is one per $570,000. He claims the agency needs “fiscal discipline”, for which the FFC rules provide a tested base. All the appropriation was spent on projects, and the agency survived on earnings. For Screen Australia that should be $3-4m interest, administration charges to projects at $3-4m, and $7-8m in recoupment.

Survivors of the old Australian Film Commission are quick to point out that development and emerging filmmaker programs are labour intensive - all areas which the FFC managed to neatly avoid. Rosen has some sympathy for this position, but points to "lots of committee meetings.”

“that an agency can pick projects is bullshit”

Rosen is arguing to a very streamlined decision system. “Get people in for a year.” he says, “and rotate them. Get them in to dole out the money. Has this person got talent? Is this a reasonable idea? Let them go and do it. The whole notion that an agency can pick projects is a bullshit one - producers, writers and directors is where the talent lies, and that’s what you support. Sitting in an agency and second guessing hasn’t worked for thirty years.”

“Back talent - that’s what Hollywood does. Find someone with the nous to tell a good story, and back them.”

At the same time, he freely acknowledges that there are “only somewhere between six and ten creative producers in Australia.” (Of which he is not one - he says he “knows where my skills lie - I don’t want to be reading a script and saying it is going to do a hundred million.”)

Rather than simply rejecting the existence of the whole creature, Rosen has a radical plan for development support. At the same time, he thinks he can deal with the perennial boogy-man of the sector: decisions are made again and again by people who are not in any way accountable for the consequences - unlike the producers and writers.

“An agency manager is unaccountable”

“Half the development should be outsourced - then you have a benchmark. Have some done within the agency, but have the other half outsourced to the senior producers and exec producers who can get it done. In that way, you [producers] can pitch to different people. That’s how you get rid of the monopoly, and have multiple doors.”

“What is the difference between an agency and a studio? If you are a head of drama and it doesn’t work, you get boned. In an agency, nothing happens. And you aren’t responsible for getting it made, the agency is not hands-on doing it.”

In other words, responsibility dissolves away. An agency manager is unaccountable, but is not close enough to the production to make any difference anyway. With no direct results, the only benchmarks are comparative.

“With evaluation [the evaluation door created by the FFC, on which Brian publicly said he should be judged] the quality increased, and we are in more festivals and win more awards, but you can’t really ask if you are making the best choices. If you outsource, you have a basis for comparison. That’s the only way you can do the accountability.”

“we still haven’t got it right”

He also admits those kinds of accountability which are enticing to government. “Accountability should also be transparency and proper process. Fiducarywise, that the cost of running it is at an acceptable level.”

All areas in which Rosen is now pungently critical of what he sees in the new Screen Australia.

I asked him if he felt the industry has failed - the charge which seems to be behind the current drive to create a new system, with a CEO from outside Australia.

“In television, and in documentary we are doing well,” he said. “On the feature film front, we still haven’t got it right.”

“The offset will help us to make films at a range of budgets, including the $20-40m pictures. We should be making four or five of these a year. In development, we keep encouraging people in the $3-6m scale, away from comedy or action on the grounds that they weren’t going to get made.

“The mind has to open, right now. We need to allow people to develop smartly and more intelligently.”

“We have to pay writers proper amounts”

“We do have too many projects. My thinking is that there should be proper resources behind development. Giving a whole lot of people ten or fifteen thousand is very nice, but it doesn’t accomplish what you want it to achieve. We have to pay writers proper amounts so they are full time on what they are meant to be doing, rather than three or four at a time so they can pay a mortgage.”

“To write a first draft of a feature film is like having a baby - it takes nine months, and it should cost between $50,000 to $100,000 to do that."

Brian Rosen has just articulated the vision that leaves many people relieved that he didn't get the job. To some, the persistent criticism that he never understood the work of the former AFC has been abundantly confirmed.

It is true that the new agency is bolting together very different remits and contradictory mindsets. But filmmakers know that they are one half of a partnership, or support mechanism. Bureaucracy for its own sake is not our friend; there is a particular hell which small-minded officials can create, and it stokes its fires in many parts of our system already.

The sooner the direction of the agency is discussed with the industry it is supposed to support, in an open and transparent manner, the better.

Published August 18, 2008

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Brian Rosen

Arts Minister, Peter Garrett

David Tiley is the editor of Screenhub, and can be contacted at editor@screenhub.com.au

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