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The debate we started three weeks ago about Australia's film industry continues this week (April 20, 2000) with this article, commissioned for and by The Bulletin, Australia's oldest stirrer-n-shaker news and current affairs weekly. ANDREW L. URBAN talks to Arts Minister Peter McGauran, among others, in an effort to clarify our communal objectives for spending over $100 million on film and tv production. Why do we do it and could we ever have a real industry?

There is a sense of desperation clouding the ever present natural and necessary optimism in the film industry, caused largely by its recent commercial failures, and what that may mean in terms of Government support. The producers and the film agencies are nervous that lackluster performances and the absence of high profile Australian films at festivals (like Cannes this year) will dampen or even destroy the willingness of Government to keep putting money into film production. But according to Arts Minister Peter McGauran, the Government is not shouting 'show me the money!' On the contrary.

And here is the irony that McGauran is spelling out: if the film business were assessed today on purely employment terms, it would be a howling success and his parliamentary colleagues could argue that its success means McGauran should perhaps wind back Government support.

"Overall production [including foreign projects] is at its highest for ten years. There are more people employed than ever before. The economic rationalists would say the industry is fully matured. But the value of Australian film and tv production has declined and Australia spends less on development than other countries."

"cultural objectives"

He advises the filmmaking lobby to stay focused on the Government's agenda. "Government support is on the basis of cultural objectives and in arguing for more support in a monetary sense, the industry's far wiser to stress the cultural objectives. Sometimes the requests for more money are dressed up in employment terms, which isn't the core issue for Governments - it's cultural."

And The Minister is not about to change his mind: "I am fiercely opposed to any dilution of that strategy. The system operates very well at present in getting Australian stories to the screen in a way that dependence on the private sector entirely, could not." But he is happy "to hear from people about guidelines upon which the FFC and AFC make their decisions, but I can't see the need to turn the system on its head."

In the lead up to this year's budget, Australia's film and tv producers are urging the Government to increase funding for the Film Financing Corporation (FFC) by $6.8 million, and the Australian Film Commission (AFC) by an additional $4.5 million per year, "thus restoring FFC funding to original levels"; they also want its present functions fully renewed in a new four year contract. The total increase of just over $11 million is a pittance, let's face it, in the context of sustaining a high profile industry with international ambitions and highlights the underlying confusion about taxpayer-provided support for film production.

The producers, through their organisation, SPAA (Screen Producers Association of Australia) have taken the lobbying straight to the Government, pointing to overseas experience in a desperate effort to make Cabinet respond.

"Other governments are backing their industries with serious investment. The European Union has committed $372 million over five years to boost European films," says Nick Herd, Executive Director of SPAA. "Even America, which traditionally has not involved itself in funding independent film, announced a US$100 million fund underwritten by the US government to invest in independent US films. This is an early warning that Australia is falling behind world’s best practice."

Filmmaking in Australia has been called an industry for two decades, but regarded by most as the cultural heart we had to have. This ambivalence has been underscored by the fact that funding for filmmaking comes from the arts bucket, not from an industry development budget.

"A provocative question"

Greg Smith (Executive Director Creative Affairs of Content Capital Ltd, one of the FLIC companies established last year, has previously been director of Film Victoria and the NSW Film and TV Office), also recognises "the policy confusion inherent in the operating structure of the industry in Australia. Is 'the industry' the actual groundspring for future filmmaking in this country - or is it merely the neo-Byzantine enclave of self comforting bureaucrats (I have been one) and the filmmakers who know how to operate the system to maximise their share of the available subsidy dollar? A provocative question but one which should be asked. This is not the model for building an 'industry'. I don't ask the question to be critical or accusing. If there is any truth in it, it has wide implications…"

A supplementary question may be: why do Governments finance filmmaking for cultural reasons yet not assess the results on cultural grounds? "I don't have an answer to that," says Herd; "it's a good question to put to Government."

McGauran says the answer is complex: "We shy away from being too culturally explicit for fear of becoming cultural Czars and picking and choosing what might appeal to us our the bureaucrats. However, we do (through the AFC and FFC) lay down the parameters on which films can be funded." These are the inputs, though, as McGauran admits, and the outcomes are harder to define.

"It's a little bit like the ABC in that regard in that they're not meant to be driven by ratings, but will use ratings as a measure of community acceptance or support. We have the same problems in films. We don't expect every film to turn a profit and not even break even - we hope they do but that's not a condition of funding. But taxpayers begin to ask why are there so many duds?" That's a subjective point of view, of course, but in real-politik terms it is as valid as a fiscal argument.

"the various funding arrangements can be poles apart"

Australia's most senior film bureaucrat, the Chief Executive of the FFC, Catriona Hughes, asserts that "funding decisions are made for both reasons [cultural as well as commercial]. Sometimes the assessment is driven more by the cultural, other times more by the commercial consideration. What's adaptable and flexible are the market attachment, influenced by such factors as a first time director and or a low budget. So the various funding arrangements can be poles apart."

Market attachment simply means private sector investment; this is a cornerstone of the funding apparatus. If a script attracts enough private sector support, the argument goes, it must have commercial prospects. This is where the structure changes gears, in a sense, to become commercially activated.

Hughes points out that one of the assessment factors is the total Australian audience attracted by funded projects - this measure, she says, is not the same as box office. Hughes cites the example of the 1994 production of Dad and Dave: On Our Selection, which was seen by a national audience of around 2.8 million people. The problem for the industry is that of those 2.8 million, 2.2 saw it on free to air television. While Hughes says these sorts of figures show that "audiences have access to the productions" and that the theatrical release helps trigger interest, some would argue that the 'trigger' seems very expensive in such cases.

"Or is it to enable them to succeed"

Which raises the question, is that what Government support is for - to allow filmmakers to fail in strictly commercial terms? Or is it to enable them to succeed. McGauran is not the only one asking, "Why can't we have both?" He says it's evident that we have all of the skills: directors, producers, actors, cinematographers ….all of that. We don't yet have the writers that we need. But it's not entirely their fault. There is so much pressure on them - economic, just to survive - to get a script into production long before it's properly developed."

Kim Williams, now Chief Executive of Fox Studios, but for many years the head of Government film agencies like the AFC and FFC. He told Lateline on March 28, "I think we've had a glut of poor product. I don't think there's any running away from it. We have had a glut of films that have had no connection with audiences. Now, it's regrettable, it's certainly not intentional, but it's something which we need to stand back and look at, in terms of the way in which decision-making operates, that allows many millions of dollars to be expended on films that ultimately have no market. That's a wasteful, empty and absolutely futile exercise, and without any kind of redeeming creative or cultural remit."

McGauran agrees: "the true measure of the industry's problems is lack of popular appeal."

He says the AFC's new focus on development - across the board, from producer packages to script development - is aimed to address this issue.

And it is welcome, says SPAA President, producer Tom Jeffrey. "It's something we've been looking for, for some time." As for the reasons for funding production, Jeffrey is adamant: "It has to be both [cultural and commercial]." As soon as you have the FFC making assessments on cultural issues, he warns, the industry gets very worried. It's the cultural Czar scenario McGauran is so well aware of. But Jeffrey feels that "at Government level we are lacking a clear indication of what it's cultural objectives are." Indeed; this is the ironic twist that tortures the industry, the politicians - and the wider community.

"the fruits of their efforts"

But the one thing the existing structure won't do is financially set up a successful filmmaker with the fruits of their efforts. For example, the profits from Shine didn't go to Scott Hicks to enable him to set up a real filmmaking business, along the lines of, say, Kennedy Miller.

"Oh yes," says McGauran, who has recently met with film directors including Hicks, "Scott Hicks is very strong on this. He argues that unless the directors and perhaps the producers share in the profits to a far greater extent, he'll never build a Kennedy Miller. He says he lost his chance with Shine (part FFC funded global hit). But the FFC's response is 'oh great, we're just going to enrich Scott Hicks are we? Sure he might use it for altruistic purposes but someone else might just go off to the South of France. No way; we're taking our cut so we can reinvest it in other Australian films.' No, you're right, we're never going to let a Scott Hicks get a windfall. The profits must always come back to the pool. So that's it - Scott Hicks should not expect to become the next Kennedy Miller from a taxpayer agency. He should wait for Snow Falling on Cedars (fully financed by Universal Pictures)." He says this without any trace of meanness, more in the spirit of explanation. He pauses and says with energy: "Oh cripes … yeah, you've hit the nail on the head."

And then he returns to the earlier, point-blank point: "But look, it still comes down to basics; as Kim Williams said, 'stop making product no-one wants to watch.' "

(This is the original version of the article that appears in The Bulletin, on sale April 19, 2000.)

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Andrew L. Urban's opening OPINION piece

Kim Williams

Greg Smith's provocative REPLY

Peter McGauran

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