anxious times: the future of australian film funding

tina kaufman: screen australia’s new programs

IT’S A MOMENTOUS YEAR FOR FILM IN AUSTRALIA, BRINGING A NEWLY CREATED SUPER-AGENCY WHICH WILL PROVIDE ALL FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SUPPORT, AND A NEWLY BEDDED IN PRODUCER TAX REBATE (OF 40% FOR FEATURE FILMS AND 20% FOR TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS AND DOCUMENTARIES) WHICH CARRIES THE PROMISE OF A SYSTEM THAT WILL RE-ENERGISE LOCAL PRODUCTION. THROUGH A CONCENTRATED PROCESS OF MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS, DISCUSSION PAPERS, DRAFT GUIDELINES AND INDUSTRY AND FILMMAKER MEETINGS AROUND THE COUNTRY OVER THE LAST MONTHS, IT’S BECOMING CLEARER JUST WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR FILM IN AUSTRALIA; A FUTURE, IN THE WORDS OF ARTS MINISTER PETER GARRET, IN WHICH THE GOVERNMENT IS EXPECTING THE FILM INDUSTRY TO “DEVELOP COMMERCIALLY FOCUSED SCREEN BUSINESSES.”

Speaking at a Melbourne Film Festival forum earlier in the year, Garrett said that filmmakers would be supported for developing productions that attract strong financial backing and are genuinely appealing to audiences; he emphasised that those who work in the industry “must change, look outward to the country and the world and enthusiastically reach out to them on the screen.”

What’s now becoming clear is that succeeding in this new environment is going to be a challenge to both experienced and emerging filmmakers. Much of Screen Australia’s support will be directed at producers with track records, albeit ones who also offer support to less credentialed filmmakers. With preference going to those with a range and a diversity of projects, a producer should be clever, hopefully original, and definitely very enterprising. The most immediate aim is to get Australian audiences interested in Australian films again; after the heady days of Muriel, Priscilla and Crocodile Dundee, when Australian films were taking a substantial slice of the box office. Local box office returns have shrunk in recent years to a miserable few percent.

Screen Australia has a stated commitment to screen culture (that rather nebulous area of support that includes film festivals, publications, screen industry awards, screening programs, industry conferences and seminars), as well as to distribution and marketing, but details of just what this commitment amounts to have not been released. In fact, those areas are apparently not even being considered until early next year. What has been on the table is what Screen Australia believed they could achieve in the coming calendar year.

Formed by the merger of the Film Finance Corporation, the Australian Film Commission and Film Australia as part of a process of review and implementation that extended over three years and through two federal governments, Screen Australia formally came into being on July 1, with the existing programs of the three agencies continuing until the end of the year while the necessary reorganisation and restructuring took place. In its draft guidelines the new agency has collapsed an enormous array of programs into quite a small number, arguing that funding was being spread much too thinly. It will still be responsible for development and production funding for what it calls “a range of audience engaging and culturally relevant” feature films, television drama, children’s TV drama, and documentaries. It will also fund workshops, hoping to do this in partnerships with the states and other bodies, and digital media through the Innovation Program, encouraging producers to look at multiple platforms for their projects.

What it will not be funding, and who it will not be supporting, has caused the most concern and adverse comment. It will no longer finance short film production and will also considerably reduce its support for new or less experienced filmmakers, arguing instead that producers supported through the new Enterprise Program (with a slate of productions), or the state funding agencies, can take up those activities. A number of filmmakers, either singly or in joint submissions, have argued strongly against this, saying that a viable industry needs up and coming talent, needs to nurture developing filmmakers, and that hoping or expecting producers or the states or some other entity to fulfill this activity is not good enough. At the very least, they argue, criteria relating to the outsourcing of professional development for emerging filmmakers should be applied to experienced producers supported by the Enterprise Program (currently the Enterprise guidelines include no criteria that require experienced producers to devote a percentage of those funds to help cultivate new and establishing practitioners).

And just how realistic is it that all the short and innovative projects currently being thought up by emerging filmmakers can now really only come to fruition through either cashed up Enterprise Program producers or the state agencies?

Both the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG) and the Australian Directors’ Guild (ADG) have made very strong comments regarding what they see as the unnecessarily high bar applying to writers and directors, and the disproportionate emphasis on producers and production companies. What annoys them most is the inequity between the experience required of a producer, and the higher standard set for writers and directors. They question the research behind these standards, arguing that the levels of experience required are inappropriate. The AWG comments that “Screen Australia’s assertion at its consultation sessions that there are in excess of 70 screenwriters who qualify under the ‘three features’ requirement is incorrect; five to 10 is the accurate range. As such the guidelines will close yet another door to experienced writers in the Australian screen sector.” The AWG wants to see in the guidelines an acknowledgement of the importance of the script; recognition of the vital role of the screenwriter; and acknowledgement of the essential need for intensified, prolonged and properly funded script development.

The ADG also argues that while Minister Garrett stated that the industry would have a voice in the review process, they believe that “policy was largely crafted behind closed doors, and when consultation began, we were presented with broad principles that had been devised without any open debate about the big issues we face.”

Documentary makers, too, are concerned that Screen Australia is moving away from supporting and encouraging fresh talent, from giving emerging filmmakers opportunities to experiment and challenge while refining their craft, and have expressed this concern strongly. However, the documentary sector is very pleased with the National Documentary Program, and particularly with what they’ve understood to be part of the new Terms of Trade, the retention of rights by filmmakers and the abolition of the role of executive producer. That’s something documentary makers have been fighting for in the industry consultations for the past months.

Screen Australia has a new CEO, who took over mid-November. Dr Ruth Harley was CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission, which had been transformed during her tenure, with a sizable increase in the number of films produced, in revenue generated, and in both the size of the audiences and number of awards received by New Zealand filmmakers. She is a very interesting appointment, upholding the feeling within the industry that the government was looking outside the recognised possibilities. With more than 20 years experience in the film and television industries, Harley has a serious academic background and is a former Fulbright Scholar. She says that “getting Australian films to connect with Australian audiences is what everybody has expressed to me as their biggest concern”, and “is something I’ll be wanting to talk to a lot of people about, and I think a lot of people have got theories, and with luck we can pull those theories together into something that can make a difference.”

Already two feature films and seven documentaries are well under way using the producer offset. Screen Australia has been given financial stability for the next three years, although the federal government has removed some $10m from what would have been the total AFC, FFC, and Film Australia budgets which will affect the 2009-10 budget. The government believes that the reduction reflects the increasing role of the producer offset, and that “overall, the level of funding available to the film industry from the uncapped film offsets and Screen Australia has increased significantly.”

Following the final consultation process, Screen Australia is to release its final guidelines in December, with the new agency commencing activities under those guidelines on January 1. It will be instructive to see if any of the strongly worded comments and criticisms received has resulted in any changes.

Details of Screen Australia’s programs, the guidelines, and the many comments received can all be found on the Screen Australia website, www.screenaustralia.gov.au.

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 17

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2008