Canada/Australia: comparing challenges

Nathalie Brillon

Last year, Canada’s federal funding for its domestic television and feature film production was more than double that of Australia. Yet no English-Canadian television dramas made the weekly top 20 rankings, let alone the top 10, while the English-Canadian share of domestic box office in 2002 was less than a third of Australia’s share in its own market. It seems English-Canadian producers have the money, but no audience, while the cash-strapped Australian industry still captures at least some of its domestic audience.

English-speaking Canada is similar in size to Australia and possesses a comparable multi-ethnic population. Both countries have a similar history. The development of their respective feature film industries have also often mirrored each other. Both were once under foreign economic control through American ownership of the distribution and exhibition sectors. At the production level, both countries have developed 2 separate yet interrelated components: a domestic and a runaway side, whereby Hollywood-based producers use local infrastructure to make films at a cheaper rate. Both countries have experienced cycles of boom and bust in local production. Australian and Canadian societies have periodically gone through nationalist phases where the cultural elites pressure their federal, state or provincial governments to revitalise local production. In the 1960s, these pressures finally produced direct government interventions which resulted in the creation of federal agencies supporting national film production. In the 1980s, the Canadian and Australian industries experienced the mediocre output of a tax shelter era where bad quality American clones were produced. After that period, these industries restructured themselves in similar ways.

Same but different

Both national industries possess a federal agency and a national film fund: Telefilm Canada administers the Canada Feature Film Fund (CFFF), while Australia has the Australian Film Commission (AFC) and the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). Other funding sources are available through state or provincial agencies and tax concession schemes which apply at both levels of government. In the 1990s, these industries also became sites of an ever increasing service industry producing runaway films. In both cases, the majority of domestic audiences are more inclined to choose American screen products over domestic ones.

As well as the CFFF, Telefilm Canada oversees the Canadian Television Fund, Canada New Media Fund, the Canada Music Fund and other minor programs. Its overall budget in 2002/3 was CAN$239.3 million (the Australian dollar was at parity with the Canadian dollar in January 2004). Around two thirds of this amount, or CAN$159.5 million, is allocated to English-Canadian projects. For feature films the main federal source is the CFFF, which subsidises development, production and marketing programs, including funding for co-productions. The CFFF also funds a Screenwriting Assistance Program and Low Budget Independent Feature Film Assistance Program. The total for feature film funding comes to CAN$84.4 million. Last year the English-Canadian share was 71% of this.

Although the structure looks similar in Australia, there are important differences. The funding for development is not from the same sources as the funding for production and there are no separate funds for television and film production. Last year, the Australian Film Commission oversaw film, television and new media development with a budget of $19.9 million. The funding of screen production is under the administration of the FFC which oversees the production of feature films, adult television, children’s television and documentary. Last year, its budget was AUD$57.5 million. Comparing the 2 federal funding regimes for screen production (including co-production), Canada spent around CAN$198.7 million last year, while Federal funding in Australia amounted to AUDS$81.4 million.

Canadian solutions

English-Canadian producers may have more money than the Australians but their products have a lot less impact on their domestic audience. According to Richard Stursberg, the executive director of Telefilm, the highest ranked English-Canadian drama in 2002 was Da Vinci Inquest at number 35. The domestic box office share of Canadian films was 1.4% in 2001/02, and 2.6% in 2002/03. The English-Canadian share for the same years yields even lower figures of 0.2% and 1.4% respectively. To give an idea of the difference between the English and French-Canadian share of the domestic market, the French-Canadian box office for the same periods was 10% and 12%. According to the AFC’s reference publication Get the Picture, Australian producers in 2002 had 7 of the top 20 drama series, with All Aussie Adventures (Big Crack Productions, Network Ten and Working Dog) starring Glenn Robbins, the top performer at number 2. Australian feature films performed consistently better at the domestic box office than English-Canadian features, with Australian films taking 7.8% of the box office in 2001 and 4.9% in 2002.

To remedy this sorry state of affairs, Telefilm Canada has come up with 2 main changes in direction in its funding policies. Firstly, preference will be given to more commercial projects linked to audience-friendly genres, like the comedy Men with Brooms (Paul Gross, Alliance Atlantis Communications and Serendipity Point Films, 2002). Secondly, Telefilm has relaxed some of its rules regarding transnational filmic elements, such as accepting the use of foreign actors with marquee potential. In a sense, this new direction imitates some Australian strategies. All these changes are designed to boost the box office take from local films to 5% by 2006.

Funding future?

But what of Australia’s federal government funding future? According to the AFC’s National Survey of Feature Film and TV Drama Production 2002/3, for the first time in 8 years the production of Australian television drama and film has dropped. Only 19 Australian feature films were made in the fiscal year 2002/3, compared with 30 in 2001/2. One reason for this is the stagnation of federal funding under the Coalition government between 1996/7 and 2000/01. There were some slight increases for the fiscal years 2001/02 and 2002/03, and more are set for the AFC and FFC in 2003/04, but it is still unclear how the integration of ScreenSound Australia and the AFC will impact on the AFC’s budget. Brian Rosen, the Film Finance Corporation CEO, has made noises about transforming the FFC into a kind of super-fund, where private sector investors can invest vast sums of money for a set number of years at a fixed interest rate. Rosen foresees that this new scheme could represent over AUD$100 million a year for Australian screen production. If his plan succeeds, it will be wonderful news for Australian producers.

Free trade fear

A huge grey cloud is casting a shadow over the enthusiasm of Australian producers about the future of domestic screen production: the proposed Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the US. In October 1987, Canada signed a Free Trade Agreement with the US, and in 1994, endorsed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the US and Mexico. In both cases, Canada managed to preserve its control over its cultural policies. In particular, the Canadian government kept its quotas for local content and funding programs, as well as introducing new ones. However, if one of the parties involved in NAFTA find that these programs are adversely impacting on their commercial interests they can take action in any economic areas to recover their losses. In the current negotiations between Australia and the US, Australian government representatives have assured the local audiovisual industry that they will be able to keep their quotas and government funding schemes. However, in the push to finalise the Free Trade Agreement and please their US counterparts, the Australian government could jeopardise the future of the audiovisual industry by being soft on questions regarding the regulation of digital modes of distribution (feature films and television drama available via the internet). Australian products may be ousted from this new mode due to the sheer number of American products. There seems little point in producing Australian television drama and feature films if future Australian audiences may not be able to access the finished products.

See also Nathalie Brillon on Womenvision.

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 25-

© Nathalie Brillon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004