SA film: one industry, one voice

Mario Andreacchio

Earlier this year growing tensions in the South Australian film industry resulted in the unusual resignation of the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) CEO Judith Crombie. ‘Unusual’ in that Crombie tendered her resignation, citing differences with Chairman David Minear, after Minear had announced his position had not been renewed. This followed the resignation of a string of management staff and 2 board members over the previous 6 months. On the surface it appeared like dysfunctional internal problems for the state body, but wider industry dissatisfaction certainly played a part.

The Australian film industry is suffering as a result of the financial squeeze occurring nationally and internationally. Depleting funds, increasing numbers of independent filmmakers and the collapse of major end-users like Vivendi and Kirch Media have created an aggressive competitive climate for film financing. Despite the fact that the South Australian film community is credited with having triggered the mid-70s Australian film ‘renaissance’, statistics show that South Australia is now falling behind almost every other state in terms of production activity and industry growth.

Shrinking employment prospects and diminishing opportunities for emerging filmmakers have focussed attention on the SAFC and its traditional role as ‘leader’ of the South Australian industry. Criticisms of the SAFC have focussed on the ineffectiveness of running a wide range of small programs with no flow-on effect to larger projects, while at the same time a number of interstate-based productions have received development funds, a practice not endorsed by any other state funding body. The criticisms levelled at the SAFC are also indicative of the agency’s weak relationship with industry and the lack of consultation.

In response to the SAFC’s shortcomings, The United Film Group (an association of major Adelaide film businesses including Rising Sun Pictures, Scott Hicks and Kerry Heyson, sound facilities and senior practising independent producers) initiated a total screen industry forum, calling the ailing industry together to determine future direction and policies. This began in late 2003 as an online debate and airing of concerns, and concluded with a physical forum in February this year that was a synthesis of the arguments and proposals submitted online.

It became apparent from the vigorous online debate that there was a serious lack of long term planning for the South Australian industry. Many criticisms were levelled at the SAFC, including the feeling that the organisation was not fulfilling its leadership role. As expected, the initial industry reaction was cathartic, but as time went on it became clearer to many in the industry why the SAFC was in such strife. The screen industry is a complex one, encompassing film, television, new media and games. It is increasingly apparent that no one state agency is able to properly understand the whole industry while also keeping abreast of the particular problems for each sector.

Many of the questions that emerged from this debate and forum are relevant to other states as well, since we are all subject to the same national and international pressures. Some of the key questions that have emerged are: is the current relationship of state agencies to industry the most appropriate one?; how can state policies be developed and modified fast enough to keep up with the rate of change in the industry?; and to what extent should state agencies continue to assume a sole leadership position? So is it a case of just changing the internal structure of our state agency, or do we really need to have a major rethink? Rather than state government funds going out in dribs and drabs to different industry sectors at different times, perhaps it is time to look at a more coordinated approach. And rather than state agency policy and guidelines being constructed with little or no consultation, industry should be heavily involved in the development of policy.

After much debate, the majority opinion of the United Film Group forum was that the formation of a Screen Industry Council was the most constructive step forward. This council will have representatives from all parts of the industry (including the SAFC), will formulate industry policy and communicate directly with the Minister for the Arts. In other words; one industry, one voice. This is a major departure from past industry practice. For the first time the industry itself is moving to take charge of the formulation of policy. It is a move away from government reviews of the sector, to the industry actively communicating its needs and views directly to government. To use the bureaucratic jargon, the state agency will work in ‘partnership’ with the industry.

Concurrent with these developments, senior producer and SAFC board member Helen Leake (producer Black and White, 2002) was appointed acting, then permanent, CEO of the SAFC. Leake’s understanding of the local industry and its inherent tensions has positioned her well in the top management position. In a short space of time she has re-established industry relationships, increased outgoing communication, reshaped many internal structures and embraced the idea of ‘partnership’ with the industry. This perhaps has something to do with the fact that Leake has been an active South Australian practitioner and understands the inherent risks of working in the film industry. Leake’s positive influence thus far is a good indicator of how industry experience and contacts are much more important than bureaucratic experience in running the SAFC.

Leake, along with some of the SAFC board, attended the UFG forum and voted in favour of the formation of a Screen Industry Council. Of course this means the tough work of formulating industry policy no longer rests solely on the shoulders of the SAFC board, but it is also a recognition that the industry is mature enough to know its own needs and be involved in shaping its own future.

An interim model for the Screen Council has been developed and an online voting process will commence within the next few weeks. The Council is expected to be formed and active by July this year, with the SAFC as a participating observer. Leake is keen to work with the Council to help develop industry recommendations for SAFC and Government policy regarding the film industry.

Is this the beginning of fundamental changes that need to occur nationally? Should we be moving towards a “one industry, one voice” model, where practitioners are more directly involved in policy and decision making under a unified umbrella? Or are we too vigorously individual and disparate for this model to ever work? South Australia will be closely watched to see if these structural changes deliver an environment more receptive to the needs of the modern Australian screen industry.

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 19

© Mario Andreacchio; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004