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A plan to slash Screen Australia funding, and merge it with the Australia Council, has the thriving industry in turmoil. By Joyce Morgan.

Plans for Screen Australia will shortchange culture

Director Jessica Hobbs with lead actor Richard Roxburgh on the set of the ABC’s Rake series, which has been remade in the United States.
Credit: Essential Media & Entertainment

As film industry figures gathered this week for the launch of the Sydney Film Festival program, there was a chill in the early morning air. It wasn’t just blowing off the harbour.

The program was unveiled against the backdrop of a plot twist no one anticipated: the National Commission of Audit’s proposal to halve funding to Screen Australia.

If accepted, few in the trade doubt the result would be the death of an industry built up over decades and the disappearance of Australian stories from our cinemas and television screens.

The commission also recommended Screen Australia be merged with the Australia Council, the main funding body for the arts, and, curiously, that the cut-down Screen Australia should focus on funding historical films.

For several decades, funding for the film industry, and the arts generally, has had bipartisan support. There has been a recognition that telling Australian stories – at home and to the wider world – has cultural value. We know and understand ourselves through the images we project.

We take pride when Cate Blanchett stands with best actress Oscar in hand, as she did earlier this year, and recognises the deep talent pool in Australia. But the life form in that pool – the directors, actors, designers, cinematographers – does not spring fully formed. It requires years of hard work and financial nurturing.

In an increasingly visual age, screen culture is becoming more important, not less. It is one reason why many countries, most recently New Zealand, have lifted investment and incentives. Aside from Hollywood and Bollywood, no film industry in the world exists without subsidy.

Already many of the commission’s recommendations have been criticised as politically impractical. Many film and television insiders believe there is an understanding at government level of the value of a vibrant screen culture. But for more than half a century, Australia’s car industry was also considered inviolable.

Screen content is arguably the most widely consumed art form. Australians spend about three hours a day watching television and almost 30 per cent attend a cinema monthly. But the industry is a delicate and interconnected ecosystem, says Matthew Deaner, executive producer of Screen Producers Australia. While Screen Australia’s focus is on supporting feature films, television drama – including children’s drama – and documentaries, its impact is much wider.

“It’s connected to the broader arts. When someone is employed as an actor, often they’re working in theatre productions as well as film. Or a writer might be working on a play or a film script. Similarly with a set designer,” says Deaner.

$20b business

The screen industry is a big, complex business. Its gross output is $20 billion, it contributes more than $6 billion to the gross domestic product and employs 40,000 people, according to industry figures.

Screen Australia received nearly $100 million in funding from the federal government in 2012-13 – about the cost of a single Joint Strike Fighter jet. Of 27 feature films that went into production, nearly two-thirds had Screen Australia investment. Of 137 documentaries made by the independent sector, more than half had Screen Australia finance. Of the top-five-grossing Australian films last year, all except The Great Gatsby received its support.

Television drama and documentaries would particularly suffer from a cut of the size proposed, says Chris Oliver-Taylor, managing director of Matchbox Pictures, whose company was behind The Slap and Nowhere Boys.

“My understanding is that the new body would focus primarily on film. So what happens to TV drama or TV documentary, which is the lifeblood of the sector?” he says.

The cut has been suggested at a time when Australian storytelling has enjoyed something of a golden age, says Oliver-Taylor, a former head of production at the ABC. “In the last two or three years, there’s been a renaissance of Australian storytelling across all networks,” he says.

While the ABC had led the charge – and series such as The Slap and Rake have been picked up for overseas remakes – commercial networks have also responded strongly with such programs as the Underbelly series, House Husbands, Love Child and Puberty Blues.

“All these dramas have been driven because there’s more money in the sector, more focus on Australian stories and audiences across all networks are watching them. As a by-product of this, internationally, the US is looking to Australia for its next set of ideas,” he says.

Three elements have contributed. The 2009 increase of funding for ABC drama, the 2011 changes to the producer offset allowing tax rebates of 40 per cent for features and 20 per cent for documentaries, and the continued support of Screen Australia.

The Commission of Audit’s proposal to merge Screen Australia with the Australia Council would be a false economy, say several industry figures. (Neither Screen Australia nor the Australia Council would comment.) It would create one big bureaucracy when film and TV are undergoing rapid technological change.

Online growth

The public’s interaction with Australian screen content has changed dramatically, says Trevor Graham, co-founder of Yarra Bank Films and writer-director of the Australian Film Institute award-winning documentary Mabo: Life of an Island Man.

“It’s not via cinemas anymore. It’s via TV and online, through TV catch-up – iView, SBS on Demand. When people watch Australian movies, they are not going to the cinemas so much, they are going online to see them. That is very much a nascent industry. So if you’ve got less content because of the cut, there is a newish industry that potentially will be killed off,” Graham says.

He views the roles of Screen Australia and the Australia Council as chalk and cheese.

“One organisation is responsible for artistic pursuits and, yes, there’s business involved in artistic pursuits undoubtedly, but can you compare the work that a painter does in their studio or an orchestra does or a group of musicians with the film industry? They’re vastly different enterprises on a professional level and on a business level,” Graham says.

Filmmaker Mark Gould, whose documentaries include The Holy Dip, which screened recently on ABC’s Compass program, and Tibet: Murder in the Snow, has no doubt what a deep cut to Screen Australia would mean.

“It would kill me. I would be in the dole queue or I would be back making corporates,” he says. “It would increase the power of the broadcasters, limit the diversity of what goes to air and put a whole lot of people out of work.”

Pulling the pin on culture

All Australian filmmakers at some point in their careers are supported by Screen Australia, says Leigh Small, chief executive of the Sydney Film Festival. And its Indigenous Department has touched the careers of every Indigenous filmmaker.

Nearly all the Australian films screening in this year’s festival have been made with Screen Australia support. It also plays a vital role in funding the Travelling Film Festival, which tours 21 regional centres including remote Katherine, Darwin and Charters Towers.

“That’s critical because many of the Australian films we are showing on tour in regional Australia would not otherwise be seen by those audiences. So it’s not just about filmmakers, it’s also about audiences,” says Small. “We would not be able to continue at that level without Screen Australia.”

Actors Equity director Sue McCreadie does not believe the commission’s recommendation, made without consultation with the industry, will be adopted. “I think it’s a thought bubble. There’s a whole set of ideas that do the rounds that are not sensible.”

Her greatest concern ahead of Tuesday’s federal budget is for the ABC and the vulnerability of drama on the national broadcaster. McCreadie sees the commission’s emphasis on funding historical films as an inappropriate attempt to dictate content. Actor Matt Day goes further: “It seems strangely Soviet, which is odd coming from a right-wing committee.”

The high-profile actor, who has appeared in the TV series Rake and will star in the forthcoming mystery thriller Touch, says making a living as an actor based in Australia is a struggle. A move away from a subsidised film industry would make that already precarious existence impossible.

“It would no longer be a profession, it would be a hobby,” says Day.

But it is not only the effect on his profession that concerns him if deep cuts to the industry lie ahead.

“If you think culture isn’t important, that idea that there is no society, that may not bother you. But it bothers me. It will bother a lot of Australians if they think the pin is being pulled on their culture,” says Day.

“There is a tendency to underestimate the importance of screen culture in Australia. People would realise pretty quickly when they cease to see themselves represented and their kids start speaking back to them in an American accent.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Final cut for drama". Subscribe here.

Joyce Morgan
is a Sydney-based arts journalist. She is writing a biography of artist Martin Sharp.

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