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AUSTRALIAN FILM INDUSTRY? WHEN?

There is still no such thing as a real film industry here, argues ANDREW L. URBAN, although there probably could be. And there should be -but Australia first needs a debate on why and how we support filmmaking, so we can clear up the confusion that clogs the current, well meaning but unworkable policy, which is perhaps not expediting the growth of a real industry.

The Australian filmmaking community has worn the label of 'industry' for almost three decades now, a convenient but hardly accurate description. It would like to become an industry and Australians would like to see it work as industry , but it is a cottage film industry. Australian filmmaking is seen as a vital part of our cultural activity, a necessary outlet for 'telling our own stories with our own voices'. This is the crucial motivating force -and is perceived as perhaps being at odds with the reality of turning filmmaking into an industry. It need not be - as I suggest later.

"ensure the project is fair dinkum, true blue Aussie"

The mainstream activity of film production (see note at left) is largely possible through Government (taxpayer) sourced finance. This is provided under certain provisos that ensure the project is fair dinkum, true blue Aussie. Fair enough in theory, no doubt. But confusingly enough, for Government funding to be unlocked Australian film producers are also required to find a commercial distributor willing to pay for distribution rights for the film at script stage. The prime objective of this device is to make sure the script has enough commercial potential (in the opinion of market operators) and that the film gets distributed in the commercial marketplace. And already we can see the internal conflict of motives and policy: on the one hand, Government supports Australian 'culture-driven' filmmaking, for the national good. On the other, it seeks to make these investment decisions based on profit-driven market decisions.

This confusion in public policy is easily explained and forgiven - but it remains a burdensome hinderance to the future of Australian filmmaking. It is explained by the historical fact that Government support is essential for some sort of filmmaking activity to proceed in Australia.

This brutal fact has never been questioned by anyone, not even in the least informed corner of politics. It is forgiven because it has evolved into what it is through the growth and expansion of our abilities and interest in producing feature films since the 70s.

It is not only the policy itself that is confused: so is much of the media and the public.

"commercial failures invariably shake the faith"

The notions of a film industry and a film culture are confused and overlaid on each other: we (Australian society) assess the success of our film output on commercial terms, like the Americans. How many bums on seats? How much did it take? How many countries bought rights to it? And we also respond to international festival attention, although (unless it's at Cannes or Sundance) to a much lesser extent. As for Canberra (pollies and the mandarins in Finance) the confusion is even greater: there is enormous lip service paid to the cultural worth of films, yet commercial failures invariably shake the faith.

Indeed, there has been no public debate on what the criteria should be for ongoing funding other than the perceived success of the so called industry in a vague, warm and fuzzy sense.

Is there a cultural commissar to check the cultural value of our yearly output of films? On what basis should we assess what is acceptable as an Australian story? Should we try - or should we let Australian filmmakers decide? In other words, should our filmmakers be restricted to stories set in Australia or about Australians? Should they still be restricted to using Australian cast and crew? Should they be supported on a scale relative to their films' box office track record? Or on the perceived 'cultural' value of their next project?

Should we impose limitations on the genre and themes of films to be made? Are action, adventure, thriller, horror, noir or erotic films not 'cultural' enough? How should expatriate Australian filmmakers be treated when making films in Australia?

The problem of a confused policy on the subject is the result of well meaning decisions to weld the cultural imperatives to commercial demands. And while there is a lack of cultural assessment, there is a real commercial one. In order to justify risking taxpayers' money, we have asked for some basic insurance that these culturally valued films have some commercial viability. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it. But the result has been underwhelming as a device to maintain a genuine industry. What has resulted is a horse with two heads - one at each end. It won't fly.

"ignores the realities"

The existing funding structure has imposed limited budgets (currently in the range of around $2 -$5 million per film) and restrictions on content (it has to have an "Australian" certificate). Other restrictions to qualify for funding include use of local crew. While this is politically rational and arguably comfortable, it ignores the realities of filmmaking as a business. These restrictions and limitations do not, for example, encourage our most successful filmmakers and actors to continue to work in Australian films.

Although generous by world standards, present levels of Government subsidy are not enough to make ours a film industry - it is the kindergarten for a grown up industry, perhaps, with nowhere enough financial rewards for those in the production process, from writers to producers and directors (and others). It is, moreover, limited by political realities: Canberra daren't increase funding precisely because it is seen as a 'cultural' expense, not as hard nosed industry-building. (As we can see, the television industry has fared better on local content production (mixed with imports), because it enjoys a different commercial structure. It has ad revenues as well as subsidies.)

In Australia's corridors of power (and elsewhere), filmmaking is seen 'merely as art' rather than as art in commerce: big problem. This perception has helped restrict the revenues that the filmmaking community receives for its work. Government doesn't want to be seen rewarding filmmakers with market-level incomes, thus ignoring the reality of business. The public is uninformed on these issues, due to a lack of public debate. (And some say that public debate will always be stifled because the industry participants don't want to rock the shaky boat of Government subsidy.) There are several successful tv production companies, but very few film producing ones. George Miller's Kennedy Miller operation is one (perhaps the only one) which has forged a real and profitable business out of film production in Australia, and has done so without 'selling out' or 'internationalisation' or Americanisation of its productions. It can be done, but it requires a valid business model as well as talent, hard work -and good scripts. KM is profitable enough to spend money on script development; that's like mining companies spending money on mineral exploration.

"budget limitations"

Australian budget limitations (partly due to fear of failure, partly to insufficient funds to cater for larger budgets) impose a sort of penalty on those who can command their real market value in the real industry in Los Angeles or elsewhere. The shooting budgets are also too skimpy to provide the fat necessary to entice lengthy script development, and script development is the essential oil that will light up a screenplay sufficiently to attract the best talent. Nor is there a studio system which develops scripts. Nor is there enough recognition (in cash or in kudos) for writers and producers; their role in the filmmaking process is largely underestimated in a culture that has deified the director to the exclusion of all others.

The other factor that influences talent is the ability to work with the world's leading cast and crew, which Australia's policies largely deny them. (That's perhaps one of the unsung benefits of Fox Studios in Sydney hosting major productions, enabling Australian crew and cast to work with a range of international players -including writers and producers, great and not so great. It all helps.) If we want Scott Hicks, Phil Noyce, Bruce Beresford, John Seale, Dean Semler, Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Russell Crowe to lend their talents to Australian projects, this issue will also need to be addressed.

[Note: Fox has ensured that Baz Luhramnn's next project, Moulin Rouge, is made in Australia by financing it and hosting the shoot at the studios. There is no Government subsidy and Baz is free to hire whom he likes for cast and crew. There are English (Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent) as well as American (John Leguizamo) actors alongside the Australians (Nicole Kidman, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham). One wonders whether this project, a mainstream musical, may have been considered too commercial for Government funding: such is the confusion over funding objectives viz an Australian film 'industry'.]

"infrequent commercial successes"

Yet, for all the circumscribed nature of the funding available, filmmakers still live in fear of funding cuts, which may be triggered by either too much success or not enough. The infrequent commercial successes have become the mantra for filmmakers to chant at Canberra: Priscilla, Muriel, Strictly. ...Surely these successes show that it's worth investing in this cultural activity, the filmmakers suggest. And while everyone applauds their commercial success and their cultural value, there is scant recognition for films on purely cultural grounds, which did not achieve commercial success as well; (perhaps that's because very few people get to see them. ) If Australian society wants Government funding provided only for cultural reasons, perhaps it should consider un-hitching the commercial requirement from the funding mechanism. It hasn't helped ensure commercial success for the majority of projects thus funded.

Alternatively, we should build a funding model -still using Government funds, but in tandem with the private sector - which is designed to create a miniature film industry. Like any other manufacturing industry, it should be complete with full marketing and export plans. This might require imaginative modeling and lateral thinking, but Australians excel at that - that's their famous 'can do' attitude that identifies them around the world in all sorts of endeavours, filmmaking being one. Just ask in Hollywood.

It will require a brand new approach to Government assistance, one that is less driven by cultural imperatives and more by business objectives. It is not an easy task.

"creative and marketing energy"

In the developed West, America alone has managed to build a film industry, recouping its manufacturing and distribution costs at home, effectively earning its profits in exports, which now represent over 50% of total box office revenues for American films (as a whole). And - after 80 years or so - it is still an industry that needs every ounce of creative and marketing energy to keep it afloat, and the deep pockets of private sector investors who seek blue sky profits. Industry wisdom has it that only one of seven studio films make a profit.

It is pretty clear that there is not room for more than one full scale (Western) film industry, when such an industry needs a global market to sustain itself. Even the Brits, with a population three times ours, and with the marketing advantage of the English language, have been unable to give birth to a healthy one. The French do have one, but it's mostly a domestic business, heavily supported by public funds and a keen cinema-attending public, and still limping under the language-limited export difficulties and the ever-present American imports.

It is a staggering naivetee to believe Australia can build a self funding and self sustaining film industry. But we could build an assisted mini industry, one that was intended to be a business, with real investors and real business plans, cashing in our chips of experience to date. We just need to debate the objectives and innovate a relevant assistance structure.

The irony is that the most successful film industry - Hollywood's - is also the one most vehemently and most frequently accused of exporting American culture. It seems they didn't need guidelines for it to happen; it happens naturally. We should take note of this. A nation's culture is not defined by or limited to the obvious elements of place and time and history and customs: it is just as potently reflected in what we discuss, when we discuss it and how we discuss it; in what stories we tell and how we tell them.

"stop feeling culturally threatened"

In this last year of the 2nd Millennium, Australia can stop feeling culturally threatened by Americans or anyone else, and can stop being so darned defensive as to prescribe requirements and elements to its filmmakers. Take it from a migrant who sees it more objectively, this is a robust and unique society that can withstand celluloid imperialism.

Just look at the record of Australian filmmaking.

But we can't call our filmmaking activity an industry just yet.

March, 2000

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(Note: This article discusses the standard Government-assisted processes in Australia. It does not address the newly created FLICS (Film Licenced Investment Companies) structure, which has yet to be tested - but devised in the same haze of confused policy objectives.)

GREG SMITH RESPONDS

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