There is a sense of desperation clouding the ever present natural and necessary
optimism in the film industry, caused largely by its recent commercial failures, and what
that may mean in terms of Government support. The producers and the film agencies are
nervous that lackluster performances and the absence of high profile Australian films at
festivals (like Cannes this year) will dampen or even destroy the willingness of
Government to keep putting money into film production. But according to Arts Minister
Peter McGauran, the Government is not shouting 'show me the money!' On the contrary.
And here is the irony that McGauran is spelling out: if the film business were assessed
today on purely employment terms, it would be a howling success and his parliamentary
colleagues could argue that its success means McGauran should perhaps wind back Government
"Overall production [including foreign projects] is at its highest for ten years.
There are more people employed than ever before. The economic rationalists would say the
industry is fully matured. But the value of Australian film and tv production has declined
and Australia spends less on development than other countries."
He advises the filmmaking lobby to stay focused on the Government's agenda.
"Government support is on the basis of cultural objectives and in arguing for more
support in a monetary sense, the industry's far wiser to stress the cultural objectives.
Sometimes the requests for more money are dressed up in employment terms, which isn't the
core issue for Governments - it's cultural."
And The Minister is not about to change his mind: "I am fiercely opposed to any
dilution of that strategy. The system operates very well at present in getting Australian
stories to the screen in a way that dependence on the private sector entirely, could
not." But he is happy "to hear from people about guidelines upon which the FFC
and AFC make their decisions, but I can't see the need to turn the system on its
In the lead up to this year's budget, Australia's film and tv producers are urging the
Government to increase funding for the Film Financing Corporation (FFC) by $6.8 million,
and the Australian Film Commission (AFC) by an additional $4.5 million per year,
"thus restoring FFC funding to original levels"; they also want its present
functions fully renewed in a new four year contract. The total increase of just over $11
million is a pittance, let's face it, in the context of sustaining a high profile industry
with international ambitions and highlights the underlying confusion about
taxpayer-provided support for film production.
The producers, through their organisation, SPAA (Screen Producers Association of
Australia) have taken the lobbying straight to the Government, pointing to overseas
experience in a desperate effort to make Cabinet respond.
"Other governments are backing their industries with serious investment. The
European Union has committed $372 million over five years to boost European films,"
says Nick Herd, Executive Director of SPAA. "Even America, which traditionally has
not involved itself in funding independent film, announced a US$100 million fund
underwritten by the US government to invest in independent US films. This is an early
warning that Australia is falling behind world’s best practice."
Filmmaking in Australia has been called an industry for two decades, but regarded by
most as the cultural heart we had to have. This ambivalence has been underscored by the
fact that funding for filmmaking comes from the arts bucket, not from an industry
"A provocative question"
Greg Smith (Executive Director Creative Affairs of Content Capital Ltd, one of the FLIC
companies established last year, has previously been director of Film Victoria and the NSW
Film and TV Office), also recognises "the policy confusion inherent in the operating
structure of the industry in Australia. Is 'the industry' the actual groundspring for
future filmmaking in this country - or is it merely the neo-Byzantine enclave of self
comforting bureaucrats (I have been one) and the filmmakers who know how to operate the
system to maximise their share of the available subsidy dollar? A provocative question but
one which should be asked. This is not the model for building an 'industry'. I don't ask
the question to be critical or accusing. If there is any truth in it, it has wide
A supplementary question may be: why do Governments finance filmmaking for cultural
reasons yet not assess the results on cultural grounds? "I don't have an answer to
that," says Herd; "it's a good question to put to Government."
McGauran says the answer is complex: "We shy away from being too culturally
explicit for fear of becoming cultural Czars and picking and choosing what might appeal to
us our the bureaucrats. However, we do (through the AFC and FFC) lay down the parameters
on which films can be funded." These are the inputs, though, as McGauran admits, and
the outcomes are harder to define.
"It's a little bit like the ABC in that regard in that they're not meant to be
driven by ratings, but will use ratings as a measure of community acceptance or support.
We have the same problems in films. We don't expect every film to turn a profit and not
even break even - we hope they do but that's not a condition of funding. But taxpayers
begin to ask why are there so many duds?" That's a subjective point of view, of
course, but in real-politik terms it is as valid as a fiscal argument.
"the various funding arrangements can be poles
Australia's most senior film bureaucrat, the Chief Executive of the FFC, Catriona
Hughes, asserts that "funding decisions are made for both reasons [cultural as well
as commercial]. Sometimes the assessment is driven more by the cultural, other times more
by the commercial consideration. What's adaptable and flexible are the market attachment,
influenced by such factors as a first time director and or a low budget. So the various
funding arrangements can be poles apart."
Market attachment simply means private sector investment; this is a cornerstone of the
funding apparatus. If a script attracts enough private sector support, the argument goes,
it must have commercial prospects. This is where the structure changes gears, in a sense,
to become commercially activated.
Hughes points out that one of the assessment factors is the total Australian audience
attracted by funded projects - this measure, she says, is not the same as box office.
Hughes cites the example of the 1994 production of Dad and Dave: On Our Selection, which
was seen by a national audience of around 2.8 million people. The problem for the industry
is that of those 2.8 million, 2.2 saw it on free to air television. While Hughes says
these sorts of figures show that "audiences have access to the productions" and
that the theatrical release helps trigger interest, some would argue that the 'trigger'
seems very expensive in such cases.
"Or is it to enable them to succeed"
Which raises the question, is that what Government support is for - to allow filmmakers
to fail in strictly commercial terms? Or is it to enable them to succeed. McGauran is not
the only one asking, "Why can't we have both?" He says it's evident that we have
all of the skills: directors, producers, actors, cinematographers ….all of that. We
don't yet have the writers that we need. But it's not entirely their fault. There is so
much pressure on them - economic, just to survive - to get a script into production long
before it's properly developed."
Kim Williams, now Chief Executive of Fox Studios, but for many years the head of
Government film agencies like the AFC and FFC. He told Lateline on March 28, "I think
we've had a glut of poor product. I don't think there's any running away from it. We have
had a glut of films that have had no connection with audiences. Now, it's regrettable,
it's certainly not intentional, but it's something which we need to stand back and look
at, in terms of the way in which decision-making operates, that allows many millions of
dollars to be expended on films that ultimately have no market. That's a wasteful, empty
and absolutely futile exercise, and without any kind of redeeming creative or cultural
McGauran agrees: "the true measure of the industry's problems is lack of popular
He says the AFC's new focus on development - across the board, from producer packages
to script development - is aimed to address this issue.
And it is welcome, says SPAA President, producer Tom Jeffrey. "It's something
we've been looking for, for some time." As for the reasons for funding production,
Jeffrey is adamant: "It has to be both [cultural and commercial]." As soon as
you have the FFC making assessments on cultural issues, he warns, the industry gets very
worried. It's the cultural Czar scenario McGauran is so well aware of. But Jeffrey feels
that "at Government level we are lacking a clear indication of what it's cultural
objectives are." Indeed; this is the ironic twist that tortures the industry, the
politicians - and the wider community.
"the fruits of their efforts"
But the one thing the existing structure won't do is financially set up a successful
filmmaker with the fruits of their efforts. For example, the profits from Shine didn't go
to Scott Hicks to enable him to set up a real filmmaking business, along the lines of,
say, Kennedy Miller.
"Oh yes," says McGauran, who has recently met with film directors including
Hicks, "Scott Hicks is very strong on this. He argues that unless the directors and
perhaps the producers share in the profits to a far greater extent, he'll never build a
Kennedy Miller. He says he lost his chance with Shine (part FFC funded global hit). But
the FFC's response is 'oh great, we're just going to enrich Scott Hicks are we? Sure he
might use it for altruistic purposes but someone else might just go off to the South of
France. No way; we're taking our cut so we can reinvest it in other Australian films.' No,
you're right, we're never going to let a Scott Hicks get a windfall. The profits must
always come back to the pool. So that's it - Scott Hicks should not expect to become the
next Kennedy Miller from a taxpayer agency. He should wait for Snow Falling on Cedars
(fully financed by Universal Pictures)." He says this without any trace of meanness,
more in the spirit of explanation. He pauses and says with energy: "Oh cripes …
yeah, you've hit the nail on the head."
And then he returns to the earlier, point-blank point: "But look, it still comes
down to basics; as Kim Williams said, 'stop making product no-one wants to watch.' "
(This is the original version of the article that appears in The
Bulletin, on sale April 19, 2000.)