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AUSTRALIAN FILMMAKING: CHANGE OR PERISH SAYS BRIAN ROSEN

Brian Rosen, who as Chief Executive of the Australian Film Finance Corporation is arguably the most influential and powerful man in Australian filmmaking, is floating some radical ideas to change the culture and practice of subsidising film production. For one thing, he wants to change the business from a cottage industry into a real one. Andrew L. Urban looks into the coming revolution. (This article also published in The Bulletin with Newsweek, on sale July 7, 2004.)

“Enough of this egalitarian shit,” says Brian Rosen, “we need to reward success.” They weren’t the first words of his Ian Macpherson Lecture delivered on June 17, 2004 as part of the 51st Sydney Film Festival, but they’re the ones that will resonate at next month’s film and television industry conference (Gold Coast, August 8 – 11) and echo in the future. 

These are words that symbolise a radical, perhaps revolutionary new way of thinking about how to best support Australian filmmaking; how to “ignite the spark” as he puts it. Chief Executive of the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), Rosen has another controversial suggestion: “Perhaps, as they are doing in the UK and Canada, government support for the film industry should diversify into distribution, not simply production … should the FFC become more like a studio and start distributing our films overseas, as well as playing a more active role in their distribution in Australia? Is that the way we are going to make this industry more sustainable?”

As Chief Executive of the Government’s primary production funding agency, Rosen’s views (not yet official policy of the board) carry considerable weight. He is the FFC’s first boss to come from the private sector. And it shows. Just over a year into the job, and he has already changed the culture at the FFC, questioning the status quo.

When the film and tv industry gathers for its annual conference (organised by the Screen Producers Association of Australia), he will probably be abused and praised in equal measure. But in their hearts, the filmmakers – especially those with international experience – will know that Rosen is right: it’s time to change the ground rules, throw out the rule book and the heavy handed guidelines, and turn up the heat. The notion of the FFC using commissioning editors for script assessment is a handgrenade. But, he believes, that approach will drive up the quality of the final films, as long as the funding mechanism permits it.

"egalitarian shit"

The “egalitarian shit” is a reference to the notion that whatever funds are available for film and tv production should be spread around as widely as possible throughout the industry. Naturally, this means the spread is thin. Rewarding success: is the track record of favouring first time film directors, for instance, really the best way to support the industry; “about 150 directors have worked on the 200-odd feature films backed by the FFC since the organisation was set up in 1988,” says Rosen. “The great majority of these – 113 – directed only one FFC feature film; 24 directed two; seven directed three, two directed four, and two directors made five.” 

Is this really the profile of an industry, Rosen asks.

Indeed, the word ‘industry’ is being used by Rosen in its precise sense. The Australian film industry has been a cottage industry, relying on continuous funding from Governments. Rosen wants to label it for what it is: subsidy. And he proposes a major policy turnaround in having the private investors recoup ahead of the Film Finance Corporation. Is this heresy or an epiphany?

The rationale is clear: private investors are more likely to risk capital if they get the first returns, not the Government. Tax-driven private investment in film is still regarded with a shudder at the ATO, ever since the bad experience of the Section 51 (i) rorts of the 80s. But then the ATO should not be allowed to drive policy decisions for the Government – especially on a matter of such commercial, crucial and cultural importance.

Rosen’s philosophy seeks to continue finding new talent and showcase it (eg Somersault, which was selected for Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, catapulting director Cate Shortland and actress Abbie Cornish into global view) but it also seeks to help establish producers as long term players in the industry, albeit with continuing Government support.

"comparing Australian filmmaking to the Hollywood industry is ridiculous"

Of course, Brian Rosen is emphatic that comparing Australian filmmaking to the Hollywood industry is ridiculous. Australia is more like the independent film sector in America, struggling for market share success and fighting off the majors when it makes a hit. Film industries all over the world need some form of support.

Despite the recent commercial failures, Rosen believes, Australia has more than enough talent – writers, directors, actors, crew - to make terrific films that satisfy creatively as well as commercially. But the way our funding is structured, there is not enough money to give writers and producers the time to fully develop scripts, as the system tries to do “egalitarian shit”.

The limitations of feature film budgets within the $3 - $6 million range, argues Rosen, has tended to flatten the creative process. An industry needs to have a more dynamic range of budget sizes, allowing for the occasional $25 or $30 million project, even at the expense of production volume.

Since the 70s, some things have changed while some have not, Rosen says. One thing that has changed is that there has been tremendous growth in the number of people working in film and television. “There are now about 2,000 registered businesses involved in film and video production in Australia,” he says. “In the UK, which is obviously a much bigger market, there are only about 100 companies and in France, there are about 700 companies.

“There are far too many people competing for far too few production jobs. The problem becomes really acute when you see that each year our top films schools are turning out ten aspiring feature directors and ten writers and ten cinematographers, who are joining the ranks of hundreds of directors, writers and cinematographers who classify themselves as feature film makers.”

But “something about our feature film production sector that hasn’t changed much since the 1970s is that we are working very much as a cottage industry – failing, with rare exceptions, to move into larger integrated production/distribution entities, or to set up feature film companies that diversify into more commercial production streams.”

"the conclusions to be drawn are complex"

Rosen points out that the conclusions to be drawn are complex. “Feature film producers will often fiercely defend their independent work practices, saying it is a key to greater creativity. But they also acknowledge that their companies are undercapitalised and find it increasingly difficult to source enough income to sustain their overheads between projects. Left unchecked, this industry structure will simply perpetuate the first-timer phenomenon, as it will be mainly the emerging filmmakers that have the energy to live on the meagre resources available while trying to get their projects up.”

In brutally simple summary, his message is: change or perish.

Production and Profit:
* Of the 212 feature films supported by FFC finance, only nine films have gone into profit;
* Of the 523 documentaries, four have gone into profit;
* None of the 81 adult drama productions have gone into profit;
* And only one of the 75 children’s drama productions has made a profit;

“That’s not because they are mostly bad film and television programs. It is mainly because the majority of income from film and television programs is derived from distribution and exhibition, not from production. This is simply a fact of the business worldwide, and one of the cornerstones on which the success of the Hollywood studios is built.” – Brian Rosen.

The Main Issues:
*  Explore ways for FFC to be involved in distribution, where the money is;
* Support successful filmmakers, with less emphasis on first time directors;
* Provide funds for realistic, longer term script development;
* Evaluate projects on merit, not red tape guidelines;
* Expand the budget range of films being made to allow for bigger films;
* Government funding to be labelled ‘subsidy’ and let private investors recoup first from returns;
* Encourage private investment with a well developed tax write-off regime;

Published July 7, 2004

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BRIAN ROSEN
Brian Rosen is a film producer with over 20 years of experience in Australia and overseas. His credits include We of the Never Never, Ferngully: the Last Rainforest (20th Century Fox) and James and the Giant Peach (Disney). Rosen has previously been CEO of Hoyts Productions. He spent 10 years in America as President of Classic Films USA, which had a production deal with 20th Century Fox in the late 1990s.







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