The Australian Film Industry in the Global Market

As Tom O’Regan has noted, “never was there a time when an Australian film industry could develop in happy and splendid isolation. It was always integrated into a global system” (Poole, 2013, p.86). O’Regan is expressing that the Australian film industry has been part of an international industry since its inception and due to this has always had to compete on the international market as a minor player. While Australian productions have spent on average between $5 million and $10 million over the last decade and a half, foreign productions have spent between $20 million to $60 million (Tunny, 2013, p.9) making some speculate that the box office is almost a ‘rigged game’, we simply don’t have the money to produce the films that will compete. Nevertheless, where would we be without an industry that allows us, as Australians, to tell our stories on the big screen? Think about the story of the ANZACS, films like Gallipoli (1981) and Breaker Morant (1980) that tell stories of mateship, larrikinism, and the continued coming of age of the Australian nation. These are vital stories that define what it means to be an Australian and must be told by Australians.

There are many ‘public good’ arguments surrounding the funding and protection of Australian media content. Gene Tunny argues that a public good is something that is “non-excludable in consumption, and non-rivalrous meaning that one persons consumption does not limit another person’s consumption in any way” (Tunny, 2013, p. 13). A classic example of a public good is a defence force in that people do not have to pay for the benefit they receive. In the strictest sense, he argues films would not be considered a public good because they don’t meet this test. However, this relies on a very narrow and technical argument because Australian films promote, protect and enrich Australian culture, and are an extremely important public good. They serve as an integral part of our society, just as any other art form. This view is reflected in Section 6 of the Screen Australia Act 2008 where the parliament of Australia, recognises the importance of Screen Australia’s role to “promote and develop a highly creative, innovative and commercially sustainable Australian screen production industry”. This means that whilst Australian screen production should develop and reflect a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural diversity, it must also be commercially viable.

Keeping the Australian film industry commercially sustainable in recent years has meant that the Australian government has supported Hollywood productions with no discernible Australian content through providing incentives to make these productions in Australia using Australian resources. So arguments surrounding the protection of Australian media content in this context have arisen. In 2015 Julie Bishop announced $47.25 million in direct funding for the Thor and Alien sequels to be filmed in Australia which sparked disdain amongst supporters of the cultural protection argument. Alternatively, industry supporters would argue that it is Australian content if Australians are working on the productions. These are large scale and labour intensive productions in which specialists are employed to “rig the lights, weld the steel into place, hang the green screens, create the snow, the rain…” (Court and Tabone 2015). Cultural manufacturing does create jobs, Wolverine in 2013 brought in $300 million of off-shore investment and created 3,000 jobs in Australia (Jericho, 2015). The downside to all of this is that these jobs are essentially temporary and work in the film industry is subject to cycles of boom and bust (Burns and Eltham, 2010, p. 103) often dictated by the value of the Australian dollar and the attractiveness of Australia as a location through lower labour costs and construction materials. A study conducted by Abi Tabone shows that most specialists working in this space average just 60% of their annual work time in employment in film (Court and Tabone, 2015). So as production wraps up for films like Thor and Alien, as do many people’s jobs.

As explained by Burns and Eltham (2010), runaway productions in Australia such as The Matrix (mainly filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney) are often framed between two poles, “internationalist” and “Australian content” (Burns and Eltham, p. 112). But embracing the international does not mean excluding the national (Poole, 2013, p.90). This has been emphasised through the tax rebate, namely the “producer offset” introduced in 2007, which provides a 40% rebate on production costs for feature films if production qualifies as “significantly Australian” as well as international co-productions. What is “significantly Australian” is open to interpretation, but the producer offset has increased domestic film production, of both overseas and domestic films (Jericho, 2015) and has consequently opened doors for Australian film-makers on the world stage whilst increasing tourism and related industries experiencing flow-on growth (Poole, 2013, p.90). In the Screen Australia Report Skin in the Game: The Producer Offset 10 Years On, 91% of surveyed production companies indicated that the producer offset was ‘critically important’ to retain staff and keep developing projects in Australia.

Whilst the Australian film industry is global and many Australian performers relish the opportunity to work with international colleagues (Fletcher, 2015), the issue at stake is finding and maintaining the appropriate balance between foreign and local influences in the telling of our stories. In 2015 the Abbott Government proposed drastic changes to the guidelines that ensure quotas of Australian actors and crew have access to significant jobs. In response to that threat the Make it Australian Campaign was launched vying for the restoration of funding to public broadcasters and Screen Australia, rallying for rules that ensure Australian stories appear on new players like Netflix, Stan and Youtube, and outlined that tax incentives that encourage production in Australia are no longer competitive. Gillian Armstrong, award winning feature film and documentary director has shown her support for the campaign by saying, “without support, we won’t have our own jokes, our own culture, our own stories on screen”(Quinn, 2017).  Campaigns like Make it Australian are vital to the protection of Australian media content in the domestic market.

Australian film and television is undoubtedly a public good that must be protected. The Australian film and television industry, while always seeking to be international as well as being national, is increasingly reaching across borders and must continue to do so to stay commercially sustainable. It is true that the small budgets that Australian films attract compared to the Hollywood blockbusters make it extremely difficult for Australian films to compete in a global market. However bringing international productions to Australia does produce employment opportunities, increases tourism and growth in related industries. Australian stories deserve our support and protection because as Gillian Armstrong says, ‘It’s so important that we see things that are about us, that talk to us, that make us think about our lives” (Quinn, 2017).

Reference List

Burns and Eltham, “Boom and Bust in Australian Screen Policy: 10BA, The Film Finance Corporation, and Hollywoods, ‘Race to the Bottom'”, Incorporating Culture & Policy, No.136, August 2010, p.103-118

Court and Tabone, ‘Call the Specialists: What Thor and Alien could really do for the Australian film industry”, The Conversation, October 2015 https://theconversation.com/call-the-specialists-what-thor-and-aliens-could-really-do-for-the-australian-film-industry-49750 viewed 13th December 2017

Fletcher, A “Australian Film Talent and Stories deserve protection in order to be heard”, The Guardian, June 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jun/17/australian-film-talent-and-stories-deserve-protection-in-order-to-be-heard viewed 13 December 2017

Jericho, G, “How much does Australia really subsidise overseas films and is it worth it?” The Guardian, October 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2015/oct/26/how-much-does-australia-really-subsidise-overseas-films-and-is-it-worth-it viewed 12th December 2017

Make it Australian, https://makeitaustralian.com/take-action/

Poole, M “Internationalising Australian Film and Television: The AFI and an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA)”, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, No. 176, 2013: 86-91

Quinn, K “Gillian Armstrong lends her voice to campaign to save Australian screen content”, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 18 2017 http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/gillian-armstrong-lends-her-voice-to-campaign-to-save-australian-screen-content-20170917-gyj16x.html

Screen Australia, 2017, “Report Released – A decade of the Producer Offset”, viewed 14 December 2017 https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/media-centre/news/2017/11-15-a-decade-of-the-producer-offset-report

Screen Australia Act 2008, Part 2 Section 6, Australia https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2008A00012

Tunny, G “Moochers Making Movies: Government assistance to the film industry”, Policy: A Journal of Public Policy and Ideas, Vol. 29, No.1, 2013

 

 

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Assumptions of Australian Film and Television

Admittedly I spend a lot of time watching film and television…. probably way more than is considered ‘healthy’, but its what I really enjoy!. I’m a subscriber to both Stan and Netflix and whilst I do watch more American content than Australian content overall, I have recently really enjoyed Australian television shows like Cleverman which aired on the ABC, The Kettering Incident on Foxtel, Matt Okines The Other Guy on Stan and Josh Thompson’s Please Like Me also on the ABC. Whilst watching all of these shows, in none of them did I have the feeling of the show trying to be overtly Australian or too culturally specific, yet all of them tell an Australian story. Whilst Cleverman is clearly reflective of how Indigenous Australians are treated in Australia and so undoubtedly Australian content, it could easily be reflective of how any minority group is discriminated against.

ketteringPleaseLikeMe_headerp14107240_b_v8_ab

This is why I was really surprised when I sat down in my first summer session class and my peers described their assumptions of Australian film and television like this…

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 11.26.23 am
What my class came up with when asked what their assumptions are of Australian content…

Whilst these things aren’t the first words that come to mind when I think of Australian film and tv, once we started listing iconic Australian film and television, this mind map seems completely accurate and made me think twice of my initial understanding. Think, Crocodile Dundee (1986), Neighbours (1985-), Home and Away (1988-), McLeods Daughters (2001-2009) and The Castle (1997). Whilst these are a select few that fit a specific idea of Australian content, there are many perspectives on Australian film and a frequent complaint was summed up by Louis Nowra who wrote in 2009 that “Australian films are so dispiriting that they make Leonard Cohen seem positively cheery” (Bolt,Daily Telegraph, 2009). Another is that they are full of outmoded ocker stereotypes. So what is Australian creative content supposed to do?, well in actual fact it is supposed to have cultural benefits for Australia and in many ways is based on the understanding “… that film serves the identification and refinement of essential Australianness”(Dermody and Jacka, 1987, 35) and yet I don’t feel any of these iconic films and tv series listed above are insightful into my day to day life as an Australian.

…..So what is considered an Australian Screen Production? 

Screen Australia determines whether a project has significant Australian content with regard to:

  • The subject matter of the film
  • The place where the film was made
  • The nationalities and places of residence of the persons who took part in the making of the film
  • The details of the production expenditure incurred in respect of the film, and
  • any other matters that we consider to be relevant.

But this also means that a film like The Great Gatsby (2013), a great American novella by a great US Author F. Scott Fitzgerald can be considered an Australian film even if it is not an Australian story. This is because it was directed by Baz Luhrmann, was filmed in Australia with an Australian crew and mainly Australian actors (even though it stars Leonardo DiCaprio).

But maybe moving away from Australian content having to be identifiably Australian is a good thing and a films merits should be determined not by its cultural appropriateness but the film as a whole. Julius Avery, the director of Australian film Son of a Gun said, This label ‘Australian film’, I don’t know. I think we need to drop that and just make universal films that connect.” Whilst I think more recent tv shows like the ones mentioned earlier (Please Like Me, The Kettering Incident, and Cleverman etc) are succeeding at this, there seems to be a struggle between the responsibility to tell Australian stories in order to enrich national identity and creating Australian content  that doesn’t have to be identifiably Australian in order to be successful.

The success or failure of the Australian film and television industry is dependent on multiple issues like the audience, tall poppy syndrome, lack of funding, advertising and policy making. These will all be discussed in future weeks as this topic is explored in depth.