The Future of the Australian Film and Television Industry

Before undertaking this subject, I had no idea the obstacles and barriers that Australian film makers need to climb just to get their ideas to even be considered by funding bodies. A lack of funding, marketing, access and distribution strategies paired with an audience that is bored with the ‘Significant Australian Content’ test, means that even the best of Australian scripts are disadvantaged in some way or another. Troy Lum from Hopscotch entertainment say’s good scripts are hard to come by all over the world, “a good script is really, really difficult and we churn out about as many of them as anyone.”(Kaufman, 2009, p.6). It’s a fallacy that Australia has poor creativity, its the industry that’s letting people down.

The emphasis on ‘significant Australian content’ has alienated Australian audiences and driven them towards a reliance on Hollywood. There has been a common agreement amongst industry specialists that ‘telling our own stories should no longer be a driver for making Australian films’ (Kaufman, 2009, p.`7) and instead to just focus on making a good film and “making our own myths” (Kaufman, 2009, p.7). Critic Luke Buckmaster explains that the SAC test has created a perception problem,

When it’s not busy depressing us with films about cancer and people who collapse in gutters with needles in their arms, Australian films are cringe-inducing ‘g’ day mate’ comedies. The sort of facepalm productions geared towards jokes featuring things as stereotypically nationalistic as shrimps on a barbie. (Verhoeven, 2009, p.8)

 

A film that is created, directed or produced by Australians, has Australian actors or special effects crew will automatically reflect parts of what it is to be Australian, without having to meet the SAC test.

Furthermore, as global technology companies like Netflix continue to increase with no Australian content obligations, the industry needs to respond, embrace and co-create (Roeper & Luckman, 2009, p.6). Roeper & Luckman 2009 argue that there has been a history of adaptation and survival for platforms such as cinemas undergoing transformations from full colour 3D, VCR, DVD and the IMAX format in order to adapt to changing audience demands. It is because of this history of adaptation that industry professionals may not see ‘Web 2.0’ technologies as being as much of a threat to film and television as they might otherwise seem. This is the industry response they have termed ‘denial’ (Luckman, 2009, p. 7). With the rise of VOD services, cinema going has become more of an event than a regular occurrence. Due to the changing nature of how audiences are consuming content, the industry needs to be creative with their distribution strategies, Colin MacCabe (2007) observes, “films only exist when they are distributed properly”. Without the proper distribution, unfortunately, the harsh truth is that our films can’t compete financially with “either the low budget indies from the US, and they can’t mix it aesthetically with the big-budget block busters” (SMH, Quinn, 2014). A solution for the future of Australian films as suggested by producer Cass O’Connor is that, “the new technologies are going to allow filmmakers to hone their skills and craft good films with smaller budgets, which is what they need to do,” O’Connor said.

On a larger scale, the industry needs to be trying to strike a balance between protectionism and internationalism by stopping the relentless cuts to Screen Australia, ABC and the SBS. Yet still continuing to participate in co-productions with countries like China in order to bring money into the industry, employ Australians and allow Australia’s presence to grow as a competitor in the global market. Matt Pressberg says to expect more Chinese stars in the next five years (ABC, 2017).
It is not the time to be giving up on Australian content, but instead lobbying for changes within the industry, because once all is said and done,”People just want to be entertained, to be swept away by the story.” 
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Does Globalisation mean the Americanisation of Australia’s Film and Television industry?

The phenomenon of globalisation has meant the international flow of money, ideas and culture. Free Trade Agreement’s are ultimately a product of globalisation, they are a tool to break down the barriers that are in place to protect local markets in order to trade between two or more countries. Breen (2010) uses the theory of ‘digital determinism’ as a way of explaining the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) of 2005 between Australia and the US. As a theory, digital determinism offers a frame­ work for identifying how already­ hegemonic digital networks reproduce their own inter­ests: culturally, economically and politically (Breen, 2007). The FTA was seen by some critics as American expansionism because the adoption of American technologies would also entail the adoption of American culture and values. Breen (2010) explains that this becomes possible because the “pre-existing structural supremacy of one of the treaty partners (US) overwhelms the culture industries within the lesser power (Australia)” (Breen, p.660). This has ultimately meant the Americanisation of Australian film and television and whilst globalisation and shared cultural understanding is not a negative, individual cultures deserve to be protected and preserved.

The FTA between the US and Australia was implemented against the backdrop of the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity’ (2002) which was established to do exactly that. The declaration asserts national cultural rights as human rights in the globalising ICT (Information and communication technology) context. The convention was a result of nearly a decade of lobbying against US cultural hegemony, it is therefore not surprising that every member of UNESCO voted in favour of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, with the sole exceptions of the US and Israel. There is no doubt that Australia’s film and television industry has been heavily Americanised with the majority (54%) of films released in Australian cinemas over the past 33 years coming from the US (Screen Australia). This has resulted in a protectionist attitude about work for Australians, and concerns about effectively representing national interests on screen.

The most controversial kind of globalisation as a result of FTA’s in the film industry has been runaway or ‘born international’ productions’ (O’Regan and Potter, 2013, p.5) as often big budget block busters are funded and produced instead of funding being allocated to local and culturally relative screen stories. Alongside runaway productions, O’Regan & Potter 2013 explain that, “we need to include the transformations within the national production space in terms of formats, processes and structural connections”, in other words, policy makers and governments need to understand how the internet, still a relatively new and unregulated platform, has distinctly changed the way audiences consume film and television nationally. The ability for audiences to watch across multiple platforms without content quotas has resulted in audiences favouring global cultural diversity over Australian content. Hollywood movies dominate what Australian audiences are watching through VOD (33% Hollywood movies to 20% Australian movies, see figure 1.) meaning that online viewing is still heavily Americanised. Audience fragmentation is becoming more widespread as media outlets continue to grow, policymakers and funding bodies have so far failed to respond to the changing demands of Australian audiences but must find new ways to incorporate these new platforms into the Australian film and television industry.

Infographic-2015-Mar-Australian-audiences-are-watching-online
Fig.1 “Australian audiences are watching online” Screen Australia  2015

 

 

Discuss: Australian jobs are more important than Australian Culture

As discussed in previous posts, the Australian film industry faces a smorgasbord of problems and hurdles to overcome in order to compete in a global market. Transnational co-productions have been one way of overcoming many of the typical issues faced by Australian film makers. Co-productions offer significant opportunities including opening a pool of resources and automatically accessing two markets in terms of creativity, finance and audience reach. The ultimate outcome is content that can be considered a ‘domestic’ production in each of the partner countries (Yecies, 2009, p.2).

Governments use incentive instruments to develop economic growth, to modernise industry infrastructure and to increase domestic employment and training opportunities – all while promoting tourism (Yecies, 2009, p.3). In Australia these incentives include the Producer offset whilst bypassing the SAC test and also being able to apply for production funding from Screen Australia. Australian producers can make a co-production with producers from:  Canada, China,  France (MOU),  Germany,  Ireland,  Italy,  Israel,  Korea,  New Zealand (MOU),  Singapore,  South Africa, and the United Kingdom. 
Currently the Chinese film industry is in the middle of a boom (Yecies, 2009,p.4) and Australia is taking full advantage of this.

China is currently the world’s second-largest movie-going market (Screen Australia 2017)  and in April 2017, Australia announced 14 China-Australia film co-productions (Yu, SBS, 2017). One of the films At Last is expected to provide around 200 jobs and inject $10.8 million into the local economy (Vieira, 2017). However, Australian producer Mark Lazarus says “the collaborative process is complex and compromise is necessary”. Does this then mean that Australian culture must be compromised in order to allow for transnational co-productions that provide Australian jobs and boost the Australian economy?. Yeices (2009) says that “ICPs can circumvent cultural imperatives, because they weaken the cultural relevance of the content for one or more of the partnering countries and their cultural identities.” This has certainly been true of past co productions Australia has been a part of. For example Greencard (1991) was an Australia/France co-production that was shot in New York, had an American lead actress, French lead actor and an Australian director. It was classed as ‘Australian’ for funding purposes but lacked any identifiable Australian cultural specificity. It is examples like Greencard that give legitimacy to the belief that, “the funding that producers gain access to has proven more popular than having a collaborative cultural experience” (Yecies, 2009, p.3).

GuardiansOftheTomb
Still from Guardians of the Tomb (Australia/China co-production, to be released in 2018)

Furthermore, whilst investment budgets of AUD $400 million have been promised by production houses such as Sydney Films to 20 potential co-productions, Screen Australia has received funding cuts of over $50 million in the five years up to 2018-19 (White, SMH, 2015).  These funding cuts have been heavily denounced by Screen Producers Australia, which claimed they “will seriously impact the industry” (Quinn, SMH, 2015). From these politically charged actions it can be said that the Australian government is much more concerned with strengthening diplomatic ties with China than supporting its own local screen stories. Yecies explains that the result of politically charged co-productions can be that, “collaborative stories can appear forced – especially when a ‘domestic’ film is sought-after only to fulfil policy requirements, rather than organically to tell a local story” (Yecies, 2009, p.6).

Co-productions offer opportunities that are normally unattainable for local productions. They create a significant amount of jobs for Australians, highlight Australian creative excellence, have the potential to inject millions into the local economy and deepen cultural understanding. However, they often require compromise, which can mean the loss of cultural relativity to either country involved. The large funds and diplomatic ties involved in co-productions can take the emphasis off creating a collaborative cultural experience that may have been more justifiably spent on a local production.

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/bringing-stories-together-14-china-australia-film-co-productions-announced-in-beijing.”

https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/media-centre/news/2017/04-20-australian-chinese-copro

Yecies, 2009 http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1409&context=artspapers

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/screen-australia-budget-cut-brings-agencys-funding-down-16-per-cent-in-12-months-20150513-gh0tsn.html

Accessing Australian Audiences

It’s a common perception that Australian audiences do not like and will not support Australian content. Many believe this is due to the fixation of the Australian film industry to create films that say something important about being Australian. Whilst viewing Australian screen stories has become a very significant part of Australian everyday life (Bowles, 2007, p.96) the emphasis on ‘significant Australian content‘, referred to as ‘meeting the SAC test’, relates to the fact that content we have created in the past has been cliché and leads to a ‘dire state of naturalism in films’ (Kaufman, p.7, 2009). This is reflected in box office figures with feature films under Australian or shared creative control earning $24.1 million or 1.9 per cent of the total Australian box office in 2016 (Screen Australia). Previously, in 2004 when Australian film took up 1.3% of the box office, Australian cinema was seen to have a ‘brand’ problem (Verhoeven). This branding problem has clearly not been addressed with Australian content still doing incredibly poorly at the box office in 2016. Dr Deb Verhoeven explains, “Australian film funding agencies have barely raised an eyebrow at the low level of interest in the local cinema”. Whilst box office figures do not create a complete measure of a films success or audience preferences, there still needs to be analysis over these statistics.

Susan Hoerlein has also referred to Australian films as a brand, noting “if people don’t really connect with it, the brand has failed, and it would take an extensive marketing campaign to turn this around” (Kaufman, 2009, p.6). Nevertheless, there are multiple reasons as to why box office figures are so low and the marketing of Australian films or lack thereof is a significant factor. In 2012, 43 Australian films screened at Australian cinemas, but many people didn’t know about them. Film distributor Troy Lum argues that “the marketing of Australian films is often mis-targeted, underfunded or left too late” (Kaufman, p.6, 2009). Furthermore, Australian films get a much more limited release in Australian cinemas, Paul Kalina from The Age notes that “well received local films may only be seen on around twenty-five screens across Australia, whilst a mid level release of a US film will still be seen on up to 200 screens” (Kaufman,2009, p.8).This creates an issue of access for Australian audiences and is illustrated poignantly through the example of the Australian film, The Babadook (2014), which earned more money in its opening weekend in the UK than during its entire Australian cinematic run. Given its limited 13-screen release in Australia, compared to the 147 screens it opened with in the UK and 1 million pound advertising campaign, this example illustrates the problems faced by home grown film makers when trying to access the domestic audience.

The Babadook is now experiencing renewed local interest after its international success, an instance that is often described as tall poppy syndrome. Tall poppy syndrome is when Australian audiences, “by and large, dismiss Australian films unless they’ve been recognised overseas first” (La Paglia, 2014).

Instances like The Babadook are not few and far between, these issues of access, marketing, branding and funding are prominent obstacles to the success of Australian films connecting with Australian audiences.