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

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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.

 

Ozploitation: Exploitation or Fearless Film making?

In the early to mid 20th century, Australian censorship was really repressive, especially for the western world (Moore, p.3, 2012). It is instances like the banning of George Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933 which have given Australian censorship its reputation for severity (Moore, p.3, 2012). Australian censorship not only effected literature but also film making, however the 10BA tax laws and the implementation of the R rating in 1971 changed all this. The 10BA tax laws that were first introduced in June 1981, allowed investors to claim a 150 per cent tax concession and to pay tax on only half of any income earned from the investment, resulting in a period of fearlessness and risk taking in Australian film. Watching ‘Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild untold story of Ozploitation!’ (2008) was like opening up a pandora’s box of Australian films not readily available and rarely referenced in the Australian film industry today. Films like Turkey Shoot (1982), Wake in Fright (1971), Long Weekend (1978) and Alvin Purple (1973) all exemplified how the new R rating was taken full advantage of by film makers and nudity, horror, gore and extreme violence became common themes of Ozpolitation films.

In ‘Not Quite Hollywood’ Phillip Adams admitted, “many of us were snobby about genre filmmaking”. However Alvin Purple was the most commercially successful Australian movie of the 1970’s, it had a budget of $200,000 but took 5 million at the box office. It was a film with “progressive instincts that were both informed and complicated by the emergence of feminism as a political movement”,whilst responding to the changing ideas of sexual freedom and “giving the public what they want and rubbing it in prudes faces”. Many of the Ozploitation films were as popular with audiences as they were hated by film critics, they were often compared to popular art house films of the time like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) even though they represented an entirely opposite world of film making. Mark Hatley notes that “For every Caddie there was a Felicity. For every Picnic at Hanging Rock there was a Stunt Rock. For every Jimmie Blacksmith there was an Alvin Purple’ (Heller-Nicholas, p.14, 2008) meaning that the boisterous films in Not Quite Hollywood positioned themselves in direct opposition to mainstream Australian film culture. The Ozploitation films act as a “rich mine of valuable cultural artefacts” and Not Quite Hollywood along with the use of Quentin Tarantino’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian genre films of this era acknowledges the impact, charm and influence of many of these films.

The creative freedom explored during this time is similar to the spirit that is moving across to the popular web series format that has inspired many young people to make film without the constraints of funding or network support. Web series made in Australia went from just 107 episodes in 2012 to 3,248 in 2016 (The Conversation, 2017) and some of these have been major success stories. Just as web series do, Ozploitation films in many ways counteract the contemporary complaints of Australian film, they were not tame and predictable, and now, web series are being given this same chance to create content that would have struggled in a conservative risk-averse broadcast market.

References

Moore, N., 2012. The Censor’s Library. 1st ed. St Lucia Qld: University of Queensland Press.

Buckmaster, L ‘Alvin Purple rewatched – the raunchy heart of 1970’s Ozploitation’, The Guardian, 2014, visited 9/1/2018 https://www.theguardian.com/film/australia-culture-blog/2014/oct/24/alvin-purple-rewatching-classic-australian-films

Swinburne, S ‘How web series are shaking up Australia’s screen industry’, The Conversation, June 30 2017, visited 3/1/2018https://theconversation.com/how-web-series-are-shaking-up-australias-screen-industry-79844

Heller-Nicholas, A, ‘Ozploitation Revisited: Not Quite Hollywood’, Metro Magazine, No.158, 2008:14-17

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…

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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.