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SPADA 2010: Boom or Bust

A conversation between two Australians, both formerly with Australia’s Film Finance Corporation – now merged with Film Australia and the Australia Council into one body Screen Australia. Brian Rosen was their CEO, and Tait Brady their Evaluation Manager.

Rosen started out by noting that every two or three years, a Kiwi movie really spikes through into the world market, in a way that Aussie films don’t. The problem here is that there simply aren’t enough of them – a product of NZ’s smaller size, as an industry and population. While Australia produces 28 or 30 features per year, NZ filmmaking is just as active on a per capita basis. Boy did business equivalent to what Baz Kuhrmann’s Australia did over there,. Both equate to a Hollywood title taking $US360m at home.

Brady commented that our international successes mostly (all?) have an indigenous (Maori or Pacific) focus – something that’s not true of Australia. In the past this was perhaps because films with an indigenous focus were made by outsiders, and took a rather serious tone. Recently, films by Aboriginal film-makers (e.g. Samson and Delilah, Bran Nue Day) incorporate much more humour into what are still serious themes.

Rosen then spoke of how Australian features largely only reach an older audience, and asked how one should make films for a younger crowd. Change the type of stories perhaps, or aim at more romantic comedies rather than what he terms “drawing room dramas”. Animation films are their most successful, and genre films the least! He told of how when Australia’s FFC offered $10m for rom-com projects aimed at the multiplexes, NO-ONE came through the door – in L.A. they’d have been bowled over!

“The ‘commercial film’ is the biggest fucking myth there is!” Rosen said, claiming no funding agency can pick winners. They support a portfolio of films (and nurture talent), and hope that the successes balance out the failures – just as the big studios do. The concept of chasing box office is a bad one – evaluation of projects should be about balancing the filmmaker’s vision with a realistic view of the target audience; so that for example, if a film is likely to reach 200,000 people at an average $10 per ticket, then the total budget should be $2m. Evaluation should also involve testing the strength of the film-maker’s vision; and whether the project is fully developed, truly and properly ready to shoot.

A big chunk of the session was taken up with discussion of the offsets (rebates) available in Australia compared with NZ. The existence of state funding agencies in addition to Australia’s federal one was clearly advantageous – a TV project could score funding of 40% from a broadcaster, 20% each from Screen Oz and from offsets, plus 5 or even 10% from a state agency, leaving only 10-15% to be found elsewhere. The big difference Brady and Rosen noted between our countries was the trigger for incentives – in Australia it’s $1m, with proposals to reduce it to $0.5m; while in NZ it’s $4m! Lowering the floor here was highly recommended – doing this could possibly produce quite a few more Peter Jacksons, it was suggested.

Offsets lift profitability hugely. They encourage independent investment, and mean that the funding agencies are no longer the majority shareholders – producers have more ownership, more clout. Previously the film-maker was the last in the queue for returns; with offsets, returns are split between the agency and the film-maker straight away.

A problem in both countries is the need to build sustainable infrastructure to support a stable industry. In Australia, there’s a desire to move from a cottage industry to more substantial projects; while in NZ we have this rather bizarre situation of the gigantic Jackson/WETA phenomenon, and the very small-scale remainder of the industry.

Another problem for Australia is attracting back both directors and actors from Hollywood. Although Rosen did say later that if a film is good enough, it doesn’t matter who the actor is!

Co-productions got a mention – as having been under-utilised. People tend to see them too much in terms of the cultural aspect being the dominant factor, whereas they can be used simply for planning the production more efficiently – using other key creatives to fulfil the co-pro requirements, for example, rather than just actors and locations. Lessons could be learnt from Canada, which uses co-pros really well.

It was perhaps not surprising that the first of the questions from the audience was whether the MEAA was a help to the Australian industry or not. Noting that there was an attempt at a “land grab” by the Screen Actors Guild (of America) all around the world, Rosen sees the MEAA’s attitude as sometimes destructive. While there is certainly a place for an organisation that seeks to give actors a fair go, their somewhat bolshie attitude needs working out – but Rosen was clear the MEAA was not “ruining the industry in Australia”.

Waikato University’s Geoff Lealand asked about the apparent lack of audience curiosity about each other’s films on both sides of the Tasman. Were the distributors at fault? Rosen pointed out that the FFC used to have a P&A budget to support their films, whereas “Screen Australia has no vision for P&A”.

The problem for Aussies is that NZ distributors pay so little for Aussie films, and then spend so little on P&A. There is also the problem of overcoming the fact that for 50 years we’ve had nothing but, as he put it, American propaganda on our screens! Australia (and by implication, NZ) must spend more on P&A out in the world – remembering that if you can get a release in the USA, you can get sales everywhere else in the world.

Finally, Rosen reiterated that the offset in NZ needs to be improved; it needs to be expanded into development (as Screen Australia is doing), as well as into marketing our films overseas.

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