Iconic Aussie movie star the late Chips Raffterty and producer Lee Robinson would be right at home in the Australian film industry today, especially among the small band of producers making films that travel, but with an Australian accent.

However I am not sure how they would feel about an Australian industry that pays its way by being a Covid-safe back-lot for Hollywood.

Forty-five years ago, in the first flush of the renaissance of our film production industry, the first chair of the newly created Australian Film Commission, Ken Watts, was asked for a benchmark for the success of the Commission. Watts fixed his youthful interrogator with a steely gaze, considered the impertinence of the question and said. ‘In five year’s time, at the end of my term, success would be the disbandment of the Commission, because the industry was established and self-sustaining, with investments from the private sector.

The industry is still waiting.

The reality is that the film industry in very few countries is sustainable without government support.  Even in the United States, Hollywood relies on hidden subsidies, and many states compete with countries like Canada, Ireland and Australia to host big budget production.  Of all film producing countries, India probably come closest to self-sustaining.

You read about the huge box-office of Hollywood blockbusters, but the reality is that less than 25 per cent finds it back to the production company.  Distribution, exhibition and associated advertising take-up the rest, and few in the food chain make more than decent wages. And blockbusters can cost hundreds of millions to make, so the risks taken on by investors and producers are huge.

The Australian industry is enjoying a boom time at present.  The relative success at suppressing the Covid-19 virus has made the east coast an attractive destination for foreign, especially US-based productions, very attractive.

This temporary advantage is buoyed up by two Commonwealth support schemes, the Location Offset, a 16.5 per cent rebate for the production of large-budget film and television projects shot in Australia and the PDV Offset, a 30 per cent rebate for work on post-production, digital and visual effects work done in Australia, regardless of where a project is shot. And government’s have been known to sweeten the deal even further.

Australian producers can tap the Producer Offset that provides a refundable tax rebate for producers of Australian feature films, television and other projects on for expenditure goods and services, the use of land and the use of goods in Australia. And where the subject matter of a film reasonably requires the foreign location, expenditure in a foreign country on goods etc. can qualify for the Offset.

In the mix of government support, the state government are players too.  In mid-June, the Queensland government announced $71 million additional funding for the state’s screen industry.  The Production Attraction Strategy, that has already snared blockbusters such as Godzilla, Thor and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic, gets $53 million to sweeten the deal for overseas producer.

This boost brings to the $100 million that has been invested in the scheme since 2015. A modest $4 million is added to the Screen Finance Fund for domestic film, television and games production, while the new North Queensland Regional Program receives $4 million over four years to grow screen opportunities in the state’s north.

Queensland’s own Post, Digital and Visual Effects Incentive gets $10 million facilitating an increase from 10 to 15 per cent of expenditure, the most competitive on the eastern seaboard.

In early May, the Victorian government unveiled VicScreen, with a purse of $120.7 million, for locally initiated film, TV and games projects.  The funds are part of a $191.5 million four-year strategy to put Victoria at the forefront global production.

And there are the film studios that have sprung up over the past thirty years.  Studios with sophisticated facilities have been paid for, in part a least, by state governments.  And these studios are large. Melbourne’s new Docklands Stage 6 encloses an area of 3,700 m² with a lighting grid at 17 metre and a water tank in the floor, 10 metres wide, 20 metres long and 4.5 metres deep.  It cost $46 million of government money.

And the same week as the Queensland splash was announced Russell Crowe said he was backing a new film studio at Coffs Harbour.  Unlike other facilities, the studio at the Pacific Bay Resort site would be “a family friendly film studio”, one that would provide long-term accommodation for cast and crew, as well as production facilities.

So at the real estate and incentive ends the Australian film production industry looks healthy.  And the political rhetoric is largely about employment these days and foreign production certainly provide that, as well as maintaining crew skill and, occasionally, providing a stepping stone to Hollywood for the ambitious.

But how about Australian content, the stories film and television tell?

The scene is not all that rosy either for cinema or television. Few films get back their budget, let alone make profits commensurate with the risk for their investors. The only thing that keeps many from financial difficulties is the various offsets and non-recourse finance available from government.

And if the film-makers ambitions are for an ‘art house’ market, the barriers are even higher. But it is the art house end of the market that provided one of the original political justifications for governments’ underwriting film production. ‘Telling our stories’, reflecting the Australian experience to Australia and the world, being a rallying cry for Australian identity: these are important to our understanding of ourselves, reminding us of who and why we are.

But then, today, it is not cool in to do more than slip those issues into a political speech announcing some new government program to support the industry.  Nevertheless, a small band of Australian producers and directors continue to make films that are about us and our identity but speak to the world. 

So, as the great Spanish cellist, composer and conductor, Pablo Casals, said on his 80th birthday, after reflecting at length on the troubles of the world: The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step.

These are the true heirs of Chips Rafftery and Lee Robinson. Be they commercial or arts house production, this band is making films that can travel, but with an Australian accent.

Dr Vincent O’Donnell

Producer: Arts Alive

Media Analyst & Researcher

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