Screen Australia research illuminates the challenges facing many Australian filmmakers.  
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17 Dec 2012 - 10:24 AM  UPDATED 27 Feb 2014 - 12:22 PM

Here's sobering news for aspiring directors: After you direct your first feature film, the odds are that you'll never get the chance to make another film.

In the last 41 years, just 36 percent of male directors and 25 percent of female directors made two or more Australian features, according to Screen Australia research. Looking at the 163 directors who've been active in the past five years, the ratio is a bit better: 40 percent have logged two or more film credits in their careers.

The lack of opportunities in Australia for film directors is a major concern for the Australian Directors Guild. “To be successful and have a career it is necessary to leave the country if you want to be a professional director and not just make films you have passion for or stories that are personal to you,” ADG executive director Kingston Anderson tells SBS Movies.

The Guild is keen to see funding agencies develop systems that encourage and support directors to continue beyond their first films, but has not yet formulated a plan on how that might work. It argues that, historically, feature film development and financing mechanisms have encouraged new and emerging directors. “This means a disproportionate amount of resources goes into finding new talent with great ideas, whether through film schools or funding bodies,” says Anderson.

“The majority of first time feature directors are driven by the need to tell a story, usually of their own. Once they have done this first film then unless they have another one ready to go, they either develop a new one or decide to direct someone else's film which will really test their skills. Many do not make the grade on this second film or just don't have another story to tell. There is also a large gap between first and second films and in this period many drop away.”

Filmmaker Bill Bennett, who has directed 13 features and produced two with rookie directors, agrees. “There is no nurturing in this business. Your first film has to hit it out of the park either creatively or at the box office, or you don't get a second innings,” says Bennett. “If you don't get great reviews, (merely good reviews aren't enough), or you don't do big business, then your career will be limited to your first effort. The simple fact is that it's easier for a producer to get their film financed with a first timer. Basically, distributors and financiers are more prepared to invest in the promise of talent, rather than the talent itself.”

Director Kriv Stenders made The Illustrated Family Doctor, Lucky Country and two other features before hitting the jackpot with Red Dog. “Developing features can take years and many first time directors sacrifice a lot financially to get their first films up,” he says. “It's a real struggle to maintain that kind of commitment financially on a personal level after making a film, especially if that first film and the time it has taken to make it has sapped your bank account dry. When it comes to making your second film, you again have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot of unpaid time to get any kind of project ready for the market place. Then once it is ready so many factors play into whether that film will get financed or not. The odds against you are extremely high no matter your track record or well you previous film has done.

“I've worked on a number projects over the last 20 years that have died in the financing stage, and therefore have spent many years in unpaid development. It's brutal especially when your life changes and you start to have a family. Some people simply can't take that chance again. I earn my main income making TV commercials and this basically not only pays the bills, but allows me to continue to develop and pursue projects. “

Greg McLean, who directed Wolf Creek and Rogue, opines, “I'm aware of this issue which is why I made my follow up film as fast as possible to avoid this trend. I certainly believe there's a 'moment' after filmmakers release their first feature that needs to be taken advantage of. I also think funding credited or recognised directors in an at least equal proportion to new directors makes perfect sense.”

Kieran Darcy-Smith moved to Hollywood aiming to capitalise on the success of his debut feature Wish You Were Here. He's juggling three projects and says, “It's a matter of being careful. I don't want to race into directing Paranormal Activity 7, take the money and maybe blow my chances. I want to make a career of this.” Darcy-Smith (pictured) also notes, “When you make your first film you don't make any money off that but if it works then it opens a lot of doors. If, for whatever reason, that first film doesn't work out, not just with box office, but more in terms of how it's realistically been received by audiences or critics, then it takes a very tough man or woman to want to go through that again for nothing.“

Brian Rosen, a former chief executive of Screen Australia's predecessor, the Film Finance Corp., points out many first time directors were primarily writers who have continued to work successfully as writers. Others have carved out careers directing TV projects,
commercials and documentaries.

Rosen believes agencies should support new directors but says the FFC board's funding decisions paid no heed to a director's number of credits and were based on marketplace attachments, meaning the co-financing and distribution deals nutted out by producers.

Paul Healy, a teacher in the film and TV department at the Northern Sydney Institute, is writing a thesis on the issue entitled: 'Cinema: an invention without a future? Career prospects for first time feature film directors in the Australian feature film industry.'

Says Healy, “I couldn't understand the expectation that a feature film director had to succeed with the first film, especially when dealing with what is an enormously complex creative undertaking. One would have thought that a fairer career path would have allowed for a number of creative 'failures' before the director found his or her feet.”

Screen Australia chief executive Ruth Harley says the challenges facing Australian directors are no different to those in the US. She cites an analysis by Arthur De Vany of 6,289 movies released in North America from 1982 to 2001, which showed 36 percent of US directors made more than one film in that period.

Healy says De Vany also found that until a director had made seven or more movies the chances of him or her making the second-through-to-the seventh film was no different than the odds offered by a coin toss.

Harley rejects the idea that the funding system could be tweaked to give directors a greater chance of progressing after their first feature, observing that favouring one particular director would mean turning down another whose film may have a stronger case for funding. “Success breeds success,” says Harley. “It's a very hard business for many directors.”

Director Nadia Tass, who's a board member of the ADG, is critical of the lack of professionalism shown by some directors. “Due to the large amount of first time director support from the government bodies, to make one film in Australia does not mean the director knows how to direct a film that he has not generated himself,” she says. “There are many directing skills to be learnt about directing as a profession and taking a studios' or network's or another writer's script and breathing life into it. I have witnessed first or even second time directors saying things like 'I like it like that, even if it doesn't make sense' and 'I made this film for me, I don't care if the audience doesn't like it'.

“We need to be promoting directing as a profession, not an indulgence."