Self-evidently there are no quick fixes to remedy the chronic weaknesses in the Australian film industry, given the historically high failure rate at the box-office and Oz films' share of the market, which has averaged 3.8 per cent for the past 10 years.
But our critique of Australian cinema in 2012 prompted a lively debate and yielded plenty of ideas on how to restructure and rejuvenate the industry.
Among the suggestions, some radical, others statements of the bleeding obvious: Cut production budgets by half to improve the chances of profitability, or at least reaching break-even. Make funding bodies more accountable. Bring back the 10BA tax incentives, presumably to replace the 40 per cent producer offset. Tap into private investment. Be smarter about project development.
Philippe Mora advocates cutting budgets by 50 per cent and supporting what he describes as “very original” scripts. Interesting idea, but how to persuade actors, directors, writers and others to slash their fees?
“Explain to everyone involved that trimming costs is in everyone's reasonable interest for survival: Shoot faster, trim all costs including insurance and all negotiable costs and fees,” says Mora, the Australian-raised, Los Angeles-based filmmaker whose credits include the documentaries Swastika and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? and the features Mad Dog Morgan, The Return of Captain Invincible and A Breed Apart. “Ignore the whining, squealing and B.S when you do it. Explain more films will be made, more successes will occur and everyone will end up making more money over time.”
Filmmaker Brian Kavanagh recommends restoring the 10BA tax incentive, which underpinned production in in the 1980s. Under his scenario, there would be “no Government body telling you what you can and cannot make. Investors seek 130-150 per cent and take their pick. A few bad investments will make them selective about which films they support. It's a business. You take your chances with money by investors - not taxpayers' money. The Government has no place in business.”
London-based sales agent David Blake agrees:”10BA is fine and not many investors will invest without it. Taxpayers would be more supportive if their cash was used for 'commercial' bums on seats projects. Define 'commercial'? How about when the industry puts some skin in the game? Matching funds perhaps? No bureaucrats reading scripts.”
Jindabyne executive producer Garry Charny suggests Screen Australia's film funding could be divided into two streams, one for 'worthwhile' projects, the other for commercial projects. Charny adds a key caveat: “If the commercial projects fail then the people at Screen Oz who made the decision to invest should be held accountable....with their jobs.”
Producers Heather Ogilvie and Julia Overton have been adept at raising money from private investors. In 2009 Ogilvie created the Abacus Film Fund with corporate advisory firm BG Capital Corporation, which backed director Andrew Lancaster's film Accidents Happen, starring Geena Davis.
Overton, a former investment and development manager at Screen Australia and the Film Finance Corp., was involved in Warwick Ross and David Roach's theatrical documentary Red Obsession, which was financed without Screen Australia and has been selected for Berlin festival.
“We tend, as filmmakers, to rely on the one system,” says Overton. “Producers need to be encouraged to be braver in their financing strategies. The funding system we have means that people put all their energies into fitting into the one model.”
Producer Tom Broadhurst urges a re-think on the current system of government-funded script development. “Stop giving money to people who say they can write comedy (can anybody in this country?) or those that have a litany of failure propping up what they call a career,” says Broadhurst. “Dispense with all 'proven criteria', it's just protectionism geared towards protecting mediocrity. I'd rather fund risky new talent than tired old ideas with a proven track record of failure.”
Mora has an interesting perspective on the nexus between Government funding agencies and budgets. “Filmmakers should be able to make a film as cheaply as they want or can, but that kind of mini or ultra-low budget is prohibited by the Government bodies that approve budgets,” he says. “It's a vicious circle: people who approve such conventional budgets and finance have a vested interest in not changing the status–after all, their job would be at stake. It's always been a quagmire and not just in Oz.
“The digital revolution is a net plus for filmmakers that needs to be seized, and that includes distribution on the net, which breaks the stranglehold of conventional distribution. Most Australian films require this conventional distribution prior to getting most kinds of Government help. This in itself cramps everything, since most distributors, to be civil, usually don't know more than anyone else re: commerciality and quality. However, some Government bodies or individuals think they do and filmmakers have to kowtow to unwanted demands on all aspects. This explains a big failure rate commercially and creatively.”
Mora's views on Australian budgets chime with Aussie director Brian Trenchard-Smith, who moved to the US in 1990 and recently shot thriller Deception with Cuba Gooding Jr (pictured) on the Gold Coast. “From my own experience, it is more expensive to shoot a 25 day movie in Australia than Los Angeles. We need to look at that,” he says. He points out that crews in the US and Canada regularly work 12 hour days while Australians put in 10 hours for close to the same money as LA non-union crews get for 12. “You can work 12 hours or a six day week in Australia but the cost, particularly of the sixth day, is prohibitive,” he says.
Filmmaker Phil Avalon contends the strike rate of Australian films is in line with other countries. “The bottom line is one film in 16 makes its budget back,” says Avalon. “We will always need Government support to produce home-grown product and not all (these films) will 'open'. I'm not making excuses for poorly made films, but most of the filmmakers I know set out to make a good film and sometimes it just doesn't work out.”