The search for a CEO is fuelling the debate about the agency’s role and its future direction.
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25 Mar 2013 - 12:12 PM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2013 - 12:30 PM

Should Screen Australia redefine its role and goals? And who should lead the country's biggest and most influential screen funding agency?

Sections of the film and TV industry have long questioned Screen Australia's remit and its performance, particularly its generally dismal track record in investing in feature films. That debate is sure to intensify after Screen Australia advertised the CEO's position last Friday.

The board informed Ruth Harley, who has led the organisation since its inception in 2008, that she is welcome to apply and she told staff she would do so. Her term expires in November. Chairman Glen Boreham declined to comment but the board clearly feels the appointment should be a competitive process.

SBS Film canvassed opinions among producers, directors, distributors, exhibitors and other industry figures. The majority, according to this admittedly unscientific poll, advocate redefining Screen Australia's role and objectives and believe this task requires fresh leadership.

The dumping of Simon Crean as Arts Minister muddies the waters politically as the government has to sign off on whoever the Screen Australia board nominates for CEO of an organisation with an annual budget of $110 million.

A possible complication is that an incoming Coalition government may well be considering a shake-up of screen funding. Several producers say the Coalition is looking at ordering Screen Australia to focus on its cultural support role (with a consequent cutback in funding) while raising the producer offset to enable the market to decide which films are made.

To be fair, Dr. Harley is widely credited with overseeing the logistically complicated merger of the Film Finance Corp., the Australian Film Commission and Film Australia, pruning the staff from 230 to 110 and making the organisation more efficient.

Her supporters laud her initiative in creating the Enterprise Program which provides up to $350,000 per year over three years to support screen businesses; in beefing up the funding of the highly regarded indigenous branch; and persuading the government to fork out $20 million to support the interactive entertainment industry.

Its track record in investing in quality TV drama is exemplary and it has backed some excellent documentaries although some producers say it lacks expertise in assessing feature-length docos.

“Ruth is to be commended for the success of the Enterprise program for TV and new media, although it is still a work in progress for feature films, and for her championing of the Indigenous sector in film and TV and the results such as The Sapphires and Redfern Now,” says producer Antony Ginnane.

An exhibitor says, “Ruth is a good person. It's a matter if, in this fast changing world, [whether] renewal is good. I guess the process will be good and Ruth may be renewed. People who choose the films to be funded need to rotate.”

Some producers believe the skillset needed to lead the agency for the next 3-5 years (the term has not been revealed) is different to the organisational strengths that Harley brings to the role. And many think the job should go to an Australian who is steeped in the country's culture (Harley is a Kiwi).

Screen Australia's announcement in December that its $42 million drama production investment budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year had been fully committed prompted some filmmakers to accuse the agency of mismanaging its budget.

“We certainly need a change at the helm,” says producer-director Phil Avalon, who advocates hiring someone with production experience who also understands the fast-changing distribution landscape and is well connected in Canberra. Avalon suggests Maureen Barron, currently CEO of Screen NSW and a former CEO of Screen Queensland and chair of the Australian Film Commission, would be well suited to the job.

Among other names put forward by our respondents are Richard Harris, the CEO of the South Australian Film Corp. and former head of the Australian Directors Guild, producers Vincent Sheehan, Bridget Ikin and Glenys Rowe, Matt Campbell, former MD of Shine Australia and director of content at SBS, and Aussie-born New Zealand Film Commission CEO Graeme Mason, who has international experience with Manifesto, Polygram Filmed Entertainment and as president of worldwide acquisitions for Universal. Some expect Fiona Cameron, Screen Australia's chief operating officer, to apply.

Julie Marlow is a former senior policy consultant for the Screen Producers Association of Australia who has worked with most state agencies and as a writer, script editor, assessor and producer of film and documentary projects. She attests to the often fractious relationship between Screen Australia and sections of the industry, opining, “I've observed that one of the features of Screen Australia over the past five years has been the lack of healthy robust debate and discourse between industry and agency.

“Any dissent or constructive criticism is immediately put down defensively as 'negative' – the default position. People are unwilling to speak their minds because they are afraid of never getting any funding again – whether that's true or not is rather beside the point; it's the perception that matters. It's all too easy for Screen Australia to claim that dissent, or
'negativity' will queer the pitch for further funding.

“The question is whether 10 years' tenure for any CEO of this agency is a good thing for a changing industry. The obverse side of that is whether the good candidates who might do a great job fit the government's criteria, rather than best interests of the industry.”

One distributor gets to the nub of the issue when he observes, “What do the government and industry want Screen Australia to do? Should it be the major driver of screen culture or should it be a driver for the commercial industry? It hasn't managed to do both.”

One leading director says the CEO should be a visionary who can articulate the future of screen content and develop policies to support that outcome. He sees the appointment as an opportunity for generational change.

“I think whoever gets the baton needs to decide if it's important to make Australian product or 'world product,' and not try to do both because you can't make Vegemite palatable overseas,” contends one producer. “I don't think we need to be so absolutely worried about the 'Australian-ness' of stories. I think we need to be concerned with the ability to connect with audiences.”

Another producer-director probably speaks for many in the industry when he observes the CEO's role is a “beast of a job – it would be a bit like picking up the poisoned chalice. Everyone's ready to bitch and complain.” That person adds, “If the board and government are looking to refresh the organisation, reduce the huge amount of bureaucracy, devise new development and investment funding models and improve the efficacy of the producer offset, then it could be time for someone new.”

Filmmaker Bill Bennett is calling for an overhaul of the producer offsets which are administered by Screen Australia. The 40 percent film offset was intended to enable producers to attract private investment and lessen their reliance on Screen Australia funding. The advent of the GFC dashed hopes of securing large-scale private investment.

Bennett argues the offset benefits Australian distributors, film bankers and the Hollywood studios that use it as a subsidy to offset the costs of films such as The Great Gatsby and Happy Feet Two and says the rebate hasn't helped producers to operate without government funding. And he maintains that Australian broadcasters believe the 20 percent offset for TV projects “belongs to them, and they automatically factor that into their negotiations with independent producers and into the license fee.”

Whoever gets the top job at Screen Australia will face plenty of challenges.