The debate over the funding agency’s remit and leadership is heating up.
2 Apr 2013 - 10:54 AM  UPDATED 3 Apr 2013 - 4:33 PM

Screen Australia has defended its track record in investing in feature films while the debate over the agency's remit and the issue over who should lead the organisation rumble on.

The board's decision to advertise the CEO's position rather than automatically renew the tenure of Ruth Harley, whose term expires in November, continues to generate diverse views within the film and TV industries.

Dr. Harley has her admirers who think she deserves another term. Others advocate a regime change and a review of Screen Australia's goals and mandate.

A Screen Australia spokesperson took issue with this writer characterising the agency's track record in investing in features as generally dismal and queried whether that assessment was based on Australian box office results. The spokesperson cited statistics which show the films it supported from 2008-2012 earned an average of $46.3 million per year at the Australian box office, compared with $28.3 million per year in the period from 2003-2007. (Screen Australia launched in 2008, succeeding the Film Finance Corp. as the peak funding body.)

Granted, but Aussie films' share of the box office was 4.3 percent in 2012, slightly above the 10-year average of 3.8 percent. Compounding the problem, export revenues are generally slim. While our films may screen in Cannes and other international festivals, few are sold or seen widely overseas. Antony Ginnane's annual survey of Oz films' international performances in 2012 showed Bait 3D was the standout hit and the only other titles that played in a significant number of territories were A Few Best Men and Iron Sky.

Screenwriter and script consultant Michael Brindley believes Australian distributors should shoulder some of the blame for poorly performing films. “We usually leave the distributors out of this discussion,” says Brindley, whose credits include Steve Jodrell's 1988 feature Shame, which starred Deborra-Lee Furness, and TV's Prisoner, Bellamy, Blue Heelers and Police Rescue. “Screen Oz funds development and invests in production, but the distributors choose, don't they? So it's not all SA's fault regarding 'bad track record with feature films', is it?”

Dominic Case, a former Atlab executive and development manager at the National Film and Sound Archive, opines, “If Scroz is to be judged on the box office success of the films it funds, then it is madness (and always has been) to neglect the distribution side of the industry. Hollywood got rich because the studios (who once owned theatres as well) were the distributors, and simply wouldn't make films that audiences wouldn't watch (well, not on purpose anyway). What other industry would allow its factory to operate without market research on the product, and its own sales team?

“Of course, if Scroz's remit is more than that of a factory, and has some responsibility for fostering film as an art form – or an expression of culture in Australia, then let's have a fresh look at the investment policy and what constitutes a 'dismal track record.'''

Film and TV writer/producer Harvey Shore offers, “May I suggest that the board keep in mind the sage advice of Hollywood movie mogul Sam Spiegel, who always told his big-talking executives: 'I'm not interested in your efforts... I'm only interested in your results.' Results are what Screen Australia should be really delivering to our industry. So, has Ruth Hurley scored enough results to justify retaining her as a winning team leader, or should Australia seek someone who can better her score? Aye, there's the rub.”

Film historian, author and journalist Steve Saragossi says, “It's a numbers game here. Any film has to not only hit a far higher percentile of population to be a hit here than in the US. Those flops in Hollywood make the kind of money most Aussie hits can only dream of. If we're talking about pure commercialism here [rather than artistic integrity], then films being supported and made here have to have international legs.”

Seph McKenna, head of Australian production at Roadshow Films, acknowledges, “Finding a broad Australian audience is tough to land for any of the distributors but if we didn't go for it we wouldn't be making films like Red Dog and The Sapphires. Yes, we suffer more misses then hits, but that's consistently been true in the movie biz for nearly as long as movies have been made.”

Producer Jane Scott believes one solution would be to rotate the executives at Screen Australia who choose the projects to go to the board for funding. “I believe they should all be on three-five year contracts,” says Scott, whose credits include Mao's Last Dancer, Love's Brother and Shine.

Screen Australia points to its diverse slate of development and production investment projects and its Enterprise Programs as proof that the organisation is meeting its cultural and commercial remit.

However, one veteran producer, who declines to be named, articulates a contrary view. “The reality is that Screen Australia needs to be clear on the kind of films they should be supporting,” he says. “The broad range they allow at the moment means that they will always be inundated. If one wants producers weaned off direct subsidy then the agency has to cut the umbilical cord and set parameters that excludes more experienced producers and 'on paper' commercial films, and supports first-time filmmakers, Indigenous, and culturally significant films,” i.e. Beneath Hill 60 or Red Dog or The Sapphires, which tell a strong Australian story and reflects our society.

“Funding films like Tomorrow, When The War Began or A Few Best Men should be left to the marketplace. Even Wolf Creek 2 should be excluded as that film should be able to find its budget in the market. If not, why fund it? The first film launched Greg McLean and was profitable – why on earth would an agency support the sequel?”

It's refreshing to hear from an emerging filmmaker in John Le, who is preparing to make his directing debut in May with 3D horror movie The Scrying, which is financed by Hong Kong investors. “Screen Australian need to invest in marketable films by forward thinking young filmmakers,” says Le, who formed production company Film Venture Capital with producer Brian Lai in 2009.

“They should encourage filmmakers who have more of an entrepreneurial spirit. Stop teaching our filmmakers it is okay to rely on government hand-outs and reward people who go out and raise their own money. The youth of Australia and world have very different tastes to the people at Screen Australia and Screen NSW; that is the main reason most of our funded films flop. It is definitely time for a changing of the guard.”