Doron Kipen is one of Australia's pre-eminent sound editors and mixers. So when he says he's earning 50 percent less to post-produce the sound on an Australian feature film now than he got 10 years ago, it's symptomatic of an industry that's facing critical structural problems.
All sections of the service industry have been hit hard by the downturn in Australian film production and the absence of major offshore productions in light of the strong Oz dollar and the uncompetitive 16.5 percent location offset.
“Our sector is at breaking point. All the top post production facilities are on the edge,” Kipen (pictured), who owns the Melbourne-based sound post production studio Music and Effects, tells SBS Film. The malaise affects the entire post production industry, he says, observing, “All the crafts are being absolutely decimated by competition.”
Soundfirm founder Roger Savage concurs, declaring, “The post-production industry is in crisis; everyone is desperate. But, globally, post is a disaster.” Despite the downturn, Soundfirm is moving into a new screen and sound post facility in Melbourne in tandem with Risk Sound.
Kipen, who's the president of the Australian Screen Sound Guild, blames the heavy discounting of fees on producers who want to cut corners but as a result often sacrifice creative standards, and Screen Australia. Kipen alleges the agency isn't exercising proper oversight of the technicians employed on some of the films and documentaries in which it invests, citing the case of sound mixers who operate in their bedrooms.
He calls on the agency to update The Satchel, its guide to production management and film management which recommends fees for low and medium budget films but has no guidelines for what he terms “full priced productions”. The last edition was published in 2007, before the introduction of the production offsets for film and TV drama.
“Screen Australia is responsible for maintaining standards but the industry is being run as a discount business,” says Kipen, whose lengthy list of credits dates back to the Mad Max movies and includes Goddess, Circle of Lies, Mrs Carey's Concert, Balibo, Big Mamma's Boy, 6 Plots and Shaun Tan's Academy-Award winning short film The Lost Thing.
“The agency refuses to engage in any meaningful way and is perceived to be the industrial bully of our sector.”
Savage wrote to Screen Australia CEO Ruth Harley in 2009, pointing out that sound post-production budgets on Australian features had been slashed to an ”untenable” degree – a situation which he says is no better today.
His letter noted these budget cuts had forced sound post houses to downsize, retrench staff and forgo expenditure on new technology, and he warned, “If this continues there will be no sound post industry in this country to speak of.”
In her reply Dr Harley observed there had been a tightening of budgets across all areas of production, not just limited to sound post production. She said the agency would continue to encourage producers to obtain full and detailed quotes and that her project managers would always query any amount in the budget that's less than the agreed quote.
Ross Matthews, Screen Australia's head of production investment, tells SBS Film, “We work closely with producers urging them to maintain high standards and we review all our budgets in detail to ensure that quotes are properly detailed and reasonable fees are included. While we have oversight on feature film budgets we are not in a position to regulate. We acknowledge that this is an ongoing issue for the sector and difficult to resolve without a regular flow of foreign film production which is unlikely to occur while the dollar is high and while competitors continue to undercut each other.”
Savage, whose credits include Mental, Mao's Last Dancer, The Eye of the Storm, Moulin Rouge! (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Shine and Babe, argues completion bond guarantors are at fault when they approve budgets that do not provide adequate fees for services such as sound post.
Kipen says he was earning $120,000 per film 10 years ago. Now he says the fees are about 50 percent lower and some producers are offering as little as $25,000. He's just scored a contract to handle an Aussie film in 2014 which will be the first time in five years that he hasn't discounted the price.
Savage says technological changes have meant that sound equipment costs just one tenth of what it used to. Despite that, he says, “We are spending less time on films and the budgets are dramatically smaller”.
Speaking of Screen Australia, the agency announced last week it's staging a one-day policy conference on June 18 to examine key issues and opportunities facing screen businesses and Australian content. Speakers will include Arts Minister Tony Burke, his Opposition counterpart Senator George Brandis, Greg Basser, CEO of Village Roadshow Entertainment, David Haslingden, who owns NHNZ and is chairman of the Nine Entertainment Co. and Megan Elliott, director X|Media|Lab.
That's not a bad line-up but the cost – $275 for those who register early, otherwise $450 –
will be prohibitive for many who may wish to attend- and the choice of Canberra as the venue will dissuade others.
“With people desperate for jobs, not to mention funding, who does [Screen Australia] think can afford to go to their talkfest in Canberra of all places at even the early bird rate of $275?” asks producer Tony Buckley. “If they want real people in the industry to go then it should be free!”