Is Australian Filmmaking being killed with kindness?

by on 23 March, 2012

Australians don’t have any trouble making world-class films overseas, so what’s the problem here? Why do we still not have a commercial self-sufficient film industry?

MadMaxMost Australian films are not successful at the box office, which is why the industry is heavily subsidised, and running at a huge financial loss. Even after decades of extensive government film funding, Australia's share of the box office is shrinking. 

Australians don't have any trouble making world-class films overseas, so what's the problem here? Why do we still not have a commercial self-sufficient film industry?

A crucial ingredient of good filmmaking is creativity. The problem with our mostly state-controlled industry is that the government is limited in how much creative freedom it can allow filmmakers. They can't merely hand out blank cheques for filmmakers to create freely, so they impose a range of selection criteria. The trouble is, the criteria are not necessarily based on entertainment value or even the bottom line.

Screen Australia’s 2010-11 Charter of Operations does not even mention the word entertainment, let alone profit. Instead, the government uses criteria such as whether or not a film promotes diversity, inclusivity, indigenous culture, foreign cultures, climate change, organ donation and even the National Broadband Network. This restricts filmmaker's creative freedom and hurts the end product.

The same type of thing occurs in the American studio system, but for different purposes. Corporations tend to obsess about profits while governments tend to obsess about control. Under both systems the filmmaker's creative freedom is limited. This is why independent filmmaking is so important.

Independent filmmaking is the lifeblood of any film industry. It acts as a breeding ground for emerging talent, and can work as both a springboard and a selection process to feed the broader system. Also, independent filmmakers need to connect with audiences in order to survive. If they don't see a return, they simply can't continue to make films.

Though all too rare, some of Australia’s best films have been independent productions. Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, The Castle and Gabriel are good examples, and there are many more if you go back even further in time. At the birth of cinema, Australia was a prolific filmmaking nation. We made hundreds of films before the state had anything to do with it.

Australia produced the world’s very first feature film in 1906 called The Story of the Kelly Gang. This followed a mini boom in what became known as 'bushranger films'. In a very short space of time Australia produced dozens of films. We got off to a flying start and this was 100% due to the efforts of independent filmmakers.

The government's first involvement in filmmaking was to ban all bushranger films. Apparently these films were so popular that they were causing civil unrest. This killed the early industry success. Later, the government maintained a strict regime of censorship and gradually independent filmmaking became a thing of the past.

Today it is almost impossible for independent filmmakers to compete for finance, talent, and the all-important 'shelf-space' in the way of cinema screens. Also, non-commercial films (ones that wouldn't exist if it weren't for the government handouts) create a poor quality image for Australian films that makes it more difficult for independent filmmakers to raise finance. Investors don't want to invest in an industry that makes a loss, whether the loss is taxpayer funded or not.

Our industry is in a catch-22. If Australian filmmaking becomes profitable, the government will no longer be able to justify funding films, so the production money will dry up. Alternatively, if Australia continues to produce non-profitable films, private investors will not invest.

The only way to achieve a self-sufficient film industry is to attract private investment. To do this we need to get back to basics and focus on producing good films with small budgets. Then we can grow organically. We can promote Australian Independent Films as a profitable alternative.

Fortunately, today, there is a new opportunity for a revival in Australian independent filmmaking. Digital technology has paved the way for micro-budget films to compete with the bigger budget foreign and government films.

American films such as Paranormal Activity, Clerks and Open Water have proven that micro-budget filmmaking is not only possible, but it can be highly profitable. In fact, some of the most profitable films of all time have had very low budgets. Mad Max is one of them and for a long time it held the world record as the film with the highest profit-to-cost ratio.

Crocodile Dundee, with a relatively modest budget and financed locally, was the second highest grossing film worldwide in 1986, beaten only by Top Gun. More recently, the independent film Gabriel did very well at the box office, though relatively little was made of the success here in Australia. Some people probably think Gabriel is an American film and maybe its producers prefer it that way. No surprises for guessing where Gabriel's filmmakers are now.

So there is no question that Australia can produce world-class commercial films. We have both the talent and the money. What we lack is the independence.

Independent filmmaking is the future and the lifeblood of our film industry. Or any industry for that matter.

Jason Kent is an independent filmmaker and the founder of Pure Independent Pictures, an initiative dedicated to supporting only purely independent Australian films.

Leave a Reply