Can’t beat Hollywood, may as well join them

The Australian government’s support of Hollywood blockbusters is defeating the purpose of building a sustainable local film industry says Jason Kent, in a piece that first appeared in Encore.

Oz star

One of the biggest hurdles for Australian
filmmakers is competing with the big budget American studio films. Indeed, this
is one of the reasons the government gives for subsidizing Australian films.
However, it seems to be at odds with the support given to American films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

They fund films to help us compete against the American films,
and then they turn around and fund the American films as well. It kind of
defeats the purpose.

They’re basically buying filmmaking jobs from the
US to keep filmmakers and the electorate happy but the trouble is, when the
short-lived jobs end, all of the film’s profits go straight back to the US.

If we were to focus on making our own films, we
could create jobs as-well-as profits and the profits could be turned into
future jobs. It’s a far more sustainable model.

Unfortunately the Australian government has found
it largely impossible (even with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend) to
make commercially viable films. They blame filmmakers but it’s really their
fault. They’re the ones who pick and choose which films are made and often
which scripts are developed.

Now they’re picking American scripts. Maybe they
figure if you can’t beat them join them. But is it even possible for the
government to import a ready-made film industry from the US and turn it into a
sustainable industry here? I doubt it.

McDonald’s gave us the McOz Burger but it’s hardly
Australian and anyway, do we really want to become a sweatshop for American
studios? Is that the best we can do? It might seem like a fast track, but
there’s a limit to how large and how fast such an industry can grow, especially
if it’s pegged to subsidies.

I know one Australian screenwriter who has written
a period seafaring adventure, not dissimilar to Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but unfortunately for him it’s an
Australian film not an American film. In our government’s desperate attempt to
pick winners, it’s turning its back on the very reason it claims to be in the
film business in the first place: to promote the Australian culture.

At least The
Great Gatsby
has an Australian writer-director in Baz Luhrmann and Craig
Pearce, and if anyone can lure US money to fund truly Australian films, they

Of course there are benefits to American films
being made here, but we shouldn’t confuse American films made in Australia with
Australian films made in Australia. There’s a big difference.

is the founder of Pure Independent Pictures

story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and
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Is Australian Filmmaking being killed with kindness?

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.

Australian Filmmaking: Entertainment or Cultural Propaganda?

Jason casual (square 4x4cm)Australia produced the world's first feature film in 1906 about the Kelly gang. We then had a mini boom in 'bushranger' films. This ended when the government banned production of all bushranger films due to a perceived 'civil unrest' they were causing. The Australian film industry died as a result. Soon after this, the government began funding films themselves and today almost every Australian feature film is government-funded.

A century later and the government has not relinquished control of the film industry. It has even extended its influence by funding absolutely every aspect of the filmmaking sector including film festivals, film schools, film publications, film distributors, film festival junkets and film industry awards. You name it – they fund it.

Screen Australia, the central government filmmaker, says it “will promote an environment where… screen content contributes positively to the cultural fabric of Australian society”. Screen Australia Charter of Operations 2010-2011

Simon Crean, Minister for the Arts, said, “The more we invest in those sorts of things (the arts), the better citizenry we develop”. Annual government arts spending is in the billions.

One of Screen Australia’s stated priorities is to invest in films that are “culturally relevant”. This means the government is responsible for determining which elements of the Australian culture are relevant and which elements of our rich and diverse culture are irrelevant.

Screen Australia’s Charter of Operations does not mention the word ‘entertainment’ once. It views films as vehicles for cultural propaganda. The government would be well advised to heed the words of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who said, “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth”.

The brand ‘Australian Film’ is tarnished. It has earned the reputation as being non-commercial and unentertaining, and filmmaking has come to be viewed as a type of government cause, rather than the highly profitable business it can be. This makes it more difficult for all Australian filmmakers to raise independent finance, which makes filmmakers more dependent on government support. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

Filmmakers need to break away from the government system and create work that is entertainment-driven. The trouble is, independent filmmakers face an almost impossible task of competing with the government. The government has millions to spend on production and marketing so it can easily buy an audience and squeeze the independents out.

Independent filmmaking is the lifeblood of any film industry and currently Australia’s independent film sector is all but non-existent. This is a shameful blight on the government system, and a dire state of affairs for the industry as a whole.

The government simply does not need the power to pick and choose which films are produced. If any government support can be justified, tax breaks are the best form because they allow creative control to remain in the hands of filmmakers.

But the ideal scenario is where audiences pay filmmakers directly for their work, rather than paying for films via the government in the form of taxation. This way it is the people who decide which types of films are made and not the government, and we all have a few more dollars in our pockets to go to the movies.

Currently filmmakers don’t need to connect with audiences. They make most of their money from the front end—the budget, and they’re not accountable to the unwitting taxpayers who foot the bill. As a result, Australian filmmaking is running at a huge financial loss. This is unsustainable and if we allow it to continue, Australia’s share of the box office will continue to shrink.

Filmmaking is a multi-billion dollar industry that can provide jobs, growth and exports; however, much of our best filmmaking talent leaves Australia to make films overseas and like so many other Australian resources, they are sold back to us as finished products.

Australia has a large enough economy to support a commercially viable, self-sufficient film industry. It also has the talent, infrastructure, climate, geography and language that make it the ideal filmmaking nation. We’re probably the only country in the world with real competitive advantages over Hollywood.

Independent filmmakers can help to revive our industry, and rebuild it from the bottom up. But they need our help, which is why this writer is launching an entirely new non-government filmmaking initiative.

By creating a new platform, solely for independents, we hope to level the playing field so that independents can compete with the government. We aim to lure private sector investment back to the film business by showing that films really can make a profit. The key is to cut costs to the bone and allow creativity to shine, like only independent filmmaking can.

Some of the world’s most profitable films have had extremely low budgets. Films like Paranormal Activity, Clerks, and Open Water are among them. Digital technology has paved the way for micro-budget filmmaking. There’s no excuse for Australia not to have a thriving self-sufficient commercial film industry.

Films should be made by the people, for the people; and be financed by ticket-sales, not taxation. If this sounds like the type of film industry you would like to see, please join us. 

Jason Kent is an independent filmmaker who hopes to encourage other independent filmmakers to stay true to their vision and remain purely independent.