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“It’s time to be very clear that Screen Australia is there for culture”: Sandy George

Australian film and television is delivering less local cultural value to audiences, authentic dramas are fewer, and much of it now feels a lot less Australian – even unrecognizable as made in this country, according to veteran screen journalist Sandy George.

George argues if there is nothing recognisably Australian on the screen, it carries little cultural value. It is ‘Australianness’ that excites local viewers, and cultural value is the main reason why taxpayer funding underpins drama production.

The following is an extract from George’s New Platform Paper’Nobody talks about Australianness on our Screens‘, just published by Currency House, in which she argues Screen Australia must proactively cultivate film and television that is Australian in look and feel.

Screen Australia must make exceptional local cultural value the focus of everything.

Screen Australia needs to shout “What do we want? Cultural value! When do we want it? NOW!”

Senior executives say that local cultural value is a plank in their decision making and it is. But it is no longer enough for them to quietly consider the cultural value of individual projects or a group of projects in the same application round. The world has changed. It is time that they very seriously reviewed all programs and initiatives through the lens of cultural value, bearing in mind that ‘Australianness’ is the key to it.

The agency needs to put aside the notion that if an Australian production company is making content, then the content is Australian and automatically has cultural value. Just another cop show shouldn’t cut it. Screen Australia’s direct taxpayer funding must go to projects with exceptional potential local cultural value — and, yes, what that means exactly will have to be thrashed out, and it isn’t straightforward.

Creative freedom is implicit in the other kind of financial assistance available, the Producer Offset, and it is available to all eligible projects. A truck can be driven through the SAC [significant Australian content] test; no-one is exercising granular discretion. There is no cap on what individual projects can claim, and there is no cap on total annual claims. Plus the PO was recently held at 40 per cent for features and increased to 30 per cent for television (although there are fears that the networks will reduce their content contribution). The PO keeps pace with rising costs and rising production levels whereas the taxpayer funding through Screen Australian doesn’t. It’s time to be very clear that Screen Australia is there for culture.

Dare I say it, but I feel a bit sorry for Screen Australia at times because it is too relied upon, entitlement in the industry is rife, and it is often in a no-win situation because the supply of funding doesn’t meet demand for it. Some of its problems are of its own making, however. It has its fingers in too many feet. It needs to stop thinking it can and should control everything and decide what it can do best in service of the Australian public. Traditionally, there has been the notion that each FTA platform deserves some of Screen Australia’s money. Stop that. There should be just the one determinant.

There are many matters to carefully consider, of course. For example, what attitude to adopt towards talent escalation; that is, what funding to provide for projects made by inexperienced filmmakers perceived as having talent. It would be a good audience-facing discipline for them to know that the only possibility of getting money is if their projects have the kind of Australianness that delivers exceptional cultural value. And history tells us that those kinds of projects flush out support for people who become Baz Luhrmanns and George Millers (Mad Max)—and more of them is good because more benefits flow from them making mega-budget productions in Australia than flows from non-Australians making them. Another approach is for the individual states to take more responsibility for new talent, given they are closer to the ground. States too have considerable resources. More understanding of how the federal-state relationships work would not go astray.

When Screen Australia overlooks Australianness it should make clear why in its communications – it always announces what projects are getting its funding. In recent years, Screen Australia executives drank the Kool-Aid of their old political bosses. The media release about the appearance of the 2020/21 drama report (which its research department does an exemplary job of publishing each year) demonstrates this. It trumpeted: ‘Aussie drama production reaches record-breaking $1.9 billion expenditure’. It’s misleading because it’s not Aussie drama production. It is Aussie drama produced in Australia plus foreign drama filmed in Australia. Economic value and cultural value, foreign and Australian, should be treated separately in such reports, and total expenditure certainly shouldn’t be talked about breathlessly for all the reasons this paper raises. Stop pretending everything is OK. Depending on economics to deliver cultural value is about.

Screen Australia is a highly influential body. Where it puts its development support is a thumbs-up signal that others heed: partners on the other side of the world, overseas broadcasters, state government agencies, and private investors. It never wholly funds major projects, but very often its decisions determine which dramas get the green light. In 2020/21 it invested in about 40 per cent of all the Australian features that went into production, in just over 70 per cent of mini-series for the FTAs, in just under 70 per cent of dramas for the SVODs and in 30 per cent. cent of all FTA series and serials. (Under Screen Australia’s rules it can’t continually back new seasons of existing series.)

Screen Australia often says it can only fund what comes across its desk. True. But just as it guides the media’s thinking, it also guides practitioners’ thinking. Filmmakers constantly try to second guess its priorities. A few well-chosen words about exceptional local cultural value being a priority would have a big impact on what the industry chooses to develop.

Public Film Funding at a Crossroads lists the values ​​that public film agencies in Europe aim to safeguard: cultural/artistic idiosyncrasies with specific territorial references; film as a cultural/artistic form; diversity in all its senses; European ownership; independent production companies that own underlying IP rights, and have artistic freedom and creative control along with the filmmakers; IP rights handled territory by territory; and cinemas as a central place for shared experiences.

Australia take note: they lean more to the cultural than the economic – and they value the cinema experience. Everyone needs to work together to fortify the big screen experience for those times when an Australian film can justify the high cost and high risk of a cinema release.

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