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First Gatsby, now Miller … how American stories win Aussie film funds

How Australian is Arthur Miller’s 1955 classic A View From The Bridge? A new Australian film production is testing the definitions and sparking renewed debate on local production funding.

Melbourne studios and locations will be transformed into 1950s New York in the new film adaptation from UK-based Aussie producer Marion Pilowsky, LA-based producer Natalie Stevenson and Australian-born actor Anthony LaPaglia.

Screen Australia has provisionally approved access to its producer offset, calling it a “qualifying Australian film”. Victoria’s Production Investment Attraction Fund lured the production to Melbourne with incentives.

After the storm over funding for Baz Luhrmann’s $40 million Hollywood blockbuster The Great Gatsby, Screen Australia chief operating officer Fiona Cameron is hitting back at critics who question the appropriateness of affording the 40% tax concession to films set outside Australia.

The idea that [Australian creatives] can’t work on anything other than kangaroos and koalas really smacks of cultural cringe”, she told Crikey on last week. To award the offset purely to such obviously Australiana-type projects, she added, would leave the industry “completely cottaged”.

But Simon Whipp, the national director of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, feels differently. He assured Crikey the alliance doesn’t require “shots of Uluru” in order to concede that a film is Australian — but does feel the current criteria employed by Screen Australia needs some “pumping up”.

Whipp’s main concern it that Screen Australia’s broad understanding of what renders a film local defeats the original purpose of the offset — to support films containing “significant Australian content”. Karl Zwicky’s film Sinbad and the Minotaur, he laments, was released in the US this year, but not locally — allowing only American taxpayers to enjoy a work “subsidised by the Australian taxpayer”.

He also questions whether Alex Proyas’ 2009 film Knowing, set in Boston but filmed in Victoria, was a fair recipient of the tax breaks. The film, Whipp notes, was not even based on an Australian script — a factor he feels should be given heavier consideration by Screen Australia throughout the categorisation process.

That process is set out in Division 376 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997. According to the legislation, a project qualifies for the offset if Screen Australia decides a project has “significant Australian content” — determined by several factors including  its subject matter, its place of creation and details of production expenditure.

But the criteria appear relatively easy to satisfy: the Office of the Arts confirmed on Friday only one application for a producer offset certificate has even been rejected because it fell short of the “significant Australian content” test. Meanwhile, a generous 276 final certificates have been awarded for the offset.

Brian Rosen,  Feature Film Councillor at the Screen Producers’ Association of Australia, played a key role in the creation of the offset scheme. He disputes Whipp’s claim that the fundamental purpose of the tax break has been eroded — noting that, in practice, “as a rule of thumb about two-thirds of a film needs to have something ‘Australian’ about it” for Screen Australia to award an offset certificate. In this sense, he says, “we are still ensuring that these films have significant Australian content”.

Rosen adds the offset has been successful in achieving another of its aims — the creation of business in Australia. Projects supported by the tax concession, including larger, “non-Australian story” projects, he says, grow the  local industry by creating new jobs for Australian actors and technicians. Indeed, he estimates A View From The Bridge will employ “2-300” members of MEAA — so he’s “not sure what [Whipp] is worried about”.

In response to concerns about whether smaller, typically outback-style Australia films might suffer as a result of Screen Australia’s award of the tax break to American classics, Rosen points out Screen Australia can use other funding mechanisms — independent of the offset — to specifically support these projects. For this reason, he suggests, the producer offset can successfully assist the local film industry to grow without disadvantaging smaller, non-blockbuster projects.

Since the offset has been introduced, local local film production jumped about 30% in 2010 from 2009.

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    jocelynne scutt
    Posted Tuesday, 15 March 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    gee! so those ‘in charge’ at film australia think australian films relate to/involve ‘kangaroos and koalas’ only. how limiting is that. could we please have some vision (vision - what’s that!) at the australian (sic) film funding body …

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