A new era for the Australian film and television industry begins today. Screen Australia, with a new Board appointed by Arts Minister Peter Garrett on 20th June, today takes over as the new, single agency that represents the film and television industry, amalgamating the roles previously filled by three bureaucracies: the Film Finance Corporation, the Australian Film Commission and Film Australia.

Along with new and substantial funding for completed films in the form of a tax rebate, introduced in the final budget of the Howard era, this represents the most significant change to this industry in decades.

But there is little evidence as yet of the substantial change of mindset that will be required from both industry and government if film and television producers are to fulfil their economic potential in a marketplace that is forever changing and that knows increasingly few territorial boundaries.

In a significant departure from tradition, the new Board does include two film-makers of note, but in making its selection the Government chose not to make use of the existing elected representatives in every part of this diverse industry. Without a united voice from industry, which has grappled unsuccessfully for years to create a single body with the profile of the AMA or the Farmers’ Federation, this was hardly surprising. But the result is inevitably a Board accountable to government, not to the industry it aims to support.

The Rudd Government appears to be honouring its predecessor’s pledge that the amalgamation will lead to no job losses, meaning that the greater efficiencies promised by a single agency will be hard won. And in their death throes, the previous agencies have all but ensured that Screen Australia inherits some of the worst features of its progenitors rather than being allowed the fresh start the industry so desperately needs.

Hefty bureaucracy, onerous acquittal and legal requirements for government funding, and highly prescriptive funding rounds that have developed over many years all fly in the face of an industry in which increasing diversity and rapid change is a constant. Such things will be hard to change within the new mega-agency.

The new tax rebates that came into force 12 months ago – 40% for films destined for the silver screen, 20% for certain types of television production – provide a welcome focus on the economics of an industry which, as artistic endeavours go, is far from cheap.

This is an industry that needs funding not primarily, as many in the industry passionately believe, to make films that would not otherwise be made, but because it has to compete with international companies that have been massively subsidised by their own governments for decades. It also warrants financial support because it is so valuable in so many ways.

Many countries have long valued and protected their own film and television industries. In France, for instance, at least 50% of funding spent by its broadcasters has traditionally gone to local producers, whilst almost every taxpayer in the UK has contributed directly to the coffers of the BBC for decades (through a compulsory licence fee), providing funding that has increasingly been passed on to the UK independent sector and enabled UK producers to make millions of dollars from films and TV programmes shot on foreign soil, not least in Australia.

By contrast, Australia has let the free-to-air television era slip through its fingers with minimal local content provisions, ensuring that much Australian taxpayers’ money has gone to build up already well-subsidised international competitors. This has left the Australian industry in a weak position to face the evaporation of international borders in the age of the internet. Though ABC Head of Television Kim Dalton has recently suggested that Australian content regulation should be considered for broadband, citing current proposals from both Canada and the UK, in truth that particular horse probably bolted before the stable was even built.

Australia needs quickly to sharpen its focus on the economic merits of an industry that performs so many roles: one that creates our international identity; records our history; preserves our cultures; potentially creates sustainable employment in every corner of the country; contributes to aboriginal health and cross-cultural understanding (reconciliation, if you will); brings tourists to our shores; and exports fully value-added products to over 60 countries. All without the adverse environmental consequences associated with many, more familiar exports (in fact, in some cases, actually promoting the environment or highlighting environmental issues at one and the same time). So valuable is this industry to tourism, for instance, that Tourism Australia and its regional counterparts are about to spend an unprecedented budget “leveraging off” the $100 million Baz Luhrmann epic “Australia” to be launched this November.

If it is to do more than its predecessors, Screen Australia must assume a much broader mantle. It must provide more equitable and less formulaic support for all types of film-making, great and small, and for all parts of Australia, including those more than a cab ride from Sydney’s Fox Studios.

And it must attempt that perhaps-unattainable dream of a whole-of-government approach to an industry that is valuable not just for its social and cultural role, nor simply for the direct economic benefits of its more internationally successful products. Here is an industry that provides great indirect benefits, and plays an increasing role, in almost every portfolio in government.

The new agency may also have to resist calls from some in the industry, artists perhaps, for whom economics is anathema. Films and television programs are expensive to make. By supporting those that are economically successful, the government and Screen Australia will be given many good reasons, and many extra dollars, to support those that are not.

Dr David Curl is a director of the Australasian Natural History Unit and the creator of the internationally-acclaimed films The Call of Kakadu and Silhouettes of the Desert. He is also a Board Member of two of the industry’s peak bodies, the Australian Cinematographers Society and Australian Directors Guild (though the views expressed here are his own).

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