Screen Australia

Australia’s federal screen agency has spent all its money for drama … six months early.

How do we know? Because they told us. In a media release. On Tuesday, Screen Australia issued an “Industry Alert 2012”, abruptly informing Australia’s screen community that the federal funding agency had spent most of its money for the 2012-13 fiscal year. As a result, Screen Australia is cancelling the rest of its drama funding for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. The kitty is now empty. The cupboard is bare.

What happened? Well, nothing really. Screen Australia has simply given out all its available drama funding — $23 million of it. As the statement says, “the pressure on Screen Australia production funds in the lead-up to the 14 December 2012 Board meeting was extremely high, with an unprecedented number of quality feature film and television projects seeking support”.

As a result, 2013 applicants will miss out. Screen Australia says its board meeting in April (the forthcoming January deadline) will not be accepting funding applications, and the television funding round in May has been cancelled altogether. There will be a funding round in June, but “funding will be limited, and will depend on funds previously committed to lapsed projects becoming available”:

“Screen Australia is aware that this news will be disruptive for some producers. It is very unfortunate that we are in this position; however, please stay in touch with your Investment Manager as your project progresses.”

Industry reaction has been muted. Owen Johnston, head of production at the Screen Producers Association of Australia, told Crikey the issue is the overall lack of funding, “especially given the demand”.

“We’re sympathetic to Screen Australia,” he said. He argues that because Australia has no annual pattern of screen production, commissioning is often lumpy across any given year. “These sorts of problems are part of the nature of funding agencies. There’s not enough money to satisfy the strong demand,” he said.

“I would add that we think that if the Producer Offset for television was increased to 40%, the same level as feature film, this problem wouldn’t exist and commissioning of television productions wouldn’t be disrupted.”

“Screen Australia might be trying to pretend it has been overwhelmed with high-quality applications, but its hard to see how this is good budgeting.”

Putting a brave face on the situation, Screen Australia’s head of production investment, Ross Matthews, told Crikey the situation “reflects the current strength of the Australian film industry, rather than Screen Australia’s fiscal management”.

“It is always hard to predict when film and television projects will have the funding jigsaw in place and be ready to go,” he said. “The process of putting a film together is not only about a finance plan but also, critically, a matter of timing — such as artist availability and seasonal considerations. Putting a ‘production ready’ project back a couple of rounds in order to keep money in the pot for future rounds can be detrimental to the quality of the projects as they may lose artists, financiers, locations, etc.

“The fact is that Screen Australia was called on to fund considerably more ‘production ready’ quality projects in the first half of the financial year than we had anticipated.”

Matthews points out Screen Australia has increased the number of its funding rounds this year, from four to seven, “in at attempt to reduce timing pressures on producers”. As a result, “it has proved impossible, with only $23 million to spend, to quarantine sufficient funds for the latter half of the cycle when so many finance-ready and quality productions are coming through the door”.

Screen Australia might be trying to pretend it has been overwhelmed with high-quality applications, but its hard to see how this is good budgeting. In other funding agencies, such as the Australian Research Council or the Australia Council, it is accepted that high-quality applications will often miss out in any given round, simply because there is a finite amount of funding. That doesn’t mean they give out all their money simply because a particular round has a lot of great projects. After all, how is the agency to know that the applications received in the next round won’t be just as good?

By spending all the funding for 2012-13 by the end of 2012, Screen Australia is effectively telling producers that those whose projects were unlucky enough to fall in the second half of the year are simply unlucky. Drama applicants will have to wait until the kitty is refreshed in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Screen Australia is an independent statutory body and can spend its money how it likes. As a spokesman for Arts Minister Simon Crean told us this week, “it’s up to Screen Australia to manage its budget”.