The Australian film industry is going through an identity crisis. Are we a Hollywood backlot, providing studios for some of the most anticipated movies in the world? Are we able to sustain ourselves by telling our own stories? Is there a balance between the two?

In the past few years, Australia has regained its reputation as a hotspot for filming Hollywood blockbusters (which took a knock in the late 2000s, when the financial crisis saw companies like Disney, Universal, and Paramount seek other locales). However, in 2015 to 2017, we have played host to a number of high-budget productions including Pacific Rim Uprising, the latest Alien installment, Kong: Skull Island, Aquaman, Thor: Ragnarok and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

But Australia’s return to Hollywood glory hasn’t come without challenge or criticism. After Aquaman packed up late last year, things looked bleak for the previously back-to-back booked Village Roadshow studios on the Gold Coast. That was until Screen Queensland staged a mercy dash last month for the contract to film the live-action version of Dora the Explorer; an effort framed as creating thousands of jobs and “saving” the burgeoning industry.

On the Friday, it looked like a crisis situation. By the Sunday, the production was secured. However, what exactly was done remains unclear.

The (unknown) cost and benefit

It’s not the first time that questions have swirled around the Queensland Government and Screen Queensland’s methods of attracting Hollywood studios. A Right to Information request from 2015 that sought to reveal the state’s contributions to Disney for Pirates of the Caribbean is still unsuccessful, despite the federal government freely disclosing their $21.6 million contribution in addition to federal offsets afforded to all international productions. Multiple requests for comment from Screen Queensland and to be connected with an industry practitioner part of the Save Dora campaign for this article were not fulfilled.

What we do know is that the federal offset in Australia currently sits at 16.5% of the production budget. Incidentally, that’s much lower than many other jurisdictions, which hover around 30%. The US states of Georgia (Atlanta’s Pinewood Studios serves as location for Marvel Comics films, and TV shows such as Stranger Things and The Walking Dead) and New York offer 30%; and the UK, as well as many US states like Pennsylvania, offer 25%. Organisations such as the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA) are calling for the offset to be raised to 30% for the sake of competitiveness.

“The reality is that Australia is missing out on productions because the business case is not stacking up for studios,” MEAA’s Entertainment, Crew & Sport section director Erin Madeley said in a press release. 

It’s also true that blockbusters such as Thor: Ragnarok create jobs both on and off sets, as well as upskilling crew, upgrading equipment and facilities, and creating work for VFX, post-production, and animation houses — all things that could likely not be afforded on Australian-produced content. However, there are concerns that in a bid to attract Hollywood, attention and funds are being diverted from local culture. In 2015, the year Pirates of the Caribbean filmed on the Gold Coast, Screen Australia’s budget was cut for the third time in 18 months, losing more than $50 million in the five years to 2018-19.

If we hit another blockbuster dry period, what’s the use of the highly skilled crew and equipment we gain if local filmmakers aren’t invested in during the boom?

A call for balance

Coincidentally, the week after Dora the Explorer was “saved” by Screen Queensland, the organisation Make It Australian released an open letter. Signed by over 200 Australian actors, directors, producers, writers, and technicians including Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Joel Edgerton, and Gillian Armstrong, the letter called for action on three matters: evolving local content rules to cover new media such as Netflix and Amazon, increasing international producer incentives to the standard of 30%, and building well-funded public broadcasters and screen agencies.

“If our nation’s stories aren’t told, they die. And when they die, future generations won’t know who we are and what makes us us,” the letter says.

“We support competitive offsets,” Kingston Anderson, the CEO of the Australian Directors’ Guild, tells Crikey. “The letter that we sent to politicians from the industry is really saying to the government ‘we’re very concerned, because there have been two inquiries, there’s another one coming up, and you’re not telling us what the results are, you’re not telling us what you’re going to do.

“We don’t understand why there needs to be that secrecy.”

“[Offshore production is] incredibly valuable as an economic resource, and a resource for people who invest, [but local content] being produced for screen is the backbone of the industry.”

Of course, with the federal budget approaching, there is talk of what the coming years will look like. Will Screen Australia have its budget cut again, with funds shifted to attract more offshore productions? Or, on the back of the Make it Australian letter, will things start to change?

An additional $140 million in funding has already been announced as part of the budget to attract overseas productions, but at what expense? That is still unknown.

*A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated the $21.6 million contribution to Disney came from Screen Australia; it was instead an incentives package from the federal government.

Peter Fray

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