Australian TV drama spend falls 13 per cent: Screen Australia

Australian TV drama expenditure has fallen 13 per cent despite total expenditure on drama hitting $837 million – just one per cent down on last year's record high.

That's according to the 2014/15 Screen Australia Drama Report which tracks production activity in film, television and online.

The Drama Report data is in its 25th year and monitors the health of the industry through measures of hours, spend and sources of finance.

TV drama is coming off four years of increased investment, and drama spend and hours are down as broadcasters deal with straightened times and new competitors.

Overall, the 2014/15 Australian TV drama slate comprised 517 hours of programs (47 titles), accounting for expenditure in Australia of $299 million.

The results were down on last year as the adult TV drama slate fell back from recent record expenditure levels.

Expenditure on children’s TV drama increased, although hours decreased.

The 2014/15 Australian children’s drama slate comprised 116 hours of programs with total budgets of $95 million and Australian expenditure of $64 million.

The adult TV drama slate comprised 34 titles (401 hours) with budgets totalling $238 million and expenditure in Australia of $235 million.

All measures were down on last year and the five-year averages.

The sector has seen a gradual decline in total hours combined with four years of increased investment in TV drama for adults by all broadcasters.

With the contraction of production across all measures this year, the number of hours produced dipped to the lowest since 2005/06.

Total budgets and expenditure were similar to 2009/10, prior to the elevated results of recent years.

Production trends in recent years have seen a move away from longer-run series and serials toward shorter-form series and mini-series.

The commercial free-to-air broadcasters remain the largest financiers of TV drama, even though their contribution reduced this year.

Overall, the Seven and Ten networks continued to account for the lion’s share of adult TV drama hours produced, principally due to

their flagship serials, Home and Away and Neighbours.

Production for the ABC continued to be strong this year, increasing even further after three years of solid production levels, following a boost to finance available for drama as part of the public broadcaster’s 2009–12 three-year funding agreement.

As a result the ABC has accounted for the largest share of total budgets of any single broadcaster since 2011/12.

The Seven Network remained the highest financial contributor to the adult slate from a single broadcaster, followed by the ABC and Foxtel.

Subscription television had a strong year with The Kettering Incident, Open Slather and a third season of A Place to Call Home (licenced from the Seven Network last year).

Subscription television finance also had its highest recorded contribution to the TV drama slate.

The introduction of video-on-demand (VOD) services has also brought a growing volume of professionally-produced drama content being made for release online.

This year’s titles are Fresh Blood Pilot Season (ABC iview), No Activity, Plonk series 2 (both Stan) and SBS Comedy Runway (SBS ON DEMAND).

Titles that are 60 minutes or more in total and made for Catch-up or Subscription VOD are captured for the first time in the data of Screen Australia report.

However, direct government investment continued to underpin a large proportion of the slate, with Screen Australia alone contributing $21 million to supporting 47 per cent of all TV drama titles.

Screen Australia chief executive Graeme Mason said Australian TV drama was hugely popular. "We’re seeing fantastic audiences for programs like Catching Milat, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door and House of Hancock,” he said.

“It is, however, very expensive to produce, especially when weighed up against the cost of cheap American imports.

With much more competition in the SVOD environment further fragmenting audiences, government incentives to produce local content will be more important than ever, Mason said.

"Support for Australian stories is crucial to maintaining the great cultural dividends we’re seeing for audiences across all platforms,” he said.

Screen Australia has cut its funding programs after the federal budget reduced its allocation by $3.6 million over the next four years.

The 2014/15 period did include returning seasons such as Winners and Losers (Seven) and Love Child (Nine) as well as new titles including The Beautiful Lie and The Secret River and the yet to be aired Cleverman, (all ABC) The Principal (SBS) and the upcoming The Kettering Incident (Foxtel).

In better news, Australian films are certain to sail past $70 million at the national box office, helped by The Dressmaker.

Through last Sunday the feature films and docs released in 2015 plus holdovers had amassed $67.2 million, according to the MPDAA.

Australian films had already surpassed the all-time box office record of $63.4 million set in 2001.

The 2014/15 Australian feature film slate comprised 35 titles, accounting for expenditure in Australia of $121 million.

The number of films remained consistent with the previous three years, but with no high-budget studio-financed films starting production total expenditure was significantly lower.

Previous year’s results were boosted by films such as Gods of Egypt (2013/14), Mad Max: Fury Road (2012/13) and The Great Gatsby (2011/12).

Foreign activity accounted for expenditure in Australia of $418 million in 2014/15, a record high, predominantly due to location shooting for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie and post, digital and visual effects activity on two movies in the LEGO franchise.

Pirates was the beneficiary of a special additional incentive for production in Australia, and Animal Logic was able to secure further films in the LEGO franchise following the commercial and critical success of 2014’s The LEGO Movie.

The recent announcement that both Ridley Scott’s untitled Alien project and Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok will be filmed in Australia, has ensured foreign feature expenditure is off to a strong start in 2016.

Five foreign features and one foreign TV drama started shooting in Australia during the year, and ten foreign projects (including one TV drama) undertook post, digital and visual effects in Australia without shooting here.

More than half of this year’s domestic features had budgets in the $1–3 million range (18 titles, 55 per cent of the total slate), compared to the 5-year average of around a third of the slate (10 titles, 34 per cent) in this range.

Overall, 86 per cent of this year’s feature films were made for less than $6 million, compared to the five year average of 75 per cent.

Despite the lack big studio-funded Australian films, there are several films in the pipeline, including Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, which will see this gap filled again in coming years.

Of the total 2014/15 drama expenditure for film and TV, 38 per cent occurred in NSW and 28 per cent each in Queensland and Victoria.

The Producer Offset was the biggest finance source for Australian features, followed by direct government sources of which Screen Australia is the primary contributor ($18m for 20 features).

The report also found NSW accounted for the largest share of drama production activity in 2014/15 (38 per cent), with strong expenditure by foreign post-production only titles, The LEGO Batman Movie and Ninjago.

Other major NSW-based productions included, US feature film Truth, domestic film 2:22, and returning seasons of A Place to Call Home, Love Child and Home and Away as well as the TV drama co-production, Cleverman.

Victorian productions posted a share of 28 per cent. This was driven by post-production only activity for US feature film Ted 2, along with both shoot and post for US TV drama Childhood’s End.

Victoria also hosted Australian films The Dressmaker and Lion as well as TV dramas House Husbands, Neighbours and Open Slather.

Mason said while this year was lacking the spike of a big studio-backed Australian feature, the heartbeat of the industry was strong for features even in the context of an ever-more challenging market.

"In TV we should be delighted with strong audiences but mindful of the vital signs, keeping a keen eye on the ongoing health of the sector as the pressures increase on networks,” he said.