Film sales lifting: Harley

By Brendan Swift

Screen Australia boss Ruth Harley says the market for art house films remains flat despite a recovery in overall film sales at the recent Cannes International Film Festival.

“This is the first one where I haven’t felt a steady decline in the economy of the business and not only did I not feel that but I talked to a lot of people who thought there was some recovery," she said.

While Harley said sales to the UK, France and Canada showed signs of picking up, expectations for Screen Australia-supported art house films needs to be kept in context.

“We do that because we want to support the talent, we do it because it’s a wonderful project, we do it because it has strong cultural resonance. But our expectations for those projects should be really strongly festival-oriented, not commercially-oriented, because the commercial market for those projects is very flat indeed.”

Harley spoke at a NSW film and TV industry forum last night, held at Trackdown Scoring Stage at Fox Studios, along with Screen NSW chief executive Tania Chambers and Ausfilm boss Jackie O'Sullivan.

Chambers warned that there have been no offshore productions shooting in NSW since X-Men Origins: Wolverine more than two years ago. The State government recently announced a one-off $20 million funding boost to attract large-scale production to NSW and $5 million for local production.

Chambers said Screen NSW's next board meeting in July will consider $5 million in production funding applications while offshore production interest had strengthened since the funding boost. “We don’t have any issues with spending the money over the next financial year,” she said.

O’Sullivan said attracting offshore productions remains a major issue after the country lost the big budget Green Lantern and xXx in the past year.

“It’s actually been one of the hardest times ever for international productions in Australia," she said.

Nonetheless, recent government changes to the rebates are having a positive effect, with Steven Spielberg's dinosaurs TV series Terra Nova considering filming in Australia.

Ausfilm has lobbied the government to double the level of the current 15 per cent Location and PDV rebates. O'Sullivan said they are no longer competitive unless the Australian dollar – currently trading at about US86c – falls below US75c.

Meanwhile, Harley said an extra 1.4 million Australians saw Australian films last year – a 45 per cent increase. However, the overall box office share remained steady as the Australian box office broke the $1 billion mark for the first time.

There have been 18 films released this year, which have taken $22 million at the box office and account for 4.4 per cent of the total, she said. TV audiences – led by the 3.1 million viewers who watched the latest Underbelly series, as well as documentary audiences, also remain strong.

In response to an audience question, Harley said reports that Screen Australia would allocate all of its annual domestic documentary funding at the next board meeting were incorrect although the agency had received more applications than it ever has.

She also defended the agency's decision to no longer reveal who has assessed individual projects submitted to Screen Australia.

“We canvassed our assessors and they told us that they would not write the assessment in the same way if they signed them. As a result we thought we wouldn’t get as good quality information.”