Sandy George.

Australian film and television is delivering less local cultural value to audiences, authentic dramas are fewer, and much of it now feels a lot less Australian – even unrecognisable as made in this country, according to veteran screen journalist Sandy George.

George argues if there is nothing recognisably Australian on the screen, it carries little cultural value. It is ‘Australianness’ that excites local viewers, and cultural value is the main reason why taxpayer funding underpins drama production.

The following is an extract from George’s New Platform Paper ‘Nobody talks about Australianness on our Screens‘, just published by Currency House, in which she argues Screen Australia must proactively cultivate film and television that is Australian in look and feel.

Screen Australia must make exceptional local cultural value the focus of everything.

Screen Australia needs to shout “What do we want? Cultural value! When do we want it? NOW!”

Senior executives say that local cultural value is a plank in their decision making and it is. But it is no longer enough for them to quietly consider the cultural value of individual projects or a group of projects in the same application round. The world has changed. It is time that they very seriously reviewed all programs and initiatives through the lens of cultural value, bearing in mind that ‘Australianness’ is the key to it.

The agency needs to put aside the notion that if an Australian production company is making content, then the content is Australian and automatically has cultural value. Just another cop show shouldn’t cut it. Screen Australia’s direct taxpayer funding must go to projects with exceptional potential local cultural value — and, yes, what that means exactly will have to be thrashed out, and it isn’t straightforward.

Creative freedom is implicit in the other kind of financial assistance available, the Producer Offset, and it is available to all eligible projects. A truck can be driven through the SAC [significant Australian content] test; no-one is exercising granular discretion. There is no cap on what individual projects can claim, and there is no cap on total annual claims. Plus the PO was recently held at 40 per cent for features and increased to 30 per cent for television (although there are fears that the networks will reduce their content contribution). The PO keeps pace with rising costs and rising production levels whereas the taxpayer funding through Screen Australian doesn’t. It’s time to be very clear that Screen Australia is there for culture.

Dare I say it, but I feel a bit sorry for Screen Australia at times because it is too relied upon, entitlement in the industry is rife, and it is often in a no-win situation because the supply of funding doesn’t meet demand for it. Some of its problems are of its own making, however. It has its fingers in too many pies. It needs to stop thinking it can and should control everything and decide what it can do best in service of the Australian public. Traditionally, there has been the notion that each FTA platform deserves some of Screen Australia’s money. Stop that. There should be just the one determinant.

There are many matters to carefully consider, of course. For example, what attitude to adopt towards talent escalation; that is, what funding to provide for projects made by inexperienced filmmakers perceived as having talent. It would be a good audience-facing discipline for them to know that the only possibility of getting money is if their projects have the kind of Australianness that delivers exceptional cultural value. And history tells us that those kinds of projects flush out support for people who become Baz Luhrmanns and George Millers (Mad Max)—and more of them is good because more benefits flow from them making mega-budget productions in Australia than flows from non-Australians making them. Another approach is for the individual states to take more responsibility for new talent, given they are closer to the ground. States too have considerable resources. More understanding of how the federal-state relationships work would not go astray.

When Screen Australia overlooks Australianness it should make clear why in its communications – it always announces what projects are getting its funding. In recent years, Screen Australia executives drank the Kool-Aid of their old political bosses. The media release about the appearance of the 2020/21 drama report (which its research department does an exemplary job of publishing each year) demonstrates this. It trumpeted: ‘Aussie drama production reaches record-breaking $1.9 billion expenditure’. It’s misleading because it’s not Aussie drama production. It is Aussie drama produced in Australia plus foreign drama filmed in Australia. Economic value and cultural value, foreign and Australian, should be treated separately in such reports, and total expenditure certainly shouldn’t be talked about breathlessly for all the reasons this paper raises. Stop pretending everything is OK. Depending on economics to deliver cultural value is arse about.

Screen Australia is a highly influential body. Where it puts its development support is a thumbs-up signal that others heed: partners on the other side of the world, overseas broadcasters, state government agencies, and private investors. It never wholly funds major projects, but very often its decisions determine which dramas gets the green light. In 2020/21 it invested in about 40 per cent of all the Australian features that went into production, in just over 70 per cent of mini-series for the FTAs, in just under 70 per cent of dramas for the SVODs and in 30 per cent of all FTA series and serials. (Under Screen Australia’s rules it can’t continually back new seasons of existing series.)

Screen Australia often says it can only fund what comes across its desk. True. But just as it guides the media’s thinking, it also guides practitioners’ thinking. Filmmakers constantly try to second guess its priorities. A few well-chosen words about exceptional local cultural value being a priority would have a big impact on what the industry chooses to develop.

Public Film Funding at a Crossroads lists the values that public film agencies in Europe aim to safeguard: cultural/artistic idiosyncrasies with specific territorial references; film as an cultural/artistic form; diversity in all its senses; European ownership; independent production companies that own underlying IP rights, and have artistic freedom and creative control along with the filmmakers; IP rights handled territory by territory; and cinemas as a central place for shared experiences.

Australia take note: they lean more to the cultural than the economic – and they value the cinema experience. Everyone needs to work together to fortify the big screen experience for those times when an Australian film can justify the high cost and high risk of a cinema release.

Eliza Scanlen and Hunter-Page Lochard in ‘Fires’. (Photo: Ben King)

Drama should tackle topics of national importance

“Tony Ayres came to us, just after the fires happened, and said ‘We need to talk about this. The community needs a cathartic moment.’ And we said ‘yes’ straight away.”

This is ABC TV’s Sally Riley explaining how the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires gave rise to the six-part drama Fires. Ayres and Belinda Chayko created the show, which is available free on the streaming platform ABC iview.

The anthology series is cleverly conceived: the two young volunteer firefighters (Eliza Scanlen and Hunter Page-Lochard) at the core of the first episode, are linking characters across all episodes, each of which focusses on different people. In the second episode, only the most cold-hearted viewer would not feel grief and anger at the fate of dairy farmers Kath and Duncan (Miranda Otto and Richard Roxburgh). In the third, Mark Winter’s portrayal of a methadone addict reverses every prejudice a viewing public might have about drug addiction.

I had to see Fires for work and otherwise would not have done so because in horror and shock I had watched the Australian countryside burn over and over on the nightly news in 2019. Others felt the same way. Sure enough, it reawakened my feelings of despair. But the experience also left behind the sensation that I’d sat holding hands with the people who lived through the trauma, listening intently to them while they told their confronting stories.

Screen Australia can do almost anything under its enabling legislation, which suggests, among other things, making programs ‘that deal with matters of national interest or importance to Australians’. Shake things up! Ask filmmakers aged 14 to 35 years to pitch projects. The agency’s new head of content Grainne Brunsdon says the aim is to cater for this audience. Shake it up further by saying the pitches have to be comedy! Even further by asking in the public! Revel in what’s possible.

There is so much else that needs to be talked about

I worked at Screen Australia for three years part-time up to mid-2018 and felt crushed when the realisation hit that there was rarely talk of brilliant projects coming in the door. When I recently asked Screen Australia’s chief executive Graeme Mason publicly if enough good projects came in, he said ‘no’.

This raises so many questions.

Cultural value flows from shows that are great, so what can be done about getting better applications? What’s discouraging the truly talented? Do they not have the contacts to gain entry to the citadel? Should there be more digging for new talent, including in the tertiary environment? Are filmmakers born or bred? Why do the same production companies get repeat funding?

There are so many more matters that could be explored: the remarkable popularity of local films at festivals and what lessons can be learned there; the craving for Indigenous films among non-indigenous audiences, built from nothing over decades; how diversity and inclusion and addressing gender imbalance has done wonders for Australianness and there’s so much more of that to do. Maybe time limits should be imposed on Screen Australia jobs so different views of Australia cycle through the building and different networks gain access.

Sandy George’s full New Platform Paper ‘Nobody talks about Australianness on our Screens‘ is available now free on www.currencyhouse.org.au. Following industry feedback, an updated hard copy will published by Currency House in December

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11 Comments

  1. Australianess means different things to each and every Australian you speak to, and each generation has a very different view of what that is. How do you pin down a definition for Australianess? Is it because we live here? Where we live? The indigenous custodians?
    The commonwealth decendants? The migrants? The refugees?
    Can we be storytellers about any of these without being them ourselves? Or is it sufficient to be someone who has seen these experiences first hand in the lives of our families friends or colleagues? But ultimately since no investment can come from Screen Australia without a letter of offer from a distributor broadcaster or streaming platform… is the issue of what gets picked for funding, ultimstely driven by what distributors want to invest in, that is low risk ie what our consumer facing platforms want to buy.
    Netflix has shown us that Australian Audiences will happily watch and embrace foreign languages and settings, and diverse casting, so long as there is a compelling reason to do so. Meaning a well executed story. However again, development funding generally hinges on an expression of interest from a distributor broadcaster or Streamer, who, pander to what they think the funding bodies want, so our “Australian” content has historically looked a bit “same old same old”. While it has been refreshing to see the rise of more accomplished and original content in recent years… we have to hope that investment dollars are being used to assist and build local production companies rather that prop up international companies that have established a local base to benefit from local incentives. But without those distribution letters, whether as interest or an offer, local companies struggle to build a sustainable business, and ultimately … without that, it doesn’t really matter how Australianess is defined.

    1. If streamers are so interested in local content that they don’t need to be regulated (which is their claim) then what you are referring to should not be an issue… unless they don’t actually mean it!!!

    1. Oxford dictionary says “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”, so making sure the stories are visibly set in Australia with Australian actors speaking with Australian accents would go a long way – it’s not rocket science.

      1. Therein lies the problem.

        The vast majority of Australians are migrants – so please define an “Australian accent” without excluding the accents of indigenous peoples of Australia or all the migrants !!

        Out in the suburbs – not many traditional white Australian accents…

        My dad came to Australia when was 11… he’s now 85. He’s from one of the larger migrant groups, speaks perfect English yet still has traces of a foreign accent. I’ve only ever seen his “Australianess” – his ideas customs, and social behaviour” – shown on Aussie screens authentically once, and that was maybe 20years ago.

        All the other non-Brit migrant groups in Australia don’t connect or relate to the UK colonial culture, so why shouldn’t they get their stories told and see themselves and “their Australian experience and culture” also represented? All up, they represent a bloody huge part of the Australian population.

        The “white Australian” policy ended decades ago … it’s just taking too long for broadcasters and distributors to catch up, and that in turn perpetuates the viewing habits of Australians of UK Colonial descent.

        The irony of course is that the UK has fully embraced diverse casting and story telling.

        The more we see a diverse range of characters and stories on our screens the more we realise that people across the world all have universal issues of – families, loves, career and political struggles etc etc – and the more we connect and accept differences, the more we can empathise with our neighbours and humankind as a whole.

        And that – is not rocket science !

  2. I would say many of the things that Brian Kavanagh has been involved with would fall into Sandy’s framing. Including Dags!

  3. Without the funding bodies pouring what I thought was enormous amounts of money into the development of Oddball ( yes, well… eventually) there would be no story on film of what happened in Warnambool. But times have changed and they just don’t push Australian projects like they used to… and they need a LOT of pushing. My new project even though another true story, the little Aussie battler and the community that comes together with a legendary director and genius actor – is not getting much love ( yes some initial kissing so thanks for that) and I feel like the funding bodies are too busy attracting all these foreign shows to make their KPI’s sing. Sandy is absolutely correct – they should get NOTHING. If the govt wants to make jobs in the industry fine – set up an agency for that but don’t squeeze $ out of Scroz or Screen VIC, NSW etc and then pile on this enormous management task that clogs the rebate office for one – keep it separate and let them help us tell our stories FFS!!! Do we all have to become Steve Jaggi to make anything? I’m not that smart:)

  4. This is a bit ridiculous. What makes content Australia? Does it HAVE TO HAVE SPECIFIC AUSTRALIAN behavior? Is it not enough that the film is made here targeting a world Audience?

    Look at South Korean content (Squid games as an example). It’s obvious they are made in South Korea. They have been amazingly successful. They definitely do not target Korean culture. They just happen to be made in that country and many Korean aspects come along with making it there.

    They also focus on making films that are likely to sell overseas.

    This one-eyed aspect of any film Screen Australia sponsors has to be a full-on Australian cultural showcase.. is simply non-commercial.

    That’s why Screen Australia has to alter its focus as its focus is not commercial and investors are not there.

    Money makes this business run and if there are no investors, it doesn’t get made.

    1. She is saying that movies like The Great Gatsby and tv dramas like Clickbait pass the SAC test. They are not set in Australia and Australian actors speak with Amercian accents. Squid Game is at least undeniably South Korean.

  5. Australian film and television is delivering less local cultural value to audiences, authentic dramas are fewer, and much of it now feels a lot less Australian – even unrecognisable as made in this country, according to veteran screen journalist Sandy George. Read an extract from her New Platform Paper, in which she argues Screen Australia must proactively cultivate film and television that is Australian in look and feel.
    “It’s time to be very clear that Screen Australia is there for culture”: Sandy George – IF Magazine
    IF.COM.AU
    “It’s time to be very clear that Screen Australia is there for culture”: Sandy George – IF Magazine
    Australian film and television is delivering less local cultural value to audiences, authentic dramas are fewer, and much of it now feels a lot less Australian – even unrecognisable as made in this country, according to veteran screen journalist Sandy George. Read an extract from her new Platform …
    30 Comments

    Rohan Everingham
    I agree that the Australian public has always taken a sentimental approach to their story viewership and filmmakers who are savvy about this respond accordingly. They are more likely to respond to the battler archetypes and ‘unlikely hero” and this is an indelible part of the Aussie character – going against all odds to overcome whatever it is that they need to. Perhaps this has been inscribed from our colonial days and our battle against authority, our larrikinism and countering the stiffer upper lip against the way Australians were seen as ‘mongrel citizens’ and lesser people. We have always fought to be heard while remaining somewhat humble in the process. Sweet stories that champion the ‘underdog’ are perennial favorites.
    BUT… and there is always a but… I fear a shift away from generic and dramatic ‘execution’ as being an important factor in telling stories and I don’t think it matters how dark as long as it is balanced with the light so to speak (and this is just always good writing). Mad Max (100 million gross) and Wolf Creek (I remember the line going out the cinema doors waiting for the box office) these are well executed and commercially successful genre films. The Ozploitation era (see docco “Not Quite Hollywood”) was the most successful era in Australian filmmaking over a ten year period (150 % 10BA) and many of these were dark in subject matter (admittedly appealing alot to overseas punters) but the important thing is they are ‘genre’ in sensibility – and rounded in execution.
    That is to say, they touch most spots on what I call the “emotional pin wheel” – the emotional spectrum – and that is deft, and which all well executed scripts do. An argument could be put, “oh no – not another dark Aussie film about heroin addiction!” … but then it has to be said: “Well, what about Trainspotting? It’s not Australian…but…” .. I guess my point is, Trainspotting was brilliantly executed – had masterful IP adaptation and hit all the marks in a darkly comical way, making addiction ironic. You might say we wouldn’t want to see ourselves as addicts – but then would an Australian version of this film work with all its wit and surreal situational drama and comedy? There is also an argument to be said that benevolent films naturally open the marketplace (and this happens internationally too) – with a more family friendly rating and appealing more to the mainstream, so naturally this would carry over.
    Indeed, I’m not saying that what you’re proposing can’t be part of the solution, but I would stop short in saying it is the ‘total’ solution which is what ideology attempts to do. I would also consider films / TV that cut through the international boundaries as successes too – Animal Kingdom (sold format for TV) /snow town. What about “Dead Calm” or “Proof” – very well constructed films and quite successful. ‘Bad Boy Bubby’ (the most popular film in Norway) and an on-going cult classic. Again, this is a very dark film but it is also quirky and fun. So, I think the challenge for any storyteller is to show the light and the dark – a well balanced film is yin and yang.
    I would also say that – in your analysis – it doesn’t much take into account budget/ profit ratio. I think you’ll find that would paint an even more dire picture. Also, there are many other mitigating factors these days including the fact our country is much more multicultural and the agencies respond accordingly with their mandates, the rise of accessibility to international content (esp TV – 30 years ago free-to-air Australian Television drama was the only option for viewers; we had VHS and DVD for movies first and then, of course, the box-set which means competitively this is an economic nightmare for oz content) and ‘marketing’ (although, I don’t buy the full argument about that, as the best form is still word of mouth and social media obviously as its new mouth piece). There is also the ultimate question of ‘talent’ – the aforementioned examples are created by exemplar individuals in their field.
    Without darkness – where does that leaves us? No Gallipoli or Wake in Fright? So, not to throw the baby out with the bath water – as I think what is being attempted with ‘darkness’ is actually an attempt at truth and I think that is important for the integrity of art. It’s just – as you say with the example on the phone about “Lambs of God” – it is much too heavily weighty on that end of the grey scale. I would also argue there is a touch of darkness in these successful benevolent dramas (and remember, not all benevolent dramas are successful, I could also name many recent flops) – Pricilla is a good commentary on Australian misogyny and bigotry – but ultimately as you say – a triumph of the human sprit and individuality (against all odds).
    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I think it is a topic that is worth as much investigation as possible. I’d also say that international co-productions could be part of the solution (The Cry, Upgrade etc). I think what we are proposing here is extremely important and it’s great to finally have an in-depth discussion no matter what the angle – there is merit in all approaches. But “equity based” approaches and tax reform would be the tangible outcomes of a process of rigorous accountability, and it’s going to take a collective perspective – which is why I wouldn’t discount all that you are proposing. I do also have projects which would fall into the ‘benevolent’ category that I’m naturally close to!

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