Media reforms: The “death knell’ for features or a streaming-led resurgence?

Frank Woodley.

Many producers fear the Federal Government’s sweeping media reforms will spell the death knell of Australian features, forcing them and some writers and directors to focus on content for streamers or free-to-air broadcasters.

Lowering the Producer Offset for films to 30 per cent from July 2021 will leave a gap of at least 25 per cent of the budgets which most producers will find impossible to fill, according to producer/distributor Sue Maslin.

“The exceptions will be largely foreign-financed films or local films with cast led by foreign actors making the most of Australian financial incentives, cast, crew and locations. That or extremely low budget films with little hope of competing in the cinema market,” the Film Art Media principal tells IF.

“I find this summary dismissal of Australian cinema devastating and will be forced to relegate all feature films currently in development to the bottom drawer until we see the streamers step up to the plate on local films.

“As for going to the movies to see films like The Dressmaker, Last Cab To Darwin, Ride Like A Girl, Breath, The Sapphires and Animal Kingdom, forget it. Get used to the small screen experience everyone.”

Producer Steve Kearney (Oddball, Bad Girl), who has been developing Evie Hates Christmas with actor/writer/comedian Frank Woodley, says: “The government just announced the death of Australian feature films. The future is grim for all filmmakers. It was already near impossible; now perhaps that model is dead and it’s hoped a streamer will take it or don’t bother.

“The first planes out of Australia will be full of feature writers and producers because we are stupid to live here anymore. As if it wasn’t hard enough they just took away 15 per cent of the money we could raise through tax rebates. Money people will need to invest now; know anyone who wants to do that? No, there wasn’t anyone yesterday and no one today.”

International producers who were planning to shoot co-productions in Australia warn that reducing the Producer Offset will see productions shift to Canada, the UK and other markets which have 40 per cent incentives.

To be fair, production companies welcome raising the TV Offset to 30 per cent and ending the 65-episode cap, although some worry that Foxtel will cut back on commissions as the annual requirement to spend 10 per cent of its drama channels’ revenues on local content will be halved.

Fremantle CEO Chris Oliver-Taylor said: “For Fremantle the fact that there are drama quotas in place [part of the annual local content requirement of 250 points, with higher points for bigger budgeted fare] is clearly a positive outcome.

“I would have liked them to be higher but I do think they have been modernised and are starting to reflect the new content world we live in.

“We are working through the potential impact on QAPE thresholds being raised from $500,000 to $1 million and the detrimental and inflationary impact that may have on production.

“I think that there should be a degree of fairness in the sector and I am keen that the government works with the SVOD players to ensure that they commission Australian content in volume as well as scale.

“The risk to Australia is that we become an outpost of Hollywood, lose our ability to create original IP and fundamentally lose Australian voices and stories. We have to always hold the government to account to ensure the policy settings in the screen sector protect Australian voices.”

Kriv Stenders, who works across narrative features, documentaries and TV drama, has been gearing his slate to target the streamers but is optimistic about the future of feature films.

“Our entire industry is about to undergo a huge and profound shift but change always brings opportunity,” he tells IF. “I truly believe that the feature film form and the theatrical experience will continue to adapt, evolve, survive and surprise us.

“Filmmaking has always been a challenging enterprise. It’s never been an easy pathway. I think no matter what develops out of this, we are all going to have to be smarter, braver, bolder, and even more innovative and resourceful when it comes to developing projects and structuring our financing.”

Blake Ayshford.

Among the writers IF spoke to, the mood was bleak. Writer/producer Blake Ayshford predicts Australia will become a dumping ground for cheap US and UK stories where the only place you’ll hear Australian accents will be “someone sliding into a hot tub on a reality show, fussing over a half-cooked custard or reading the news.”

With the commercial broadcasters no longer required to screen a set amount of local drama, he predicts: “No more Mystery Road, Gallipoli, Blue Heelers, McLeod’s Daughters, Redfern Now, Blue Murder, Doctor Doctor, The Slap, Love My Way or The Secret Life of Us, but plenty of MacGyver and Hawaii Five-O.”

He doubts the extra $30 million for Screen Australia and $20 million for the Australian Children’s Television Foundation will make a significant difference.

If the Australian screen industry becomes similar to New Zealand, which has no local content requirements, he may have to consider working overseas or retraining in TV.

Elise McCredie labels the effective scrapping of the quotas on the FTA networks and the failure to impose local content obligations on the SVODs as a tragedy for Australian film and TV.

“Our industry is already on its knees and they’re raw and bloody,” says the writer whose credits include Stateless, Ride Like a Girl and Jack Irish. “All this talk of manufacturing and no reference or support for an industry that is essential to both our identity and our economy make it abundantly clear where artists and storytellers stand in this government’s ‘big picture.’ These reforms are a travesty.”

Film editor and emerging writer Danielle Boesenberg says: “There’s huge opportunity out there for Australian productions so these media reforms are visionless – culturally, creatively and commercially.

“A narrowing of the playing field like this smothers desperately needed opportunity for new and emerging artists and diverse artists and thins the ranks of mid-tier artists as their work opportunities become fewer and far between.

“I’ve been working towards long form opportunities, doing everything I can to do the kind of work that will inspire an appetite in producers to take a chance on me. I fear these reforms will kill that appetite.”

Writer Roger Monk (The Unusual Suspects, Nowhere Boys) accepts the need for regulatory change in the burgeoning digital media market but questions why the government would top up production investment yet limit opportunities for creatives with the streamers.

“I have written widely for kids and am baffled why you would provide additional investment to the ACTF for them to produce content but by abolishing the quota, be unable to find an outlet to be seen,” he said.

Sue Maslin.

Maslin recalled that at the AFI Awards on December 2 1969 Prime Minister John Gorton announced the rebirth of the Australian film industry with a major support package.

On September 30 2020, she said, Communications and Arts Minister Paul Fletcher announced the “death sentence for Australian feature films. The curtain is set to close on 50 years of Australian movies on the big screen.”

She continued: “This announcement brings an end to producers like myself continuing to invest our time, money, blood, sweat and tears in developing features and forces us to focus on digital platforms in an unregulated environment where to date there has been no viable business model emerge for small to medium sized producers and minimal commitment by streamers to commissioning Australian content.

“These measures have been supported by Screen Australia, who tell us to get with the program and ‘get more stuff on all those platforms.’ In almost 40 years of filmmaking, I have never made ‘stuff’ and despair for the future storytellers working in this environment.”

Kearney’s Evie Hates Christmas is based on the true story of postie Cam, a happy-go-lucky postman who festoons his bike with Christmas decorations only to be shut down by Australia Post on safety concerns.

The plot follows cynical 11-year-old Canadian Evie who lands in Australia to live with her uncle Cam after her mother passes away. She plots to steal enough cash to buy a plane ticket home. When Cam reveals he has connections when it comes to getting kids’ Santa letters answered, Evie gives in to the power of positivity, magic and love.

Kearney will continue to focus on that and two other projects- a film on the power of music to heal, in which he’s in discussions with Clayton and Shane Jacobson, and a female-led road movie which promotes the saving of the Barrier Reef.

“We are going to have to sell the IP overseas and hope they can produce it there or come back with it for the attraction funds the sates offer to footloose productions,” he says. “Australians companies won’t thrive if we don’t have ownership and foreign countries will be determining how our stories are told.”

Anupam Sharma.

Film and Casting Temple’s Anupam Sharma warns the lower Producer Offset increases the risk of Australia losing projects to more tax-friendly regimes and will make it tougher to finance Australian films which tell diverse stories.

“With 30 per cent it is not a case of investment become harder but investment going away to more appealing film regimes,” he says. “One of our projects has development investment from the UK and they assessed Mauritius and Canada before going ahead with Australia as we have 40 per cent with better film facilities than Mauritius. Such projects will simply move out of Australia, causing loss of jobs.”

The UK co-pro is Good Call, a thriller in development with UK-based Kent Walwin’s and Jacqui Miller Charlton’s JMC and Co., who invested in Sharma’s feature doc Bollywood Downunder.

Sharma planned to produce and direct Shadows, a horror thriller financed by investors from Europe and India, in Australia but says he may look to move that to Mauritius.

Walwin, whose firm is developing a number of Australian stories as UK co-productions, tells IF he is disheartened by the lowering of the Offset and asks if it could be implemented in a phased manner to avoid disrupting currently planned productions.

Tom Shanahan, an Australian producer who returned home after spending years in China making Australian/Chinese films with investors such as Ray Chen, describes the Offset reduction as devastating.

Among the projects he is developing is a feature on the ANZACs based on his grandfather’s diary as one of Australia’s youngest captains to fight the Germans in Crete.

After seven days of intense fighting most of the Aussies were overpowered and taken prisoner, but his grandfather and others escaped to mountains and hid with Greek monks.

US-based investor Chen had agreed to back the film. “In light of the lower Offset we will have to reconvene,” Shanahan says. “Hopefully we will be able to restructure the deal but it is too early to know.

“I can tell you Australia will lose its competitive edge to bring film investment to Australia as other countries like Canada will be more attractive.”