Radical shake-up for Screen Australia

Screen Australia is radically changing the way it operates, including making all funding of up to $500,000 as a grant and relinquishing its stake in the copyright on those projects.

The cap on investment in features will be lowered from $2.5 million to $2 million to enable funds to be more widely spread.

The marketing department is being abolished, resulting in the departure of head of marketing Kathleen Drumm. Also scrapped is the state and industry programs section previously headed by Chris Oliver who stepped down in early July.

In their place, Screen Australia is creating a business and audience department as part of a plan to place greater emphasis on business development.

CEO Graeme Mason will be interim head of the new department, which combines the teams from marketing, communications and state and industry partnerships, including the Enterprise program, pending the appointment of a permanent head.

"The people who were supporting producers, companies and careers will continue to do that," he told IF.

The agency announced a $2 million- $3 million reduction in production investment and project development but it seems likely there will be minimal impact on direct support for film and TV.

That's because the brunt of the savings is falling elsewhere: In addition to the previously flagged $1.5 million cut in documentary funding, the P&A fund is losing $500,000 and the talent escalator program is down by $400,000.

As IF foreshadowed, the staff is being trimmed by 10%, from 112 to 100, some resulting from staff retiring or moving on to other jobs. IF understands that three people in marketing including Drumm, who held the post since September 2010, and three in the legal department are departing. One staffer said there were "a lot of tears" when affected staff were informed yesterday.

Support for screen resource organisations will be phased out over the next 18 months, saving $1 million- $1.6 million.

The switch to grants follows Film Victoria’s decision to end recoupable investment from July 1. The previous threshold for grants was $200,000, limited to docs and some other programs.

Mason said he was planning to move to non-recoupable funding for amounts up to $500,000 before Film Vic's move, reasoning that the amount of red-tape required for relatively small investments was "nonsensical." Also he wants producers to think more carefully about the projects they are making and to have more equity.  

The agency will retain a 1% stake in the copyright in projects in which it provides recoupable investment. P&A funding will continue to be recoupable.

Most of these cuts are in response to the federal budget which slashed its budget by $38 million over the next four years. That comprised a $25 million drop in its overall appropriation; ending the Australian games funding program ($10 million); and curtailing the interactive multiplatform funding initiative in 2017-18 ($2.5 million in that year).

But the wider restructuring reflects Mason’s determination to streamline operations and to sharpen the focus on business development and on funding what he described as “risk-taking projects that identify and build talent; intrinsically Australian stories that resonate with local audiences; and high-end ambitious projects that reflect Australia to the world.”

Mason will now approve feature film letters-of -intent (which the board used to do); turnaround times will be shortened wherever possible; and an online application system will be introduced.

Guidelines for the international co-production program will be revised to "better facilitate" international partnerships.

"We have recently reviewed our funding programs to adapt our approach to both the evolving needs of industry and shifts in audience behaviour. The Enterprise Program now supports three strands – People, Stories and Growth – with a focus on industry attachments, the creation of original IP through high-level writing initiatives, and new business development models to extend the capacities of our industry," he said.

"Screen Australia is introducing changes that respond to a new budget environment and focus on our core business. We are streamlining our operations and making processes simpler and easier for industry, and to the greatest extent possible we have tried to maintain funding for on-screen production.

"There are challenges before us, but I also see great potential. We will back our creative talent to capitalise on opportunities and take more Australian stories out to the world. We will grow the pie for Australian production by facilitating international collaborations, using advantages such as our talent and our world class production reputation. We will reduce process as much as possible and step out of the way of industry, providing more funding as grants, with no copyright interest, so that producers keep more revenue from their productions. We will encourage new models of digital production and distribution that ensure our industry continues to evolve with its audiences."