Reflections on the rollercoaster screen industry – and the challenging 2021 outlook

Clockwise from top right: Sue Maslin, Nick Murray, Jub Clerc and Daley Pearson.

When this writer re-joined IF in 2017, Netflix had an estimated 2.8 million subscribers, Stan had about 800,000 customers and the highest-rating entertainment show, The Block finale, attracted 2.5 million viewers in the five mainland capitals.

Today the streaming giant has approximately 5.8 million subs, Stan has 2.2 million and, major sporting events aside, broadcasters can only dream about that kind of reach.

Tim Worner was CEO of Seven West Media, Michelle Guthrie was the ABC’s not widely admired MD, Michael Ebeid drove SBS and Paul Anderson ran Network 10 – all gone.

Among the heads of the screen agencies were Screen Queensland’s Tracey Vieira, Create NSW’s Michael Brealey, Film Victoria’s Jenni Tosi, the South Australian Film Corporation’s Annabelle Sheehan and Screenwest’s Ian Booth.

Mitch Fifield was the largely ineffectual Minister for Communications and the Arts, Chris Hilton steered Essential Media, Chris Oliver-Taylor presided at Matchbox Pictures and Ian Hogg was Fremantle CEO.

In calendar 2017, the national BO total was $1.2 billion and Australian releases collectively generated $49.4 million. Through last Sunday, the year-to-date tally was $334 million and Oz films and feature docs had earned $16.5 million. Take out Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man’s $9.07 million and Tony Tilse’s Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears‘ $3 million and that means slim pickings for the vast majority of releases.

In many respects, the screen sector today is virtually unrecognisable from three and a half years ago, and not just because the coronavirus pandemic has devastated sections of the industry.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride, which for me ends today as I depart IF. There have been more downs than ups this year, not least for up to 50 per cent of independent cinemas that are faced with having to close their doors without government assistance in the coming months, as Independent Cinemas Australia CEO Adrianne Pecotic has warned.

“If there is no specific government support, I think cinemas in some regional areas and some iconic metros are in danger of closing, especially as we have had a difficult seven months from March, face at least another tough two months and an uncertain Christmas/January,” says Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell, who operates eight locations in regional NSW and Queensland.

“If these cinemas close down, it is going to be very hard to get them open again. This may lead to some consolidation, and hopefully the stronger operators can rescue any of those that might otherwise close.”

Among the constants over that period are the Australian Children’s Television Foundation’s redoubtable Jenny Buckland, Screen Australia’s Graeme Mason, Screen Producers Australia’s Matt Deaner and AACTA’s Damian Trewhella.

Next year more challenges loom as the industry is forced to adapt to the media reforms which standardise the Producer Offset at 30 per cent; water down the local content requirements on the Seven, Nine and 10 Networks and Foxtel; and double the minimum expenditure thresholds for feature length content and the Post, Digital and Visual Effects (PDV) Offset to $1 million.

Many producers rightly are upset that – without warning or apparent justification – the government decided that producer overheads will no longer qualify for the Offset and to eliminate the ‘Gallipoli’ clause, which allows production costs incurred in other countries to be claimed.

When IF canvassed the opinions of a selection of leading industry players, their outlooks ranged from qualified optimism to deeply held fears for the future of local content, particularly narrative theatrical features, feature docs and kids programming.

CJZ’s ‘Reputation Rehab” episode featuring Nick Kyrgios.

Among the naysayers, CJZ MD Nick Murray slams the abolition of the sub-quotas as a disaster, observing: “The ratchet provisions in the US Free Trade Agreement mean that these quotas can never be increased again.  So it’s insane to let this system go now, when it has served the audience so well over the years.  That it will be so easy for the networks to comply with the new quotas is terrible for all of us. 

“More alarming is the doubling of the PDV Offset threshold which will lock out lower budget production from this scheme.  Big reality shows will continue to reap millions each year in tax-free incentives for their internationally owned formats, while local shows are generally excluded from the scheme because of their lower episode numbers and budgets. 

“We must be in the only industry where local productions are excluded from such an important scheme while international competitors are assisted.” 

CJZ is looking to move some productions to New Zealand and aiming to get shows commissioned by streamers, without a FTA broadcaster. Murray notes the irony that the Oz networks can buy these NZ-sourced programs for next to nothing and use them to meet the overall local content quota of 250 points annually.

Film Art Media’s Sue Maslin says the lower Producer Offset and the removal of the Gallipoli clause will make it tougher for her to finance The Variations, the Jocelyn Moorhouse-directed drama about the love triangle between 19th century musicians Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

Her feature documentary slate will be impacted because none has budgets of $1 million and thus will not meet the higher threshold for the Offset. So she will increasingly focus on TV dramas including adaptations of Heather Rose’s novel Bruny, Peter Carey’s Theft and Ann Turner’s The Lost Swimmer.

“The company is strong as we shifted to a distribution/rights management model in 2008 and have a large catalogue of content generating revenue across multiple platforms,” she said.

“But we are devastated by the impact that the changes will have on our capacity to deliver great Australian stories on the cinema screen going forward. Added to this, all producers are now being asked to increase our financial risk taking even further while reducing overheads and budgets and I fear that it is not sustainable in the long term.”

Writer/playright Jub Clerc, who will make her feature directing debut next year on Sweet As, produced by Arenamedia’s Liz Kearney, is more positive.

“Artists are resilient and as an Indigenous person, we have been at the whim of policy makers in every single aspect of our lives since colonisation, so my initial reactions to these new reforms are to look for ways to survive and indeed thrive, and of course to make the streamers our best friends,” she said.

Clerc, who is also collaborating with six other Western Australian-based Indigenous female filmmakers on the feature anthology Red, added: “My outlook in these crazy uncertain times is pretty positive and I feel so lucky and grateful. I’m also happy that this will equate to friends and colleagues securing work on our productions, helping them through any difficulties that arose from 2020.”

‘The Dry.’

Arenamedia founder Robert Connolly predicts the removal of the Gallipoli clause will result in a marked decrease in Australian stories set offshore, in the vein of his film Balibo, Lion, Tanna, Sherpa, Hotel Mumbai and 2040.

He fears raising the Producer Offset threshold to $1 million will be a devastating blow to feature documentary makers, particularly young and emerging filmmakers.

“The screen industries are certainly going through a period of significant change and it is of great disappointment that after the government’s invitation for submissions to the review of the screen industry, that they have applied a blunt instrument for change-making decisions absent from any submissions from the industry itself,” he said.

“Communications Minister Paul Fletcher’s public comments that he has been constantly advised about the failure of Australian cinema, combined with a subsequent range of reductions in the government’s support for it, will hopefully be scrutinised as these changes move through government to be legislated.”

Nonetheless Connolly is bullish about next year, starting with The Dry, the crime thriller adapted from the Jane Harper novel, starring Eric Bana, Genevieve O’Reilly, Keir O’Donnell and John Polson, which Roadshow launches on January 1.

The burgeoning Arenamedia slate includes Connolly’s family film Blueback, adapted from the Tim Winton novel; the animated anthology Magic Beach adapted from Alison Lester’s novel; Clerc’s Sweet As; Sari Braithwaite’s feature doc Logan, which observes the miniscule details and monumental events of a family yearning for new freedoms; and projects from Alena Lodkina and Santilla Chingaipe, Adam Elliot and Brendan Fletcher.

Wyrmwood creators Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner lament the reduction of the film Offset and fear they may be forced to find collaborators overseas or go back to gritty micro-budget filmmaking.

“We’ll all just have to tighten our belts, get inventive and find a way to make it work,” said the brothers, who start shooting Wyrmwood Apocalypse in January with producer Blake Northfield and returning cast members Luke McKenzie, Bianca Bradey and Jay Gallagher together with new faces to be announced.

“We believe there is an explosion of potential just around the corner for us all. Streaming platforms are making billions of dollars a year pushing narrative content into our brains and if we can just somehow find a way to organise a little more financial trickle-down to reach the artists and creators then we could be looking at another Golden Age for digital storytellers.”


Ludo Studio co-founder/director Daley Pearson worries that scrapping the local content sub-quotas will make it tough for new Australian producers, predicting: “This means less Bluey and more Lassie and other American made shows for Australian kids to grow up watching.”

Production is underway on the third season of global hit Bluey and the second series of The Strange Chores, the latter a co-production with Media World Pictures and 12 Field In addition, Ludo has been commissioned to make a live action comedy drama for a streaming service, details under wraps.

“We love animation but we’ve been itching to get back into live action and it’s going to be brilliant to bring the production to Queensland. Brisbane has turned into an oasis for the world’s productions and we hope we don’t get kicked out of the studio by Thor or Tom Hanks. Maybe we could squeeze our set into the parking lot or something if they’re full,” Pearson quipped.

Director Glendyn Ivin is looking forward to the January 21 launch of his true-life drama Penguin Bloom and tackling a series mostly funded by a US company, which he describes as an ambitious Australian story with a large cast, shot across multiple states.

The glut of US productions in Oz means NSW is busier than ever and it’s hard to find crew, he notes, adding: “One thing I feel confident about is audiences are hungry than ever for quality storytelling. It’s overwhelming how much great work is out there and audiences expectations are high.

“We are spoiled by choice. I feel inspired by this. We are witnessing a huge shift in the way we make, distribute and consume stories. Some things will be left behind but new opportunities will appear.”

Next year Tony Ayres Productions (TAP) will complete shooting the Netflix-commissioned Clickbait, which was halted during the pandemic; start filming The Fires, the six-part bushfires drama for the ABC; and continue to develop internationally-appealing series.

Ayres and TAP’s head of development Andrea Denholm welcomed the 30 per cent TV Offset but say the benefits are reduced by excluding producer overheads. They fear a logjam of Australian productions will compete with each other and international projects for local talent, crew and facilities.

“Without the level of creative expertise available here because of a healthy domestic sector, Australia would be a far less attractive place to make things.  This underlines the need for a robust and well supported local industry with sufficient capacity to realise the best of our home grown IP as well as service the international productions,” they said. 

“This is a significant challenge but if we get the strategy and the policy settings right, this is an opportunity for the local industry in terms of volume, the development of more world class talent on and off screen, economic recovery, sustained growth into the future and the telling of more Australian stories for a local and global audience.”

Let’s give the final say to Nick Murray: “In all, the proposed changes are what the insurance industry would call a ‘total loss.’ Is there anything positive? Not that I can see. There hasn’t ever been a worse month for the industry. 

“Coming on top of COVID-19 with suspended production, and no quotas in 2020, we will see the destruction of demand for local IP. That’s a tragedy for most local production companies and the creative industry as a whole.”