Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason took to the podium this morning to address the future of the Australian screen industry.
Speaking at the Currency House Arts and Public Life Breakfast, his address comes after recent blows to the agency; including the $38 million funding cut in the Federal Budget and the National Commission of Audit recommendation to halve Screen Australia funding and merge the office with the Australia Council of the Arts.
However Mason maintained the situation wasn’t as grim as some may think.
“Today I bring good news: It’s a great time for Australian film and television,” he told the room. “As we sit here business is booming, audiences are watching, careers and businesses are developing – and the future is bright and full of enormous potential.”
He went on to speak of the success Australians had at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where he said “we saw an enormous show of excitement and goodwill for Australian talent” and pointed out the industry excitement surrounding the three Australian features that screened there: The Rover, These Final Hours and Charlie’s Country. He also noted how the latter was singled out for David Gulpilil’s performance, which saw him receive an award for Best Actor.
Australian television, he stated, is at a particularly exciting stage with the range of TV output “staggering” and is recognised not only on our home soil but overseas as well.
He then went on to address the elephant in the room – the Federal Budget – confirming Screen Australia would have to make funding cuts as a result.
“I’ve sat down with our Board to discuss our priorities and we are working through how we will manage the reduction in funding. There will be cuts which we are working through and will be able to expand on in a few weeks,” he said. “One thing I will reiterate to you now, however, is that Screen Australia’s core business is and will remain to assist quality Australian content being created and brought to your screens, be they cinema, smart TVs or mobile and we will do our utmost to limit the impact on screen of funding challenges.
“It is an evolving ecosystem that we belong to, however it is inspiring to see individuals and businesses rise to the challenge.”
He also addressed other challenges facing the industry; namely, less direct government funding, the changing behaviour of viewers (and the reluctance for younger generations to pay for content), piracy, and the proliferation of content providers.
“Despite all these issues, production in Australia hasn’t dropped. Producers and distributors are taking steps to deliver content to audiences in innovative ways,” he said. “The Producer Offset, alongside the Location and the Post, Visual and Digital Effects Offsets, have been invaluable incentives for production. Screen Australia research shows that in the six years since the Offsets were introduced, average annual production expenditure has increased significantly for feature films (by 82.5%), television drama (by 46%) and documentaries (by 81%) despite decreased funding available from Screen Australia.”
Despite over $1billion being provided through the offsets, he noted where they fell down: “they do not target areas of market failure: cultural, quality and innovative content.”
But the crux of Mason’s speech concerned how our screen industries straddles two worlds: art and business. He repeated himself several times, “deliberately beating the message home,” that “there is a big difference between the screen sector and pure arts practice. Our sector is big business.”
“The screen industry contributes $6.1 billion to the economy. It employs 41,000 people. When we come to town the spill over benefits and spill over effect is monumental – though this again is often forgotten by our detractors. Films and television programs are made with an eye to the commercial gains,” he stated.
“It is, however, incredibly difficult to finance a high end television or feature film and then see it through to completion on time and within budget, often in multiple locations, with a total cast and crew reaching up to 2000 on big productions.”
“But as I said too often the business community tends to see us still as fluffy creatives, too caught up in ‘making art’ to be commercially savvy let alone business focussed. We need to better present ourselves to this end of town and clearly show the business acumen our sector has and the benefits and upside that are possible.
“I’m here today to tell you we are both: artists and entrepreneurs and that one does not exclude the other.”
Mason urged the audience to be proud of what the Australian screen sector has achieved: from the success of talent overseas to the quality of our home grown television dramas.
“There is a lot to be proud of and I think the disparate parts of the Australian screen sector need to come together and recognise that the sector is in good shape. The sky isn’t falling,” he said.
“Yes, we’re a small population and so will never achieve the astronomical box office returns you hear of in the US.
“Yes, it will always be difficult to finance production as film, television drama, documentaries and online content are inherently risky for investors.
“Yes, these are challenging times for production companies that have built their business model around traditional distribution mechanisms.
“But we’re all working together with the common aim of creating great content that resonates with audiences across Australia, and internationally, and I think we need to recognise that we do this well.”
Looking forward, Mason vowed Screen Australia would continue to “cover the gap where the market support stops” and “nurture the producers, directors, writers, actors, to ensure ongoing generational renewal and reinvention in the Australian screen industries.”
Finally, he reiterated: “making screen stories is an art and a business. It can succeed at both.”
The Currency House Breakfast was staged at the Quayside Room of the MCA.
Mason was introduced by Ian Robertson from Holding Redlich, former Deputy Chair of Screen Australia and President of Film Victoria.
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