Screen Australia to continue to “move the dial” towards online

The Power Of Inclusion Summit 2019

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason speaking at the Power of Inclusion conference. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images) 

When it comes to representing the diversity of the Australian population, both in front of and behind the camera, it is film in particular that continues to be a “problem area”, according to Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason.

Mason spoke last week at the New Zealand Film Commission’s (NZFC) Power of Inclusion conference in Auckland, on a panel with NZFC CEO Annabelle Sheehan, National Screen Institute – Canada acting director Joy Loewen and Geena Davis Institute CEO Madeleine di Nonno, looking at country-specific initiatives aimed at broadening representation on and off screen.

Screen Australia’s development-focused Gender Matters initiative has been successful in “flooding the pipeline” with female-led projects, Mason told the conference.

He made a shout out to Rachel Griffiths’ Ride Like A Girl, the first feature funded via the program to enter production, for recently topping the box office – it is now the highest grossing Australian film of the year.

But while strides have been made, Mason acknowledged the agency has yet to do enough to bolster the voices of other underrepresented groups. “We’ve made some progress, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

However, Mason noted that projects created for online, such as web series, often tend to be inherently diverse. It’s traditional sectors of the industry, namely film, that lag behind.

“[Our digital work] is gender neutral, colour neutral, sexuality neutral, disability neutral. It is perfect. The most successful things we do are all in that space. What isn’t working is film,” he said.

In this regard, while Screen Australia often gets “grief” for funding work for online platforms, Mason said it will be increasingly doing so into the future.

“You’ll find us moving the dial away from what I call ‘traditional funding’, because last time I checked pretty much anyone under 30 is not watching films. They’re not watching our TV. They watch the online stuff. So we’re going to move more and more into that space.”

In the 2018/19 financial year, Screen Australia put $3.6 million towards online projects – 8 per cent of its total drama spend. By comparison, it put almost $14 million towards feature film (32 per cent of total drama spend), $19.6 million towards adult TV drama (44 per cent of total drama spend) and $6.9 million towards children’s TV (16 per cent of drama spend). The online fund includes some streaming and all direct-to-catch-up, and has backed projects that include Stan’s The Other Guy and SBS On Demand’s Robbie Hood.

Mason further pointed out that the reach of projects for online platforms often outstrip traditional mediums. He held up Julie Kalceff’s lesbian drama Starting From Now, a web series which has reached 120 million views, and the following of YouTube creators RackaRacka (5.8 million subscribers) and Wengie (13.9 million subscribers), as examples of the kind of appetite that exists for such content.

However, panel moderator, academic and founder of the Pan-Asian Screen Collective Shuchi Kothari pointed out that while web content may be more diverse, it is often made for much less.

Mason acknowledged this is true, and said projects for online are usually looking at budgets around $30,000-$50,000 for development and $120,000-$200,000 for production. Further, projects created for release via YouTube or other digital platforms (excluding VOD/SVODs) are also ineligible for the Producer Offset.

In this regard, he said Screen Australia has tried to partner with organisations such as Google/YouTube to bolster funding available and ensure these stories get made; it has run the Skip Ahead program with Google since 2014. Mason also claimed there are now many Australian content creators who receive large retainers from Google.

“The most exciting thing is it’s new voices. It’s contemporary voices. I’ve got huge faith in the next generation. We stuffed it up. They’re fixing it.”

With reference to Gender Matters, Mason repeated that is film that needs the most focus when it comes to bolstering the participation of women.

Indeed, when the agency released the program’s three-year KPIs in August, it found that while on average 78 per cent of television drama it funded over the three years from 2016-17 to 2018-19 had at least 50 per cent female creative teams, the same was true of only 46 per cent of feature films.

“It’s uneven. Digital, killing it. Documentary, killing it. TV drama, pretty good on all counts – protagonist, kills it all the time. Almost all of our biggest screen stars on television in Australia are female, quite a few of them Indigenous. Film is the problem.”

In terms of industry-wide stats, in the five years from 2012-13 to 2017-18, only 36 per cent of all feature film producers were female, 17 per cent of directors and 23 per cent of writers. By comparison, in TV drama, 55 per cent of producers were female, 30 per cent of directors and 38 per cent of writers. In documentary, 50 per cent of producers were female, 38 per cent of directors and 40 per cent of writers.

However, beyond representation issues, Mason said Australian film is struggling more generally in terms of both financing and then reaching audiences theatrically.

He stressed the agency would not abandon film, but noted that blockbusters are taking the vast majority of the box office, leaving little space for indies, both local and international. “I’m not walking away, but I don’t want to focus all my attention there.”

In terms of diversity efforts going forward, Mason said it was crucial Screen Australia make the work of its Indigenous department a continued priority, and to take lessons from its success forward into the support of other underrepresented groups.

“I would hold up the incredible work, and the shoulders of all the people who we stand on, who have made our Indigenous sector what it is. That has taken unbelievable effort, and that has to be our number one priority to continue that. The reason that succeeded [is due to] 25 years of dedicated support, effort, year in, year out, week in, week out. If we stop, it’ll go backwards. I know it will,” he said.