Caught between cathode ray nostalgia and an atomised future
The late Kerry Packer once quipped, ‘You only get one Alan Bond in your lifetime, and I’ve had mine.’ Packer was referring to the 1987 deal in which the Perth-based Bond bought Packer’s Nine network for $1 billion. The wily Sydneysider clawed back an equity stake in the top-rating station upon Bond’s bankruptcy and slide into ignominy, when Bond was found guilty of committing, through other companies, Australia’s biggest corporate fraud.
Thirty years later, with both men dead, and having already resuscitated Kerry Packer in a couple of biopics, Nine was determined to give us a second Bondy with House of Bond, focusing not on Bond’s siphoning of Bell Resources funds but on his love triangle with ex-wife Eileen ‘Red’ Bond and his second wife, restaurant hostess turned theatre producer Diana Bliss. Actors Ben Mingay and Adrienne Pickering are taller than Alan and Eileen but no matter; they’re as robust in their roles taking a wee under a Napoleon painting or reading a Valley of the Dolls paperback as Rachael Taylor is suitably poignant playing the ill-fated Bliss.
In inventing dialogue for the trio’s fiery confrontations, production company Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder are following their love tussle formula of 2015’s House of Hancock, in which actors portrayed mining heiress Gina Rinehart fighting her young stepmother, Rose Porteous, for the affection of Rinehart’s father, magnate Lang Hancock. As famously litigious Rinehart, Mandy McElhinney watched with pursed lips as Rose, in a split skirt, played by Peta Sergeant, serenaded Lang (Sam Neill) with Pat Benatar’s ‘Love is a Battlefield’—all filmed in a chintzy mansion in Sydney’s Terrey Hills that one former renter, FM radio standard bearer Kyle Sandilands, described as a ‘ten-toilet shithole’.
For both stories, the network economises by pretending many Sydney filming locations are in Perth, although Nine and CJZ must be factoring in the real and ongoing danger of lawsuits from the living rich (hello, Red) as a risk in clawing ratings from the glory years of the resources boom, when owning old media was a powerful thing.
I have a hoot visiting their sets as a reporter during productions of the maisons of Hancock and Bond, but ponder that this rash of biopics—Bond and Hancock follow Packer, Murdoch, Brock, Hawke et al.—betrays if not the dead hand of old subjects, at least a wish to return to a simpler century in which Australians could be trusted to gather around the TV set and partake together. Some performances are indeed good: witness Samuel Johnson’s turn as pop guru Molly Meldrum, whose Countdown on ABC TV was child and teenage appointment viewing in the 1970s, or Asher Keddie as Packer magazine doyenne turned Murdoch newspaper editor Ita Buttrose in Paper Giants, in an era when Cold Chisel sang an ode to Buttrose’s integrity while imagining her hips beneath her desk top.
Dare I suggest, commercial networks are filling content quotas by looking to the past rather than the future? But wait, at time of writing, we still have the Olivia Newton-John biopic to come, with Delta Goodrem in the title role. We make these shows hits when we still feel warmth for pop culture heroes, those still with a profile, rather than business figures, which betrays the interests of old-school television network management who give the green light to biopics about these scoundrels. For sure, we love Molly. We’re honestly devoted to Livvy. We still make time around the telly for people who are relatable, like us: lovable larrikins of a simplified past; a white, homogenised world.
We used to love Paul Hogan’s daft and, by these days, sexist comedy specials. They rated so well that networks fought over him. At Nine’s Willoughby studios in Sydney, a line of 1970s star portraits are temporarily hung in the lobby for a House of Bond scene. Hogan, sleeveless with a thumb up, reminds me a Noelene-Linda Kozlowski love-triangle biopic is also in production for Seven—with Hogan and his manager John Cornell consulted during its making, though not Noeline, the woman blindsided by two divorces when Hogan ran off to Hollywood. The story of the Sydney Harbour Bridge rigger who starred in Australia’s all-time most commercially successful movie, Crocodile Dundee, released in 1986, will fail to fire up viewers and critics when it airs. Maybe we haven’t forgiven the bugger.
I am on the walk of the TV ancients who once ruled our living rooms, nostalgic in the Greek sense of pain from an old wound, when variety and drama were a next-day talking point, before technology fractured our viewing habits and atomised us as captives of individuated screens. Australian network television is eating itself at a time when our local screen industry’s future grows cloudy, as the armies of internet-based US cultural imperialists Netflix and Amazon Prime assemble on the horizon, poised to swoop past these old cathode-ray bones.
• • •
Scene 191 of House of Bond takes us backstage at Alan and Eileen Bond’s appearance on the program This Is Your Life, which eulogised Bondy in 1978. Director Mark Joffe, also one of the directors of Nine’s current audience favourite, 1960s–70s single-mother drama nostalgia series Love Child, is wrapped in a thick, cream scarf, and prompts his Bond actors sotto voce in rehearsal: ‘You really, really don’t like each other.’ There is the enmity of an old Australia playing out here; a Protestant mother who doesn’t think her Catholic daughter-in-law is good enough for her son. Adrienne Pickering as Eileen is wise: this appearance amounts to PR from the network that sponsors the America’s Cup, she reminds Anne Looby as Bond’s mother, Kathleen.
There are some cute postmodern tics that work with modern audiences. Ben Mingay’s Bond gives little asides to the camera, addressing his audience, a conceit drawn from Netflix’s worldwide blockbuster House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey as an evil US president presaging Trump theatrically winks to viewers. But House of Bond drew just 613,000 metropolitan viewers for its first episode charting Bondy’s rise, and 657,000 for the Napoleonic finale fall, well short of the million across five capital cities that would qualify the effort as a hit.
Netflix, the behemoth that has free-to-air networks around the world in a lather, doesn’t play by the old rules, refusing to issue ratings figures for particular programs, while being just shy of 100 million subscribers worldwide. Netflix has no staff in Australia, and is not subject to the Australian content quotas imposed upon commercial TV networks and, to a lesser extent, Murdoch’s Foxtel pay-TV business. There are few votes in the arts, such is the low place of Australian storytelling compared to our reverence for sport, hence the slothfulness with which the government has responded to the uneven playing field of content quotas on television and mobile screens, and the way our filmmakers are screwed when it comes to accessing cinema screens.
Under pressure with declining advertising spends, commercial networks’ licensing fees, which bring in $130 million, were abolished in the 2017 budget, to be replaced by an annual ‘spectrum fee’, which will raise less than a third of that figure. But given reality television rates better and is cheaper to make than drama, the worry is there will be agitation for a drop in drama requirements. In July, the Seven, Nine and Ten chiefs called for the scrapping of children’s and pre-school programming.
The commercial broadcasters’ expenditure on Australian drama has dropped nearly 30 per cent since 2013, according to Screen Producers Australia, which pointed the finger at Nine and Ten particularly for partly acquitting their drama and children’s quotas with New Zealand content. In May the Turnbull government released the terms of reference for a review specifically into Australian and children’s screen content, which is expected to conclude by the end of 2017, to ‘ensure an approach that works across a diversity of platforms’, emphasising the ‘economic and social value of Australian screen content to the Australian community’.
I email Netflix’s Singapore-based Asia Pacific communications director Jessica Lee, to ask if Netflix has plans to initiate productions in Australia. Lee is on leave, so flips my query to Bao-Viet Nguyen, who’s in Netflix’s San Francisco corporate PR team. He points me to the critically well-received sci-fi drama Glitch, for which the streaming giant is co-producing the second season with the ABC for international consumption—but despite the Netflix Original branding now appended, Glitch was created by Australia’s Matchbox Pictures.
Netflix has also snapped up worldwide rights to post-apocalyptic Australian feature film Cargo, directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling and starring British actor Martin Freeman of Sherlock fame, branding Cargo a Netflix Original too, although the film was originally supported and funded by local bodies including Screen Australia; that is, Australian taxpayers. Likewise, Netflix acquired Cate Shortland’s feature film Berlin Syndrome, released in Australian cinemas in April, a week before its Sundance Film Festival premiere earlier this year, thus already funded by other sources and completed before Netflix came along.
Nguyen points out Netflix has partnered with the ABC and TV New Zealand for a new live-action series, The Legend of Monkey, being filmed in Auckland by Oscar and Emmy–winning production company See-Saw Films with Jump Film & TV. Then he lists some Australian-grown content (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, The Code) that Netflix relicenses to members across 190 countries.
Well, sure, but what about wholly initiating and funding Australian drama? Ted Donath, Netflix’s Beverly Hills–based director of consumer public relations, emails me: ‘We don’t have any news to share on Australian originals at this time, but please feel free to reach out with anything else.’ I’m tempted to reach out for Netflix’s definition of original, but the point is moot: Australia is just not important in the streaming juggernaut’s big picture. Finally, in May, Netflix announced its ‘first Australian Netflix original series’, Tidelands, a supernatural crime drama to be filmed in Queensland, to be produced by Brisbane-based Hoodlum Entertainment.
What of Stan, the local quality streaming service jointly owned by the Nine network and Fairfax Media? Sure, it has backed series such as No Activity, Wolf Creek and Romper Stomper, as well as a bunch of stand-up comedy specials. In the middle of newspaper strike action in May, Fairfax told investors Stan’s performance, compared to plummeting old-media advertising revenue, was a company highlight, but in the small Australian market and with monthly subscriptions of just $10 per household, it’s hard to see Stan having a significant impact on Australian production.
In 2016 the European Commission proposed a quota of at least 20 per cent European works be made available in the catalogues of on-demand service providers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, the latter service recently becoming available in Australia. There is no figure being touted by the Australian government. Prior to the Australian and children’s screen content review announced in May, in February the House of Representatives standing committee on communications and the arts announced an inquiry into the future of the Australian film and television industry. The inquiry chair, Liberal MP Luke Howarth, said the aspiration was to make Australian film and TV ‘competitive’ and ‘sustainable’ to ‘better compete for investment with producers and multi-platform production companies from overseas’. Yet to date, when it comes to the likes of Netflix, the Australian government has only been interested in applying the goods and services tax imposed on digital goods in the 2015 federal budget.
Australian Directors’ Guild CEO Kingston Anderson told me the free-to-air networks will publicly say they support quotas, and this must be taken at face value—but once lost, he warns, those quotas will never return. The guild is calling for the 10 per cent first-run Australian drama quota already placed on Foxtel’s drama channels (the formula is much higher and more complex for free-to-air-channels)1 to be applied to Netflix and local competitors Stan and Foxtel Play.
Screen Producers Australia has called for robust Australian and children’s content requirements to continue, and for new market entrants to be subject to such regulation, as well as pumping up the producer tax offset for TV drama from 20 to 40 per cent, in line with film. Screen Producers CEO Matt Deaner wrote in the Fairfax papers in February: ‘This is a year that will make or break the independent Australian production industry.’ Deaner said that without the right settings in this parliament, ‘very soon we won’t have an independent Australian production industry to produce great Australian stories’. But the federal arts minister, Mitch Fifield, airily dismissed the warning in a Senate estimates hearing in March: ‘I think they are Mr Deaner’s comments. That is his perspective.’
• • •
Beginning with the austerity federal budget of 2014 under the Abbott government, funding for the arts, including the Australia Council and Screen Australia, was cut by $104.8 million over four years. The ABC and SBS, too, were hit with cuts. In the 2017 budget it was announced arts and cultural heritage spending would decrease in real terms by 12 per cent by 2021. Screen Australia in particular had already suffered cuts of $51.5 million since 2014. According to the 2017 budget papers, Screen Australia’s government funding will fall from $84.4 million in 2016–17 to $81.8 million in
My worry is the pipeline of TV and films will be reduced, and we won’t realise what’s gone until it is too late. The comfort we take that the ABC will always be a reliable broadcaster of home-grown drama turns out to be false. The 561 hours of Australian TV drama produced in 2015–16 (446 hours for adults and 115 for children) was higher than the 518 hours in 2014–15, but still under the five-year average of 587 hours, according to Screen Australia’s 2015–16 Drama Report, released in November. Its declaration that the year was a ‘boom one’ for TV reflects the number of titles, though that is largely due to rises in shorter mini-series and greater expenditure. Twenty-nine Australian feature films were produced in 2015–16, down from the five-year average of 35 and the 2014–15 figure of 37, says the same report.
In June the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its seventh Film, Television and Games Survey, covering 2015–16, painting a less rosy picture. Compared to the 2011–12 survey, its calculation is television drama fell from 632 to 497 hours, and television documentary from 566 to 444 hours. ‘Whilst we appreciate the cost per hour of drama is up from $560,700 to $645,700, the reduction in the [number] of Australian stories on free-to-air television is notable,’ said Screen Australia boss Graeme Mason.
Numerous lauded productions are emerging: the Deep Water series made by Blackfella Films for SBS, for instance, a dramatisation and documentary of a spate of murders of gay Sydney men, deserved more attention, as did the award-winning series The Code. Foxtel has backed the gripping The Kettering Incident and period drama A Place to Call Home, the latter dumped by Seven during its second season. Ten caved to audience pressure despite the loss of a government producer offset after the fifth season of Offspring and continues to air new episodes, with a seventh season in production. The ABC, meanwhile, sustains critical favourites Rake and Janet King, with space for Australia’s reimagining of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and the ambitious sci-fi allegory of Cleverman.
International financing of productions is increasingly important. Some local production houses report to international parents, while retaining creative control: Matchbox, for instance, makers of Canberra political drama Secret City and the fractured, complex Seven Types of Ambiguity, both based on novels by Australian authors, is now part of NBC Universal. Curiously, Matchbox’s The Slap was remade for a US audience, such was the American unwillingness to dwell in Australian idioms.
The emphasis is usually on seeking stories with universal appeal, even when they appear idiosyncratically local. Fremantle Media, makers of Wentworth, seen locally on Foxtel and internationally on Netflix, is the Australian arm of a British company that subsumed local production companies Reg Grundy and Crackerjack. Fremantle has partnered over the past two years with Screen Australia for its Blue Sky drama initiative, pairing international mentors to guide Australian drama writers to create internationally focused drama series.
Yet TV continues looking to the past, with mini-series remakes of movies such as Wake in Fright (1971) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) in production right now, with many pundits, myself included, struggling to understand the point of remaking five-star films. Have another beer, mate. She’ll be right.
Kim Dalton was a second assistant director on Peter Weir’s Hanging Rock classic. He went on to become CEO of the Australian Film Commission (now Screen Australia) and then director of ABC TV from 2006 to 2013. In May he launched his Platform Papers essay, ‘Missing in Action: The ABC and Australia’s Screen Culture’, disabusing us of faith in the public broadcaster, shattering our hopes the ABC’s local output can be taken for granted. In the mid 2000s, Dalton wrote, the ABC’s drama allocation had been reduced to just $5 million a year, with a combined Australian drama and comedy output of just 20 hours a year, much less than requirements placed on commercial networks that equate to approximately 90 hours of drama per year.
Dalton says he oversaw vast improvements. By 2011–12 the ABC TV drama budget was close to $45 million per annum and, with assistance from a federal producer tax offset and investment from international broadcasters and distributors, ABC TV underpinned an annual drama slate worth about $100 million. But then the ABC decided it had other priorities, Dalton argues:
Without announcement, consultation or discussion, from 2013–14 onwards funds were transferred out of the drama budget to other areas of the ABC. This had nothing to do with partisan politics or government budget cuts. It began to occur before the Abbott government was elected and has continued at a level disproportionate to any cuts imposed on the ABC’s budget.
Dalton estimates the ABC has cut its drama budget by 20 per cent since 2012–13. The Indigenous commissioning budget is down at least 10 per cent, while Australian history documentaries and natural history shows are now almost non-existent.
The film director and producer Robert Connolly, who made the hit film Paper Planes because one day he overheard his children playacting in US accents, told me of his concerns for children’s viewing on all screens. ‘There’s massive amounts of international kids content that can flood the market,’ Connolly said. Yet since 2012–13 the ABC has reduced its children’s budget by 50 per cent or more than $20 million, says Kim Dalton. Children’s programming is ‘not in the DNA’ of the ABC, he says, despite the success of kids’ channel ABC3, launched in 2009, which reached its 50 per cent content promise within three years. ‘All of this occurs largely in a cone of silence, created by the ABC but accepted by government and effectively endorsed by many of its supporters,’ says Dalton.
The ABC ultimately is not called to account over publicly taking money from government on the promise of 50 per cent Australian content on its children’s channel, only to privately decide that 25 per cent is enough. The ABC can bask in positive reviews for Redfern Now only to quietly shift money away from Indigenous drama a few years later.
Dalton wants the ABC charter amended to include a commitment to Australian screen content, and for the ABC to sign a terms of trade agreement with Screen Producers Australia to back the industry. I predict Dalton’s clarion call will go unheard by a government too busy attacking the ABC and wanting to weaken its cultural role.
• • •
One of the creators of Redfern Now is Arrernte-Kalkadoon director Rachel Perkins, who as founder of Blackfella Films in her twenties was in the vanguard of Indigenous filmmakers wresting their stories from the hands of well-intentioned but paternalistic white filmmakers.
I am watching Perkins bring to life WA author Craig Silvey’s popular novel Jasper Jones, a story that wears the influence of Mark Twain and Harper Lee on its sleeve. I am in Pemberton, a timber town 322 kilometres south of Perth, where the sawmill lies in a valley past the old rail crossing, ringed by old timber houses and hemmed by state forests.
The simple pitch is this is a rollicking murder mystery, but its brand of Australian nostalgia for the late 1960s reminds us the good old days were not so good: the night before, for one scene, an actress playing a Vietnamese-born woman pretended to be assaulted with hot tea thrown upon her as small-town prejudice boiled over. Indeed, the pall of suspicion over a missing girl falls upon an Indigenous teenager by simple virtue of his being Aboriginal.
I am on set for two nights and a day, and am witness to a lovely piece of 1990s nostalgia still vivid in my memory: the internationally in-demand actor Toni Collette, playing Ruth Bucktin, the embittered and complex mother of the story’s narrator, Charlie, is walking through a carnival at the makeshift town hall, accompanied by Dan Wyllie, playing her husband. It’s been more than 20 years since the pair have acted together: as brother and sister in P.J. Hogan’s classic comedy Muriel’s Wedding, which combined with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert helped take Australian films’ share of the domestic box office close to 10 per cent in 1994, though still a long way off the record year of 1986, when Crocodile Dundee took the total to 23.5 per cent.
In announcing the inquiry into the future of film and television, MP Luke Howarth trumpeted 2015 as a standout year for Australian films, grabbing 7.2 per cent of the box office, with four notably successful titles: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker, Oddball and The Water Diviner. Howarth’s cheery missive ignores the shocker year that followed: in 2016 Australian films took just 1.9 per cent of cinema takings, a fraction of the 4.3 per cent ten-year average.
Toni Collette, born in western Sydney, is one of a handful of Australian actors who provide an international box office name, with obvious local appeal. ‘Toni’s great at getting to the humanity of whoever she’s playing,’ Dan Wyllie tells me between takes. ‘It’s incredibly unique and affecting and from her particular background. She’s one of the great actresses, I reckon.’ Collette tells me: ‘We’re in the middle of nowhere, there’s no budget to speak of, which you wouldn’t know looking at this beautiful set.’ Collette would like to work in Australia more, but laughs heartily with this rueful reflection: ‘There’s not enough to do, and don’t you think if I was in everything, people would be like, “Fuck off”?’
Perhaps. While Jasper Jones opened on 218 screens across Australia in January 2017 and is likely to take close to a respectable $3 million domestically, at the time of writing the film still hasn’t made it into the all-time top 100 Australian films at the box office. By comparison, Lion, starring Nicole Kidman, was also released in January, opening on 254 screens, and has surpassed $30 million in domestic takings, placing it number eight in the list of all-time Australian earners at home.
Despite any lingering cultural cringe, Australia does make excellent films. What many critics of the country’s output often fail to grasp is that Australian films tend to be confined to comparatively shorter seasons at independent cinemas than US blockbusters, with fewer screening times. It’s a simple fact that, as Lauren Carroll Harris argued in her 2013 Platform Papers essay, ‘Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem’, an ‘oligopoly’ of six Hollywood cinema distributors often prevents people choosing an Australian film, tying up the multiplex cinema screens. Like stocks in supermarkets, the bigger the marketing spend, the greater the shelf space accorded, but Australian producers too often lack the resources to compete with the massive marketing budgets of US films. As Harris told the Stranger with My Face film festival in Hobart in May, Canada has its own free video-on-demand platform that automatically includes all government-funded films.
While commercial streaming services such as Netflix might offer an alternative to cinema release, the rewards are not great. Richard Keddie, the Oddball director who has long had a Julia Gillard biopic on the drawing board as a vehicle for another Muriel’s Wedding alumnus, Rachel Griffiths, tells me one streaming service offered him just 60 per cent of his projected budget for an event TV mini-series. Keddie was gobsmacked at the low-ball offer. He passed.
Filmmakers would be forgiven for giving up the ghost of cinemas past. Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano makes her the only female director to date to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but these days Campion makes her acclaimed Top of the Lake series for television. Campion says it’s ‘so rare’ for a low- or mid-budget film to break through with an audience now, and it’s ‘more relaxing’ to make a TV series. ‘I think you don’t have to attract the audience so hard in the first place,’ she said as the second instalment, Top of the Lake: China Girl, wrapped at Bondi Beach last winter:
Well, we didn’t seem to, because crime-mystery story, everyone wants to watch that, and they’ve heard some good things about it, good people in it, great, done. But you really have to work things as a feature film director to get people to come and see the movie. You have to do a lot of publicity, a lot of warming up everybody, and I don’t even know if it works. Basically it’s like winning a lottery. And films that do win those lotteries are good, but it’s hard to be that good all the time.
Should Australian films welcome international actors and directors more often to keep the local industry afloat? The Tasmanian coastal village of Stanley, for instance, which stood in for the West Australian coastal setting for the Dreamworks US$20 million production of The Light between Oceans, based on the novel by British author M.L. Stedman, saw lead roles go to German-born Irish actor Michael Fassbender, Sweden’s Alicia Vikander and Britain’s Rachel Weisz, with Australian actors including Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson in support roles.
Rarely do international screen actors or crew require a 457 visa, on which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently announced a crackdown, because their work here is on a limited basis. Instead, they require a 408 temporary activity visa, which in November 2016 replaced the old 420 entertainment visa for visiting actors, musicians, entertainers and crew. The actor Roy Billing, known for support roles in Rake, Jack Irish and House of Bond, has called for an end to union vetting, by Actors Equity, of applicants for these visas. Billing argues in his submission to the current federal film and TV inquiry that:
If one of our own Australian stars is unavailable or unsuitable for a role, producers must have the option to cast an overseas ‘name’ that can attract investors. More private finance means more and bigger productions, and so more work for everyone in the industry … If Cate Blanchett or Geoffrey Rush, for example, can play American or British characters in offshore films I, for one, have no problem working in Australian films alongside respected and popular actors who may be American, Indian, British, Chinese or whatever.
Billing estimates about 1250 Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance members (Actors Equity division) are making their primary living as actors in screen productions, representing 2.6 per cent of the workforce, ‘yet their union has the ability to potentially veto foreign imports who would attract investment, thus undermining work opportunities for the great majority of the screen industry’s full time workers’. The MEAA’s web page on 408 visas lists its ‘consultation fee’ as $550 per application for individual performers and presenters and $302.50 for film and TV crew members and technicians. ‘The fees MEAA demands and has received for this compulsory process, across the entertainment industry, totalled $467,355 in 2013–14 and $421,712 in 2014–15,’ says Billing, who sat on the union’s executive for many years. ‘The whole process is unwieldy, time consuming, expensive and unnecessary.’
Initially professing to be ‘not wildly interested’ in being interviewed, since she perceives Billing has a ‘vendetta’ against the union, Zoe Angus, director of Equity, agreed to provide me by email with justification for this union vetting. Her defence goes to the core of globalisation versus protectionism in the twenty-first-century culture industry:
Entertainment visas are one of the few visa types where there is compulsory consultation with the union and it is for very good policy reasons. We do not have any veto capacity. We simply get a five-day window, or 14 days if it is an actor role, to scrutinise the application and put the production to the test to ensure the government guidelines have been complied with. It is tough to make a livelihood in the creative arts.
Meaningful roles are like hen’s teeth and can make a career. Given the amount of taxpayer money invested in the arts–entertainment industry it is important that that money actually is invested in developing local skills and employment opportunities as much as possible. We take very seriously our role in putting each production to the test to ensure that local employment opportunities are maximised.
Flipping the switch to Hollywood, the Turnbull government continues the sugar hits of Labor, feting international blockbusters such as Alien and Thor with one-off grants, which certainly provide local crew and post-production opportunities, but with no coherent overall screen policy. None of which stops the likes of Warner Brothers, makers of The Matrix, Aquaman and the LEGO: Batman film, all made here, holding out for more, calling in its submission to the federal inquiry for the base location offset to be raised from 16.5 to 30 per cent, supposedly to make Australia as competitive as Britain, Canada and New Zealand, the latter Roy Billing’s home country, which incidentally has an open-door policy on international actors.
And the other side of politics? Despite Labor’s willingness at least to lay out an arts policy when in government, boosting spending via the Creative Australia policy four years ago before the Coalition’s unkind cuts, it seems they’ve lost the ticker. The federal opposition’s arts spokesman, Tony Burke, couldn’t spare any time with a 10-day deadline when I was writing a story recently about the parlous state of our National Film and Sound Archive, which Bob Hawke trumpeted upon opening 30 years ago as an institution ‘devoted to the popular cultural expression of our age, and dedicated to the preservation of some of the best manifestations of Australian character and Australian imagination’. Hawkie, you’ll remember, reserved his greatest national fervour for Bondy winning the America’s Cup, urging workers to take a day off in celebration.
Laziness of the creative imagination, however, finds its apogee in the Abbott-Turnbull governments, which blithely sliced budgets for Screen Australia and our national broadcasters, its curiosity piqued only when film and television can produce an economic silver lining and Netflix has let itself in the front door. The Coalition simply doesn’t believe in prescriptive arts policy, perhaps assuming such diktats to be electorally unpopular, but the Australia Council’s Connecting Australians national arts survey released in June this year found 98 per cent of Australians engage with the arts, with 15-to-24-year-olds creating and experiencing arts at the highest rates.
At the heart of this disconnect between the government and its people has been a lack of serious engagement with the place of Australian film and television, a failure to acknowledge the cultural importance of our own stories. If we refuse now to debate how those stories might best be preserved and pursued in future, we will have failed to reflect and understand ourselves. •
- Content quotas: <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/fact-finders/television/industry-trends/content-regulation>.