Foreign money pledge to Aussie producers

26 August, 2014 by Don Groves

Screen Australia will be more pro-active in helping producers raise money from the Hollywood studios and other international sources.

That was one of the key points to emerge from a Screen Australia forum at the Chauvel Cinema on Tuesday evening, part of a national roadshow following the revised terms of trade, guidelines and funding priorities unveiled in Taking Stock document.


Among other issues raised were the agency’s funding for projects from foreign-owned production entities, the need to find a new model for distributing Australian films, changes to the documentary guidelines and the phasing out of support for state film resource bodies.

CEO Graeme Mason said, “We as a sector need to find cash and we need to look offshore for that investment.”

Mason suggested the US majors should be a greater source of funds, recalling that when he was with Universal 21 years ago the studio put up half the money for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

“We need to take the lead” on the drive to attract more international investment, he said. “We should help you to open more doors.”

Mason gave an upbeat assessment of the current state of the screen industry and said he was bemused by the high degree of negativity in some quarters.

The agency supported 22 features, including some which only needed completion funding, and 90 hours of factual programming in the last fiscal year. There is more Australian TV drama on screen than he can ever recall.

“The sky is not falling,” he said. ”Production is up by 50%-60% in most areas except children’s drama. Cash is up because of the offset.”

Noting the offset has raised $1 billion since its introduction, he said the federal government sees the offset and direct support for screen funding as one pot.

The exec acknowledged he had not anticipated the government’s $38 million budget cut, which prompted a 10% reduction in staff numbers, cuts to documentary funding, a $500,000 drop in development investment and the end of support for screen resource centres in 18 months.

Documentary filmmaker Simon Nasht launched a spirited attack on the funding of TV projects from companies fully or partly owned by foreign players, alluding specifically to Fox’s Shine Group and NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures. He estimated  at least 40 hours of programming with total budgets of $10 million in this category were funded last financial year.

Mason said the agency evaluates projects on the basis of significant Australian content, not the ownership of the production company. The board reviewed its policy in July and saw no need to change. “It’s not a closed subject [but] I don’t see it as a problem,” he said.

Sitting in the audience, Bob Campbell, MD of the French-owned Screentime, rebutted Nasht’s argument by stating that productions would not be made without Screen Australia’s investment and the producer offset.

Afterwards Nasht told IF, "Shine, Endemol etc have no long established track record in the genre and are simply muscling in to take advantage of the open-door policy on direct investment. Given their direct distribution links and financial muscle to cash flow and fund the offset this is distorting the market. Whatever the argument over screen drama, it is patently ridiculous to argue that there is a lack of Australian-owned expertise in documentary, or that we haven’t been highly successful in exporting our projects and bringing in international money.

"It’s a case I will be making strongly to Screen Australia on behalf of a large number of producers who are concerned about this, given documentary has just had $1.5 million slashed from its SA budget (while narrative film remains unscathed). My suggestion by way of compromise is to separate the policy on TV drama and documentary, returning the factual area to the pre-2010 situation."

Mason said the traditional theatrical distribution model is not working for Australian films or for most art house titles with a few exceptions such as Transmission Films’ Calvary.

Head of production Sally Caplan referred to the “intransigence” of some exhibitors and distributors on the 120-day window between theatrical and home entertainment but said, “We will see new distribution models evolve and break down windows and use VoD more agilely.”

Asked by producer Heather MacFarlane about the agency rejecting some independent distributors who had been attached to projects, Caplan responded, "We are being more flexible about distribution. We look at the right distributor for each project.”

Despite the $500,000 cut to development, Caplan said the agency will invest more than $70 million in screen content this financial year. She reminded producers that Screen Australia will need to assess all applications for grants of up to $500,000  (up from the previous cap of $200,000), referring to the mistaken belief that  funding up to that level is automatic.

She described the guidelines for accessing co-production treaties (there are 11, with another three in negotiation and three at the M.O.U stage) as "too restrictive" and said they would be amended.     

 Liz Stevens, senior manager of Scroz’s documentary unit, said she is presenting new draft guidelines to Mason this week. She expects the guidelines will be released to the industry in mid-September and to publish them in November.

That prompted Kingston Anderson, executive director of the Australian Directors Guild, to ask whether there will be sufficient time to address any concerns the ADG has with the revised guidelines.

 Acknowledging the $1.5 million cut to documentary funding, Stevens said, “We need more money to grow the pie.”