Screen Australia has again rejected calls to cease funding projects from foreign-owned production companies but the aggrieved filmmakers are not giving up on their campaign.
“I expect that when the majority of screen producers understand what’s happening here (many still don’t) there will be considerable pressure brought to bear on Screen Australia to reconsider its current policy,” Andrew Ogilvie, Electric Pictures CEO and executive producer, tells IF.
“Moreover I suspect the community's response will become only more vocal as the full effects of government cuts are felt across the industry. Whether this will be enough to affect change is to be seen. But I hope so for the sake of Australian screen culture.”
Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason responds, “Our main goal is to make great Australian screen content that reflects our culture and that resonates with audiences. We back projects that meet the Significant Australian Content test – this may include at times companies that are incorporated in Australia, have central management and control in Australia, with all creative decision making happening in Australia but just happen to have a an international majority owner.
"The importance we place when we fund any project is to make sure we are delivering Australian stories the taxpayers want to see and love including INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, The Slap and Howzat! Kerry Packer's War.
“This is a global industry and it is important we are significant players in the international arena – many local production companies have forged business connections with international businesses including independent production companies that continue to produce great Australian content. Our investment in projects and companies is essential to promoting a commercially sustainable industry.
“We look at this matter periodically at staff, board and government level and aim to strike a balance between competing priorities – including whether economic ownership of an entity is in Australia or overseas and delivering great Australian stories to our audiences.”
NBCUniversal-owned Matchbox Pictures contends that shows like Camp, which was filmed in regional NSW, and Hunters, which will shoot in Melbourne next year, would not be made here without the Matchbox/NBCU relationship.
“To effectively penalise overseas investment by around 20% will simply see a reduction in investment in Australian content from international markets,” says Matchbox CEO Chris Oliver-Taylor.
“We maintain full independent editorial control. We pitch Australian content to Australian broadcasters. We are able to attract strong distribution advances and put Australian content right into the heart of US and UK audiences. The management and control of Matchbox is in Australia with a majority locally run board of directors.
“Our programs employ thousands of Australians. We strive to work with the best Australian talent and to showcase their work internationally. The investment we attract from both within Australia and internationally allows us to get our stories shown around the world, promote our talent internationally and create amazing Australian content.”
Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder co-founder Nick Murray calls for a general ban on the agency funding any company that’s majority owned by an international broadcaster.
Murray asserts, “The industry operated very well under the previous rules which for decades prevented SA production investment in majority foreign-owned producers. Companies like Fremantle, Endemol, Sony, ITV, Shine and BBC Worldwide all came into the country under this regime and accepted the realities of such a scheme.
“Screen Australia changed the rules during the 2011 financial year (without consultation with the industry) as a result of lobbying by one of these companies. It suited some of the foreign production entities but has sucked up a lot of cash which would have flowed to genuine indies.
“I don’t want to see Australia simply become a factory making copies of international formats. There is no long term benefit to the industry or the Australian government if the IP is sourced offshore.”
Sony Pictures Television’s acquisition of Playmaker Media was the latest example of international buy-outs of Oz indies. Shine, Endemol and US-based Core Media are merging as the Endemol Shine Group, controlled by 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global Management.
Documentary filmmaker Simon Nasht argues, “I believe it is indefensible that the agency is providing handouts to some of the world's largest and most profitable media multi-nationals who now own the vast majority of Australia's production capacity.
“The government has taken a position not to do this for the automotive industry, and it is even less logical to be gifting money to foreign-owned companies in the cultural sphere. Some or later Canberra will notice what is happening and the reaction will inevitably lead to an even greater reduction in funding to the industry.
“In my own sector of documentary, the agency is actively encouraging a situation whereby our indigenous programs will be made by the French, our culture by Americans and our history by the British. These companies are merely gaming the system here and can't believe their luck. Sooner more than later they will look elsewhere for their easy money, and they will take decades of Australian created intellectual property with them, leaving nothing but a shallow service industry behind.
“Screen Australia may superficially argue that it is merely reacting to the globalisation of the industry, but this is a bizarre argument from an organisation created to preserve and expand Australian culture. None of us can access cultural funds in Europe or elsewhere, yet Australia is an open door. Why? Where is the foresight, the business case or the cultural argument?”
Ogilvie warns, “Screen Australia’s assistance of foreign-owned production companies will hasten the death of many smaller Australian-owned operations which are not able to compete with the multi-nationals.
“These cultural subsidies should be reserved exclusively for majority Australian-owned independent production companies. This is what almost every other country that has film and television subsidies does and where they don’t there seems to be little to admire in relation to the outcomes.
“Irrespective of what other countries may choose to do to protect their cultural heritage, the fact is: Australian taxpayer funds are being used to create commercially and culturally valuable Intellectual Property that is owned and/or controlled by overseas interests.”
Oliver-Taylor insists Australia cannot resist the worldwide consolidation of production companies. “Overseas investment is here to stay, as long as market conditions are right,” he says. “Are we as an industry suggesting that we turn our back on what had happened in every major market in the world and make it more difficult to make content? Effectively putting in place protectionism from international investors? Why would we do that as a market?
“From an audience perspective, and an economic one, there is clearly an advantage is producing more content at the best price. Having access to various incentives allows more Australian content to be produced, employs more Australians and actually builds a sustainable market. International investment is a cornerstone of the Australian market, it needs to be allowed to operate fairly, if not, why would that investment remain? And then what happens to our broader marketplace?”