Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason.
What needs to be in place to get the sector back to work? And what will production actually look like when things can resume?
These are among the chief questions Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason is grappling with at the moment.
As he sees it, there are three key concerns that must be dealt with in order to get cameras rolling, both for productions that were shutdown/delayed and new projects.
These include safety protocols; practical issues such as the ability to reunite cast and crew where offshore or interstate; and operational issues – namely insurance.
AFTRS is leading the drafting of a set of protocols, with input from Screen Australia, the state agencies and major screen organisations, that would facilitate a safe return to production.
Among their considerations are safe distancing, the number of people on set, personal protective equipment, cleaning, medical advice and travel.
There are test cases that the roundtable is drawing from. All the broadcasters continue to produce news and current affairs. A considerable number of documentary shoots continue. Endemol Shine Australia is currently making Masterchef, and Fremantle’s Neighbours is now a week back into shoot with protocols that include the dividing of the production team, no physical contact between actors and no outside extras.
A draft is to be delivered to the office of Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, with the hope to be finalised by the end of this month.
A Screen Producers Australia survey suggests 119 productions were impacted by shutdown measures. For Mason, getting these projects completed has to be among the industry’s chief priorities.
Screen Australia has been meeting with the state agencies to try to determine which productions would be able to resume quickly when restrictions ease, and which will need more resources and attention.
“What do they need to get going? Do they have cast or crew interstate? Do they have cast or crew overseas? Do they have challenges now because they were shooting outside and the trees have lost their leaves? Anything like that,” Mason tells IF.
The executive believes a lot of documentary, factual and online projects with smaller crews should be able to kick off relatively quickly, whereas larger productions will have more considerations in order to restart.
Where cast or crew are now offshore, Screen Australia is considering if there are ways to expedite their return to Australia when safe to do so.
“You bring in one person, that gets 140 people working again. Maybe you can make that case [to government].”
Mason also hopes to be able to support more contained production like At Home Alone Together, a joint comedy initiative between Screen Australia and the ABC. “The more we get going, the more we’ll learn, and the more comfortable crew and particularly cast feel. That’s essential.”
One of the key impediments to production resuming is insurance; currently COVID-19 is excluded from policies globally. Producers like See-Saw Films’ Emile Sherman, and Film Finances Australasia CEO Dan Read have called on the Federal Government to underwrite insurance risk as a lender of last resort.
The Australian Financial Review reported on Monday that Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has ordered his department to look into the issue of insurance cover for screen production.
Screen Australia and the states are also looking at what can be done, as well as how to support productions to ensure they can get bonds and keep finance deals in place. There may be learnings from other sectors of the economy here too, Mason says.
As for the pipeline of projects when restrictions ease, the CEO was buoyed by a “surprisingly large volume of applications” for Screen Australia’s last production round.
There was also an “huge” response to Premium Plus, the additional development funding allocation Screen Australia launched to support the industry through COVID-19.
“All our rounds – our online round, our doco rounds, our scripted rounds and the development rounds – are massively oversubscribed, so people are still planning and applying. We’re going to spend 100 per cent of our funds in this financial year. It isn’t like things have stopped,” he says.
However, Mason has flagged that some of Screen Australia’s funding may need to be adjusted in the next financial year to deal with practicalities. Funds will be diverted towards the greatest opportunity and need; it may be the case that for a while the agency puts larger amounts of funding into a smaller pool of projects.
“Say [due to travel restrictions] we don’t have an A-list Hollywood star; instead we put a great Australian actor in. But the foreign sales agent therefore halves their advance. Someone’s got to make up that shortfall. How are we going to cover the fact that for at least a big period of time, it is going to be much slower on sets? You’re going to have much more health and safety routines. So shoots are going to be extended, which costs money. There are all these moving bits,” he says.
The government is currently seeking feedback on Screen Australia and ACMA’s options paper, which canvasses models for content regulation reform.
While Mason says the paper was written “in a different world”, he hopes the industry will recognise this an opportunity to reboot and rebuild, and think about “the sector as a whole” in reply.
“The world has shifted. Please come up with ideas that are appropriate to the world that we live in now,” he says.
“If the government gets good responses, works it through and makes changes, it wants to be doing stuff that will get us back working, but also supercharge and stick with the industry for a good five, 10 years. So don’t just try and think ‘I want to go back to 2016 or even January 2020.’ It’s going to be looking forward.”
More broadly, Mason underscores everyone has a responsibility to each other in this moment and in the months ahead, the industry being an ecosystem.
“There is no point saving all the producers, for example, if there’s no camera equipment hire companies left. There’s no point saving them, producers, writers and crew, if you find out there’s no post-production houses left. There’s no point… if there’s no cinemas or theatrical distributors… if there’s no sales agents or broadcasters. We are all so linked and interconnected.”