After 50 years in the film industry, producer Sue Milliken is convinced the current funding structure of government investment and the producer tax offset isn't working.

Milliken regards the formation of Screen Australia as a wasted opportunity to revitalise the industry and she questions the value of the Australian Film Institute/ Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA).

She outlines her vision for a more efficient and better targeted funding system in her new book, Selective Memory: A Life in Film.

The tome is primarily an insightful and colourful memoir of a producer who served her apprenticeship at the ABC in the 1960s on Skippy and worked with the legendary TV producer Hector Crawford before embarking on films including The Odd Angry Shot, The Fringe Dwellers, Black Robe, Sirens,   Dating the Enemy and Paradise Road, and serving as a completion guarantor.

Like many in the industry, she hoped the amalgamation of the operations of the Film Finance Corporation and the Australian Film Commission into Screen Australia combined with the introduction of the producer tax offset would usher in a new era.

"Unfortunately, the transition fell between the outgoing and incoming governments, and the new organisation, Screen Australia, retains many of the problems of the old organisations," she writes.  "It was a disappointing waste of a rare opportunity to revitalise subsidy to the film industry. The tax offset has many benefits but it is cumbersome and complicated. I can't help wondering if direct subsidy and simplified administration might not give as good or better a result while directing more of the taxpayer funds where they should go- onto the screen."

Milliken told IF, "While I am a supporter of offshore productions in Australia and of incentives to bring them here, in principle I feel that government subsidy should be prioritised to the expression of Australian culture, and there should be less bureaucratic judgement by the federal funding agency on producers and directors with a track record. While this does apply to Screen Australia's Enterprise companies, there are many film makers who are not included in this incentive.

"If a way could be devised to subsidise development through the tax system rather than through the gauntlet of the bureaucracies, there might be more successful films."

The producer was not a supporter of the Australian Film Institute when she was chairman of the AFC in the 1990s. She wanted to close down the AFI but was thwarted by the institute's board.

"Eventually, we instituted reforms which made the organisation more efficient, but not much more effective. And so it continues to lurch along. It is a dinosaur left over from the sixties and seventies, and should have been dealt with in the major shakeup of federal funding agencies in 2008," she writes.

"It has recently sought to reinvent itself with the establishment of the AACTAs- a new and silly name for the AFI Awards– but I don't see a lot to justify its continuing existence."

Asked to nominate the films she's most proud of, she cites Bruce Beresford's Paradise Road, the 1997 saga of a group of English, American, Dutch and Australian women who were imprisoned by the Japanese in Sumatra during WW2, starring Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins, Julianna Margulies and Cate Blanchett.

"It's about heroism and a group of women in an appalling situation," she said. She also singles out The Odd Angry Shot, Tom Jeffrey's 1979 drama about Australian soldiers in Vietnam, starring Graham Kennedy, John Hargreaves, John Jarratt and Bryan Brown.

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  1. Don ! Please…
    A grave issue facing the industry ? No, a nostalgic dowager trying to sell a book!
    IF please keep your eye on the ball and stop running self promoting pieces for your friends.

  2. Recent reports in the screen industry press indicate that many professionals, including myself, are concerned about the state of our industry and are looking to SA to implement a new culture.

    Like Sue Milliken, I have served my apprenticeship with CBN 8 and the ABC in the 60’s then moved on as an independent Cinematographer, DOP, Director, Producer, Executive Producer, Film Fund Manager and Consultant. I feel more than qualified to make positive suggestions at this opportune time of SA choosing its new CEO.

    Opportunities for Screen Australia.

    I make my proposals in brief paragraphs; most are based on the Screen Australia Act 2008, and the conditions of the 2008 Minister’s Statement, both are first-rate business plan documents. Unfortunately, few of the main clauses have been implemented by the Executives of SA due to the lake of actual industry experience.

    Screen Australia to act as a Corporation (Mini Studio)

    • Appoint a respected Australian (not overseas) Screen Professional as the CEO, with long years of ‘actual’ experience. Or If the (bureaucratic) status quo is to be maintained appoint an experienced screen industry Consultant (SA Act 2008, Part 4, Division 2, 34) who can advise the CEO and/or the Board.

    • Reduce Staff, by natural attrition, or redeploy them to the various proposals to follow;

    • As per the Minister’s 2008 directions, establish a section which is charged to bring additional finance to SA, by engaging or partnering with private and corporate finance via DGR, Offer Document or Prospectus financing (SA Act, Part2, Powers 7), and lobby the government to reinstate the 10BA system, BUT MAKE SURE IT IS TIGHTLY CONTROLLED THROUGH A CENTRAL AGENCY (Keep out the lawyers, chemists and specifically the financial sharks.)

    . Remove the Producer Offset, it only serves the pockets of the financiers, Hollywood studios and more specifically it does not do what it was supposed to do, to provide the Producer with viability for the next project.

    • Next to project financing, and in conjunction with private investment, SA to expand their financing services into Guaranteeing, (SA Act 2008, Functions, (2) (b), End Funding, Marketing finance, Gap Funding, Rebate financing, instead of these finance services being performed by other corporations, charging high premiums and often the money leaves Australia.

    • The SA Act 2008, Part 2, Functions, (1) (b)(ii), provides for SA to become a Distribution Service, actually representing and selling the many independently produced films, whether it’s a SA financed film or not. By SA becoming a respected Distributor of Australian films, it will shed the image of Australian films being a ‘soft touch’ product! This is often repeated at markets, because small independents do not have the experience, finance, powers or inclination to make the best deals and usually have to ‘give away’ their films, and have to listen to ‘you got the money for free anyway’.

    • SA as a Distributor, with the majority of funds going back to the film investors (including SA)It could establish world wide networks of ‘first look’ Cinema Chains, Broadcasters and Aggregators who are outright buyers of Australian films, saving much time, money and it alleviates follow-up problems, non reporting, non payments, on-selling without permission, contract over-runs, and often involve legal issues which the individual Producer cannot afford to pursue.

    • Films in which SA invests; remove the requirement to have a Distributor attached to a feature film, which automatically assures little or no ROI for any film.

    Note; I am astonished that Box Office is used as a measure of success. My experience shows that if a Producer is lucky, the ROI, not considering profit, is only achieved when the Box Office takings are at least 12 times larger than the production Budget. As far as I and my previous investors are concerned BOX OFFICE figures are miss leading and falls and SA should drop such research and publication. Box Office figures, whether for publicity or research are a waste of time, money, and have little to do with the business of producing films, such information should only be used for audience participation purposes.

    As far as I know, perhaps with the exception of the publishing industry, the film production industry is the only one that produces a product (film) then gives it to the wholesaler (Distributor / Agent) for free, (the inexperienced Producer claims success) and the Investors and SA hope to get their money back, let alone make a profit?)

    • In Australia, increase the audience for Australian Films by SA negotiating with the Private Cinema Owners Association (51%) to have at least one session per week, at a regular time slot, showing only Australian Films. Such a system will attract audiences for Australian Films. Normally Australian Films only receive a very brief showing and are pushed out by the blockbusters, if the Distributors allow for the Exhibitor to provide a time slot at all. My research shows acceptance by Exhibitors of such a proposal, if established and backed by SA, specifically in terms of access to Australian films.

    • SA to make available Interest Free loans for small communities, for them to establish screening facilities in their area. SA to distribute or make available Australian films for these new outlets, which can also be used for audience building and feedback for future projects through Synopsis distribution, etc.

    • With the oncoming NBN facilities, SA must be instrumental in establishing its own BRAND platform for broadcasting Australian films to Australian and world audiences.

    • Under the SA Act 2008, Part 2, Functions, (2)(d), SA is able to assist infrastructure companies to continue to provide their services, (e.g. the last film laboratory having closed down, re-establish a laboratory in the Film Australia premises) so that foreign and local Producer’s, DOP’s and the NFSA can continue to utilise film stock whenever required. Assist other necessary infrastructure companies to continue their services, if they have difficulties to continue to be in business, but are vital to our Industry.

    • Facilitate the transfer of films to digital media. Many films are held by the NFSA and in private ownership. Such films can be utilised for rescreening in the Australian participating Cinemas, in the community theatres and world-wide via the internet (Australian Brand) platforms, which will stand out on the Internet not disappearing amongst millions on offer.

    • Re-establish Film Australia at the Lindfield Studio site as the hub for Australian documentaries and low budget films by providing its facilities at an affordable level, creating films that reflect the Australian culture, freeing feature films to be more suitable for the world market.

    • Continue to establish more Enterprise Clusters (a great and successful program).

    • Support a wider range of professionals throughout the screen industry, foster, but lessen the emphasis on new talent, who are doing courses in every Uni, Film schools etc, and after graduating the majority have nowhere to go. Professionals, through lack of support and finance, cannot employ the new talent, for them to receive real industry experience. (It’s not enough to show a piece of paper with the Producer, DOP etc title on it, then demand money for their pet film subject; what happened to learning on the job?) The industry’s image also suffers because there are too many courses (which is now an industry on its own) with no work available, creating disappointment for the many.

    • SA to establish a system which would provide direct access to actors and directors by bypassing their agents, this would enable actors to read scripts and decide themselves if they wish to participate in the project (SA to use ‘Pay or Play’ contracts / guarantees).

    I believe that enlarging the current SA activities, via these proposals will provide jobs, establish the Australian Screen Industry as a predominant industry, respected by Australians and around the World.
    Oscar Scherl
    EP / Industry Consultant
    [email protected]

  3. I too have been around in the film industry for a bloody long time and agree with all that Oscar proposes. A fine piece of logic and insight.

  4. The SAC Test, as well as the other hoops you are forced to jump through, for the offset is a joke, let’s stop going on about how Aussie films must portray “Australian Culture”, whatever that is, and how about we just support film makers who want to make great films that are going to make money at the box office! Let’s encourage the participation of foreign talents to work with Aussie Directors, Actors, Producers, so we can create the dream teams required to sell our films well internationally, instead of vilifying them for daring to bring in outsiders. Need a serious change and simplification of an overly complex system.

  5. Sues book will be a great read. She was there when this industry began its second wind. She has worn many hats and knows where the skeletons lie. Re the offset. Wake up Screen Australia. Television is what OZ audiences are watching. Raise the offset to 40% for all Independent productions TV or film.

  6. “If a way could be devised to subsidise development through the tax system rather than through the gauntlet of the bureaucracies, there might be more successful films.”

    Both arrangements have their considerable flaws. Is this her conclusion after so many years in the industry? How about consolidating what is a cottage industry – every second person in Darlinghurst is a wannabe with a film idea seeking funding.

  7. I have known Sue for more than 40 years, and while not agreeing with everything she may say or propose, I admire and appreciate her intellectual rigour, insight, tough mindedness, clarity of thought, and vision. She is worthy of great respect, both as a human being, and as a more than significant contributor to our industry over a long period of time. sick of it’s comment that she is a nostalgic dowager is ageist, sexist, wrong, and given the anonymity, cowardly.

    David Hannay

  8. This is verging on science fiction, but here goes. In the year####the film industry in Australia entered a new era. Screen Australia was dissolved. States turned the tables and created a film meritocracy. It became a sport. A state of origin sport. Each state entered to compete for the prize – the full screening of the winning film on the small screen at a peak hour, commercial free. How did the films get made? The top 12 scripts in each state were novelised, and the public bought copies, read the selection, and voted. The story in each state with the highest rating among readers went into production. Every state received a set production budget. The public became engaged in the process, and watched eagerly for the final product. The rivalry between states was intense, but healthy. Catch you in the future…

    Update…The scheme flopped. Why? 55% of Australian adults haven’t read a book since leaving school, thus they were unable to participate. The scheme was canned as it was deemed ‘undemocratic’.

  9. This debate is obviously going to be a long and diverse conversation.
    I read through the comment you posted and while I believe it has some good points and is well intended it fails by its own test as a simple easy to understand process to make film production easier.From what I read ,all I could see was a very large bureaucracy needed to police,control and adjudicate on all the minor fifedoms it would create.
    I agree that the policy of cultural advancement through film must be separated from the commercial industry and very soon as the relationship between the two is becoming toxic on a number of levels ,the funding opportunities are going to come via producers offset opportunities as it is a straightforward equation on how to fund a film, divorced from from some of the more obscure ways funding has been granted in this country in the past (the bureaucracy again).
    I dont want indulge in political speak but trickle down thinking is needed ,a low budget industry cannot support the technology needed for modern film making expectations, a larger budget industry can supply and maintain the infrastructure and the smaller films can benefit from the skills and equipment they cannot support on their own.
    In my experience even the biggest Hollywood producer is a simple creature ,an overly complex system will drive them away ,we can not blame them for taking an advantage of a competitive international environment in production incentives but when you see the benefits as in the UK of an attractive system it is astounding what the positive outcomes can be.
    Also if you don”t use box office numbers as an indicator of success,what can you possibly use,as the old saying goes “Bums On Seats”

  10. Ross,I agree with much of what you are indicating, specifically the UK funding incentives,except that you wish to make film making EASIER, that will never happen. By its nature it is a collaborative expensive business venture. Easier film making will only lead to more unsalable films being made. My proposals simply point out that SA needs to become a business, which could be run in a less bureaucratic way with perhaps no more than 50 people. Importantly private investment MUST be brought into the industry but that will only happen if investors can see that there is a solid structure behind each film project and that there is actual return on investment. The 10BA system was a good concept, unfortunately it created a bad image for private investors by allowing every Tom Dick and Harry to be able to make a film EASIER, investors will no longer listen to individuals saying, give me your money, they need to see a solid business structure to back it. And Box Office figures or as you say,Bums on Seats does not cut it for investors, nor should it for Screen Australia.

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