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Part 3: Screen Australia

Many want the Government to stop cutting Screen Australia funding but few ask what might happen if more money goes to production via other means.

Screen Australia is one of several organisations funded by the Federal Government. Others include the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, the National Institute for Dramatic Art and the National Film and Sound Archive.

Screen Australia directly supports the production of documentary and drama through investments and grants. It also undertakes initiatives with very specific aims such as addressing gender imbalance and a lack of on-screen diversity, and developing talent.

Screen Australia staff assess applications for funding on the basis of quality, cultural value, the ability of the creative team to deliver and so on.

The Federal Government provided $81.85m to Screen Australia for 2017/18. In 2016/17 the equivalent figure was $84.44m. The agency received an additional $10.84m from elsewhere. It included $2.33m in interest and $6.05m in recoupment from the agency’s investments.

The most funding – $26.4m – was spent on the production of features and $1.58m went on feature development. Of the remainder: $15.7m was allocated to the documentary sector; $15.1m to the production of television drama; $5.7m to children’s television; $4m to multiplatform drama and special initiatives; $3.6m to the indigenous sector; $3.22m to recipients under the Enterprise initiative; and minor amounts went to a range of other initiatives including audience development. Operating costs totalled $16.08m in 2016/17.

In the four years up to and including 2017/18 there have been cuts every year totalling $51.5m.

Selected comments related to Screen Australia

Many submissions to the House Inquiry either ask that Screen Australia’s funding not be cut any more or be restored to previous levels. Few note that if more money is going into film and television via the PO, this may affect the agency’s funding.

The Melbourne International Film Festival wants … a specific pot … put aside for emerging low-budget filmmakers.

The most strident in its opposition to the cuts is the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) submission (125): “Over three years, MEAA has borne witness to indifference, incompetence and cowardice when it comes to administering some of our most valuable cultural assets. This kind of devaluation suffered by Screen Australia erodes the capacity for such an organisation to innovate and support our industries.”

Other specific recommendations tend to cancel each other out in a push-pull jostle. Screen Australia should be: helping new businesses get established vs supporting already established businesses, for example; supporting the sustainability of businesses vs trying to pick winners via individual projects; backing commercial projects vs culturally important ones; backing projects of scale with a big chance of doing well vs supporting more smaller projects that act as escalators of talent. The agency would probably say it does all of the above.

“Creativity is complex but it is also a numbers game.” They are the opening words of submission 10 (name withheld), which sets out to prove that making more films for a lower per-unit cost would bring better results – making 130 movies for $1m each, for example, rather than a movie such as Australia for $130m. Big data and portfolio theory not “individual opinions vulnerable to human cognitive bias” would attract more risk-averse investors into the industry especially if 10BA or similar was reinstated. (10BA was a mechanism that gave investors tax breaks on film investment.)

The Melbourne International Film Festival (139) wants Screen Australia funding restored so a specific pot can be put aside for emerging low-budget filmmakers.

The need to find ways of supporting more low-budget projects of all kinds that are smaller in scale than the norm arises often in the submissions. SBS (133) wants to be able to commission “mid-level” Indigenous productions because the landscape “is dominated by one or two major players and a number of small players.”

Inexpensive projects can’t access the PO because of the expenditure threshold rules, but thresholds have been reduced in the past.

Seven West Media is arguing hard that Seven Productions should get access to Screen Australia investment.

A number of submissions say the eligibility criteria are too strict and application processes too onerous. “Ground breaking ideas or tonnes of talent and a fresh approach” should count for a lot says Leo Baker (1).

At least two of the 150 submissions are highly critical of Screen Australia, with one (40) stating that the organisation is broken and should be replaced. On both the name of the writer is withheld. Several submissions can’t be accessed because they are confidential.

If television does become eligible for a 40% PO, Screen Australia could realign its investment priorities – perhaps bowing out of primetime television drama where no exceptional circumstances exist. Already the agency is asking itself if it should invest in big budget features.

Right now Seven West Media (128) is arguing hard that Seven Productions should get access to Screen Australia investment. It notes that FremantleMedia, Endemol Shine, Matchbox Pictures, Screentime and Playmaker Media are foreign-owned production businesses that have “for some years received more than half of all Screen Australia TV drama funding." Yet Seven Productions is excluded from applying for funding despite being “an Australian-owned business, retaining revenue and jobs in Australia.”

“To best support the growth and sustainability of the Australian film and television industry we need to abandon the outdated notion that ‘in-house’ production is different from ‘independent’ production, and less worthy of support. A thriving production sector relies on both types of production … All applications should be assessed on their creative merit.” (Australian independent production companies, Australian-based foreign-owned companies and the commercial FTAs can access the PO.)

The issue of whether foreign-owned companies should be able to access agency money has been an on-again off-again issue for years.

Seven is also critical of how Screen Australia has launched a number of initiatives to fund content for platforms such as YouTube and Netflix, “which do not pay their fair share of tax and therefore should not be eligible for taxpayer support.”

The minimum broadcast licence fee set by Screen Australia for scripted drama it invests in is $440,000 per hour. The Victorian Film and Television Industry Working Party (54) says that with adult drama now costing about $1m per hour, an increase in the fee is required, especially given that producing is now unviable for “smaller independent producers”. “Only Screen Australia Enterprise-funded (and similar) production companies and foreign-owned Australian-based companies can manage to continue in the sector.” (Enterprise is a Screen Australia initiative aimed at developing businesses.)

Says the Equity Diversity Committee (68): “Diversity must be at the heart of any discussion about factors contributing to the growth and sustainability of the Australian screen industries. Our communities are rich with untold stories, and our increasingly diverse population provides immeasurable opportunities to grow audiences. In order for performers and other practitioners from diverse backgrounds to break into our screen industries, we must create a policy framework that supports their development and ongoing participation.”