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Part 4: Other big themes and observations

Co-production treaties, low wages, poor mental health, inadequate training, foreign workers and intellectual property are all raised in submissions.

The Federal Government intervenes in film and television in so many ways not yet mentioned: from negotiating co-production treaties to providing copyright protection to creating industrial relations law. A variety of other matters were raised in the submissions.

Co-production and the international stage

The Review now calling for submissions clearly states that the performance of Australian content is important on the international stage. This is not reflected in the contents of the bulk of submissions despite the vast number of potential eyeballs offshore and the House Inquiry’s focus on growth and sustainability.

Production company Flying Bark (141) is an exception. It says: “The real potential for economic growth is in capitalising on the enormous wealth of the global content industry and the vast increase in buying entrants to the market, many of whom require non-studio (independent), alternate content. Australia punches above its weight, but there is undoubtedly room to do better.”

It is disappointing that there are no suggestions for initiatives with the one clear aim of creating edgy or bold drama that might break out internationally – and use the resultant acclaim to then reach local audiences. Currently the commercial FTA channels commission or create drama that is the opposite of edgy and bold, attributing it to their audience’s taste. It probably does dampen Australia’s ability to be competitive in the international marketplace.

Some submissions voice a desire for more co-production treaties. Screen Queensland (136) notes that Australia has 10 official treaties, which is low compared to Canada (54), France (50), Germany (22) and NZ (15). But treaties are being negotiated with India, Denmark and Malaysia. The Northern Territory Industry Reference Group (99) wants co-production treaties fast tracked with such Asian neighbours as Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, and also Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

“I sink all I have into this industry with an almost cavalier attitude. Why? … It makes me strive to be a better human.” – Gordon Anderson

An Australian Film Initiative (80) argues for finding new audiences and alliances with non-traditional partners via content showcases. Focussing on the US and the UK is preaching to the converted. Associated with that submission is Anupam Sharma (66). In his own submission he said he wants to attract Indian film crews to Australia in innovative ways – for the economic benefits, to boost tourism and to attract Indian students.

Screen Producers Australia (86) wants the Government to negotiate an agreement with the European Union because of Brexit. It notes that “Australia’s television exports have increased in the past three financial years from $118m in 2013/14 to $138m in 2015/16 and has seen an increase of 16.7% growth over the past five years”; and “film exports have doubled from $3m to $6m over the same period and seen 18.4% growth over the past five years.”

The co-production program should be prioritised and promoted to “encourage sustainability, increase cross-cultural collaboration and facilitate broader creative input”, according to the Federation Of Ethnic Communities’ Councils Of Australia (78). It also advises Screen Australia to increase media awareness about its role as a conduit for a cohesive Australia.

Low wages and mental health

The high number of individuals who have taken the time to write about how much a strong, vibrant Australian industry means to society generally, and them personally, is touching. Several say being part of the creative industries is the realisation of a dream.

But many also say they are constantly being asked to do more for less. The public perception is that the film and television industry is glamorous and lucrative; but actually it’s tough and competitive.

“I could work in a cafe for the same money and have more time to myself,” says Scott Wood (55), a camera assistant with directing aspirations.

“Often on low budget productions, editors are not offered contracts, do not receive superannuation payments, holiday pay or other entitlements which should be standard,” notes the Australian Screen Editors Guild (ASE) submission (76). “This mostly is because budgets are so tight.”

Unfair expectations, lack of continuity of work, stagnant wages and excessive hours without overtime payments are all mentioned.

Submission 41 (name withheld) reads that it is “not uncommon for crews on well-funded international co-productions to work 80 or 100 hour weeks … and be paid for 50 hours”. The problem is endemic and mostly affects the post-production sector, the respondent adds. Others mention the dichotomy between working for better pay on big international productions, and working on Australian film and television that is more personally significant.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) submission (125) wants PO and Location Offset payments acquitted only after certifying that a production adhered to specific work safety and remuneration conditions. It strongly criticised “unregulated and oppressive” arrangements where little or no pay was received – or “deferred” – in return for “experience” and/or “exposure”. Drawing on two studies released in 2015, it also supplied information on the mental health of the entertainment industry that was, frankly, shocking.

Entertainment Assist (23) was involved in one study and said the findings of the research on depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts “strongly suggest the entertainment and cultural industry is in severe distress, and in urgent need of early prevention and intervention programs.”

Gordon Anderson (88) sheds some light on why people stay: “The truth is only an incredibly small percentage of crew, technicians and production personnel actually get anywhere and have anything remotely called financial security. I don't and still I sink all I have into this industry with an almost cavalier attitude. Why? It took me a long time to have this cognition but I believe I found the reason. To be involved in a project of creative concepts from the conceptual stage right through to film release on screen – well, it makes me strive to be a better human and I like it. What we do is totally priceless as it makes people FEEL better for a short period. They can escape and enjoy by themselves with love ones or friends.”

Training and retaining

Some submissions express dismay about how many people are being trained for the scarce number of jobs in film and television – or that they’re being trained for the wrong jobs. Some say people aren’t being trained to be job ready; one says that the workforce is aging and a succession strategy is needed.

The Australian Film, Television and Radio School should be training fewer students better says Andrew Belletty (5). Specialist on the job training has fallen by the wayside says the ASE (76) with Film Australia being swallowed up, the ABC not doing as much in-house production as previously and organisations such as Metro Screen shutting their doors.

A submission (58) from the Adelaide-based Media Resource Centre and Wide Angle Tasmania calls for “the massive gap between learning and earning” to be addressed. According to Metro Screen’s Emerging Visions report, the Federal Government contributes $250m to screen and media degrees and $419m to screen production, including via the Producer Offset. Yet less than $2m goes to emerging film and program makers now that Screen Australia has cut funding to the state-based screen resource organisations, the submission reads.

“In plain terms, what the gap highlights is wastefulness – a Federal Government willing to fund degrees for a new generation but not to provide a career pathway in order to use this knowledge and talent. What also needs to be understood about this gap is that it represents the loss of future opportunities in what is regarded as one of the fastest growing sectors of the global economy.”

Animator Brad Price (75) talks of a “self-defeating cycle” where young talented people struggle to find consistent work and then go overseas, leaving not enough personnel to fill the jobs when work does arrive.

Lack of work continuity means losing highly specialised lighting technicians to mining and offshore rigging companies, says gaffer Reg Garside (81).

The problem for Screenwise (2), an acting school run by actor Denise Roberts, is that the Federal Government has made changes and VET student loans are no longer accessible by acting students.

“To sustain a $5.8 billion screen industry, and to ensure ongoing production, producers need to be able to have access to highly trained professionals including screen actors,” she says, adding that the move has also compromised on-screen diversity because it discriminates against individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds, including Indigenous Australians.

Foreign workers

Many submissions asked that MEAA no longer have consultation rights over temporary visa applications for foreign actors. Most adamant is actor Roy Billing (8), a long-time lobbyist on this issue.

According to him, MEAA has about 5000 actor members but about 85% are thought to be unemployed at any one time. He guestimates that about 25% of the total earn most of their income from screen productions.

“That's about 1,250 workers out of an industry pool of 46,600 or 2.6% of the total screen industry workforce, yet their union has the ability to potentially veto foreign imports who would attract investment, thus undermining work opportunities for the great majority of the screen industry's full time workers.”

The process is also “unwieldy, time consuming, expensive and unnecessary”, he says.

Others bring up different issues. Ausfilm (114.1) explains that two different kinds of temporary work visas are used for bringing international cast and crew to Australia. The Temporary Activity (subclass 408) visa is generally used for cast, directors and department heads; the Temporary Work (Skilled) (subclass 457) visa for people working in visual effects. In April 2017 the Government announced the 457 visa would be abolished and replaced by a new “Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa” in March 2018. Ausfilm warns that this change will negatively affect VFX companies and calls for an alternative to mandatory police checks for time critical occupations and the reinstatement of a salary exemption for English language testing. Apparently there is also some uncertainty around which occupations the new visa will cover.

The Australian Screen Sound Guild (102) voiced its concern about global broadcasters and production entities bringing in overseas personnel to work on, for instance, media coverage of sporting events, rather than employing highly skilled Australian personnel.

The Australian Directors Guild (97) talks of the need to address “unfettered access” to Australia by foreigners directing Australian commercials.

Intellectual property and copyright law

Many submitters reject some of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s review of Australia’s intellectual property system, arguing that protections must not be watered down.

In a letter signed by co-chair and co-CEO Graham W Burke, Village Roadshow Ltd (29) says the commission’s report ignores the real world and adopts a flawed concept of copyright that colours and prejudices its findings and recommendations. Territorial restrictions are fundamental to getting films financed, and he strongly endorses the submission from the Australian Film and TV Bodies (90), which represents distributors and exhibitors and urges the Government to increase its commitment to protecting the rights of creators and fighting piracy.

For movies with a budget of $3-6m, territorial rights represent just 10% of the total budget, and almost half of that share comes from the licensing of the Australian distribution rights,” reads the submission. “For movies over $15m, the share represented by territorial rights increases to 22%, with 87% of that portion coming from international distribution rights across the rest of the world. This effect is illustrated even more clearly by looking at some specific projects. Movies like The Dressmaker (40%), Lion (71%) and Nest 3D (57%) all attracted a well above average share of their total film budgets through the presale of territorial rights.”

The Australian Directors Guild (87) says directors should be granted an inalienable right of remuneration for the ongoing exploitation of their films through copyright ownership in their films.

Other selected recommendations

  • A government fund just for commercial films should be established, the endgame being to boost private investment. “Currently government investment includes a range of projects which are not necessarily aimed at purely commercial success,” reads Submission 11 (name withheld). “This dilutes the investment record.” Several mourn a time past when private investors were incentivised to invest in film and get tax breaks.
  • Cinemas should have to show a certain percentage of current Australia films to “de-risk distribution and encourage investment”; or price Australian films lower than others.
  • Several submissions mention that regional expenditure should be enshrined in Screen Australia, ABC and SBS funding. Screenworks Northern Rivers (12) notes that the majority of the top 100 Australian features of all time were made in regional areas or are stories set in a regional landscape.
  • The Australian Major Performing Arts Group (93) wants the Government to recognise and act on the interconnections between the theatre and screen sectors. More incentives for developing stage adaptations – which were shown to perform well locally in recent research – would help. So would annual story development forums across both sectors.
  • Both the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (123) and the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (146) are clamouring for support, particularly given the axing of the Australian Interactive Games Fund. The ACT Screen Industry Association (65) backs them: “These adjustments (allowing television to get back 40% via the PO and expanding the PO to games) should come with safeguards that ensure the benefit of this increase remains with the small businesses that need this leverage the most.”
  • The Australian Screen Sound Guild (102) and others call for fast broadband networks. “Even the highest speeds of the current NBN technology are a long way from those required for working in the digital film and television industry.”

Many quote Screen Currency, a summary of the key findings from two studies about the economic and cultural value of the Australian screen sector commissioned by Screen Australia. The studies were by Deloitte Access Economics and Olsberg · SPI. Professional Film Crew Of Western Australia Inc (39) recommended another report by Olsberg · SPI: Building sustainable film businesses: the challenges for industry and government.

Again, the deadline for submissions to the Review is 21 September 2017.