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The Drama Report: a record has been smashed

Foreign films pushed up activity, TV hours have shrunk over time, local film numbers have grown, and there’s a lot of tangled threads.

In the most recent financial year, 46 new home-grown television drama shows went into production in Australia – and another 13 were made for children.

Here’s a taste of what was included: the 34th series of Neighbours; the seventh of Offspring; second seasons of Cleverman, The Wrong Girl, Here Come the Habibs! and Rosehaven; and a new version of the book that spawned the classic film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Also during 2016/17, 41 new Australian feature films started principal photography.

They included: Winchester, which saw legendary actor Helen Mirren take up residence in Melbourne for a while; the directorial debuts The Butterfly Tree and Rabbit, which had their world premieres at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August; Warwick (Samson & Delilah) Thornton’s devastating Sweet Country, which premiered in Venice in September; and zombie film Cargo, which premiered in Adelaide in October.

Cameras also rolled on 22 Australian dramas for online distribution. Many were relatively inexpensive in comparison to traditional formats.

Twenty-nine foreign productions undertook some filming or post-production in Australia too including: the US films Aquaman, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming (post); the US soapie The Bold and the Beautiful; the seventh series of Game of Thrones (post); and two projects from China.

All this and much more is contained in various spots in the newly-released 2016/17 Drama Report. Screen Australia’s research department has crunched numbers since the 1980s, the first report was published in 1990 and they’ve been produced annually ever since. What catches the eye immediately in this edition is that there was a lot of big spending.


Overall drama expenditure in Australia in 2016/17 totalled nearly $1.3 billion. For the previous four years the figure hovered between $830 million and about $870 million. It’s not just that a record’s been broken; it’s been smashed.

(Bear in mind that there’s a lot of other types of production made in Australia including documentaries, reality television, commercials, news and sport.)

The money was spent on drama in Australia, not on Australian content. Principally foreign films fuelled the record. Foreign film and television together accounted for $610 million or about 48% of the total. Most recently the five-year average for foreign material was about $335 million per year.

The 2016/17 foreign film boom is very beneficial for building infrastructure and skills, for facilities and post-production companies, cast and crew, and the whole Australian economy.

"If they’d dug just a little bit deeper into their wallets, foreign investors would have met half the total cost of the (Australian) feature slate last financial year."

There is very little direct positive impact on local production companies – unless they have a service company role – or on the key creative triumvirate behind Australian film and television, that is writers, directors and producers.

The boom will not necessarily be repeated because shifts in the value of the Australia dollar and the level of financial incentives available elsewhere in the world can greatly impact Australia’s attractiveness as a location. Also, nothing guarantees that foreign producers will turn to Australia. In contrast it is guaranteed that a certain amount of local film and television will be made each year because of television quotas and the existence of government agencies with funding.

The potential for foreign production to plunge dramatically from one year to the next is best illustrated between 2007/08 and 2008/09 when expenditure fell from $252 million to just $21 million. It would happen again if the government decided to suddenly drop the discretionary financial carrots it waves in front of Hollywood.

Those who value Australian culture may not care but culture and commerce have a habit of rubbing up against each other in film and television and those people may not understand the commercial benefits of offshore production. They also may not know how much offshore investment the local film slate can attract.

Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Taika Waititi and Jeff Goldblum on the <em>Thor: Ragarnarok</em> set / © Marvel Studios


There are significant differences between who pays for Australian film and who pays for Australian television drama. They’re not surprising to those who know the business but that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting to explore.

If they’d dug just a little bit deeper into their wallets, foreign investors would have met half the total cost of last financial year’s feature slate (p 9, Drama Report). Half! That level of investment is not always the case but it’s also not unheard of. Their contribution to all 41 Australian films that went into production in 2016/17 was about $160 million or 47% against the five-year average of 43%.

Big contributors included the Hollywood backed Peter Rabbit and the official co-productions Maya 2: The Honey Games (Germany), Mary Magdalene (UK) and The Longest Shot (China) – the nature of co-productions is that they are financed from both within Australia and offshore. Some domestic titles attracted significant attention too but naming names would be breaking confidences. In all, 23 films got some level of foreign money.

In contrast to film, it was Australian free-to-air (FTA) and subscription operators that put up at least half of the total money spent on drama destined for watching only on small screens – including content for children. Add all the other Australian investors and about 80% of total television expenditure came from within the country. Most television is predominantly aimed at local audiences after all.

Australian commercial FTAs and subscription platforms are forced to pay up because of quotas or expenditure requirements and encouraged to by how popular Australian television can be. Each new Drama Report both fits a mould developed over decades and adds new types of data to marvel at. This year there’s a fascinating not-seen-before table (p 20) that shows that the commercial FTAs, essentially three major operators, committed $107 million while the ABC and the subscription players (including subscription video on demand) each put in about half that much. SBS’s contribution was $6 million.

(The figures in the table raise interesting questions around bang for buck – and whether bang equals quantity or quality, a topic raised shortly. First release platforms only are included. For the record Netflix contributed finance to shows that went into production in 2016/17 but not to any that it will get to show first – but that is set to change in the current year.)

Like broadcasters, film distributors and cinemas play an intermediary role between the makers of content and audiences, but for film. Distributors and cinemas in Australia are not subject to regulation and, when it comes to tipping in money before cameras roll, are practically missing in action in comparison to small screen distribution platforms. Platforms, distributors and productions companies are lumped together in the Australian film/TV industry category in the table below.

Sources of finance for all the Australian film and television drama that went into production during 2016/17

The figures in brackets are five-year averages.

FOREIGN INVESTORS 47% (43%) 20% (17%)
GOVERNMENT * 37% (five-year average 40%) 23% (22%)

Note: this table is adapted from those on pages 9 and 17 of the Drama Report.
# Television includes drama made for watching only on the small screen, including online. It also includes children’s drama.
* Government includes direct funding and tax offsets.

Another kind of investor is the Australian taxpayer. Whether they like it or not, they are significant contributors to film and television (37% and 23% respectively) via government agencies and via tax rebates, in particular the Producer Offset (PO).

The agencies as a group put less into film than into television in both dollar (roughly $30 million and $40 million respectively) and percentage terms (8% and 9%).

Once the offsets are claimed and paid through the Australian Tax Office, however, all the government money going to the 2016/17 film slate (nearly $130 million) will exceed all that going to television and online drama (about $100 million). That’s because the PO is worth more to producers when applied to film than to television.

Australian private investors are the remaining category of investor identified in the Drama Report and as the table above shows they’re clearly more interested in features than television. Their overall contribution is low in both instances but nearly 70% of features received some contribution from this source whereas only 6% of the television and online drama titles did.

Given that foreign investment in Australian content has been much discussed here note that the total cost of the whole film slate was $343 million and about $60 million (17%) was spent abroad. Splitting out children’s drama gives a clearer picture of what’s happening in television and online drama: children’s content was worth $100 million and 52% was spent abroad; the rest cost $325 million and a tiny 1% was spent abroad.

Jessica Marais stars in <em>The Wrong Girl</em> Jessica Marais stars in The Wrong Girl


The drama report is all about measurement and it can be a vital resource in setting policy that will keep the industry and its output ticking along.

When viewed in the context of policy, the report prompts a lot of questions. Here’s an example relevant to what’s been discussed so far: does the government want foreign rather than Australian production to continue to drive growth? Here’s two more questions: how much Australian content is needed for cultural reasons and should more importance be placed on quality because Australians are spoilt for choice and have access to the best of what’s available worldwide? But how do culture, quality and also popularity and quantity overlap?


The differences in the amount of film and television going into production from one year to the next can be startling. It’s already been shown how five-year averages are used to address these inevitable annual rises and falls.

Excluding children’s, the 46 television dramas from 2016/17 together amounted to 457 hours of viewing, equating to about 75 minutes a day for one year. During each of the last five years hours have ranged between about 402 and 502 and averaged 456.

Frankly, last year seems par for the course in the context of the last 10 years given that the previous five-year average was about 480 hours. Not so if you step back further.

During the five years up to and including 2001/02, again excluding children’s, an average of 676 hours went into production each year, there was never less than 600 hours per year and the annual total twice exceeded 700 hours (1997/98 and 2000/01). In other words, Australians have lost 200 hours of television drama a year in the space of 20 years.

(The hours of children’s drama produced has remained steady in comparison.)

Should the loss of hours be mourned or, as Screen Australia chief operating officer Fiona Cameron believes, should present-day output be applauded because it’s better made, more interesting and more varied than in the past – and therefore better equipped to compete against the masses of material now available via extra television channels and new online services.

(The Drama Report has this year included an additional 27 hours of drama made for iview, YouTube, Stan and so on – in addition to the 457 hours – but it’s a drop in the ocean when compared to what’s flooding in from around the world.)

Making any content that no one bothers to watch obviously delivers nothing – except it might help keep businesses afloat. Trying to work out the degree to which government funding should lean towards encouraging quantity, popularity, quality and/or cultural value is diving into a can of worms; so is deciding how they all relate and which policy settings best deliver what. And then there’s budget.

"Australians have lost 200 hours of television drama a year in the space of 20 years."

Most recently, five-year average expenditure has been about $295 million per annum compared to about $235 million 20 years ago but, as mentioned, there’s now about 200 less hours of content a year. Clearly television has become much more expensive to make. What has that delivered?


The drama report uses five-year averages to smooth out the year-on-year film bumps too. The 41 Australian films that went into production in 2016/17 represented three more films than the five-year average of 38 and were responsible for about $285 million being spent in Australia, about $35 million more than the five-year average.

Going back 20 years, while the number of films made hasn’t taken a dive as the hours of television drama being made has, it would be dubious to claim steady, significant growth even though the most recent five-year average shows an upturn. There were 29 films made on average annually between 19997/98 and 2001/02 then – five years by five years – 27, 35 and, most recently as already noted, 38.

Over the same period expenditure in Australia due to the local film slate has doubled. The annual averages – again five years by five years – have been about $130 million, $140 million, $240 million and, most recently, about $285 million.

Very noticeable in 2016/17 was that nine Australian films were made for more than $10 million. Never before has there been so many.

Proportion and number of films at the two ends of the budget range over time

(five-yr average)
(five-yr average)
(five-yr average)
< $1 million 23%
(8 films)
(8 films)
(9 films)
>$10 million 9%
(3 films)
(5 films)
(5 films)

Note that the further back the figures go, the slipperier they are.

Is having more bigger budget films a good thing? Of the films studied in this research those that attracted the most Australian ticket sales were usually higher in budget than the average. But bigger budgets can also mean more money is at risk and the research as a whole shows budget is just one factor when looking at the bottom line. The situation can be more complicated when Australian films get a lot of Hollywood money thrown their way: they can be depended on to do well in local cinemas but if Hollywood is backing them it might mean they’re not overly Australian stories – think of the latest films from George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby) for example. That said such films inject lots of cash into infrastructure, individual pockets and the Australian economy.

Maybe it’s best just to wait the two years or so it will take for the nine well-resourced 2016/17 films to be released so that their quality, popularity, cultural value and success can be judged.

Here’s a random observation to end on: the $1.3 billion spent on making film and television drama in Australia last financial year was about the same amount that Australians spent to see movies at the cinema in calendar year 2016. Unfortunately though, US films sucked up 84% of that box office revenue (see here). If only it wasn’t so.

Pictured: on the Thor: Ragarnarok set / © Marvel Studios; on the Cleverman series 2 set