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Podcast – Official Co-productions

Screen Australia's Tim Phillips and Colleen Champ discuss the ins and outs of Official Co-productions.

Tim Phillips and Colleen ChampTim Phillips and Colleen Champ

Tim Phillips is the Head of the Producer Offset and Co-production Unit at Screen Australia and Colleen is Co-productions Manager. Here they are talking all things Official Co-productions with journalist Caris Bizzaca.

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Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca  I'm Caris Bizzaca, welcome to the Screen News podcast. Today I am joined by two of my colleagues at Screen Australia. So we have Tim Philips who's the head of the Producer Offset and Co-production Unit and Colleen Champ who is the Co-production manager. So thanks for joining me. 

[00:00:23] Tim Phillips Thank you. 

[00:00:24] Colleen Champ Thank you. 

[00:00:25] Caris Bizzaca So I was hoping to chat today, just a bit about Official Co-production from your perspective and to get an idea of some the positives and some of the challenges. But I suppose first of all Colleen, what is an Official Co-production? 

[00:00:40] Colleen Champ Ok, so an Official Co-production simply means it is a production that's made under an agreement that Australia has with another country. So we have 12 agreements with other countries. Look at our website. They are Treaties or Memorandums of Understanding. And basically they're just international agreements. And what they mean is that the two countries have come together and decided how can we put in place a framework that will benefit both countries, facilitate filmmaking, and get the maximum resources, and be both a cultural, creative and a financial collaboration between the countries. That's an Official Co-production, so if you hear someone saying Official Co-production it means it's made under an agreement, or if it's not made under that agreement essentially for our purposes its just an unofficial co-production. 

[00:01:49] Caris Bizzaca And so what would be some of the big benefits for an Australian producer if they're thinking about doing an Official Co-production for the first time? 

[00:02:01] Tim Phillips Well, there's creative benefits and there's financial benefits. So a creative benefit for being a Co-production with filmmakers from another country is that you can share and benefit from the experience and talents of those those filmmakers. So for example you might pair up an Australian directer with a great script that's written by an English screenwriter or French screenwriter or German screenwriter. So you can basically collaborate internationally with other creatives from around the world. The financial benefit is that different countries around the world offer different benefits to support filmmakers and when you get certified as an Official Co-production you can benefit from the incentives in both those countries. So for example Screen Australia exists to assist with Australian films whereas in Canada they have other incentives for Canadian films. Being an Official Co-production technically means you can benefit from both the Australian incentives and the Canadian incentives. 

[00:03:10] Caris Bizzaca Can you give me a brief outline of what Screen Australia's role is when it comes to Official Co-production? 

[00:03:17] Colleen Champ So if a project is an Official Co-production that means it's made under the arrangement. Each agreement sets out the parameters for how the film can be made and also each arrangement will nominate what's called a competent authority in each country and that competent authority are the ones who manage the program and actually certify a project as a Co-production. So in Australia, Screen Australia is Australia's competent authority. So what our job is to do is to look at a project when it comes in, make sure it satisfies the treaty, make sure it satisfies our guidelines (Screen Australia's guidelines) and then we liaise with our counterpart competent authority in whatever country and then together we make sure that we're satisfied that it meets all the criteria and then we will certify it as a co production. 

[00:04:13] Caris Bizzaca I feel like you would have to deal with a lot of timezones. 

[00:04:13] Colleen Champ The other night I spoke to South Africa and the UK at 7.30pm, so there you go. 

[00:04:13] Caris Bizzaca A typical Monday. 

[00:04:13] Colleen Champ It was a Monday night actually (laughs). 

[00:04:13] Caris Bizzaca And so Tim, the treaties that Australia has with these different countries, it's not the same across the board, so the treaty with China would have different criteria to the treaty with Canada. Is that right? 

[00:04:47] Tim Phillips Yeah that's right. The fundamentals of all of them are very similar. But there is a little bit of devil in the detail. For example Australia has a co-production treaty with China. It is a co-production treaty that covers feature film or telemovies but it doesn't cover television series for example whereas the Canadian agreement does cover television series. Everyone is a little bit different but the fundamentals are basically the same, which is that the creative contribution to the film should be proportionate to the financial contribution that you raised from each country. So let's say you raised 40 percent of the finance from Australia and 60 percent of the finance from Germany, for example, if it was an Australian and German Co-production then you would expect equivalent creative contributions from Australians and Germans on that project. That's basically the main underlying part of Co-productions is that the creative contribution matches the financial contribution. 

[00:05:53] Caris Bizzaca And so Coll, from my understanding you deal a lot with producers ringing up and they have questions about the process or the part of the process they're at, and you would also field some of the questions that people have about the challenges that they're going through or some of the hurdles that they're facing. What are some of the big ones that come up most when it comes to Co-productions? 

[00:06:18] Colleen Champ I think the big ones are people actually trying to find a partner [in] very, very early stages and they're trying to work out which is the best pathway to go. As Tim mentioned the benefit is finance and so from Screen Australia's point of view it's actually getting perhaps direct funding from Screen Australia or the Producer Offset and there's two ways to get the Producer Offset being an Australian film or an Official Co-production. So they're some of the first things people are thinking about, what's the best pathway, do I have the right partner? But another one actually is that there might be a disqualifying element to the film that they may be even unaware of so they might have a project that's got a US scriptwriter for instance, which would be a problem in any treaty co-production. 

[00:07:08] Caris Bizzaca You can't have a US screenwriter? 

[00:07:08] Colleen Champ We don't have a treaty with the US. And basically if you think about it, what the Co-production program is and the agreements between each country, the two governments of that country have come together to go right how can we maximise the resources and the benefits for our two countries. So the whole point of having a Co-production agreement say for instance between Australia and the UK is to benefit Australia and the UK. And it's very prescriptive in who can be involved in the making of that film and generally speaking they have to be from either Australia or the UK. So there are some exceptions with cast and perhaps location filming but non-party involvement is not allowed. So yes that would be a problem. So one of the things people might be dealing with is they might have a project and then realised down the track, we've got a a US producer involved or something like that. So they are some of problem areas and things that people are thinking about early on, or need to be thinking about if they're not. 

[00:08:10] Tim Phillips Or a US writer or any non-party writer might have done a draft of the script for example. And that just offends that provision in most of the treaties which says that the filmmakers involved in making the film have to be from one of the two countries. So if you suddenly have someone from a third country who is inherently connected to the project that can become a sticking point with co-productions. You can possibly find solutions. You can sometimes do threeway agreements. Let's say the original proposal was for an Australian-Canadian film and you found out that an English script writer did a previous draft, well perhaps you can structure it as a three way arrangement between Australia, Canada and in the UK. You can have three way agreements, you can have multi country agreements. Where you get into trouble is when there's someone who's not party to an agreement with Australia, such as the US. 

[00:09:15] Colleen Champ So that's the advice we always say to people, 'come and talk to us early'. Another thing might be also is just trying to meet the minimums as well. So you might have a project where, and it goes back to that one of the fundamentals of the Co-production is balancing the finance and the creative. And in looking at that each competent authority has their own way of testing that that's satisfied. So Screen Australia has got guidelines but each competent authority has their own guidelines. So when we look at say the creative contribution for instance we're looking at the spend on Australians and then we're also looking at the key participants who are Australians. So there might be a project where the producer might have trouble matching the finance say with the creative elements as well. So that's just that juggle. 

[00:10:07] Caris Bizzaca That's how there has to be a certain percentage of Australians working on the production. Is that correct, when you're saying they're creative side of it?

[00:10:16] Colleen Champ Yeah it goes to that in each of the treaties or the Memorandum of Understanding it'll have a minimum finance and creative contribution that each partner needs to bring and usually it's 20 per cent in some it's 30 percent. So if it's 20 per cent then that means what we'll be looking at,  from Screen Australia's point of view is making sure that the Australian filmmaker/producer, their finance and their creative is reasonably in proportion and the way we test the finance is pretty obvious - we see what their contribution is and we look at that as a percentage and then we look at the creative. And with creative we're looking at those two limbs if you like: we're looking at the spend on Australians and then we're looking at the key crew that are Australians. We actually have a points test for that and that gives us a percentage so suddenly now we've got three percentages and they're the percentages that we're matching up, going okay right: is that finance percentage and the two creative percentages, are they reasonably in proportion? And this is where it gets either exciting or boring, however you want to look at it. But with the finance we allow some leeway. So let's keep it really simple - let's just say it's a 50/50 Co-pro. So that means the Australian producer's bringing in 50 percent of the finance. So from Screen Australia's point of view we'll allow those two creative percentages to be 45 percent. They can't be any less but they can be then over the 50 percent, that's fine. So that's the joys of Co-pros really, is juggling that percentages and that's something that a producer tracks from the very beginning all the way through to make sure that they're meeting that guideline requirement. 

[00:11:57] Tim Phillips And the creative percentage is calculated by a points test. So you get different points depending on which creative you're looking at. So the points test sets out basically all the key creatives on the film or at least the main key creatives on the film and allocates certain points to them. 

[00:12:17] Caris Bizzaca So do some creatives have a higher number of points? 

[00:12:20] Tim Phillips Yep. And really all you do is you just figure out which of those key roles is done by a national from which country and then calculate your percentage. So it's pretty straightforward and there's a small amount of flexibility in that if there's a particular role that isn't in the list that you feel is an important role to your particular film, you can mount an argument and say that this should be included in the points test. 

[00:12:51] Caris Bizzaca And Is this why there is a provisional certificate and a final certificate, or that has nothing to do with the kind of tracking...?

[00:13:03] Colleen Champ No, it's helpful. But under the treaty it's a two-stage process. Different to the Producer Offset, where with the offset the provisional is discretionary. You don't have to get a provisional certificate in the offset. It's helpful again perhaps. But for a Co-production you need to get a provisional and then you get the final. 

[00:13:17] Caris Bizzaca And what stages does that happen, is the provision always preproduction stage and final is always going to be after it is completed?

[00:13:26] Colleen Champ Yes. So for provisional in our guidelines we require it to be when a production is in preproduction, before it commences production. Some of the treaties specify exactly when you have to have your provisional by, but just good practice would be certainly before you're too far into pre because again you don't want to find out there's a problem and you're just about to go and start principal photography. So you get that at that time and then with final it's when you've made your film, your film's been audited, then you submit your application once your film's completed for a final and you get your final approval then. But both for provisional and for final has to be done in conjunction with the other competent authority. So it's joint approval under the treaty. So let's just say it's with China then we, Screen Australia, will be liaising with our counterpart the CFCC (which is China Film Co-production Corporation) so we will liaise and then when we're both happy then we both issue our paperwork to the producers. 

[00:14:29] Tim Phillips And obviously when you're making a film and you've got a provisional certificate as a co-production, you want to make sure that you're making your film in accordance with that provisional certificate because if at the end of the film the parameters of it don't match your provisional then you could find yourself in some trouble as to whether you get a final. 

[00:14:49] Caris Bizzaca Particularly if you're relying on that for the financing. 

[00:14:52] Tim Phillips Yeah. So for example like your creative split that you proposed at provisional stage, you want to make sure... Ok maybe the people you thought we're going to do those jobs at provisional stage aren't necessarily the same people, but you need to make sure that the split between the countries is the same as you proposed or at least is still a compliant split. 

[00:15:13] Colleen Champ Absolutely that's that manage I was saying about those percentages. That's a producer's job to track that very carefully. You can't just go 'oh great I've been approved now provisional so now I'm going to change Australian DOP to another nationality'. That would affect the approval because it's been based on that approval, given we've looked at that percentage of points and the people and the personnel involved and that's what the approval is on. So changes really need to come back to us before anything is made, just to make sure it's not going to offend the final approval. 

[00:15:45] Caris Bizzaca  Do you find that for the Official Co-production applications that come forward there is a variety of budgets or do they naturally lean towards a higher budget production? 

[00:15:56] Colleen Champ More recently we have got some bigger budget in - big budget feature films. There is a range. The documentaries-. 

[00:16:07] Caris Bizzaca So you can have much smaller budget Co-productions? 

[00:16:11] Tim Phillips There are smaller ones. Some people will say to you, oh you can't do a coproduction for under 3 million or something like that. We've definitely seen Co-productions under $3 million. Look the challenge of it is that you know when you're doing a low budget Co-production, yes there's probably a bit more legals involved; there's two production companies so you're now sharing your overheads; you're sharing your producer fees. So it does make it harder for I guess two companies to get a benefit out of a lower budget project but I think the thing out there that you shouldn't do it under a certain amount. I think if it works for you, it works for you and a lot of people just want to tell stories and get content made and Co-productions help that. So any budget scale is possible. 

[00:17:05] Caris Bizzaca And I suppose do you think that more Australian producers should be perhaps considering Official Co-productions. Do you feel like there's kind of a fear of the paperwork or you know that the project isn't a big enough budget, do you feel like there are these concerns in the industry? 

[00:17:23] Tim Phillips You do hear people say they're harder or they're more difficult. I don't know if I believe that to be honest. I mean I think the effort usually comes with the reward of being able to access an international talent pool and international finance. The great thing about being in Australia and being an Australian producer is that they have options and they have different pathways and some producers will choose to still finance their film as a solely Australian film but with some international elements. Some will choose to make it an Official Co-production so they can, as I said, access that international talent and international incentives. Some will use PDV Offset and I guess the fourth pathway is the Australian Government gives an incentive through the Location Offset for big budget international films. So you know there are different pathways. There's no right or wrong pathway. There's just the one that works best for that particular project, but I certainly don't think that any producers should be scared of embarking on a Co-production if it works for that project and we're here to help them if they choose that path. And we're here to help them actually... well we can't make that decision for them but we can I guess alert them to the possible pitfalls and problems and benefits of the different pathways. 

[00:18:54] Colleen Champ That's why those early meetings are really good because that's when you can sort of talk about possible structures and the pathways and also see if there's perhaps elements of the production that exist already that would actually already be suited on the pathway that perhaps the producer hasn't identified yet so. And yeah just on what Tim was saying, I think if people are scared they shouldn't be. I would say there should be more Co-productions, where it works. And I think one of the things is probably just actually finding the right partner. I think it starts from there as well. So you might have a project and ideas but I think for Australians the tyranny of distance as well, and perhaps knowing what markets to go to and where to source out potential partners. 

[00:19:40] Caris Bizzaca Then again well I think about now compared to when some of these treaties were actually organised, it surely is much easier than it was previously when flights were much more expensive, Skype didn't exist. 

[00:19:55] Colleen Champ That is true. 

[00:19:55] Tim Phillips You had everyone faxing their notes. 

[00:20:00] Caris Bizzaca Oh yeah, the faxes happening at one page every few minutes. And so you were saying that people should come to Screen Australia as early as possible - is one of the reasons for that because it can be difficult to retroactively make something Co-production if it's gone too far down a development phase? 

[00:20:22] Colleen Champ Yeah I mean you don't want to get a situation where you've contracted a non-party writer and then suddenly you go 'oh okay that person actually is contracted'. That's what I mean, so it's about identifying any possible disqualifying elements before you actually go and contract or go down somewhere. So people might come up to me and go 'oh we're thinking of this person or we're thinking of that' and then you can ask all the questions and that's the time to be doing that. 

[00:20:49] Caris Bizzaca And do you find, we were talking about budgets before, but do you find that there's also variety in terms of television, documentary, features or does it tend to lean towards one of those? 

[00:21:02] Tim Phillips There is a variety. Interestingly enough different countries tend to attract different types of projects. So the Australia-China treaty obviously covers feature films or feature length films so that's all that can cover. But most of the Australian-Canadian projects tend to be in the children's animation area, just because again of the strengths of I guess that relationship between producers and service providers of those two countries. I guess the rebirth of television and the increasing budgets of television series made producers look beyond their domestic markets to raise finance and that's what international co-productions are all about. So co-productions definitely aren't just feature films. A lot of producers are making significant television series using co-production arrangements. 

[00:22:01] Caris Bizzaca Yeah I mean a recent one would be Cleverman, because Australia-New Zealand co-production but also has that really huge international scope as a result. 

[00:22:12] Tim Phillips And again a good example of using the creative strengths of both countries with you know with Australia obviously bringing on its screenwriting talents and the amazing creature designs coming out of New Zealand. 

[00:22:28] Caris Bizzaca Oh yeah that's right. All the creature designs, I'm not sure if it was WETA? 

[00:22:33] Tim Phillips From WETA, yep. 

[00:22:34] Caris Bizzaca Is there anything else that you want to add? I mean do you have any big tips for Australian producers or any other bits of advice to give them?

[00:22:44] Tim Phillips I think it's helpful to try and team up with people who've done Co-productions before. Obviously you don't want to limit who you work with, just to those people but they they do remove the fear of the unknown because it does feel like there is this talk out there that Co-production are really hard. They're not really hard. You just need to I guess become experienced at the places where you might get tripped up. So teaming up with someone who's been through the process before I think is helpful, especially teaming up with a legal adviser who's done Co-productions before I think is helpful. 

[00:23:20] Colleen Champ I was going to say a lawyer is probably your best friend. 

[00:23:24] Tim Phillips Lawyers are always your best friend. 

[00:23:25] Caris Bizzaca And yeah it might not be necessarily partnering with those people, but even just getting some initial advice in the first instance. But there's a number of people who have made Co-productions, so why wouldn't you try and get that advice from them and perhaps people that could be executive producers or things like that to work with. So I think Co-productios just adds another layer perhaps of complexity so it doesn't mean that it's not doable. There's just a few more layers to it that's all. 

[00:23:55] Caris Bizzaca  Filmmaking is always complex, it just has that extra little bit. 

[00:23:58] Colleen Champ Yes. 

[00:24:00] Caris Bizzaca And I think for anyone that has further questions there's a lot of information on the website isn't there in terms of the different criteria...? 

[00:24:08] Colleen Champ We've got all the treaties and the MOUs on the website. We've got information about the different partner countries and what films have been made with those countries, which is really good actually because then you can go and have a look. Say you want to make a treaty, a Co-production film with China, then you can go on our partner website, look at China and then you can go on our Screen Titles database something like that and then you'll see the films that have been made under that treaty with China and then you can have a look at the people that were involved in that film and that will give you an idea maybe who you can go and talk to about your own film. So yes there is a lot of information. Our guidelines are obviously there. So I think we are happy to talk to anyone but it would always be nice if they've read the particular treaty or read the guidelines and then come and talk to us. We've also got a great tool called the eligibility tool which is an Excel spreadsheet and that's something you literally can sit at home and plug in the details and get an idea technically if you would be eligible. It obviously doesn't mean you're going to be a Co-production but it will tell you whether those points that we were looking at and the percentages all align. So that's a really valuable tool for people to have a look at and there's also another tool called the arrangements tool - that's another document where say you want to know the main points under the Canadian treaty then you can you can actually pull the main points out. So there is a lot of information on our website actually and we try and keep that updated. 

[00:25:40] Tim Phillips You'll find them in the document library part of the Co-productions page. 

[00:25:45] Colleen Champ I reckon the trick about Co-productions is actually finding where the stuff is on our website, personally. 

[00:25:51] Tim Phillips Click on Co-productions. Click on Document Library. 

[00:25:56] Colleen Champ There you go. 

[00:25:57] Caris Bizzaca A great starting point. Thanks so much both of you. I really appreciate you taking the time to have a chat. 

[00:26:04] Tim Phillips No problem. 

[00:26:05] Colleen Champ Thank you. 

[00:26:08] Caris Bizzaca That was Colleen Champ and Tim Phillips from Screen Australia's Producer Offset and Co-production Unit. A big thanks to them for joining us on the podcast for our first episode of the Official Co-production series. Remember to check out the Screen Australia website, which has a whole section on Official Co-productions with all the information Colleen mentioned and it also houses the Screen News publication with links to more episodes of this podcast as well as features, videos and more. I'm Caris Bizzaca, thanks for listening.