Australian audiences have always been avid cinema-goers and have enjoyed the varied international content that comes our way, no matter the quality, but for that same audience, Australian films are seemingly intolerable or at least deemed unsuccessful at the box office (Bowles, Maltby, Verhoeven, and Walsh, 2007). This leaves us questioning: If Australian audiences are so unenthusiastic about their own industry, what is the point in preserving Australian media content? This outlook however, fails to recognise integral role Australian film and television plays in contributing to the national identity and culture as a whole, which should outweigh the value placed on any sort of commercial success. The success of the Australian film and television industry both culturally and commercially relies on an accumulation of factors ranging from funding to audience engagement.
At this point in time, there is somewhat of a crisis surrounding the Australian film and television industry in which Burns and Eltham (2010) argue is deeply embedded in the history of Australian content funding models and government policy and their control over what projects are produced. There was renaissance of the Australian film industry in the 1970’s due to the introduction of the 10BA tax incentive model resulting in a ‘boom’ time and many popular films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Man from Snowy River (1982), as well as co-financed productions between 10BA and foreign studios such as Crocodile Dundee (1986). This period saw 95% of Australian content privately funded and a variety of genre films produced due to the film producers receiving a generous 150% tax concession in 1981, later lowered to 133% in 1983 and lowered again to 100% from 1987 to 2007. This is not to say the films were of quality, in fact this incentive was exploited by many resulting in a significant percentage of the films not making it to release. The 10BA scheme promised an improved financial infrastructure and audience share was at its highest in post-war history, but the high risk and low profitability of Australian screen production proved unsustainable and could never fully develop (Burns and Eltham, 2010).
After the 10BA era, direct funding from government agencies, principally Film Finance Corporation (FFC) which was formed in 1988, became a major source of finance for local media production during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The FFC acted as a film bank and was responsive and often advocated to the investment decisions of distributors, sales agents and television networks rather than the audiences themselves. By 2000, Australia was attracting significant levels of overseas production away other competing nations through their unique and competitive production incentives and subsidies (Burns and Eltham, 2010). Although Australian crews benefitted through these runaway productions, it was short lived as Hollywood embarked on a subsidy chance as Canada, Mexico and other US states offered their own incentives as well as Australian producers were competing for a small pool of allocated funding. The FFC eventually failed to generate commercial returns which were attributed to the overwhelming misjudgements of all parties involved from the funding agencies and investors to the filmmakers and distributors (Barber, 2009). This reform also saw Australian science fiction and fantasy phased due to budget constrictions as a resulting of this failure (Ryan, 2012). This then lead to return to Australian blockbusters and genre films following the implementation of the Producer Offset in 2007 and the amalgamation of the FFC, Australian Film Commission (AFC), and Film Australia into the establishment of Screen Australian in 2008 (Screen Australia, 2012). However, this monopoly over government funding in Australian film and television industry results in a selection of projects funded as long as they adhere to upholding significant Australian content outlined by Screen Australia (2012). These cross border, macroeconomic and structural factors involved in Australia’s film finance, film markets and project selection decisions could be an explanation for the current unpopularity of Australian cinema rather than the media narrative of poor local production efforts from a creative aspect Burns and Eltham, 2010).
A major hurdle facing Australian films and genre films is the development of a national identity. In order to succeed commercially, Australian films must not only contribute to the national identity identified by its citizens but also the general identity we established to appeal for a global audience. There is often a trade off when it comes to Australian films as our general identity is underdeveloped. There is a choice that is made in our current film model whether to contribute to the national identity and receive a relatively small commercial gain or to produce films that are more generic and lose that ‘Australian-ness’ to the point it is near unrecognisable as an Australian film in order to achieve a greater market or critical success opting for the more arthouse film creating an even more niche appeal domestically (Ryan, 2012).
In reflecting upon these past unsustainable funding models and inconsistent cycles of boom and bust within the industry, the Australian film industry is in desperate need of a rebrand and in doing so allocating funds towards this new brand of cinema in which Australian culture is celebrated through film and television both locally and internationally with stories that include both unique and reflective ‘Australian-isms’ without neglecting the wider global audience’s interest (Ryan, 2012). This could diminish the market success through not being general or ‘Hollywood’ enough for an international audience, however Australian content provides an incalculable value towards our culture that is worth exhibiting and preserving. Such films as Muriel’s Wedding (1993), Crocodile Dundee (1986) and The Castle (1997) are exemplary of those that succeeded commercially and successfully contributed not only to the culture but the Australian lexicon as well (Bowles, 2007).
Screen Australia as a government funding institution needs to re-evaluate what constitutes significant Australian content as they are neglecting culturally important stories and storytellers in favour of trying to achieve unrealistic economic success. Australian content creators are limited in where they can receive their funding and there are many stories that are deemed ineligible for funding and never make it to the screen. Perhaps a combination of both government and private funding is an alternative answer as there then is not just one overseeing financier in command of the production and placing more control back into the control of the producers and more input from the domestic audience on what constitutes significant Australian content.
Bowles, Kate (2007) “Three miles of rough dirt road: towards an audience centred approach to cinema studies in Australia”. Studies in Australasian Cinema. 1: 3 p 245-260.
Bowles, Kate, Maltby, Richard, Verhoeven, Deb, and Walsh, Mike (2007) “More than Ballyhoo? The Importance of understanding film consumption in Australia”. Metro 152: p 96-101
Burns, Alex and Eltham, Ben “Boom and Bust in Australian Screen Policy: 10BA, the Film Finance Corporation and Hollywood’s ‘race to the bottom’”. Media International Australia. August 2010, No. 136, p 103-118.
Ryan, Mark David (2012) “A silver bullet for Australian cinema? Genre movies and the audience debate”. Studies in Australasian Cinema. 6 (2) p 141-157.
Getting down to business: The Producer Offset five years on. (2012). [ebook] Screen Australia, pp.1-20. Available at: https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/getmedia/14380132-5665-4504-83c9-799b5b0cba4e/Getting-down-to-business.pdf?ext=.pdf [Accessed 19 Dec. 2018].