Please, No More Ocker Comedy Flops

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The election of the colourful veteran producer Anthony Ginnane as the president of the influential Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) just over a year ago promised to produce fireworks. And thus far he’s been happy to step up and light the fuses.

As a studio guest with Ginnane on Radio National’s Australia Talks last week, I was amazed to hear him listing the box office figures for past hits like Crocodile Dundee and Happy Feet before declaring that "here we are giving T-shirts these days to Australian producers whose films make a million dollars. They should be lined up and shot."

I assumed I misheard him: no representative of a peak film and TV producers’ organisation would suggest on national radio that some of his own members be lined up and executed for the crime of earning only $1 million at the box office — surely?

This week I downloaded the broadcast and listened again. There it was, clear as day: "They should be lined up and shot."

A drum roll and blindfold please for producers Melanie Coombs (Mary and Max, domestic box office earnings $1.4 million), John Maynard and Rebecca Williamson (Balibo, $1.3 million), and Emile Sherman, Steve Jacobs and Anna-Maria Monticelli (Disgrace, $1.1 million). One last cigarette, folks?

For all the attention-grabbing hyperbole, though, Ginnane is right that these films should have attracted much bigger audiences and box office figures. Unlike the SPAA executioner, however, I don’t think it’s necessarily the producers’ fault. These were all strong films.

The problem for our film producers — as opposed to those working in the relatively stable area of local TV — is that the industry is in deep crisis. Sure, the producers have been saying that for a few years now. But if they were right then, they’re even more so now.

Despite this year’s overall increase in domestic box office for local films, particularly Mao’s Last Dancer (last seen heading towards local earnings of $15 million), the marketplace for independent cinema, which includes most of what Australia produces, has collapsed around the globe. In the US, where many specialist-release production companies have recently shut their doors, producers have been squealing about the death of the old distribution and marketing model that has sustained the indie scene since the commercial breakthrough of Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989.

Everyone in the industry knows this is partly due to the global financial crisis — which pricked the bubble of overproduction caused by the influx of "funny money" from Wall Street for over a decade. What no-one really knows is whether the sector will eventually rally. My gut feeling is that it won’t. We’re undergoing a revolution in digital multimedia that has already upset all the old certainties about film production and audiences — and we will likely see more significant changes yet.

Ginnane’s solution to this industry crisis is clear. In his SPAA opening address he said that "we need to resolve once and for all the 40 year push/pull between art and commerce. Industry and government need to accept that this is a business, not a culture fest."

Trouble is that he is implying something which is blatantly untrue. Australian film funding support has long been mainly commercially driven — starting with the 10BA tax break system that endured for most of the 1980s. It continued with the federal government’s Film Finance Corporation (FFC), which lasted from the late 80s until about 18 months ago (when it was replaced by new agency Screen Australia and a producer’s tax offset of 40 per cent). FFC production funding was triggered when a project reached a minimum level of pre-sales from mostly private sources.

It is important to recognise that many of the failures of the local industry have been the result of commercial misjudgments — not only by the federal and state funding agencies, but also by private investors, distributors and filmmakers.

The recent over-supply of drab and worthy dramas that Ginnane rightly criticises was partly a market response to the success of Lantana — which showed that darker adult drama could be popular. Same goes for the disastrous string of ocker comedy flops that followed The Castle. These supposedly "more commercial" films bombed.

It’s dead easy to say we should make commercial films that large audiences like, but it’s much harder to actually pull it off.

In my mind, one obvious solution to the problem is to divert at least some federal funding away from feature film production to television drama (where, thanks to the massive success of Underbelly, we know there’s a huge potential local audience) and to new digital channels.

Would this spell death for quality cinema? Not exactly. Much of the adult audience has decamped to the small screen, which LCD, home cinema and digital technology has brought much closer to the cinema experience. US cable television drama is basking in a glorious golden period. Series such as Mad Men, The Wire and The Sopranos are sucking up the audience across a diverse range of viewing platforms — free-to-air, DVD, pay TV and illegal downloads. The same platforms provide cheaper and easier access to art cinema. There is no longer any need to physically visit the cinema — which isn’t cheap at around $16 a pop.

I was heartened to see Ginnane say in his SPAA address that "of course there is a place and a role for government to fund culture (including cinema)," adding that "it should be separate from and funded and judged quite differently to the sustainable commercial industry we need to create."

Next, however, he needs to tell us how this support might be delivered.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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