Our Film Industry Needs To Adapt


Earlier this month Screen Australia announced development funding for 10 feature projects as well as funding for five emerging filmmakers to help them make their first feature.

Screen Australia, as well as their state equivalents, gives out millions of dollars in assistance each year to aid the production of local content. Such funding is essential for the viability of the industry – chances are that most Australian films you have seen will have a credit to Screen Australia or another government body. But in light of the significant industry changes that are occurring across the globe is such funding still effective when it ignores an essential category of film – adaptations?

Screen Australia acknowledges their role to be:

“To support and promote the development of a highly creative, innovative and commercially sustainable Australia screen production industry.”

This role is vital to ensure the survival of film in Australia. Without such government assistance classics like Animal Kingdom and The Sapphires couldn’t have been made and the industry would have died long ago. While this funding ensures films are produced Screen Australia could do more to assist in the industry’s economic development.

The current funding model, used by both Screen Australia and equivalent state bodies, tends to focus on the first two goals mentioned above – creativity and innovation. This in itself is not a bad thing.

However this focus on creativity and innovation means that funding and those seeking it have become preoccupied with original content. Although this sounds like a good thing – ensuring vibrant and unique Australian content – it is doing a disservice to the industry and those creatives looking to enter the industry.

Australian film suffers in such a model because the global industry is shifting towards adaptations. The majority of films making big returns at the box office over the past decade have been adaptations.  Back in 2010, Iron Man 2 made US$324 million in its opening weekend. Just four days. This is a number that original films cannot hope to match.

They are missing the inbuilt audience.

Hollywood recognises that film is no longer an art form but a business – clamouring for an audience in an already saturated entertainment market. Why risk spending money on original content when you can ensure a healthy return on a franchise with an audience that already knows and loves your story?

For film to be, in the phraseology of Screen Australia, "commercially viable", it must attract an audience and the best way to do that is to have one already attached to the material. That is why adaptations are so successful and why the Australian industry is doing itself a disservice by not focusing on this category.

Our creative talent, in particular directors and screenwriters, are also suffering. On 4 March 2013 Screen Australia announced funding for 10 feature films. Of those 10 only one was an adaptation, The Seed based on a stage play by Kate Mulvany.

Later in the month Screen Australia announced the five projects selected for Springboard, the body’s initiative to develop emerging talent. Not one of those projects was an adaptation. Neither funding initiative has a focus on selecting adaptations nor funding specifically dedicated to the category.

This lack of focus on developing adapted projects is harming creatives because it sets them up for a career with a long time between drinks. Even Hollywood-proven directors struggle to create original content:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) had to wait five years until he made The Master.
  • Alexander Payne had to beg for seven years after making Sideways before he finally got to make The Descendants.
  • Alfonso Cuaron who made the provocative Children of Men back in 2006 finally got funding this year for his latest feature.
  • Guillermo del Toro still can’t fund his projects after making Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which won three Oscars and was nominated for a further three.

If these directors are struggling to find funding for their work, what chance does an emerging Australian director have?

These problems could be solved if there was a concerted effort by funding bodies to focus on adapted projects. Audiences and jobs would be created for the Australian industry, which often struggles to find both.

Of course we don’t have a bank of adaptations like Marvel or DC Comics but we do have adaptations that have been proven to be successful. From 2009 until 2012 the highest grossing Australian film in each year was Mao’s Last Dancer ($14 million), Tomorrow When the War Began ($13 million), Red Dog ($20 million) and The Sapphires ($15 million), respectively. All were adaptations.

Originality and innovation are key aspects of any art form and Australians should be proud that their film industry exhibits both of these traits. However, if Screen Australia wants to create and foster a commercially viable industry it should consider the dollar value attached to adaptations.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.