Australia news

Australia can double screen production to $4 billion a year; but first you have to believe


March 27, 2022 – Sydney Morning Herald Opinion Piece by Paul Muller

Government has been consulting on how best to support the Australian screen industry for some years now, and some contributors to this discussion claim that without further Government action, a sharp decline is unavoidable.

The data doesn’t support that view. Screen production activity in 2020/21 reached all-time record-levels, with more than $1.9 billion invested across both domestic and inbound production. In December 2021, the Producer Offset for non-theatrically distributed Australian stories increased from 20% to 30%, triggering so much activity that Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason asked producers for patience as his team work through a glut of applications.

But the best news is found beyond big headline numbers; we no longer have two separate worlds – one where Australian stories are funded with Australian money at lower production budgets, another where big Hollywood studio productions with massive budgets bring big international stars to Australia. Now these two worlds have amalgamated to form one seamless continuum. Australian stories now secure more funding from the international market than they do from home, and Australian production companies are developing big global hits, using the international Location Offset and Location Incentive programs.

What excites me is seeing the cutting-edge virtual production technology trialled on the Location Incentive-funded La Brea, then used to stunning effect on the ABC’s Fires.

What excites me is seeing Clickbait – a show created and filmed in Melbourne become a global hit on Netflix, with a budget most Aussie shows can only dream about.

What excites me is seeing US cable channel FX finance a truly Australian show, Mr. Inbetween.

What excites me is Nicole Kidman bringing Nine Perfect Strangers to Byron Bay, and Toni Collette bringing Pieces of Her to Western Sydney.

What excites me is Baz Luhrman’s Elvis movie filmed on the Gold Coast, and Dr. George Miller’s Mad Max Furiosa now shooting in Sydney and around Broken Hill.

But excitement alone won’t get us to where we need to go. We are victims of our own success, giving rise to unique challenges which we need to address if we are to achieve our full potential.

Soundstages are booked solid, and the convention centres used for screen productions during lockdowns are no longer available. The capped nature of the Location Incentive creates too much uncertainty for much-needed new studio space to go up quickly enough. There are skills shortages in most screen departments which need to be solved urgently.

Let’s be frank, who would want to swap out such challenges for a parallel universe where the Australian industry was not in demand, existing studios sat empty, and crews departed our shores in desperation for work?

Some voices in industry assert that streaming services should be compelled to invest in Australian stories. Unfortunately, this only sends one clear message to the world; we do not think we are good enough for you to want to invest here.

But more importantly,  economical analysis shows that protectionist measures for the screen sector don’t work. They reduce exports and investment. South Korea took bold steps to creat ‘Hallyu’, the Korean Wave, one of the world’s best examples of cultural export success. They reformed local cinema screen quotas, strengthened their copyright laws, protected South Korean content beyond its own borders, and invested in screen production incentives. The benefits of that approach are clear now, from the dominance of Korean TV soaps across all of Asia, to Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite, and now the worldwide Netflix hits Squid Game and All Of Us Are Dead.

Instead of talking about protecting local stories from inevitable disaster, or about international production having ‘a moment’, we should be emulating that approach.

Our goal should be to double screen production investment to $4 billion a year with shows that showcase Australia’s incredible talent in front and behind the camera, to Australian audiences, yes, but also to audiences around the world

But to do that, you first have to believe.

I believe in Australian stories. I believe in Australian directors, writers and actors. And I believe in Australian crews. Do you?

Paul Muller is CEO of the Australia New Zealand Screen Association.