An Open Letter on the State of the Australian Film Industry (preview)
July 31, 2009
The following is going into the MUFF X catalogue (with maybe minor alterations). We will then be inviting people to sign it online at: muff.com.au and then we will send it to the various Ministers and funding bodies, etc. Thoughts? Suggestions? You have to Sunday night to make them…
An Open Letter on the State of the Australian Film Industry
Drafted by Australian filmmakers, industry practitioners and cinema-lovers
August 1, 2009
As members of the Australian film industry we can no longer sit idly by and watch our nation’s cinema continue to slide into critical and commercial obscurity. The Australian Government’s bureaucratic infrastructure is failing the Australian film industry, and it is unaccountable to anyone for its failure. It invites feedback, but does not listen to it, and thereby proves itself unaccountable. Its lack of response to criticism when change is so obviously needed and should be actioned is symptomatic of this unaccountability. We need new ideas for innovation, rebirth and vitality in the Australian film industry. We need to stand together, and be counted, in support of real change in the local film industry and culture, and to bring new ideas to bear on a system that has been out of control for many years.
We demand change in the Australian film industry. The changes we suggest are canvassed below.
The current, perpetual crisis in Australian film has been well documented by the Australian media. Much coverage has been afforded to the crisis on network television and in the country’s newspapers, most notably in The Age, whose film critic, the courageous Jim Schembri, has tackled the debate head on. The issue of industry failure has also been covered in alternative/grassroots venues and publications: the Melbourne and Sydney Underground Film Festivals, The Bazura Project on Melbourne’s Channel 31, the world-renowned cinema journal Senses of Cinema, and countless cinema blogs. Two independent documentary projects about the Australian film industry crisis are currently being produced: Into the Shadows and Nothing but the Struth. Last year, Film Victoria even held a summit on the crisis called Mindshift.
Needless to say, we have seen no actionable changes.
The industry crisis has also been the subject of much obloquy in private discussions, not only between filmmakers and industry insiders, but also among members of the general public; those people who, faced with the decision between seeing an American film at the cinema and an Australian one, will doubtless turn to their partner and say: “Better not risk it.” These people want change: they want a dynamic and exciting Australian film industry.
And we, the undersigned, think it is long overdue that we gave it to them.
Australian filmmakers, industry practitioners, cinema-goers, and the mainstream and underground media are all in agreement: there is major problem with our film industry that needs to be addressed at both state and federal levels.
The issues concerning what to do about the continuing failure of the Australian film industry have been hotly debated. From these debates a consensus for action has been forming over time, and its broad outline, and our demand that it be acknowledged and addressed, is the reason we have compiled this document.
We wish to outline twelve steps, like those of Alcoholic’s Anonymous or some other recovery program, to wean Australian filmmakers and the funding bodies off their addiction to unentertaining, uninteresting, unworthy movies. We insist on change in the Australian film industry: even if only six of these twelve steps were to be actioned, it could well lead to a Renaissance once again in Australian cinema, and not a continued fall from grace out of the world cinema spotlight and increasingly towards critical insignificance.
We make these suggestions humbly, and with the hope that it open channels for real discussion and actioning of these matters, that can follow the tabling and publishing of this document. We wish only to encourage, foster and make possible change in the Australian film industry.
Our demanded agenda for change is as follows:
1. Genre and Commercial Filmmaking. It is suggested that many, many more genre films be produced in this country; more, indeed, than sensitive, politically correct ‘art-house’ fare that has been force-fed to the public since the end of the 80’s. By genre we mean horror, action, sci-fi, crime, comedy and erotica. We believe that an embrace of genre filmmaking at the higher levels of film financing and government decision-making will see those who work within the Australia film industry embrace ideas of profitability and marketability, especially beyond our shores. We want a national and international cinema of genre that embraces commercial values and has distinct markets in mind for the product.
2. Accountability. For to long in the Australian film industry the people who make the decisions for the yearly flops and failures are not in any way held accountable for their failures. There exists a professional class who somehow consider themselves beyond the failure or not of our film industry. Given that they purely exist at the behest of our national cinema, this situation should be promptly corrected. The names of board and committee members behind funding decisions should be added to the credits of government-funded films, listed there as either executive producers or, even better, precisely what they are: the persons responsible. That way, massive flops and errors can be publicly traced to their source. Similarly, ongoing reviews of the decision-making standards of the various boards and committees should be initiated. The same accountability should be applied to failed directors and producers who haven’t had a hit since the 80’s.
3. Supporting the alternative industry. The most popular and successful Australian films are very often those that no one in Australia sees. They are privately funded and tend towards either low-budget Ozploitation filmmaking or difficult experimental, avant-garde and documentary work. These films are confronting, both locally and internationally. A new fund to support such already-established and emerging independent talent is required. It is necessary to reward that which is daring, confrontational and relevant. Rethinking and rebooting Indivision with a much more daring brief, state and federal funding bodies must combine in their efforts to establish a $5 million fund. This fund should make seven to ten $500,000-$1 million features per annum, selected by a regularly rotating board of Ozploitation, industry and genre luminaries. Australia could produce eight to ten new low-budget features yearly, with that number to expand as their commercial success becomes self-evident. The aim? To get new blood into the film industry each year. While not all of these films will work, many will. Not all will have to be Ozploitation. Indeed, some should be avant-garde works and more challenging art films than are currently produced. From The Horseman to The Ister, anything is possible. We must turn work around quickly and cheaply with an ear to being inventive and innovative.
4. Reward talent and success. Any filmmaker who enjoys a commercial or critical hit should immediately receive funding for their next project, which is to be produced within twelve months. The budget for this second film must be significantly higher. The era of successful filmmakers languishing in development hell for a decade must end.
5. More money invested in the promotion of Australian films. The establishment of an office within Screen Australia that will promote Australian films both locally and internationally is required.
6. An end to political correctness and “Australian content” prerequisites and biases in both the industry and in funding bodies.
7. A celebration of the diversity of techniques available to filmmakers. From low budget guerrilla films to large budget and special effects movies, all film forms musts be celebrated.
8. A change in industry methodology. There needs to be a cultural shift within the funding bodies that sees them move away from their currently prescriptive role to one of discovery. Instead of imposing upon the industry their own prejudices and biases, both about cinema and otherwise, film finance bureaucrats must learn to search for new ideas, styles, marketing and distribution opportunities; learn to recognise innovation; learn to celebrate diversity by allowing for a slate of pictures than embrace all budgets, genres and approaches.
9. Getting distributors involved in the process of selection and approval for new productions. This is key and would be greatly assisted by provisions making in necessary to devote part of a film’s budget to be spent on helping to promote Australian cinema more broadly.