May 2006



By Peter Craven
Has the Australian film industry lost its way?

It’s the first night of the Steve Sewell play It Just Stopped and all the faces from Australian film and television are on show, almost as if it’s a rollcall. It Just Stopped is the work of the man who, when he was resting from his engagé theatre work, wrote The Boys, that grimly compelling film about low-life starring David Wenham and Toni Colette. The play features the wonderful Catherine McClements, Marcus Graham of Good Guys Bad Guys fame, and the much-loved John Wood, the Blue Heeler who never won a Logie. It’s directed by Neil Armfield, who has just finished Candy, an adaptation of Luke Davies’ novel, with Heath Ledger in the leading role. Armfield comes into the theatre with a tallish bloke in a blazer: it’s the actor he’s most close associated with, Geoffrey Rush, who won an Oscar for Shine.

When Mel Gibson, the man who had acted in Waiting for Godot with Rush many years before, handed him the Academy Award, he said, “I always knew you had it in you.” There was the perception not so long ago that when it came to film and television – which, after all, form the permanent record of a nation’s dramatic soul – Australia was a country that had it in itself, that delivered the goods. It’s only thirty years since the Bazza McKenzies and Storks were succeeded by Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Devil’s Playground. Remember Phil Noyce’s Newsfront and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant? And it’s only just over twenty years since sumptuous miniseries like All the Rivers Run. We sat captivated by films such as The Man from Snowy River, a bit of heritage laced with a lot of entertainment.

How long is it since David Williamson, one of the shapers of a new idiom for the Australian theatre, wrote Gallipoli for Peter Weir and the young ‘Australian’ Mel Gibson, who took the world by storm in Mad Max? Weir’s closest thing to an Australian film in recent times was Master and Commander a couple of years back, in which Russell Crowe played Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, captain of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, with an Australian accent. An Australian crew led by cinematographer Russell Boyd, who won an Oscar, brought to life that international swashbuckler.

Much has been said about Crowe’s latest attempt at Australiana, of course: the ill-fated film of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus that was scheduled to be made with Nicole Kidman and Geoffrey Rush, and was to be directed by Jocelyn Moorehouse (who directed Crowe years ago in Proof). Eucalyptus, that abortive might-have-been, is like an emblem of the thing that seems to be slipping from our hands: the dream of an Australian film and television culture that might mean as much to us, or more, than whatever comes to us – as a cultural and commercial inevitability – from Hollywood.

The decision in the late ’60s by the government of John Gorton, at the urging of such enthusiasts as Barry Jones and Philip Adams, to establish an Australian film industry has led to a situation where some of the world’s bigger stars have come up through the Australian system – Gibson, Kidman, Crowe; most recently, the 26-year-old Heath Ledger, with a towering performance in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain – and yet Australian film and television culture is in a state that everyone is inclined to describe as ‘parlous’. The insiders tend to think it is in a state of crisis, that it is actively imperilled.

Is it a panicky optical illusion? If you talk to the most powerful man in Australian film funding, the charming Irish-born Brian Rosen, head of the Film Finance Corporation, he’s inclined to tell you it is. “Look, the reality is that if each year we had a Lantana nobody would be questioning the industry.” Well, maybe not – but in any case, we don’t. And you have to wonder about a cultural industry where some of the big-timers are as alienated as they seem to be now.

Every so often at a Melbourne first-night you’ll see the hawk-like countenance of the man who has one of the highest reputations in the industry, Fred Schepisi. On 1 March he was at the opening of Ray’s Tempest to see his daughter Alexandra perform with William McInnes and Geneviève Picot. Schepisi is the man who found a cinematic idiom for the Australian Catholic childhood in The Devil’s Playground and for the image of Aboriginal resistance burning across a colonial Australian setting in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. He is a man with an international reputation who commands respect in Hollywood and whose most recent work, the miniseries Empire Falls for HBO, starring Paul Newman and Ed Harris, won a Golden Globe Award.

Well, Fred Schepisi, veteran film director and master craftsman of the cinema, wants to make films in Australia again and so far no one, least of all Brian Rosen’s Film Finance Corporation, has made it easy for him. His project, for a film about Vietnam veterans, was knocked back at the script development stage by the FFC assessors in a way that Schepisi found deeply disconcerting, and that also confounded those who would like to see a director of Schepisi’s stature making films in his home country.

The sense of malaise touches every aspect of film and television culture. You don’t have to go to many first nights in Melbourne to catch a glimpse of Sigrid Thornton, the woman who has dominated Australian TV drama from lavish miniseries long ago through to Seachange, one of the most popular series ever to appear on national television, and beyond it, to her appearances – she burnt a hole in it – in the ABC’s MDA. Sigrid Thornton, “the great Australian star”, as Kenneth Branagh called her, whose face, as a young woman, is said to have captivated Steven Spielberg.

Thornton starred in another potential Australian TV series last year, Little Oberon for Channel Nine. The miniseries doubled as a pilot, and Thornton, playing a woman with cancer, gave the performance of her career: scathing, cool, savage, but with a depth of feeling beneath. The critics weren’t keen on Little Oberon but the viewers’ reaction was very positive. Despite strong indicators of an audience for the show, the network now headed by Eddie McGuire pulled it.

These instances point to the problem with the Australian film and television industry. Everyone who thinks there is any chance for Australia to produce films of artistic value that will attract a general audience wants Fred Schepisi to be able to make films in Australia. Everyone who thinks there is a hope in hell of Australian TV drama producing something that could hold a candle to Desperate Housewives and Law & Order is likely to think – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, after all – that Sigrid Thornton should be part of the equation.

Schepisi and Thornton are top-of-the-tree players. They each have a vested interest in the industry – they certainly have a creative stake – but they don’t, in the narrow sense, need the money. Schepisi would cheerfully earn a fraction of what he earns in the US to direct here. Thornton, when she did The Blue Room on stage here a couple of years ago, broke records for a play simply because of the audience her presence guaranteed.

They both believe that there is a crisis in Australian film and television, and that it’s a cultural crisis. “It is the bleakest I have ever seen the industry,” Thornton says. “It is born out of a very difficult situation internationally, but anyone with any length of experience in this area – and I’ve been working in it since I was a kid – would probably say that it’s the worst they have ever seen.”

We’ve come a long way. Anyone growing up in the postwar period in Australia saw little enough film and television with a genuinely Australian accent until the ’60s, first with TV cop shows such as Homicide and then with knockabout ocker comedies such as Stork, directed by the pioneering Tim Burstall. His son (and Sigrid Thornton’s husband), Tom Burstall, the independent film producer, points out that the first phase of Australian film-making – after John Gorton made the government commitment to developing a local industry – was supportive but free. “You borrowed the money and you paid it back when you made money. I remember Tim made Stork partly by putting up a couple of Arthur Boyd paintings as a guarantee.”

Burstall says that it was partly the reaction against the “dreadful” vulgarity of the ocker comedies that led to the next phase of Australian film-making – backed by such bodies as the South Australian Film Corporation, which produced that wave of early ‘classic’ Australian films. “That was when they decided to make films that explored the Australian past. Picnic at Hanging Rock; The Getting of Wisdom. In television, For the Term of His Natural Life. They were period films and this is when you started to get the federal and state film bodies coming to the party.”

So there was an initial period of populist film-making, which was followed by a period of consciously artistic films focused on Australian history that touched a popular nerve and achieved wide acclaim. These, in turn, influenced the lushly produced ‘period’ miniseries like All the Rivers Run, which, in financial terms, were made possibly by the notorious 10BA ruling that allowed people who invested money in Australian film a 150% tax deduction (subsequently whittled down to 133%, 120%, and then 100%, when it ceased to be any sort of incentive). When you talk to film people there is a deep ambivalence about 10BA. There is a popular perception that, as well as enabling many good films, the incentive led to rorting and the production of a large number of mediocre films.

“It naturally attracted the used-car-salesman types,” Tom Burstall says. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing in film-making, which is entrepreneurial and requires a wide range of skills. The answer is nowhere near as simple as to say that everyone rorted. Treasury closed it down because government always wants to put a cap on things and a tax incentive like this has no cap. That’s why we now have the Film Finance Corporation, because it can set limits.”

Burstall has a hankering for the old days of the Australian Film Commission and the state funding-bodies. “The decision-making was more direct between the funding body and the practitioner. And the decision-making boards were dominated by practitioners. Now the federal government has created a larger bureaucracy who are there to work out how you account for the money. The old system was operating with a much smaller community and it allowed for a lot of cross-pollination because the directors were on those boards. Our industry has inevitably splintered into different segments.”

Burstall also emphasises that both directors and stars who have international careers can only work in Australia by taking a cut in what they earn. “Funding bodies put a cap on the producer. If they don’t have distribution they won’t get the money back. People have to come way down on their fees.” He points out that this has not stopped all sorts of people from making films here.

The presence of a star – even one as famous as Russell Crowe, and even if the film gets presales as a result – will not guarantee distribution. “The best actor in the world is not going to guarantee that. Look at The Passion of the Christ: Mel Gibson had to bankroll it himself. And what the Australian film industry has to deal with is that its films are perceived as foreign arthouse films.”

Economies of scale can never be luxurious when it comes to films produced in a country such as Australia, Burstall says. “With a population of twenty million people, if you’re producing films for eight to ten million dollars that have to compete with American films and English films, then the Film Finance Corporation is not going to be in a position to help produce very many of them.” Hence the idea of ‘chook lottery’ films that don’t require big budgets and big stars.

The other complicating factor for the film industry is the state of Australian television, which is producing very little drama. The ABC has notoriously, and shamefully, gone from producing hundreds of hours of TV drama in any normal year to producing almost none in 2005. Some estimates go as low as three hours. (It seems to depend on whether a series such as MDA is included in the figure.) Certainly the telemovie The Silence, shown in April, a crime movie in two parts directed by Cate Shortland, replete with wobbling cameras and swallowed dialogue and Richard Roxburgh in the lead, is one of the only pieces of one-off ABC TV drama in recent memory.

Then there are the commercial TV networks. “The commercial channel conspiracy theory,” Tom Burstall says, “is that the only reason the commercial networks produce drama is that they are forced to under the regulatory licence, which is granted by the taxpayer. And they are not acting in the spirit of that licence because they are constantly going to the government and saying, let’s pull the fraction of Australian content requirements down … It has nothing to do with what the audience wants,” he argues. “Blue Heelers was doing very well. The audience wants it, but the network can buy an American show for a fraction of the $500,000 it takes to produce an hour of Australian TV drama. They can do reality TV; they can do sketch comedy.”

Then there is the free trade agreement with the US, which is blatantly in the interests of the American monolith, along with the pressures of payTV and the DVD market. “The way we’re going, television is only going to be watched by retired baby-boomers and little kids,” Burstall says. In his opinion, Australian television is allowing its culture to dry up for the sake of a quick buck. “They are rorting it, the commercials. Every European culture has its own drama. It’s not a good reflection of our own society. We’re creating our own Idaho here.”

It certainly seems like a very private Idaho indeed that has no time for Fred Schepisi, who was encouraged by the Film Finance Corporation to ask for assistance from the ‘evaluation’ door of Brian Rosen’s famous two-door system. The film Schepisi wants to make, ‘Uncertain Fate’ (from a novel by Graham Brammer), is about one of the last SAS patrols in Vietnam. “The story involves a funeral and a suicide,” he says. “It’s a powerful story and it seems, just at the moment, pretty damn relevant.”

Schepisi explains that he was encouraged by the FFC; he was wined and dined and told that the project was desirable and promising – and that the corporation wanted it. However, he was eventually knocked back and, according to reports, Brian Rosen declared, “You can’t fund everything,” as if one of the more celebrated directors in Australian history were simply another hopeful with his hand out.

“I sat there during the phone link-up being asked such trite and trifling questions that my wife was telling me I should put the phone down,” Schepisi says. “The assessors, Bridget Ikin and Tait Brady, decided not to put it to the board for funding. They asked me questions like: ‘In the war sequences you often seem to get lost in the battle scenes. You cut between the war and the peace scenes. Won’t this interrupt the emotional flow?’ Well, you know, when you’ve spent your life doing something and you specialise in it ...

“Then I was told that there had been two waves of war movies and there didn’t seem to be one happening at the moment, so what did I think I was doing? This was despite things like Kokoda [the new Australian film by first-time director Alister Grierson that stars Shane Bourne and William McInnes].” The old warhorse’s voice is full of incredulity and withheld anger as he recalls his conversation with the assessors. “I’m sure it wasn’t done with any ill will. I’m sure they thought they were acting with all due diligence. But I just don’t get it. I mean, this can happen with studios, too. But obviously someone reading a script is reading it with their imagination and, as a film-maker, you are using yours. And if you need this script to go where you’re going, then you’ll do it. If not, why the hell would you be doing it at all?”

In other words, don’t try to tell Fred Schepisi how to suck eggs when it comes to making a movie. “I don’t really understand the assessors acting as if they’re a studio,” Schepisi says. “They’re a government funding-body and I find it weird that this project could be usurped by an assessment body’s desire for something commercial. In fact, it’s this kind of thing that destroys the possibility of commercial success. It’s a government organisation looking at one’s script, that’s what I don’t get.”

Schepisi tries to exhibit patience. “One always has to be careful in these matters that you don’t just let your ego get in the way, but when every young actor in the country is clamouring to get into the film it’s very odd.” He is conscious that Brian Rosen’s two-door system will allow him to come back to the FFC again when he finds funding elsewhere, but with Fred Schepisi there is a sense of an artist who is frustrated with a world that has tied itself in red tape. There is also the frustration of the old achiever who doesn’t feel especially welcome back home. “I went away because I couldn’t keep putting my own money in. And you imagine that if you go overseas and you get an international reputation that it will make it easier when you come back here, but it doesn’t.”

He, too, longs for the days when 10BA was a genuine incentive. “It got rorted a bit here and there but it was open; nobody was judging it in advance. At least people were making what they wanted to make. After that we got the FFC with their belief that the producers were all-important and that they had to control these rampant creative idiots. But the upshot can be that hardly anyone has the chance to direct a second, let alone a third film.” Schepisi stresses that worldly wisdom in film tends to be fool’s gold. “Nobody knows what will make a film successful.” He disputes the current wisdom that films simply sell to an audience through their stars. “Did Mel Gibson make Mad Max or did Mad Max make Mel Gibson? Obviously it was both.”

Now the skills-base that made the successes of the ’70s possible is being eroded. “Our technicians at least had a training ground in commercials. Then they took out the requirement that commercials had to be made in Australia and they took out the whole base – it’s shattered the whole industry. No wonder the ABC’s down to a few hours’ drama and the commercial channels have gone to cheats, to reality TV shows. You can’t expect to produce films under these circumstances.

“You have to have confidence in who you are. We have an attitude that is revered around the world, a certain irreverence, an openness to many things – in business, in art. Do we want simply to get absorbed by the Big Culture, by America? I’m not saying we should eschew America, but we also owe a lot to the Europeans … There is a cost to those things in Australia, a cultural cost. You know, if our film distributors and our commercial networks really did invest in our culture, they might find it paid them back. If they really invested in people who knew what they were doing they might be surprised at how much money they made.”

Sigrid Thornton agrees with Fred Schepisi. “I think it was William Goldwyn who said, ‘No one knows nothin’.’ No one knows what is going to guarantee commercial success in film and television. Certainly not riding on the back of previous success. Sequels rarely succeed.” She is dismissive of the commercial logic that says people no longer have a need for Australian television. “If you talk to people in the street and ask them if they still want to see Australian television, the answer is a resounding yes.” For Thornton, part of what constitutes the crisis in Australian film and television is a matter of how much we produce. If – as with the 10BA scheme – we are producing, say, fifty films a year, then the chances of producing three or four outstanding films is much higher. “Whereas if you produce fifteen films and even the best two or three are not very good ...

“It’s important that creative work be surrounded by other creative work. What’s happening at the moment puts a tremendous pressure on every individual work. In the longer term there’s no cross-pollination between film and television. We know that what happens when something is successful, when things are on a roll, is hard to quantify. At the moment in Australia, with less production in both commercial and critical terms, there’s a relatively low success ratio. In the US, because there is such a large output, there is the perception of a relatively large amount of success. We need the resources for greater creative output.”

Thornton maintains that the lack of aesthetic or bureaucratic constraints with 10BA were, in some ways, benign. “The fact that it was private enterprise meant that the process was in some ways more organic.” She also points out that the climate helped television. “It was a very good way of getting high-quality television. The commercials are [now] very reluctant to take risks. You know with Seachange – which was knocked back [by the commercial networks] – that was a programme that carried crossover viewers to the ABC and the commercial channels tried to bring it back.”

Thornton deplores the fact that in drama the ABC appears to be in radical decline. Budgets have been slashed and there have been serious questions about the broadcaster’s priorities. She does believe that the relatively recent appointment of Scott Meek, as the head of drama, augurs well. But Thornton, who’s fearful of the implications of the free trade agreement with the US and the digitalisation of Australian television, sees plenty of room for pessimism. After all, Sandra Levy left the ABC because she couldn’t get what she wanted and then, just recently, she spat the dummy as the head of drama at Channel Nine.

Still, Thornton believes absolutely in the market for television drama. “I don’t believe that the commercial-network policy of taking no risk with drama is a good policy. It strikes me as penny-wise and pound-foolish. It mystifies me that the networks have no grasp of the fact that when Australian dramas work they work like stink. There seems to be enormous goodwill that does not translate into dollars. I don’t think that makes commercial sense. Think of the huge amount of money they could have made out of Kath and Kim.”

Thornton addressed the National Press Club about these matters recently and she’s hopeful that the ground might shift. She sees no reason why there should not be broad bipartisan support for the film and television industry. “We used to be told that the case for a national film industry should not be made along cultural lines. That’s not the only defence that can be taken but that’s part of it. What’s that line from the Joni Mitchell song: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’?”

Has it gone? Is it fading fast? It’s a question that Brian Rosen, the head of the Film Finance Corporation, might be a little sick of, because he’s so intent to rationalise what we have. Is he happy with the decision about the Schepisi project? “Yes,” he says shortly, but adds that of course he wants Schepisi to make films in this country. “We are a government organisation and therefore we have to attend to all sorts of criteria that naturally – and understandably – bring the wrath of God down on us.” Does he mind the accusation – it’s the accusation of Schepisi among others – that the FFC acts like a studio? “I think the worst accusation was when I was called ‘Film Bulgaria’. No, I don’t mind being told that we act like a studio.”

Rosen says – with a charm that radiates friendliness, even if the song it sings sounds like a cash register – that Australian film can never have the lion’s share even of its own market. “Hollywood controls 73% of the world market, which means that Australian film must compete for the remaining 27% with the rest of the world – and that includes the independent Americans, films like Lost in Translation.” And, in fact, Australian film does very well within that market.

“There’s the distinction that has to be made between the film that puts bums on seats and the niche-market film. Some people thought Wolf Creek, with its low budget, its youth audience, was shocking and exploitative, but it did very well. Little Fish – despite Cate Blanchett – did less well. Look Both Ways – despite being about death and having no marquee names – did very well.”

He’s also coolly iconoclastic about ABC TV. “The ABC gets quite big money. It mystifies me how they are unable to do ten or so hours’ drama a year. Perhaps,” he says acidly, ”it’s because they only think about the matter from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon.”

Apropos of Fred Schepisi’s worries about the technical side of the industry, Rosen says, “There’s still quite a lot of production. Even for Big Brother you still need crews.” But he’s aware of the difficulties for the commercial networks. “There is a shortfall for the commercials and it has to be seen in the light of the impact of cable, the internet, the whole thing.

“And there’s the fact that Australian TV drama was once better. The money put into American television is now in the order of $2.5 million per hour of drama. Which in turn is related to the fact that a television show is no longer allowed to establish itself over a year. Add to this the different kind of production that operates here [compared with] Britain or Europe. Neither film nor television [in Australia] is defended by the imperative of language – of hearing dialogue written in the native language – that operates for the Europeans.” There’s also the protectiveness and cultural self-confidence of the British tradition. “In Australia unfortunately we legislate for how much Australian content. In the UK they legislate for how much foreign content.”

Brian Rosen came to Australia when he was 21, 35 years ago. He produced Fern Gully, which Disney took to Hollywood, and then in the US he produced that sparkling Roald Dahl extravaganza James and the Giant Peach. If he is the gatekeeper in a country that still tries – as it must – to keep its government support for film and TV culture, he sounds a worldly and humorous one. He emphasises, in his crisp way, that it can be a little unfair to pit the present crop of Australian films against the famous films of the ’70s. “Yes, things were very vibrant. The first thing to remember is that it was a renaissance. It was also the case that they produced about five films a year. And only a quarter of the number of people were employed in the industry.”

He won’t be fazed by Schepisi’s complaints. “I’m sure Fred’s film will come back to us and then we’ll fund it.” Rosen’s is an impressive voice, notably lacking in pomp and circumstance, and rather calm, under the circumstances, as he contemplates the storm and fury of a cultural asset that, rightly or wrongly, is perceived to be in jeopardy.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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