Making our own model
Australia should forget about modelling its film and TV industry on the US or UK. Soon they’ll be following our lead claims Lee Zachariah.
It’s a rite of passage for any budding film and television wannabe and every self-important media commentator to point at the enduring successes of the US and UK industries, and – with a tremor of incredulity at how nobody has thought of this before – suggest that Australia simply does what they do.
Why, they ask, does it always feel like we’re starting from square one? Why is the ABC not a brand like the BBC? Why don’t we have a local movie studio that could lure all of those big stars back home? Why am I the first person to think of this?
Naturally, we have moments of glory. Wolf Creek 2: The Legend of Mick’s Torso Collection has just entered production. Channel Nine’s Underbelly continues its unforeseeable success, even as it attempts to undercut itself with a series of increasingly silly subtitles (coming in 2014 – Underbelly: Can Haz Crime Noms?)
And yet each success feels like one we’ve stumbled across in the dark. The awards dolled out to The Sapphires at the AACTAs came across as not just a celebration of a fun, endearing film, but as a relief that something managed to engage audiences and make some money.
So, why is the idea of modelling our industry on a more successful one so absurd? When we tread down this path, we often forget the key differences between Australia and the US. The US has roughly 10 times the population of Australia, and necessarily more channels of entertainment. But even creating a one-tenth-sized Hollywood fails to recognise the fundamental truth of the US entertainment industry: America does not have an America of its own.
There is no three billion-population country looming over its shoulder and feeding it an unending stream of slick, refined content. American entertainment comes from America, and is then sold to much of the world.
A similar equation works with the UK, only that is three times our population, and underlines the fact that the film and television we don’t import from the US is often imported from the mother country.
Before we’ve even begun typing that screenplay or pitching that pilot, we already have all the cards stacked against us. Clinging to the government-mandated local content minimums, the best thing our industry can do is sit back and wait for one of those initialled countries to collapse. But before you sardonically respond with a ‘good luck with that’, like a pithy character in one of those Chuck Lorre sitcoms whose ubiquitousness is now only the second obstacle in a Hey Dad! reboot… we might not have long to wait.
As the BBC faces budget cuts from a Conservative government (despite a recent study from accounting firm Deloitte showing that for every pound of licence fee money the BBC gets, it puts two back into the economy), its numerous murder mystery mainstays are drying up. The ABC, whose lineup has long relied on a stream of quaint British bludgeonings, has had to put its own brand of Anglophilic detective tales into production: Miss Fisher’s Mysteries is proving a big hit, and The Dr Blake Mysteries has now premiered. Any day now, Michael Rowland will stop reporting on murders from the ABC Breakfast set, and instead rush out the studio doors armed with a deerstalker hat and magnifying glass.
The plan seems to be working. Miss Fisher and Dr Blake have already been sold to UK channels, in an apparent student-becomes-the-master situation.
A similar trend is happening in the US, although that country seems keener to supplant our accents and production values with their own. Stateside remakes of Laid, Rake and The Strange Calls are all on the cards from networks who have forgotten how badly they messed up Kath and Kim. The selling of remake rights is becoming such a standard practice, we are surely days away from Ben Stein hosting Fox News’ Ayn Randling. (‘The game show just got objectivismeder!’)
Perhaps the impossible is finally starting to happen, in the television world at least. As we begin to capitalise on low-cost, high-concept ideas that work in any culture, it may be soon be our industry that is used as the model.
Lee Zachariah is a writer and critic best known for ABC comedy program The Bazura Project and the film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. Find him on Twitter @leezachariah.