In February 1983 the Australian Film Review launched amid a boom in local production. The fortnightly publication would go on to become Encore magazine and report on the turbulent years of the screen industry. As Encore – which is now part of the same media stable as Mumbrella – celebrated its 30th anniversary last week, Brooke Hemphill looked back on the history of the publication and the industry it reports on.
In 1983 Greg Bright had an idea. The Australian film industry was experiencing a boom due to the introduction in 1981 of a tax rebate known as 10BA. Bright, an assistant editor at the Australian Financial Review, had been charting the film business for some time in a regular column that appeared in the paper. He decided to go out on his own and launched a fortnightly magazine with a similar name to the paper he wrote for. He called it the Australian Film Review.
Bright says: “I took one of the Financial Review journalists with me, Beth Quinlivan, and a couple of others and we started. I hadn’t ever done anything on my own before – I’d always worked for either Fairfax or News – so that was a big learning experience, but because of the climate, which was one of a mini boom, the magazine did quite well.”
The tax rebate at the time afforded film-makers a whopping 150 per cent rebate in the year that the film was made. As a result, 35 to 40 films were being produced each year although, as Bright explains, the quality of the work was fairly average. “There were some great movies made but most of them were straight to video fare,” he says. The greatest criticism of the tax rebate was that it incentivised the producer to go into production as soon as possible when a rewrite or two of the script would not have gone astray.
At the end of each financial year, producers would find themselves scrambling to secure the necessary funding to make their film.
“Every June 29 there would be a mad rush to try and get investment and lodge the required forms with the tax office for the next year,” Bright explains. “We had to work pretty much 24/7 in the last few days of each financial year trying to find out who got the money and what films were likely to be made the following year. It was like reporting on election night.”
The early system was also open to rorts. Bright recalls one particular film-maker who managed to wrangle a luxury car out of his production. “I remember a story about one producer which became folklore. He bought a Porche for $120,000 and he was making a movie for about $5m to $6m. He rented his Porsche to the movie for $10,000 a week for 12 weeks which obviously paid it off,” says Bright.
At the time of the magazine’s inception Joseph Skrzynski was head of the Australian Film Commission. He was succeeded by Kim Williams in 1984 and Bright says the organisation’s support of the publication was invaluable to its early success. Williams, now boss of News Limited, says: “Encore was a central communication vehicle for the production community – remember there was no internet back then and the fax machine was ‘hi tech’ – so I had the view we should use it to communicate very actively, with an open door policy to some pretty frisky relentless questioning and also to offer lots of advertising and, from time to time, other financial support.”
The Film Commission was one of three advertisers that helped to bankroll the publication in its early years. The other two were Atlab – Channel Seven’s then in-house film lab – and camera hire company Samuelson Film Service.
Subscription made up about a third of the magazine’s revenue. Trading for $79 for a 12-month subscription, the first editions were around 20 pages, put together by a team of six journalists.
The front cover of the first edition included an article endorsing the then opposition party, Labor, for the next federal election off the back of a series of film friendly promises including the advancement of a 100 per cent tax deduction for marketing expenses surrounding a film. There was also news of established playwright David Williamson’s plans to direct his first feature film, The Perfectionist, which premiered four years later but without Williamson at the helm.
Inside the magazine, video rental figures were listed provided by the now-defunct Warlords Video chain. Gallipoli was the number one rental for the fortnight to February 9.
But the Australian Film Review didn’t keep its name for long. In 1984 Bright purchased a clubland magazine named Encore.
He says: “I wanted its advertising contracts so I merged that in with my magazine, kept the name and that’s about all I kept.”
The must-read feature of Encore was the production report, which listed every film that was in planning, pre-production, production and post. And the report led to the introduction of the Encore directory, a listing of production contacts which would help to keep the magazine afloat for years to come.
Bright says: “The Encore directory started because people used to annoy us by ringing up all day long asking for phone numbers so we thought we’d just publish a book for our own benefit.”
Garry Maddox, today The Sydney Morning Herald’s resident film writer, was Encore’s second editor taking over from Bright as he focused on publishing. Maddox refers to the period as the “cowboy times” on account of the generous tax break.
“A wide range of film-makers got to make one film,” he says.
During his tenure, Crocodile Dundee, the highest grossing Australian film of all time, was released. He recalls writing the first story about the project after a tip off from its star Paul Hogan. “I was talking to Hoges on the set of ANZACS, the miniseries he was doing, and asking about his other film plans. He said: ‘Well, actually I’ve got this film which we’ve written about an outback kind of guy who goes to New York’. It sounded like quite a good idea,” says Maddox. He visited the Kakadu set where producer John Cornell was talking up the film but says he could not have predicted its success.
He says: “It was almost breathtaking how successful the film was and how it continued on and on. In recent times we remember those box office figures for Avatar. It was even more striking with Crocodile Dundee because it was a homegrown film taking this incredible money and people were responding to it so well. I can also remember interviewing Barry Diller, the studio boss, when he came to Australia some time afterwards and he said something that I hadn’t heard before which was that five studios turned the film down. They’d seen the finished film but they turned it down because they didn’t believe it would work. When it came out, it and Top Gun were the two biggest films of the year.”
Bar the film’s sequel in 1988 and Strictly Ballroom in 1992, which took $21,760,400 at the local box office, few other Australian films fired in the late 1980s and early 90s and by 1988 the 10BA tax offset had been reduced from 150 per cent to 100 per cent.
In the early ’90s Bright purchased a television and radio magazine called Broadcast which he folded into Encore, allowing the magazine to extend its reach to all screen content.
When Encore celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1993, Bright threw a lavish bash at Sydney restaurant the Bayswater Brasserie. The who’s who of the industry turned out to toast the publication. Sandy George was editor of the magazine at the time and now reflects that the event was a sales pitch for the title.
“It was a massive night and Greg booked out the entire premises. We were all astounded by his generosity. And then within a very short time, we were sold. So obviously he was using that to kind of boost the profile of the magazine so he could get a good price,” says George.
ENCORE’s NEW HOME
In 1993, Bright sold Encore and several other magazines he also published to business-to-business publisher Reed, now known as Cirrus Media. It was an emotional time for the magazine’s creator. “The film magazine was always my love – my first love, my first magazine. And it was fantastic, but film people tend not to be very good at business as a rule and so it was hard to get your bills paid.”
It was also an interesting time for the staff of the magazine. George says: “We were a tiny little company based in Surry Hills and there were three magazines including Encore and probably 15 staff. We were sold to Reed which had around 24 magazines and more than 100 staff. And it was at Chatswood. So it was a culture shock like you wouldn’t believe.”
Flicking through the issues of the magazine George edited between 1989 and 1994 she says: “It feels like deja vu. On one hand, nothing has changed. It was an industry very dependent on government financing and policy and content rules were being reviewed, government agencies were being reviewed. It was hard to get private investment. SPAA conferences were looking at how to get into the US, producers and networks were fighting about terms of trade. But on the other hand, I do recall feeling like I was the editor of a magazine writing about an industry that was a small national film industry with an emphasis on culture rather than commerce. Any dreams about making money from film was a bit naive back then whereas now I feel as though we are much more part of an international film industry.”
Miguel Gonzalez, who took the reins of the magazine several years later, agrees the same issues plague the industry now that have for years. He is now at the National Film and Sound Archive where he has been tracking the history of the industry even further back.
He says: “Looking back at old issues of the magazine and looking back at other magazines that came before it such as Cinema Papers from 1972 and 1973, many of the issues they talk about, I was talking about during my time at Encore. It seems like many of the issues and challenges are cyclical. There seem to be the same questions that have no answers.”
And those recurring issues? Gonzalez says: “The philosophical question of whether Australia should be supporting an industry that promotes culture or entertainment – accessible films versus cultural arthouse films. Supporting Hollywood films coming to Australia – how much support should we be giving them? Finding the right financial support for the industry. How much is being invested on development and marketing?”
THE END OF AN ERA
While the issues remained the same, the industry and the magazine were about to go through another major change.
In 2007 the 10BA tax offset was replaced by the Producer Offset. The following year the Australian Film Commission, Film Finance Corporation and Film Australia merged to form Screen Australia and at the end of 2009, Reed offloaded the struggling Encore magazine to Focal Attractions. At the time of the sale, advertising sales were almost non-existent. Subscription sales had declined dramatically. There was no digital strategy to speak of. Every edition published was losing money.
Gonzalez moved with the magazine from Reed and for the first time since its launch, the magazine and the directory which had supported it for many years now had separate owners.
Also gone were the days of five or six journalists working on the title. For at least a year, Gonzales was the only full-time staff member working on the publication.
During his tenure, the Australian film industry had a much-needed hit with Red Dog which went on to take $21,467,993 at the Australian box office.
At the end of 2011, Encore magazine saw a dramatic redesign and relaunch with an extended reach covering everything content creation from film to radio, print, online and TV.
The title continued to lose money and the end of 2012 saw its final print edition as the magazine upped its frequency to weekly and became digital tablet only.
In February this year, the magazine was made available on Android tablets as well as the iPad.
For those that saw the birth of the magazine and the boom in the screen industry of the 1980s, there is sadness but also a sense of pragmatism that the Australian screen industry is where it is today.
Bright says: “I do feel saddened by the lack of money in the industry. I’d like to see a different form of incentive program introduced. The one issue which has been constant for the industry is that it has only ever attracted private money. Investors are high net-worth individuals. It’s never attracted corporate money from professional investors like superannuation funds.”
Gonzalez says: “Everyone thinks they have the best idea and everyone wants to get that idea funded and there will never be enough money for everyone, no matter what policies you have to support the industry.
“There will always be people who miss out. There will always be people who make a name for themselves and so it might be perceived that there are favourites in the industry that always get funding.”
George is more upbeat and feels the local industry needs to have a least one hit each year, which it has managed with The Sapphires and Red Dog in recent years. She says: “I feel pretty confident about the Australian film industry at the moment. I think we’re kicking goals despite the worldwide economic doom and gloom.”
Bright is not so sure. “I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe Australia will never have a big, robust film industry.”
This feature first appeared in the tablet edition of Encore. To download click on the links below.