Government funding bodies are lazy and decadent, says industry veteran Michael Thornhill but in a piece that first appeared in Encore, Ed Gibbs begs to differ.
I vividly remember the time I first saw Animal Kingdom, David Michod’s breathtaking labour-of-love feature debut. The press screening was half empty, despite the film winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance just months earlier, in 2010. Yet its superb performances, stylistic flourishes and overall polish left me speechless. Could this really be a feature debut, an Australian one at that, I wondered, almost out loud? It seemed too good to be true.
I had a similar response when viewing Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown the following year and, just a few weeks ago, Kim Mordaunt’s beautiful feature, The Rocket. Like Warwick Thornton’s Cannes-winning Samson and Delilah before it, all these films point to a screen agency culture backing a fresh breed of film-makers (albeit ones well honed, in their thirties and forties).
The world has duly taken note.
I was puzzled, then, at last month’s Australian Directors Guild Awards dinner, to hear industry veteran Michael Thornhill sound off on the “sickness” that prevails in modern cinematic funding bodies. The former head of Screen NSW, a respected writer, director and producer in his own right (and a former critic to boot), claimed that TV writers are being hired to assess cinematic projects, and it shows. The room awkwardly applauded. Many were incensed.
When I spoke to Thornhill last week, he stood by what he said (although he refused to comment further on his blatant attack on Packed to the Rafters and A Place to Call Home creator Bevan Lee). He claimed Australia is “a philistine culture”, where “art and aesthetics and ideas” are not celebrated as they should be. He was dismissive of Animal Kingdom as merely “a vehicle for its director” and Jacki Weaver to flourish. He hadn’t even bothered to see Snowtown. Australia, he said, is making “DVD movies”, not cinematic ones.
In a modern, multi-platform industry, where fragmented markets offer challenges and opportunities in their own right, the wistful days of the New Wave – where the likes of Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford and Phillip Noyce flourished (as did Thornhill, to some extent) – are long gone. The world has changed. And so must its creatives.
I am unaware of the knock-backs Thornhill has had in recent years. He wouldn’t tell me, although he did brand the industry as “youth-orientated” and ageist. One of his best-known films, though, The FJ Holden, has been reborn on DVD, courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment.
Government-funded agencies exist for a very good reason. Unlike, say the US, we have the luxury of having them to ensure a local film industry can exist, even flourish. What we do need is to foster young blood – in writing, directing and producing – with more initiatives like Screen Australia’s Springboard and its Opening Shot scheme with the ABC. If there’s a “sickness” affecting the industry, it’s the lack of emerging voices coming through, particularly those aged 25 and under. Film and television crossed over long ago (take a bow, HBO). It’s high time we fostered a new New Wave.
Ed Gibbs is a film critic, journalist, broadcaster and curator based in Sydney.
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.