Mid-range failure must be addressed by either party: Screen Australia

Screen Australia CEO Ruth HarleyDr Ruth Harley, CEO of Screen Australia, says the industry needs help to address the lack of mid-range feature production – and it must be done regardless of who wins the election.

Plus, marketing manager Kathleen Drumm discusses the structure of her department and its relationship with distributors.

Ruth, you’ve openly said that mid-range features are in danger, and some distributors agree that this situation is also happening in the US. Now the Coalition has proposed a $60m fund to stimulate distributor investment in $7-30m films…

Ruth Harley: Screen Australia has made the exact same point. We and SPAA are one mind about this as a market failure, and we need some help to address it.

Unfortunately at this stage, it’s only an election promise, but regardless of the outcome on Saturday, it’s something that needs to be pursued…

RH: Absolutely; and what the Labor party has said is that they’d look at working with the industry based on the outcomes of the current review. We have made this point very clearly in our submission to the review.

You went through two government changes at the New Zealand Film Commission. Is it hard to provide consistency through these changes?

RH: Generally, a very large amount of it stays consistent. The merger of Screen Australia and the introduction of the Producer Offset model were in fact a product of the Liberal party, so I’m optimistic that there is bi-partisan support for the model; there always has been bi-partisan support.

You were present at the Coalition announcement, when Shadow Arts Minister Steven Ciobo said Minister Garrett had let down the arts sector and the screen industry. Do you agree?

RH: I think that it was a political meeting… we’re not political; our job is to support the film and TV industry, not to play party politics. We’re a federal agency. That’s people like SPAA who do business that way, we don’t.

This fund would be administered by Screen Australia. Have there been any discussions about how it would actually work, and what resources you’d need for that?

RH: It hasn’t been discussed, which is not to say that we haven’t discussed this gap in the market with SPAA and with both sides of the political spectrum, but the actual mechanism has not been discussed.

Is it healthy for Screen Australia to administer so many funding programs?

RH: The Location Offset goes through the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts; the Producer Offset goes through the tax department and we’re just the regulators. If it was taste-based, it would be a very narrow gate, but it’s not, so I don’t think it’s a problem. It’s just efficient.

Kathleen, you attended your first Movie Convention prior to starting in your role as marketing manager. What has changed in this year?

Kathleen Drumm: We’ve had the opportunity to review all of our marketing programs in terms of they money that’s provided to the industry. We had a really good look at what people are doing; trying to think more strategically about the support that we provide. We try to identify the gaps and provide certainty to some of our key stakeholders, such as the capital city film festivals and major events and conferences that we’re involved with.

You’ve also structured the department and recently appointed an executive in charge of distribution, Anthony Grundy. What’s the logic behind this role?

KD: We structured the department around five key areas of activity: screen culture, professional development, promotion, distribution, and business facilitation.

The success of Australian films in our home market is very important to us, and it became apparent that we needed a dedicated role for working with distributors and filmmakers to deliver the best possible partnership with Screen Australia. This new role will involve working alongside filmmakers, working through the process of marketing materials and getting involved with distributors in a supportive way through our P&A fund.

Will the success of recent Australian films encourage distributors to increase their involvement with the industry?

KD: It’s about confidence.

RH: Success brings success. Almost all of the distributors, if not all, are really committed to the local industry, but they want to be successful and in the end, they want to reach an audience with a good property.

Sometimes there are conspiracy theories about Screen Australia. Does that make you lose your motivation or focus?

RH: I enjoy a conspiracy theory as much as the same person, but they’re very rare, and I don’t pay much attention to them. It happens very rarely, and I have yet to see [a real conspiracy].

The media have reported about Senate hearings where you’re asked to explain all kinds of decisions. Does that put pressure on the agency, having to explain everything it does?

RH: Fundamentally, it’s part of the democratic process. It’s not about liking it or not; public money comes with a high degree of public accountability. I have no problem with that. It would be a problem if it forced irrational decision-making, but I don’t think it does.

I don’t have a problem with it; I’m used to living in a fishbowl.

Some distributors say that although they want to support the local industry, their ultimate goal is to release their US product. How can we generate an environment that encourages a shift in their focus?

RH: Our opportunity in that regard has never been so good. Most of the studios have cut back production, but they haven’t cut back their releases, so the capacity is still there to distribute a large number of films. I’ve actually seen the opportunity better that it has been. Their door is more open.

KD: You can see it around the world, films succeeding in their home territories, in a challenging marketplace where it’s harder to make sales outside of your country of origin. The local distribution community and the exhibition community are interested and supportive of local films and they want them to be successful and they’re looking for ways to do that.

Screen Australia is seen as conservative for supporting the theatrical window. How supportive are you of new distribution models?

RH: They’re two different things. On one hand, I often go to meetings where people in the audience say we’re old-fashioned because we’ve got such a strong commitment to theatrical distribution, but their box office is increasing so they’re not going anywhere and we want to be in that space.

At the same time, there are alternative distribution models emerging and they suit smaller scale films, so they exist simultaneously, and they are quite different from each other.

KD: We have our Innovative Distribution partnership program, which is really there to support filmmakers making documentaries and lower budget features with partners who are actively engaged in innovative ways of getting films into the marketplace.

Are there any recurring questions at your industry sessions?

RH: The big question is ‘why is Screen Australia so committed to the conventional theatrical market’. The answer is, because it’s expanding. And why wouldn’t we? It doesn’t mean that we’re not interested and aware of emerging options.

KD: It’s a traditional model that’s been around for many decades, but it’s a very successful one; an enduring model.

What’s the ultimate purpose of your annual report on the share of local films at the box office? What is that number supposed to say about the state of the industry?

RH: That’s driven by the media, not by Screen Australia. We have to do it, because the media wants to do a story, because the question is asked.

The point is to indicate the relationship between Australian production and Australian audiences, but in reality, there’s only one market, the global market.

The nationality of the production is not what drives the audience. For the most part, local production looks like local production. Something like Happy Feet, everybody knows that it’s made by George Miller, because it’s promoted that way, but people don’t necessarily have that same perception about a film like Knowing.


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