From Kelly Gang to Kelly Gang – Funding and the Australian Film Industry

Australian film has a longer history then what some might first assume. Starting in 1906 with the film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, the Australian film industry encompasses a wide range of stories, characters and settings, even if a large handful of them also happen to be about the Kelly Gang. This essay will focus on the impact of ‘market failure’ on the Australian film industry, and the ‘public good’ arguments that arise in relation to government funding of the industry, from 1906 “The Story of the Kelly Gang” to 2019 “True History of the Kelly Gang“.

The Story of the Kelly Gang. Directors Charles Tait, W.A Gibson and Millard Johnson (1906) Source

The Australian Film industry has been long funded by the Government, and because of this, Policy and the primary interests of current governments have a large impact on the function of the industry. According to Burns and Eltham, there was a surge of interest during the 1970s in becoming more assertive when it comes to Australian Cultural Policy. This need created the 10B and 10BA tax subsidies that became a method to attract domestic film productions by, at one point, returning 120% of a productions investment.

While the 10BA era produced many loved and wildly successful films, such as ‘The Man from Snowy River” (1982) and “Crocodile Dundee” (1986) it can also be seen as the start to the ‘Ozplotation‘ era of Australian Film. Unlike other genres of film, there is no set of tropes or conventions that feature in an Ozplotaion film, the term refers to any Australian Genre film that exploits stereotypes and aspects of Australian culture to attract audiences.

Original TV – Make it Australian Campaign Supporters. Source

During the time 10BA was being created, the Australian TV industry was experiencing a different issue, only 1 per cent of drama programming on commercial networks was Australian. This then sparked the  “TV- Make it Australian” campaign, which gained government support and aided in the creation of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Inspired by this campaign, there was another created in 2018 “Make it Australian” that aims to bring these ideas into the age of streaming and to fight the funding cuts to Screen Australia. This campaign got a lot of industry attention and gained support from stars like Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne and Chris Hemsworth. When signing the open letter presenter Julia Zemiro stated “We can’t simultaneously rejoice in being recognised overseas, have the world fall in love with our stories and then not make more.”

Although not all industry attention on the campaign was positive, the financial review stating in august 2018, “If the cultural elite wants to preserve Australian cinema and television, it could try making shows and films that appeal to viewers and advertisers” Joining in on the age old idea that the reason Australian media doesn’t do well is because it isn’t ‘good’. Stated by the Sydney Morning Herald “Australian filmmakers try too hard to make artistic pieces, they try too hard to get noticed, because ultimately they all want to work in the US.”

A reason of this could be due to the strict guidelines that Screen Australia has when deciding to fund films. These guidelines come from the income tax assessment act of 1997 and look at the subject matter of the film, place it was made and the nationalities of the people who worked on the film among others.

This may alienate people who aren’t looking for films about their experience and who aren’t concerned with the ‘public good’ that exporting Australian culture via film. According to a senior figure in cinema exhibition speaking to the Sydney morning herald “People just want to be entertained, to be swept away by the story.”

Australian Film funding figures released by Screen Australia. Source

It’s the federal funding, and public interest that contributes to the ‘boom and bust’ nature of the Australian film industry, having funding be cut when films don’t do well in the global box office, and then having extra funding when the industry is doing well. It was one of these ‘bust’ times that gave way to the funding cuts in the mid 2010’s that inspired the “Make it Australian” campaign, especially considering that only 25 per cent of films received private funding according to 2018 figures released by Screen Australia.

It was announced in 2015 that Screen Australia would have its funding cut by 16 per cent for the following budget. When speaking about the impact the funding cuts will have, the president of the Australian Cinematographers Society stated “Surely as a responsible government you do not wish to lose home grown productions and talent, to an overseas film and television industry” as due to the bigger industry and therefore, more opportunities, many Australian talent would rather move overseas to have greater opportunity for success. These funding cuts where initially absorbed by lowering operating costs but started having an impact of production funding around 2017/18,  especially with the over 35 productions submitted in the season requiring double the available funding for the financial year.

Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker. (2015) Source

Government funding isn’t the only money issue facing Australian Cinema. For many films, once they do get made, the next issue is getting cinemas to play them. Australian films get fewer screen times then Hollywood films and poor promotion unless they have big names attached to them, like Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joel Edgerton or Jocelyn Moorhouse’s “The Dressmaker” starring Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth. Due to this, there has been a push for online releases for these films. Especially because more and more Australians are turning to online services to get their entertainment, as they have more choice and flexibility. Even Screen Australia’s CEO Graeme Mason, stated in 2014, a year before the streaming giant Netflix entered the Australian market, that video on demand could be a “real winner for Australian films.”

This push has brought the industry right back around to where it started, with the 2020 film, “True History of the Kelly Gang” being streamed exclusively on Stan, Australia’s answer to Netflix, and being funded and supported by Screen Australia in its development, production and marketing.

True History of the Kelly Gang. Director Justin Kurzel (2020) Source

In conclusion, while there are many great things about the Australian film industry,  there are also many issues facing it. Both the good and the bad things seem to be at odds with each other, with there being a want to protect our culture, while also showing off who Australia is to the rest of the world. It seems one of the biggest issues facing Australian Film is the disconnect between creators, audiences and policy makers, about what the general public wants to see, where and how they want to see it, and the funding of art.

References List on this Page

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