Tag Archives: Dr. Ruth Harley

Spin Control

Meet The F*ckers

Pleiades convinced me to go and see what the top Film Bureaucrats had to say for themselves at a function at Trackdown, at an ad hoc event organised by Tristan Milani. Fronting up for their policies were Screen Australia boss Dr. Ruth Harley, Screen NSW boss Tania Chambers and Ausfilm boss Jackie O’Sullivan.

The gist of the presentation was that the numbers are up and so far everything is much better than 5 years ago. The bad news is that the Australian Dollar is playing havoc with the part of the industry that subsists on American productions. The banality of the presentation was breathtaking and Dr Ruth Harley closed off her segment with a couple of trailers for films to come.

Maybe the numbers that were read out by both Dr. Harley and Ms Chambers bear out a recovery in the film industry in general, but it struck me more as spin. They were all busy predicting a trough to come, as if to forewarn and foreshadow bad news ahead. An unkind mind might suggest that if they’re willing to take the credit for the peaks, perhaps they should take the rap for the troughs, but these bureaucrats were so wily, there’s a reason they’ve got their cushy fat jobs and chumps like us are looking in.

There is a lot of angst in the wider film making community at various levels and in various sectors of the business. The gathered faces were surprisingly older faces. Some of whom were my instructors at AFTRS way back when, which while it is encouraging to see, was also depressing in that it showed the industry had let them down as well.

James Ricketson got up and in their faces about the ‘anonymous assessor’ process that has been put into place. Clearly this is is an abominable procedure but the top bureaucrats expressed the strong opinion that the anonymous nature of the assessment allows the assessors to be more frank.  Well, let *me* be frank – I think these film bureaucrats are full of themselves if they think this process is in any way helping the film maker. Yet, there they were, defending the process on the basis of numbers. Numbers of projects submitted, number of projects funded and number of projects that eventually went into production. And when you stop to think about it, you think, what if they just changed the rules so they *didn’t* have to be accountable to the submissions?

Inquiring minds wanted to know, but these film bureaucrats were decidedly defensive on this point, saying it was a good thing. Clearly they have no idea what it is like to submit a project to these bodies. I started to laugh – I couldn’t stifle my giggle response when Dr. Harley said with a straight face for the third time that they got better information through the frankness of anonymous assessors. Well of course you would. Much like NAZIs would from secret informants – but they just didn’t seem to care that they came across as really hostile.

Some e-mailer made the charge that Screen Australia were only interested in genre pictures, to which Dr. Harley trotted out some statistical breakdown to show it was not, but in so doing, she entirely ducked the issue of accountability raised in the question. As in, “why do film bureaucrats get to keep their cushy jobs when they pick losers to develop and lose money?” No answer was forthcoming.

At one point Tom Jeffrey got up in support of a North American dude who complained about the intractability of the process and the procedures. Both men were politely told that they should get with the times and simply navigate the website and put in some study hours dealing with forms because the bureaucracy simply didn’t have the man-hours to deal with all the inquiries.

And if you thought that was a bit rude – and let’s face it Tom Jeffrey’s an old bull of the business who deserves respect – these people were quite snide about it. The North American Dude made a metaphor that he wanted to  discuss Alaska, but the process involving forms always tried to reduce the discourse to a shoe box. The snarky remark from Dr. Harley was that they couldn’t help him because nobody at Screen Australia knew how to reduce Alaska to a shoe box either – which ignores the fundamental question being asked. Why are these forms so difficult and contrary to the creative process, and why do they keep insisting on these mountain of forms?

Tom Jeffrey also got the short shrift by both Tania Chambers and Dr. Ruth Harley when they suggested it was all available online and it was his own fault or being so old so as not to be up to the times. How insulting was that? Pretty extreme in its insult, I thought. And Tom’s not somebody I would consider a friend. Tania Chambers said that they simply didn’t have enough people to talk through each project, so it had to be through forms. It seems they use forms and e-mails and bureaucratese to distance themselves from having any moral responsibilities.

Some of the ex-NSWFTO people made the point of saying that they would never try to go through these bodies for development. You could see why. The whole event was an interesting exercise in bureaucrats trying to substitute discussions of quantities in place of discussions about qualities, and thus try and avoid any moral responsibilities. All in all, it was a very poor showing.

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 16/11/09

Making Bigger Movies

The banter and ballyhoo in the last week is the cat that was let out by Dr Harley’s bag about putting Screen Australia money into bigger budget films that open in more than 100 screens.

The film financing organisation’s chief executive, Ruth Harley, has indicated she wants Screen Australia to support more mainstream films with the potential to be released on more than 100 screens nationally. The organisation recently provided finance for the more commercial films Wog Boy 2: Kings of Mykonos and Tomorrow When the War Began.

But with a maximum of $28 million to invest over the coming year, local filmmakers are concerned that more money for larger budget films will mean less money for lower budget projects. SA budgets typically range from $2 million to $6 million.

SA Film Corporation CEO Richard Harris said low-budget Australian success stories included Wolf Creek, Samson & Delilah and all of director Rolf de Heer’s films.

“That style of filmmaking would become an endangered species if they thought they had to start making bigger budget films going out on more than 100 screens,” he said. “It will have a major cultural impact.”

Mr Harris said the industry was worried about the implications.

“”If she’s seriously saying the focus will be on big-budget films a lot of the films we’re doing would be impacted,” he said.

The producer of SA-made features Boxing Day and Lucky Country, Kristian Moliere, said Screen Australia should support smaller and edgier films.

“Do we really want to go back to the days of ‘mainstream’ films being funded like Boytown, Takeaway, The Extra, The Wannabees and You and Your Stupid Mate?” he asked. “Will that really help our film culture and the position of Australian films on the world stage?”

Ms Harley told The Advertiser she wants to support a more diverse range of projects, including some larger budget films with mainstream appeal.

“It is true we are looking to have some films with that level of ambition, but it isn’t the case we’re not still going to be in the business of small cultural films and first-time filmmakers,” she said. “It’s not the case of out with the bathwater and the baby or anything like that.”

A move towards supporting more larger budget films will be seen by some as a tacit admission the producer offset scheme – which provides a 40 per cent rebate for Australian films – isn’t working.

The obvious conclusion at the end seems to matter a bit more than the fact that they’re shifting focus, I would ave thought.

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Excuse Me?

What Did She Just Say?

Screen Hub had this little entry from which I’m going to grab this bit:

In an interview with AFR arts editor Katrina Strickland, Harley said that with more limited funds, Screen Australia would focus more on films with mainstream appeal, with a view to raising the success of Australian film at the box office.

She told the AFR that “I suspect that little credit card films will carry on as before, big films like Guardians and Happy Feet 2 will carry on as before, but there will be a squeeze on those in the $4 million to $15 million bracket.”

“It’s more of a shade of movement, rather than a great big earthquake. More than 80% of funded films have been released on less than 100 screens. It’s not a criterion, it’s not for everything, it’s a shading of ambition,” she told Screen Hub.

Geoff Brown, however, told Screen Hub that this was the first time the Screen Producers Association had heard of it, and that he considered it a major reversal of Screen Australia’s position.

The rhetoric around the establishment of Screen Australia, he said, was that the Producers Offset would be allowed to deal with commercial success, while Screen Australia funded films to address “its cultural remit and areas of market failure.”

“If the Producers Offset is working properly, then Screen Australia should only invest in films with less than 100 prints.” The decision to provide any kind of focus on general release films was a major reversal.

Need we say more?

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 27/10/09

Currency Bubble

The Australian Dollar is appreciating rapidly, thanks to a number of factors. The 27% appreciation since January has of course kicked the stool out from underneath parts of the film industry that were looking to bring in Hollywood production into Australia.

It’s probably appropriate to ask why this is going on. Here’s what’s happening to the Aussie dollar.

US and British commercial banks can borrow from their central banks at a rate less than 1 per cent. The equivalent RBA rate is 3.25 per cent and many pundits are forecasting the rate could go to 3.75 per cent before the end of 2009. This will increase the differential between Australian and British and US interest rates and make the scope for speculative profits even higher.

Since the beginning of the year, $64 billion has poured into Australia in the form of direct and portfolio (share) investment and foreign lenders have switched $80 billion of foreign debt payable in foreign currencies to Australian currency. Most of the portfolio investment ($41 billion) has gone into bank shares. Banks now represent 40 per cent of the value of shares traded on the stock exchange, and while shares in the big four bank shares have increased by about 80 per cent (as measured by CBA shares), the Australian Stock Exchange Index has risen by only 30 per cent.

Foreigners have shifted out of Australian fixed interest debt and into equities because as interest rates go up, the capital value of fixed debt declines. By driving up interest rates to curb inflationary expectations and the prospect of a housing price bubble the RBA is in far greater danger of creating a stock exchange asset price bubble as well as an Australian dollar bubble. Once foreigners believe interest rates have peaked, the bubbles are likely to be pricked as financial speculators attempt to realise their gains. This could lead to a stampede out of Australian denominated securities.

Then, there’s this bit of advice:

The world has moved on but the obsessive debate about wage inflation and union powers hasn’t. Since the beginning of the ’80s, the problem has been periodic bouts of asset price inflation. It is the biggest danger now.

Instead of controlling the unions, there should be control of financial institutions. The Australian dollar bubble and the incipient housing bubble should be micro-managed. Capital inflow could be dampened by a compulsory deposit of 1 to 2 per cent to be redeemed after a year to stop speculative inflow. Home ownership has become a tax shelter. The steam could be taken out of the rise in house prices if negative gearing was limited to new housing. This would obviate the need for higher interest rates that affect everyone.

You can hear the chorus of screams about the suggestion about negative gearing.

More On ScrOz

I don’t know where exactly in Inside Film this snippet comes from, but Pleiades sent it in:

Australian Film Industry: Interesting snippet from InsideFilm magazine that a Screen Australia board member has asked the chief executive to review the performance of the Australian film Two Fists One Heart, which, with a Screen Australian investment of $4 million and a budget of $8.5 million, had a box office return of $295,000 when released through Buena Vista.

Alan Finney, the head of Buena Vista, must be fuming. After all he released Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Muriel’s Wedding in 1992 and both returned more than $16 million BO each. But what should be said is that Two Fists One Heart was chosen through Screen Australia’s in-house evaluation system, which every film must now pass through if it wants SA money and irrespective of its other investors.

One would assume that there will be the same inquiry of the following films recently released, which also went through SA evaluation:

  • Blessed: Budget — About $4 million, SA investment $1.4 million, box office $427,000.
  • Stone Brothers: Budget — about $4 million, SA investment $2.2 million, box office $69,000.
  • Last Ride: Budget — about $4 million, SA investment $1.4 million, box office $427,000.
  • Balibo: Budget — about $4.5 million, SA investment $2.87 million, box office $1.2 million.

The latter was produced and directed by an SA board member. Many evaluation films after some time have not been released or are only in limited release. So who evaluates the evaluators? Does this system of evaluation, which has only been in existence for three years, work? What is the criteria for a successful Australian film?

Yes, we know it is tough for Aussie films but perhaps it is time for Mr Garrett to take a look at the practices of Screen Australia, this large, recently merged and unaccountable arts bureaucracy.

There is of course this article here:

Disney invested a substantial sum in Two Fists One Heart and had a similarly disappointing result with its next Australian release, Subdivision. The $4 million building industry comedy, which was also backed by Screen Australia, grossed $190,500 across 66 screens.

Disney boss Alan Finney has declined several interview requests from INSIDEFILM this year.

Despite those lacklustre results, Screen Australia has also backed several notable box office successes this year including low-budget indigenous drama Samson & Delilah and dance epic Mao’s Last Dancer.

Harley said Mao’s Last Dancer – which has taken $8.9 million at the box office – is likely to gross between $12 million and $14 million. Screen Australia invested $4 million of the $25.8 million budget.

Which rounds out the Alan Finney angle.

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Senate Hearings On Screen Australia

It’s So Pathetic You Want To Cry

Pleiades gave me the heads up on the Hansard transcript on the Senate Estimates Committee asking questions to ScrOz CEO Dr. Ruth Harley.

There is also a David Tiley article about this on ScreenHub which is worth a read if you’re a member. If you are not, you won’t be able to read it so I thought I would share this pertinent little section:

Senator Birmingham, a Liberal, came onto the canvas for round one. “I understand you are conducting an enquiry into the movie, Two Fists, One Heart? Is that correct?” He was corrected on that supposition with a quick tap on the sternum. “We have had an internal review of it”, said Harley. “I would not describe it as an inquiry”.

Instead, it was “an occasion where one board member at a board meeting said, ‘Are there any learnings we can take from this?’ It was a relatively low-level inquiry.”

Ross Matthews, Head of Production Investment, was quickly dragged into the fray, to establish that the budget was around $8m, that the agency put in $4m, it was one of the last 10ba projects, and Disney was the distributor. Neither Matthews nor Harley could remember the exact gross – perhaps they have repressed it – but Fiona Cameron, the Executive Director, Strategy and Operations, extracted the figure of $295,000 from her notes.

From an industry point of view, this situation is important because the audience response was heartbreaking for all concerned, but also because it was backed by Disney, who provided much more clout than the average independent distributor.

I wanted to know why Senator Birmingham was inspired to ask the question. Being an opposition Senator, he answered the telephone.

“I’d heard a few murmurings around the place about Screen Australia’s reaction to the investment in that movie, and I thought it was worthwhile to explore and see if it stood out as a particular concern for the agency.”

“Obviously it was a concern for at least one member of the Board, and certainly it was a disappointment for them, though no-one thought it was an extraordinary disappointment, if we can put it in those terms.”

“One wonders whether having a distribution deal provides maybe a little too much comfort at the outset. And obviously it has shown that in and of themselves, they don’t generate great results.”

With Senator Birmingham excited about his role as industry analyst, the committee spent several questions working out when the picture was released. It obviously didn’t stick in anyone’s mind as a result of the vast advertising blitz, because there wasn’t one.

Eventually, Birmingham got to the point. “What were the learnings of that investment?” he asked, using her own language to dance in under her guard.

Harley chose a veritable flurry of blocking words in reply. “It was one of those things where everything went almost right, but ‘almost right’ in the film business is not quite right enough. It is very unforgiving and very competitive. In the end everybody concluded that the film was good, but good is not quite enough to be competitive in this market. The release strategy was good, but good is not quite enough to be competitive in this market. Everybody was very disappointed.”

Fists up, wary, Birmingham wove past the usual confusion between cinema gross and return on investment, to establish that actual returns would not pay for a boxer’s shoelaces. Harley agreed to provide several years of data on the relationship between the agency investment and the ultimate loss for a range of projects.

He wanted to know if there are changes as a result of these “learnings”. Yes, said Harley, “There have been changes instigated. I would not specifically say they were as a result of that particular incident, but there is a general trend of change. The general trend of change is to be more demanding of scripts before they go into production and to be more collegial with the distributors, to partner with them in a more detailed sense. You will appreciate that Disney does regard itself as very competent indeed in the business.”

And there is the rub of the matter. Disney does know how to promote a film, it was made as a commercial venture, and it was a genre piece with a clear audience.

The committee went on to discuss Mao’s Last Dancer, made for $28.5m, with $4m from Screen Australia, and estimated to finally return $12-14m in the Australian market. So far, it has no overseas release, and some territories remain unsold.

In amongst the relieving flurry of mutual congratulations about Samson & Delilah, Harley described $1m in ticket sales as “a good figure for an art house film—for a specialist film.”

Ross Matthews stepped onto the canvas to deal with a statistical question about investments. Senator Birmingham obviously knows about industry disquiet about investment levels, but allowed himself to be brought undone. He asked how many projects Screen Australia has committed to in the last twelve months, and Matthews took him up directly.

“Mr Matthews—I have the figures for 2008-09 and I have the figures for 2009 to present, but I have not got the split.
Senator BIRMINGHAM—That would be fine.
Mr Matthews—Do you want a total across all the genres?
Senator BIRMINGHAM—Yes. Just a headline total would be fine.”He had missed the point. The issue is the collapse in feature investments – what Matthews has called “a genre”. Matthews didn’t deceive him, but he did seem to misunderstand.

“Mr Matthews—For 2008-09 Screen Australia committed $64.1 million to 89 new film and television projects, including docs, with a total production value of more than $212 million. That was for 2008-09. So far this financial year we have committed to 29 projects, for a total production value of $138 million.
Senator BIRMINGHAM—With a Screen Australia investment of?
Mr Matthews—It is $29 million, generating $138 million worth of production.
Senator BIRMINGHAM—There is $29 million investment in how many projects?
Mr Matthews—In how many projects? Twenty projects.
Senator BIRMINGHAM—Twenty.
Mr Matthews—Yes. Twenty projects across the genres.”The committee went on to ascertain the staggering fact that the rising dollar has indeed put the kibosh on Australia’s ability to attract footloose productions.

Senator Ludlum is a Greens representative from Western Australia. After the committee heard a weary but rosy picture of the transition, he ascertained from Dr Harley that combined staff totals were 190, the number is down to 144, with approximately 41 voluntary redundancies, and one involuntary redundancy, for a saving of $6m. The rest went as a result of “atttrition”, a term which referred to resignation and not startling outbursts of violence.

Senator Ludlum then wanted a breakdown of senior salaries before and after the merger. Given that internal and external experts – including ours – have been unable to determine the true loss in documentary production over the last two years, we suspect this is rather more onerous a request than the chirpy Ludlum thinks. We can guess that he doesn’t care.

I asked Senator Ludlum why he was taking such an interest in these matters. He said, “We have pretty broad consultation in the sector in the leadup to the Estimates. I let folk know that the door is open for questions that they might want to raise.”

“We will normally get thirty or forty tips across the portfolios I cover (eight altogether).”

There you have it.

Evidently Ross Matthews had a rough day at the office – screw him, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving …  – but beside that salient point, I note that both Dr. Harley and Ross Matthews are cornered in an uncomfortable position in trying to explain away the apparent failures of our so-called film industry.

I could say a lot about all this but astute readers would note I’ve already said everything that I can about why Screen Australia and its ventures are headed for failure; and that failure equates to a gross churning of budget money that is going to return $290,000 on $4million investments of government money. I guess the short answer is that the global outlook on film markets and productions have changed grossly since the early 1990s when the Australian Film Industry was last competitive, and that Screen Australia itself is proceeding as if the GFC hasn’t happened. That’s two adjustments they haven’t made, and as far as we can tell, they’re still making the kinds of mistakes that led to the demise of the FFC organ.

The rest of David Tiley’s article goes into an account of how ScrOz went with PCs ins spite of 2 separate reports that recommended macs over PCs. It’s entirely laughable if that too weren’t so tragic:

Scott Ludlum then moved on to ask about the decision to replace the Macintosh computers in Screen Australia with PCs – an issue which has annoyed a number of staff who are proficient on Macs, and its software.

He is sensitised to the issue because he has a previous history as a web designer. You can guess the platform. “That caught my eye”, he explained, “because I am a bit of a tech geek myself, and partly because there did seem to be a bit more to it.”

There was indeed, as he soon discovered, and the exchange is worth quoting at length. [PwC in this exchange refers to Price Waterhouse Coopers, a consultancy company].

“Dr Harley—One thing I can tell you, Senator, is there are a lot fewer managers.
Senator LUDLAM—There are a lot fewer managers? Okay. I guess those numbers will come out in the wash. Can we go to software costs? I gather there are a couple of different platforms and that would be one of the more difficult things to coordinate between the three organisations as you merged them. You commissioned a number of reports that recommended adopting a Mac platform over a PC. Is that the case?
Dr Harley—I asked my staff to form a view, and their view was Mac. I was concerned that that was not a very close look at the issues. We then commissioned PWC to do a second report. They also recommended Mac. I also took the view that they had not looked at the issues as thoroughly as I would like and I took my own view that we would move to PC.
Senator LUDLAM—Was the first review, the staff review, just anecdotes and talking to people at the coffee machine, or did you commission a study?
Dr Harley—No.
Senator LUDLAM—Sorry, I am not trying to be—
Dr Harley—The IT team wrote a report.
Senator LUDLAM—Are you able to table those two reports—the staff one and the PwC one—for the committee?
Dr Harley—I am sure I am. I cannot see why not.
Senator LUDLAM—You can check that if you need to. Having asked your IT experts within the organisation and an external consultant, on what basis did you form the view that both of those reports should
be set aside?
Dr Harley—The staff report was done in a very short time frame, and when I read it I did not think it canvassed the issues fully. It will probably interest you to know that the head of IT has subsequently changed his mind and thinks that the PC platform is the right answer. When I read the PwC report—and a number of us read it—I thought that, although they had identified the issues, they had not weighted them correctly. One of the things they had put in there as if it were equal to everything else was the fact that three of our current staff
are particularly adept at Mac and so we did not have an installed PC talent base, if you like. Of course, that is not a very difficult thing to change. I do not rate that as a very significant problem to overcome.
Senator LUDLAM—Did you undertake any sort of formal cost-benefit analysis or anything to sit next to these figures?
Dr Harley—Yes.
Senator LUDLAM—Would you be able to table that as well please?
Dr Harley—It is in the document.
Senator LUDLAM—Which document?
Dr Harley—The PwC document.
Senator LUDLAM—You said PwC came to the view that the Mac platform was most appropriate.
Dr Harley—They did.
Senator LUDLAM—You then came to a different view. Is there anything that would substantiate that for us?
Dr Harley—Yes, I can write something to substantiate that view.
Senator LUDLAM—But there is not something written at the moment? Otherwise it makes it sound like it was just a view that was formed out of thin air.
Dr Harley—It was not a view formed out of thin air. I spent some months thinking about it. As you rightly observed, it is one of the more difficult issues. In fact, neither study made clear to me until later in the piece that there never was a Mac or PC option; there was a PC option or a mixed Mac-PC option. It was some time before I identified that there never was a pure Mac option, because our finance, HR and record-keeping systems are all PC based. That is one of the difficulties we have because the PC-Mac interface is not smooth.
Senator LUDLAM—Was the chair, Glen Boreham, involved or a party to that decision making?
Dr Harley—No, he was not, but I did ring him and ask if I could use one of his senior staff to help me think through the issues.
Senator LUDLAM—You would be aware obviously that he was the Managing Director of IBM.
Dr Harley—He is still the Managing Director of IBM. Yes, I am aware of that.
Senator LUDLAM—His views directly or indirectly were not important in forming that third opinion?
Dr Harley—That is correct.”

I should say here that Dr Glen Boreham is Managing Director of IBM BM Australia and New Zealand. His company is no longer involved in the manufacture of personal computers, or software for them.

By then, the committee had been meeting for more than twelve hours, and Dr Harley had been subjected to a long run of questions of detail, much of which came from a superficial understanding of the sector.

The question of Mac v PC was taken up by Ross Pearson, the Chief Financial Officer of Screen Australia, who was “actually leading the project.”

Again, the whole exchange is illuminating.

“Mr Pearson- …. There were three basic considerations that particularly moved our decision. One was a strategic aspect. We had our main corporate applications all running on PC servers and to then run a Mac desktop you would have to have translation software, which is slow, inefficient and costly.
Secondly, we did try to identify other corporate Mac-using organisations but were not able to identify any.
Certainly, our main stakeholders such as DEWHA and the Department of Finance all work on a PC basis and we have difficulty at times communicating and file-swapping with them because of the difference in platforms. The other issue is one of risk. We formed the view that we were inevitably heading into a smaller resource base, because Macs are extremely useful for image and data manipulation but not for corporate applications. So the talent pool on which we could call for support would be smaller and smaller, as opposed to having a much wider pool for PC applications.”

Senator Ludlum told me that “The sense that I got was that a genuine attempt to do some due diligence on the platforms that would work best was done, and for some reasons that was set aside. And I don’t believe that any counter-factual document was produced. The decisions seemed to arise as a result of a thought process that contradicted the due diligence attempts. And that was odd.”

“I look forward to reading the material that we requested to be put on notice.”

UPDATE: Now when I posted this article earlier this evening I didn’t go into the Mac versus PC thing because what Dr. Harley was saying seemed to be just about what I would expect Dr. Harley to say in front of a Senate Committee to justify a bad call – and let’s not make any bones about it. If you’re in the creative industry, a Mac is de rigeur even if the accounting department is running entirely on PCs. Dr, Harley is being more than disingenuous when she says there was only a Mac-PC hybrid option or a full PC option. You go with Macs as much as you can afford.

Even PWC (a big accounting firm) told her to go with Macs. To have so willfully picked PCs is exactly the kind of bad call, bad judgment, bad decision-making procedure and process that characterises the Australian Film bureaucracy culture. So I shrugged it off. I mean, what does it look like, but a case of ‘goes to character’.

Pleiades then pointed out to me the extreme lack of probity in the process whereby having had 2 reports recommending the Macs from both within and without the organisation, Dr. Harley ignored them was noteworthy. Dr. Harley went and talked to somebody at IBM to get some additional input and came to her conclusion that all-PCs would be the way to go. That’s really weird. Why would you go talk to the head of IBM if but to prepare an alibi of doing one’s own research in order to justify the conclusion you want to justify. At least, that one ‘goes to motive’.

She has no documentation of the process. So it’s a little like she hid the weapon. But here we are thinking, “what the hell was she thinking?” Fortunately she can offer to write it down for us, she told the Senate Committee. Oh really now, Dr. Harley? You don’t say!


I don’t know how to explain it but I just don’t expect better judgment and actions from these people, whereas more objective people such as Pleiades and others see this as an obvious problem in how Screen Australia functions – and I have to agree with them. This is plain lousy; but if you’re me writing this blog that is partially about the Australian Film Industry by dint of me being *in* it then I have to confess my expectations are so low that probity just doesn’t enter into my view of these people. I fully expect them to make crappy decisions. I base my low expectation on their past performance, and this is just like one of those crappy decisions they’ve made just like a million before this decision.

That the Senate is only finding out now, just how crappy the people they’ve got running ScrOz is a bit sad. Had previous governments – both Labor and Coalition – bothered to think through the massive problems facing the Australian Film Industry more properly, there is no way they would have come up with Screen Australia as it is currently mal-functioning, as their panacea.

Lynden Barber’s Perspective

Dennis out there sent this heads up. We just want to draw your attention to this article here.

Overall Australian produced feature films earned $35.5 million or only 3.8 per cent of the total domestic box office in 2008, a fall from 4 per cent the previous year and below the 10-year average of 4.4 per cent. And most of that sum was taken up by earnings of a single film: Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, a US$130 million production bankrolled by Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox and the Australian tax payer, and hyped to be better than the Second Coming.

Since then things have improved — they could hardly have got worse without a total collapse. The global financial crash has seen increased cinema audiences worldwide and a more diverse slate of local films has seen a number hailed as box office successes. These include the Paul Hogan and Shane “Kenny” Jacobson comedy Charlie and Boots ($3.6 million and still going) and to everyone’s surprise, Warwick Thornton’s small-scale aboriginal drama Samson & Delilah, which earned nearly $3.17 despite taking an unflinching view of the aimless life of a petrol sniffer on the run from the law.

Last week Mao’s Last Dancer, based on the bestselling biography of Chinese expatriate ballet dancer Li Cunxin, brought the strongest news yet for the beleaguered local film industry. It had earned $3.32 million by the end of its opening weekend (once preview screenings were added). As its distributor was quick to point out, the film could also boast the fifth highest ever opening-day earnings for an Australian film — and even though that figure isn’t inflation-adjusted, it’s still an impressive result. Made for $25 million, the film needs to keep going strongly and do well in overseas markets to have a chance of earning back its production cost, but the result so far augurs well.

Now here’s the rub: Mao’s Last Dancer is no masterpiece. Though hardly a bad film by any measure, the film has struck several commentators — myself included — as somewhat lackadaisically directed by the veteran Bruce Beresford (who has delivered far stronger work in the past including Breaker Morant). For the first half the film plods on dutifully through Li Cunxin’s early life story and arrival in the US, only gaining serious traction as a drama around the mid-way point, when Li decides to defect.

The dance sequences are also curious: Chi Cao, who plays the adult Li, is a superb professional dancer who also acts perfectly adequately. Yet to compare the dance sequences — where a static camera is placed in the audience — with the elaborately photographed choreography of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic 1948 ballet film, The Red Shoes, is to get a sense of how great these sequences might have been.

Look at Luhrmann’s Australia and the automatic equation of strong box office with quality looks even more suspect. The problem with most Australian discussions of box office is that they’ve been focussed on how to make “better films”, usually by spending more money on script development.

Time to own up: some of the best films don’t get the sizeable audiences they deserve (last year’s The Black Balloon among them), and many of those that do are mediocre or worse. Due to the policy of “front-end loading” (ie get the audience in quick), major US movies are heavily marketed to the point where they can set turnstiles spinning on opening weekend before the bad word of mouth sets in. The production of rubbish and mediocrity is no impediment to success.

We’re quick to recognise Hollywood hits don’t always equate to strong filmmaking — so why not with Australian films? Baz’s recent camp adventure may have been an artistic failure but it entertained many ordinary Australians. Why? I’d suggest any big budgeter that wallows in Australiana seems to hit an automatic chord. Look at The Man From Snowy River (critics sniffed, the public flocked). Or Crocodile Dundee I and II — the first had charm, the second was lame but that didn’t stop it earning a motzah.

Even Strictly Ballroom, which many seem to now accept as a cinematic masterpiece, is not that good a film, I’d argue — energetic and sparkly, sure, but also corny, predictable and let down by a male lead with the acting weight of a sequined cummerbund.

Hit films are not just a luxury but a necessity for any local film industry to prosper – the veteran producer Anthony Buckley likes to say that there’s nothing wrong with the local film industry that a hit film couldn’t solve. An industry that depends on public funding needs to demonstrate to the politicians and especially the taxpayers that their endeavours are appreciated by the ordinary Joe and Josephine.

This is not just a pragmatic need but I’d suggest a moral duty. No middle class art film lover — and the writer includes himself — should feel complacent about his or her passion for fine local films being kept alive by the drip-feed of tax dollars.

Yes. Screw the funding models and the agencies and the guidelines that produce an endless stream of films your average Australian punter reacts to as if it were radioactive. Seriously, stop giving these film bureaucrats money for their mortgages. I mean, it’s show biz, not show art. When are we going to be allowed to get on with the biz part?

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Dr. Ruth Harley Speaks

And It Isn’t Encouraging In The Least Bit

This came in from Screenhub via somebody who is willing to let it out. It should be let out, really, given that it contains some important bits of information, and not everybody was able to go. It’s a report by one David Tiley.

Ruth Harley, CEO of Screen Australia, promised her first concerted public speech to the Screenwriter’s Conference, and made her affinity for challenging, feisty films very clear. Yes this is a business, but the joy is in the culture.

She began by retelling her experience of the Australian International Documentary Conference, and the informal discussion with Stephen Hewlett in a similar time slot.

She displayed a lucid grasp of the sector’s issues, which is probably clearer than most working producers. What is the real cost of consciously appealing to as wide an audience as possible? Is this a downhill ride to trash? Have documentary makers hitched their wagon too closely to powerful network forces? Does the market know what is good for it? Are producers really trapped and only falling into line?

The fact that she isolates these issues is important, because it speaks to a more sophisticated way of looking at the relationship between production and television, the role of the mass audience, and the dangers of surrendering to the needs of business.

She acknowledged the problems faced by the film sector, and that industries around the world are dealing with the same collapsing audiences, and what she suggests could be a plague of mediocre films. At the same time, she firmly said that the issues are real. While the sweeping changes in the sector come from the creation of a single Federal agency, and the rise of the Producer Offset, they are also designed to face that fundamental, unpalatable problem – Australian audiences don’t like Australian films.

So far, so good, but I might quibble a little bit. At least there’s a square recognition that there is no domestic demand. It’s good that they are facing up to that reality.

Much of the speech was about reasons for optimism, as she was at pains to say that she is committed to the job because our sector has so many strengths, with rich resources and a history of success.

She is determined not to accept the reframing of performance as a disaster. She cited the example of Australia, which has taken $36m and climbing, disdained by the critics but it is “a spectacular success”. She is inspired too by Ten Canoes, which she said “spoke to the audience and made Australians want to go to the cinema. It was bold and imaginative, beautifully crafted, with a strong sense of authorship and creative determination. They give us reason for hope, and contain lessons for policy and industry together.”

That’s where I start to get worried. The industry is in an abysmal mess. It’s nothing short of a disaster if the films other than the massively marketed ‘Australia’ have 0.9% of the box office. It’s also disingenuous to see ‘Australia’ as an entirely Australian film, given how much 20th Century Fox had a role to play.

She claimed that Hollywood had descended into a marketing driven philosophy, which replaced quality with hype. “You can market anything, this thinking said, movies don’t have to be that good, just good enough to be marketed. Those days are now gone, if they really existed – audiences are now smart, well-informed and picky.”

She declared that quality is back, with a special place for the niche films from the independent community. She takes obvious pleasure in the recent crop of independent films through the Adelaide Film Festival, which she says is really good at investment decisions. The Combination, from David Fields, is “really, really interesting.” She cited Disgrace, from Anna maria Monticelli, set in South Africa, which allowed her to say that Australian films should not be limited by location and subject. To this she added My Year Without Sex, and Sampson and Delilah…she celebrates a slew of difficult art house films, made with passion, on a shoestring.

Grrr. I don’t think quality was ever ‘out’. Quality is one thing that’s never ‘out’ – It’s that it’s hard to do quality without skill and it’s hard to get skill without doing and we just don’t do enough to have the skills to do the quality any more. Not by a long margin. Given how badly the Australian cinema has been going, I hardly think we’re worthy of any kind of comparison to Hollywood, good or bad. In turn we’re not in a position to critique whether they really have descended into hype over quality.

Look, if ‘The Dark Knight’ really is trash, then I can do with a lot more of that trash.

Talking about Hollywood in these terms is a little like saying the Pittsburgh Pirates and are not as good a side as they were in the 1970s. It’s true, but the Pirates would still whip the pants off a Single-A squad, and that’s exactly what our industry is in this day and age. This on-going critique of Hollywood as peddlers of over-hyped expensive trash has got to stop before we look at why our industry is in such a dismal state.

As for the slew of difficult Art House movies… somebody GET ME A GUN! *Ugh*. It’s like the Balmain Wimmin’s Auxiliary Politically Correct Basket-Weaving Coalition is running this thing,  just as it ran AFTRS and ran everything else into the ground. When are we ever going to grow out of this hyper-narrow aesthetic-bound self-limitation? When?!

She acknowledged Robert Connelly’s argument that audiences are not measured by cinema seats, but by the long journey to television and DVD, though the film’s impact is enhanced by the excitement of a good release.

Discussing television, she points again to the evident quality of the best work. Underbelly is commercially and culturally compelling, while Packed to the Rafters speaks to the experience of contemporary family life. Cable, abroad and in Australia, is creating quality television away from the crushing force of demands for mass audiences. As audiences are watching television which has once more grown a brain, there is still no place for complacency.

Harley ended with a message of inclusion. Screen Australia has moved to support highly experienced creators as well as the less experienced, and is building the ladder to create that experience. It recognises the value of past experience and has drawn on research and history to create the current approach.

Now it is time, she seems to be saying, to work with the present. For the agency, that is about evolving further, and continuing a dialogue with the production community.

Currently, the strength of Australian production is in television. This might be part of a worldwide trend in as much as more and more writers are required for television, but also the budgets are lower and the expectation per episode is much lower than the equivalent screen time for a feature production. That’s neither here nor there. If the success of ‘Underbelly’ points towards anything, it strongly suggests Australians are starved for genre content based in Australia, but with the titillation of it having been based on true stories. In a sense it’s ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino’. in Oz.

The fact that it’s good is not arbitrary. It stems from a genuine desire to package up these stories in genre fiction garb. To discuss the series without mentioning it seems… uh… how shall I say this? Willfully hostile to genre pics and shows.

So what does this add up to? She is clearly film literate, a genuine lover of challenging films. She is not driven by commercial concerns, but speaks to culture, with stable production companies as the platform. She is a culture rather than a finance wonk.

If only that were such a wonderful thing. We don’t need a film literate genuine lover of challenging films. We need a film literate lover of blockbuster films. As Will Smith joked at the recent Oscars, he’s a fan of Action movies because they have lots of speed, excitement, action, special effects and FANS. Given the dire straits the industry is in at this point, we need to have somebody who’s willing to move things a little closer towards the commercial side.

But it gets worse from here:

It is fair to say that the community has been concerned over the last year that Screen Australia would end up arrogant and rigid, driven by its own bureaucratic needs, an angry disappointed parent driven by contempt for creativity, risk taking and self-faith.

It is pretty evident now that the new leadership does not share these values. Harley seems able to listen, accepts the need for organic growth, sees the enterprise as shared between partners. She put herself on display and the signs are encouraging.

Look, it’s very easy to look like you’re listening. Or to look like you care, or you share the concerns of creatives. Believe me, it’s very easy. Everybody (and anybody) can blow smoke up your ass on any given day, and you’d be none the wiser until your project gets green-lit. If the fear is that the Screen Australia would end up as rigid and driven by its own bureaucratic needs, then get prepared for some more.

There’s nothing in this schema that suggests that things have moved on since the FFC’s arrogantly incompetent days. Let’s face it, we know they’ve hired back some of the same clowns who drove that vehicle into the ditch.

Again, isn’t it the definition of stupidity to be trying the same thing, the same way and expecting a different result? I mean, didn’t Brian Rosen make these noises throughout his tenure?

From that point, she was in the hands of the audience. Guild veterans asked a series of questions which remind us there are many issues which remain seriously unresolved.

Mac Gudgeon opened with a statement. “In the last few years, we think we have identified the problem. In the development process, it is very difficult for writers to make a living. There are maybe a dozen feature film writers who make a living out of it. .. this industry needs writers to get fairer and more equitable amounts of money, and respect for their work…

… I have looked at the terms of trade. Nothing has convinced me anything is going to change.”

It wasn’t framed as a question, and Harley moved on past it. But she was brought back again, as the audience returned to the topic.

“I did want to say,” she replied, “that I don’t think it is completely buggered and won’t work. I do think the system can work. I do think there is an opportunity for writers to flower in this system, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I don’t share his [Gudgeon’s] pessimism that the new arrangements won’t work – I think they will.”

Frankly, it exasperates me no end that it gets couched in terms of optimism/pessimism. If the Titanic hit the the iceberg and these people were on hand, I think they would still try and couch it in terms of optimism/pessimism. I want more realism about what the industry can do and can be. When you think about, Mac Gudgeon’s questions are entirely realistic and not pessimism. Why can’t they respond with equal frankness?

The questions flew quick and fast. How will the performance of producers be evaluated in the new devolved development regime? Screen Australia will tend to select companies with expertise in the development process and will look at how this is expressed. She agrees that “this is a significant risk”.

What about the unhealthy dependence on the writer-director? Can it be broken down? She objected to “breaking down”, and defended both approaches. (After all, the films she cited earlier are all auteur projects).

Why do producers need to have less of a track record than writers at the top level? She pointed out that writer only development has had “zero results” over the last five years. So the system now depends on writer + producer together. But, ‘we have modified the credits downwards and will keep looking at these things.”

Jan Sardi acknowledged that the team is fundamental. But questioned whether rights have to be surrendered to producers, turning writers into employees who can be dumped off projects. The Guild is working to proactively create an agreement that both Screen Australia and SPAA will accept as fair and reasonable, so the creative roles are respected.

Harley agreed with his analysis of the problem, but admitted she has no recipe for a solution. The system has to be team based, but there are some situations in which writers should be employees (she is thinking of television) and some where they should not. She acknowledged strongly that a factory approach can work in Hollywood, but does not in Australia and New Zealand.

I wish they wouldn’t talk about these abstractions as if they have meaningful merit. Teams or non-teams. The advent of the writer-director in Australian cinema is not the result of nurturing writer-directors only, but a chronic shortage of cash which compels directors to develop their own scripts – because they can’t find a producer who can afford to pay a writer to develop a script. The advent of the Writer-Producer in Australia is similarly built on the necessity of creatives to wear more than one hat in order to get a project closer to production. If the industry was mature enough and awash with funds, then I think it’s valid to argue that wearing 2 creative hats is too much.

Heck, when I did ‘Key Psycho’, I was my own Executive Producer as well as Writer, Director, Editor, Composer, Sound Editor, and Sound Mixer. I’m not saying ‘wow I’m a talented guy,’ I’m saying, I had no friggin’ cash – but it got made, No Thanks to the FUNDING BODIES!!!

She claims that the agency will have a role in managing development, but not necessarily in running it. But she does think that accountability is important and “we don’t totally absolve ourselves of responsibility in that equation.”

So Jacqueline Woodman, who runs the Guild, pushed for a decisive moment. Why can’t the writers agreement be part of the terms of trade?

And Harley agreed. “I’m happy to do that,” she said.

Got that? Accountability!I mean, isn’t that the easiest thing to say without actually being accountable? Why is it that bureacrats talk about acountability and do things that just don’t have any? Christ almighty, let’s all watch this new mob flush the next decade down the toilet until it totally kills the industry, and then there will be a new review and a new organ and they’ll hire the same people who will say the same things and it will all go to pot again and another ten years will go by…


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