Almost every Australian feature film is government funded, and almost no Australian feature film makes a profit. As a result, our film industry is running at a huge financial loss. In contrast, the U.S. film industry makes huge profits that on average grow steadily year on year.
Australian films’ share of the box office is shrinking, both locally and globally. This will continue to occur while our industry growth relies on government funding. The U.S. film industry can plough its huge profits back into film production and grow organically, while in Australia this is not the case.
The film business involves the simple exchange of entertainment for money but unfortunately; our government doesn’t see it this way. Screen Australia’s 2010-11 Charter of Operations does not mention the word entertainment once. The government sees films as a way to promote such things as diversity, inclusivity, indigenous culture, foreign cultures, climate change, organ donation and even the National Broadband Network. While the value of these causes is not being debated here, what is clear is that the government is confusing entertainment with advertising, and mistaking art for propaganda. And in the process they are stealing vital creative freedom away from filmmakers.
The same type of thing happens in the American studio system, but for different purposes. Either way, centralised filmmaking bureaucracies tend to stifle creativity. This is why independent filmmaking is so important, because it allows the filmmaker greater creative freedom. Independent filmmaking is thriving in America, but in Australia it is all but non-existent.
Though all too rare, some of Australia’s best films have been independent productions. Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, The Castle, Kenny, and Gabriel are good examples, and there are many more if you go back in time. At the birth of cinema, Australia was a prolific filmmaking nation. We made hundreds of films before the government had anything to do with it.
The government’s earliest involvement in filmmaking was to ban the production of bushranger films. They felt the films were causing civil unrest. That’s how good these films must have been! So the government banned them and later maintained a strict regime of censorship.
Over the years the government has gradually ratcheted up its involvement in filmmaking and slowly but surely starved the independents out. Today, almost every Australian feature film is either funded or commissioned by the government. After around 100 years of public funding, independent filmmaking has become almost extinct.
Fortunately, today, there is a new opportunity for a revival in Australian independent filmmaking. Digital technology has paved the way for micro-budget films to compete with the bigger budget foreign and government films.
American films such as Paranormal Activity, Clerks and Open Water have proven that micro-budget filmmaking is not only possible, but it can be highly profitable. In fact, the most profitable films of all time have had very low budgets. Mad Max is one of them and for a long time it held the record as the world’s most profitable film.
But it seems like every time Australia produces a successful independent film, it inspires the government to increase its level of funding. After a great film, filmmaking becomes a vote-winner and the vicious cycle of funding poorer quality films kills off further private investment.
To imagine that government funding can sustain film industry growth, and ever compete with a commercial film industry, is delusional. It has never, and can never work, and the sooner we realise this—the sooner our industry can break free from the shackles of state control and begin to rebuild itself from the bottom up.
Jason Kent is an independent filmmaker and the driving force behind Pure Independent Pictures, an initiative dedicated to supporting only purely independent Australian feature films.