Federal Film Agencies Are Forced To Readjust

The past 12 months has seen Australia’s network of state and federal film agencies – the backbone of development and cultural funding, low-budget feature production, and locations promotion here – undergo a wrenching realignment.

Reviews, funding cuts, significant staffing changes, and ever increasing pressure on limited resources have affected, to varying degrees, all of Australia’s major agencies. Says the head of one agency, “It’s as if we’re here to be reviewed.”

The last few months, however, have seen increasing stability in the worst affected: the federally funded Australian Film Commission (AFC), and state bodies the South Australian Film Corp. (SAFC) and Film Victoria. Generally the pressures have made agencies tighter operations.

AFC, the country’s largest agency, is still working through restructuring based on a major internal review completed last year that has led to a beefed-up but more selective development and production sked. Streamlining has seen staff levels drop to 44, 50% of which are new faces. A new chairman, Chris Noonan, came on board last year.

“For a while I was panic-struck,” says chief exec Cathy Robinson, “then I realized we’re reinventing the commission, and that takes time. But there have been some tensions between those who came through the review.”

Robinson says she’d be “surprised” if 1991-92 funding exceeded the current $A16 million level, and given falling revenues (because of lower outside production investment) a priority is to seek ways of increasing revenue “without compromising” the AFC’s current production strategy-

Since 1988, the AFC has invested between $A600,000-$A1 million apiece in eight films, usually in conjunction with Filmvic. The first of these bow at Cannes.

Although originally limited to films with budgets of $A1 million, AFC has been “confounded” recently with rising costs driving budgets up to $A2 million. Given the difficulty for low-budget features to raise outside finance, Robinson questions whether the Aussie Film Finance Corp. should be more involved in low-budget films; meanwhile the commission is reviewing its production investment policy.

The AFC spends around $A2 million on project development. It has an active marketing division, headquartered in London, which incorporates cultural activities.

Voyage of the damned

The commission also administers co-production treaties and has upgraded its information division. As with all government bodies around the world it has its fair share of industry criticism, but Robinson notes that with its new structures now in place, “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t; I’d rather be damned for what we do.”

Federal counterpart the FFC is also heading for a review later this year, with terms of reference currently being drawn up. It also gained a new chairman last year, and arguably both bodies have lost some of the crucial political clout their former chairmen (Kim Williams at the FFC, Phillip Adams at the AFC) wielded with the ruling Labor Party. It’s also believed there’s a fair amount of tension between the two groups over co-development/investment opportunities.

Of the state bodies, SAFC has had the worst of it. It is the only body that acts as a producer in its own right, and last year it got slapped by the South Australian government over a budget blow-out on Japanese joint venture series “Ultraman.” After bailing the corporation out with a $A2 million advance, the government commissioned a review of management and practices – the second in as many years.

Out of five recommendations (one of which was to close the SAFC down), government went for staff and overhead reductions to help reduce an accumulated deficit, with a further review next year. Achieving that will depend on finding a new m.d. to replace Richard Watson, who ankled suddenly last year (reportedly because of the “Ultraman” affair). At press time an appointment was imminent, per acting m.d. Janet Worth.

“We’re okay. We’re just getting on with it,” she says, noting the corporation’s five-year plan for production unveiled two years ago is still in place. Upside is that its studios are ticking over nicely with some new interstate production, and it has its first feature, “Hammers Over The Anvil,” in five years (in association with Melbourne’s Harvest Prods). Two minis are also in the works

State development funding in S.A. largely comes via the South Australian Film Industry Advisory Committee.

Filmvic likewise has undergone a review, in this case a mandatory condition for the renewal of legislation governing the agency’s establishment.

What’s next?

Following another round of submissions to the state’s Public Bodies Review Committee earlier this month, recommendations are due May or June. Late last year Filmvic’s funding was slashed 20%, resulting in various cutbacks; and in February chief exec Michael Mitchener suddenly ankled, apparently due to clashes with Filmvic’s board.

Based on the supportive submissions from industry already given, acting director Chris Fitchett says he’s “confident” it’ll be a positive outcome, and that there’s a “strong message” funding will be restored (to around $A3.4 million) next year.

Since 1978 Filmvic has invested almost $A22 million in $A160 million worth of production. Although recent investment has been capped at around $A300,000 for each low-budget feature made in association with the AFC, agency is looking at ways of leveraging its investment for higher budgeted projects. Two possible avenues are providing p& a loans to help shore up distribution guarantees and enhance ancillary sales; and providing a guarantee against which private coin can be raised.

Other agencies have remained relatively unscathed. New South Wales Film & TV Office had its torrid time two years ago when its predecessor NSW Film Corp. was scrapped and a difficult transitional period began for its trimmed-down replacement.

After a year at the helm, director Greg Smith has finalized staffing and priorities and created a generally more accessible organization. Script development applications, for example, have risen 100% and now cover a multitude of genres from established and new writers.

He says that “with luck” FTO will retain its funding level of $A2.3 million, around $A700,000 of which is earmarked for script development (FTO doesn’t invest in production). Current priority is to seek coventure arrangements with international partners to help leverage the office’s funds; exec is also looking at some form of representation in L.A. and the U.K. to maintain contacts and profile.

Western Australian Film Council is anticipating a 5% increase in funding to $A 1.09 million, per exec director Andrew Swanson. It’s earmarking $A250,000 to put toward a low-budget feature, much like Filmvic, but isn’t changing levels for any of its programs, which include a private investment assistance fund, docu development fund, and a short drama fund. Council is, however, getting tougher on its development funding to be more market-orientated, per Swanson. It also sent five local producers to MIP to help garner contacts.

Queensland counterpart the Film Development Office likewise remains unchanged. Funding for ’91/’92 wasn’t clarified at press time, but the Queensland government is a keen supporter of state-based production. It also enjoys a close relationship to the Queensland-based Warner Movie World studios, Australia’s largest production facility.

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