Screen Australia chief upbeat about biz

Ruth Harley hails 'vibrant' Aussie industry

SYDNEY — After three weeks atop peak federal coin agency Screen Australia, chief executive Ruth Harley says she finds the Oz biz “enormously vibrant.”

A new report shows international co-production activity is increasing, HBO’s eight-part war drama “The Pacific” boosted national production levels in the last fiscal year (which ended in June), and production is set to see an uptick as a result of the low Aussie dollar, which fell 30% in October from a peak of almost 1-to-1 with the greenback.

Adam Elliott’s debut feature, “Mary and Max,” has been selected to open Sundance, and though “Australia” is not delivering the boffo auds Fox predicted for Oz, A$15 million ($10 million) in 12 days is seen as a solid start.

“People keep asking me, ‘Will “Australia” rescue the film industry?’ It doesn’t need rescuing. The right question is, how can films get to Australian audiences much more effectively?” she says.

It’s a fair question. Excluding the Fox-funded “Australia,” the domestic share of the annual box office this year is 0.9%, the lowest since record-keeping began 30 years ago.

The annual report from former federal funder the Film Finance Corp. (org was rolled into Screen Australian in June after 20 years of funding pics and skeins) indicates not a single project went into profit the last fiscal year. Total expenditure then was $56 million and recoupment was $6 million.

In fact, in 20 years, only 10 pics have made a profit for the FFC from hundreds of docs, skeins, children’s drama series and pics partly funded by the agency.

But profits are only one measure of success in countries such as Oz that believe funding screen production is also about growing national identity, culture and a skilled labor force.

“You’ve got to be clear there are many kinds of success,” Harley says. “One is international sales. (Another) one is international box office, which is quite a different matter. Another is being selected to play at high-profile international festivals. The fourth is domestic box office. The fifth one is where the film helps the filmmaker raise money for their next film, which is usually because of one of those other things,” she says.

It is an industry truism that when Australian films work at the box office, they perform really well. There’s a long list of examples, from “Shine” to “portapotty” comedy “Kenny,” from “The Castle” to “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

“Australia” is also the beneficiary of a generous new tax scheme that saw the Oz government put up some $50 million to $70 million of its budget.

Harley ran the New Zealand Film Commission when Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was the recipient of similarly generous public funding.

“With New Zealand, history has shown it was a damn fine plan because it built an industry, but it won’t do the same thing in Australia because the Australian industry is at such a different level than the New Zealand industry was at that time. It (also) did enormous things for tourism,” she says.

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