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Oz first-time helmers rarely get a second chance at coin

Figures tell disappointing funding tale

SYDNEY — It’s relatively easy for young directors in Australia to make their first feature film– but many never get the chance to do another.

A sobering stat that’s just been released shows that of the 150 helmers who’ve made pics bankrolled by the Film Finance Corp. since its inception in 1988, 113 didn’t get to shoot a second funded by the agency.

To be sure, stellar talents such as Baz Luhrmann, P.J. Hogan and Scott Hicks rapidly became bankable in Hollywood and haven’t needed the FFC’s coin.

But FFC chief exec Brian Rosen estimates as few as 10-15 directors are in that elite category.

In the agency’s annual report, he questions whether the training and development process Down Under, which is geared to nurturing new talent, is the best way to allocate scarce resources.

“Should we be trying to get all those who aspire to be film and television practitioners on to a more secure economic footing,” he asks, “or does the sector face a rationalization that will force some to leave”?

That question has triggered a lively and healthy debate in the industry. Rosen says the FFC may back projects from one or two first-time directors per year, down from seven or eight tyros in prior years.

Australian Screen Directors Assn. exec director Richard Harris contends development parameters should be broader and more flexible so the emphasis isn’t purely on giving first-timers their chance, then putting them into an industry which can’t support them.

Likewise, Screen Producers Assn. of Australia exec director Geoff Brown says the industry should be looking at ways of enabling producers to create sustainable businesses rather than putting “a new generation of producers and directors on the streets.”

Kim Dalton, chief exec of development agency Australian Film Commission, says he has no quarrel with Rosen’s sentiments. “The U.K. has similar sorts of problems (with offering first-time helmers a future); outside the U.S., it’s a worldwide problem,” he says.

The AFC has secured an additional $A17.5 million ($13 million) to invest in low budget features in the next four years, a pre-election commitment from the federal government.

That will enable it to back two or three pics a year in league with state bodies, broadcaster SBS and pay TV channels.

Dalton says his production fund will consider applications from experienced directors but notes, “The industry needs constant regeneration, new entrants and new ideas; that’s part of our role in production funding. We have to give emerging filmmakers the opportunity to make programs and (on occasions) not to succeed.”

Separately, the AFC is awaiting sign-off from Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer so it can draft a co-production treaty with China, after that country’s Film Bureau signaled its enthusiasm for such an alliance. Pact will require the Oz government’s approval, and Dalton hopes to finalize the agreement — the first with an Asian nation — in the second half of next year. The AFC is having exploratory talks on entering co-prods with South Korea and Singapore.

The government is giving the FFC an extra $26 million over four years, which Rosen says will allow the org to finance two more films annually, depending on budgets.

The producers’ trade body called for that coin to be split equally between films and TV drama, but Rosen says Arts Minister Rod Kemp has confirmed it’s earmarked for pics.

“We’re still uncomfortable with that,” says SPAA’s Brown, who adds he will approach Kemp about initiatives to boost TV dramas, which are at a low ebb.

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