The Australian screen industry’s recent ‘Make it Australian’ campaign – complete with petition signed by local heavyweights like Cate Blanchett and Chris Hemsworth – is simply another shameless call for more taxpayer handouts and government protection from competition.
After the Tasmanian Devil and spotted tree frog, the Australian screen industry is one of our most protected species. But despite its sheltered status, the industry seemingly needs little cue to dissolve into a theatrical panic when their champagne raid on the taxpayer wallet — or their fiefdom rights — are questioned.
With the government’s current review of policies to promote Australian screen content, the screen lobby fears a nefarious federal intent to water down existing local content quotas for commercial broadcasters; particularly as they do not apply to rivals such as Netflix and Amazon.
Instead of easing content quotes, the campaign is demanding the government extend them to new media forms – and expand the industry’s already generous tax incentives and subsidies. That’s right – they want you, the already over-gouged taxpayer, to hand over even more money, while the heavy hand of government forces Netflix to produce more Australian content.
The sheer audacity is remarkable, given Australian taxpayers already gift the industry more than a billion dollars every year. It’s not simple to calculate the combined figure of total annual support, but handily the federal government has revealed a grand total of $1.6 billion for 2014-15. It’s unlikely to have been much less in any of the subsequent years.
Further, our broadcast media is already forced to produce large quantities of Australian programs to meet local content quotas.
It is high time to question the policy case for supporting the screen industry. At best, the government’s current policy objectives are vague and confused – a mishmash of promoting ‘cultural value’ (whatever that means), local jobs and international tourism. At worst, the purpose is blatant protectionism.
Perversely, protecting the industry from international competition is likely to have a dampening effect on the quality of local screen productions. Competition for consumer attention makes media companies produce films and television programs that people actually want to watch. But thanks to the deep pockets of the taxpayer, Australian film and television projects with questionable value to consumers regularly get a green light.
It is incredibly difficult to quantify the economic impact of subsidies for the screen industry. The government regularly boasts of job creation in film-making, thanks to your tax dollars. For instance, they claim that local production of the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film — lured to Australia with a taxpayer handout of $21.6 million — employed more than 2,500 Australians. But the sensible question is whether these people would have been employed otherwise. If so, this is not real job creation; it is simply distorting the allocation of labour in the economy.
And it is highly questionable whether Australian consumers are the huge fans of local films and television shows that the industry claims. The unfortunate truth is that Australian films generally have a terrible record when it comes to box office performance. Based on available data, 14 local films that received a whopping total of $7.8 million in production subsidies in 2015-16 — not counting any additional funding received from tax incentives or state government subsidies — went on to earn well under $9 million in Australian ticket sales. And other films that received upwards of a $1 million that year in production subsidies have either failed to find a distributor for release in Australian cinemas or have been sold off to a digital player like Netflix for a likely modest price.
Despite these inconvenient facts, a delightfully dotty report commissioned by Screen Australia claimed to ‘prove’ that Australians are great supporters of Australian screen. What was the evidence? Based on a small survey of just 1,000 Australians, the report asserted that the average Australian would be ‘willing’ to pay $28 per year for the option to watch Australian content and $22 for others to have that option.
But it seems that the survey responses were perfumed with virtue-signalling, as Australians are voting very differently with their wallets. Based on last year’s local film box office of $49.4 million in total, we actually spent only around $2 to $3 each for the option to watch Australian films on the big screen. Even if you throw in a few more dollars each for watching Australian subscription content at home, the amount we each spent on watching local content is well below the trumpeted $28 per year.
But what about promoting Australian culture to the world? After all, maybe we backward Aussies do not appreciate our own culture, but the urbane sophisticates of other countries do. Unfortunately, Australian films do not fare much better among global audiences. Over the last 30 years or so, an average of 22 Australian feature films were released in Australian cinemas annually, but on average, only seven were released in the UK, four in France, and two in Japan.
So despite the questionable value to audiences, we continue to prop up the local screen industry because Australian actors and producers persist in pushing a fatalist view of their industry: that it could not possibly survive if it was exposed to the forces of competition. As their petition histrionically states: ‘Our ability to keep telling Australian stories on screen is at risk, our voices in danger of being drowned out by a deluge of overseas content.’ The delightful irony of that statement cannot be ignored. Many of the signatories are internationally successful actors who have no scruples in taking part in big-budget overseas productions. Did Cate Blanchett realise she was ‘drowning’ Australian voices when she agreed to star in The Lord of the Rings? Or Chris Hemsworth in the lucrative Thor franchise?
A suggestion for our local screen industry: perhaps if your voices learned to sing more in tune with the tastes of Australian consumers, they would not rush to cover their ears. This new harmony would also eliminate the need for our tax dollars and government regulation to sustain your industry. Instead, Australians might voluntarily pay to watch the films and shows that you produce. Now there’s a radical idea for species survival.
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