As news broke last week that Universal Studios Group will soon be shooting three major TV series in Queensland, adding to a slate of international productions promising to bring jobs to a besieged local industry, many in the sector urged caution.
“The majority of employment in the Australian sector is not on Hollywood blockbusters made for international audiences but on Australian film and television telling Australian stories to Australian audiences,” a spokesperson from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance says.
Still, those Hollywood blockbusters are hammering at our door.
“Of course they all want to work here!” actor and director Rachel Griffiths says. “We look like a miracle.”
At the suggestion that the pandemic might yet have a silver lining for the local screen industry, Claire Tonkin, head of drama at Australian film and television production company, CJZ, says, “Well, it’s been a heck of a cloud!”
In April, grim estimates from The Guardian projected 20,000 job losses in the Australian screen industry. Screen production ground to a shuddering halt around the world.
But as many Australian states started to gain local control of the virus, and with some having been effectively Covid-free for months, international producers have turned to Australia as they scramble to find safe havens to make new product.
They are the gatekeepers of a colossal global market for film and TV production. According to figures from creative industries strategy consultancy, Olsberg/SPI, global spending on screen production reached $250 billion in 2019, with 14 m jobs created.
The federal government’s $400m location incentive boost announced in July expressly targeted international productions with the aim of attracting some of this swag. And it appears to be working.
“It’s been phenomenal,” said Kate Marks, CEO of Ausfilm. “Since April, when it became clear we were getting on top of the virus, and after the Location Incentive was announced, we’ve had $2.7bn in enquiries from international productions.” Screen agencies across the country, from Western Australia to northern New South Wales, are also reporting record requests from around the world.
Although it’s impossible to gauge how many of those queries will bear fruit, a tally of the 11 major international film and television productions either in production, or slated to start shooting locally soon, paints a healthy outlook for the local industry.
Combined estimates show an injection of just over $1bn into the sector, with almost 18,500 jobs generated by projects including Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder and Paramount’s Shantaram. Those figures seem likely to grow, with major projects involving actor Liam Neeson, and director Ron Howard, rumoured to be on the way.
But the good news comes with a caveat.
A country’s national identity is defined, in part, by the stories that we tell about ourselves
Tony Ayres, producer
Producer and founder of production company CJZ, Nick Murray, called out the shortcomings of the location incentive system in an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald. “The new scheme stuffs cash into the pockets of the studios on the false premise that helping the foreign productions is of benefit to the local sector,” he said. “It isn’t.”
If the Location Incentive is a carrot to attract international investment, quotas that force free-to-air and subscription television to produce Australian content are the stick that protects Australia’s unique screen culture, though streaming services have so far been exempt, and the question of whether this ought to continue has been hotly debated.
Those quotas were suspended in April after Covid-19 halted Australian screen production. On Tuesday, the government announced their reinstatement on 1 January 2021, but with changes that have left the industry fuming, including dropping the quota on children’s television for free-to-air TV and continuing to leave the streamers exempt.
Screen Producers Australia CEO, Matthew Deaner, described the announcement as a “backward step” that threatens to halve the amount of local content being made, and wipe out thousands of jobs.
According to the MEAA, film and television content under Australian creative control is worth about $5.3bn a year, and generates 30,000 jobs, dwarfing the international contribution to the local industry.
To defend local content, the Australian screen industry has presented a united front since 2017 through the Make it Australian campaign, stating that “our ability to keep telling Australian stories on screen is at risk, and our voices in danger of being drowned out by a deluge of overseas content.”
They point to the European Union quota system, where at least 30% of content carried by streaming platforms must come from the region.
Murray wants the same rules to apply in Australia. Some industry players see prospects for all parties to productively coexist. Tony Ayres, an award-winning Australian director, showrunner, and writer who co-founded Matchbox Pictures and launched his own production company in 2018, is a staunch advocate for Australian voices.
“A country’s national identity is defined, in part, by the stories that we tell about ourselves,” Ayres says. But he doesn’t see the need for friction between local and international productions, calling it “a symbiotic relationship” where “each feeds off the other.”
In the meantime, others are just happy to see jobs on the horizon. Griffiths envisions a promising way forward. “One key element is finding ways to collaborate on an international level to support our fantastic local storytellers to keep telling stories that have meaning for us.”