The underground Australian movie renaissance
IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
There actually are good Australian movies, and they're popular, writes Dean Bertram. You're just never told about them.
Almost two decades ago, a handful of young filmmakers were revitalizing American cinema.
Included in their number were Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and Richard Linklater. Their stories are now the stuff of indie filmmaking legend: Smith financing Clerks by selling his prized comic book collection and maxing out his credit cards; Tarantino meteorically rising from a raconteur working in a video store to Hollywood's hottest director; Rodriguez raising the cash for El Mariachi by taking part in a paid medical experiment.
On the set of 'I Know How Many Runs You Scored Last Summer'
While each filmmaker's journey differed considerably, they all shared a similar entrepreneurial mindset: utilizing whatever skills or resources they had to produce original, entertaining, and commercially successful feature debuts.
In Australia during the same period there were a lot of filmmakers doing little more than jumping through bureaucratic hoops set in place by the country's various federal and state government film funding bodies, before collapsing with doggy dinner bowl eyes in front of the public trough. If failing to receive a bone from their funding masters after their first performance, they would simply return with a new project for the next round of hoop jumping.
The pervasive role of government in Australian film funding can be traced to the activities of a few individuals in the late 1960s. The triggering event would seem to be a fact-finding mission undertaken by Phillip Adams and Barry Jones under the aegis of Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton. Visiting film schools and festivals around the world, the duo allegedly searched for a model to rejuvenate Australian cinema. In his preface to the Australian Film Institute's A Century of Australian Cinema, Adams explains that upon their return to Australia he and Jones argued for the creation of a government supported ‘boutique industry' that made ‘culturally specific films for up-market audiences everywhere'.
Their manifesto-finally realised under Whitlam-outlined a government directed screen culture, whereby a federally funded film school groomed a select few filmmakers before letting them make feature films financed by taxpayer dollars. Adams was also instrumental in creating the South Australian Film Corporation, which in turn influenced the development of other state funding bodies. The ultimate result was a Nanny State for chosen filmmakers, including a disguised work for the dole scheme for their casts and crews.
Ethical questions regarding the legitimacy of government film financing aside, other systemic problems soon developed. Nepotistic funding practices appeared almost instantaneously, with Adams becoming one of the very first Australian producers to grab federal funds for his feature The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. As did the system's anti-commercial bias, particularly in regards to anything resembling an American genre film. In the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood, Adams admitted that ‘many of us were very snobby about genre films, there's no questions about that. We didn't approve of them.'
The bias of these self-appointed guardians of public taste continued in the decades to follow. In 1979, Adams even argued for the privately funded Mad Max to be banned due to its violent content. Official cinema histories produced by the Australian Film Institute and the Australian Film Commission throughout the 1980s and 1990s barely acknowledged the existence of a rich assortment of ‘Ozploitation' films. (They have recently achieved some long deserved recognition thanks in large part to the aforementioned documentary.)
Similarly, prolific and commercially successful Australian genre producers and directors including Antony I. Ginnane and Brian Trenchard-Smith, were excised from the records entirely. It is a prejudice that still lingers. As recently as 2002, in an interview for Sarah Darmody's book Film: It's A Contact Sport, David Stratton, the archbishop of Australian film criticism, recommended that local filmmakers leave American-styled genre filmmaking to Americans and concentrate instead on producing films that can be marketed abroad as ‘art house releases'. But perhaps saddest of all, government subsidisation hobbled the entrepreneurial and creative spirit of a large proportion of the Australian filmmaking community. It created a sense of entitlement amongst many filmmakers in this country, who were never put under any pressure to make a commercially successful film. Ginnane notes: ‘This rewriting of history completely disregarded the significant financial success of films like Patrick (1978), Harlequin (1980) and Turkey Shoot (1981) in the international and US markets, let alone the roller coaster mega achievements of the Mad Max trilogy'.
Responding to the increasingly pitiful commercial performance of Australian made films in the 2000s, the Howard government introduced a number of reforms in an attempt to save the failing industry. The most notable being the merger of the three major federal film bodies-the Film Finance Corporation, Film Australia Limited and the Australian Film Commission-into Screen Australia. In 2008, this newly formed federal agency posted draft guidelines on its website. The documents outlined the new federal financing programs, and invited site visitors to email their comments. Notable by its absence from the new programs was funding for short films, traditionally available through federal sources before the shake-up. The result was a torrent of outraged responses-which were published on the Screen Australia website-from filmmakers infuriated that their chance for a free lunch was over. One response, resonating with the general tone of the other objections, sanctimoniously complained:
Australian film-makers, both crew and cast should not have to mortgage their homes, work unreasonable employment outside their choosen [sic] industry or live unbalanced personal lives simply to see their creative visions ‘magically arrive' on the screen for domestic and international audiences to consume. This is currently the unsustainable reality for many.
Probably much to the above complainant's surprise, mortgaging homes and working two jobs is also the reality for tens of thousands of folks outside of the film industry. The only difference is that when someone makes this kind of investment in a computer store, a bakery, or a plumbing business instead of a film, they are not operating in a culture that has conditioned them to believe that they have a right to carry on regardless of commercial outcome. Filmmaking is, and should be, a highly competitive endeavour. But it should be a competition based on genuine creative skill, passionate commitment, and (dare I say) business acumen, not, as it has been for too long in this country, a competition based on the ability to best tick bureaucratic boxes.
Filmmakers who have enough faith in their vision will indeed ‘mortgage their homes' if this is what it takes to see that vision realised. I Know How Many Runs You Scored Last Summer - a cricket-themed satirical slasher film that won ‘Best Australian Feature' at A Night of Horror International Film Festival this year - was written, directed and produced by Stacey Edmonds and Doug Turner, a married couple that used their mortgage-offset account to finance the film. Anchor Bay Entertainment purchased the film at its first festival screening (the UK's FrightFest). No doubt encouraged by their first film's success, the entrepreneurial couple are currently developing two new feature film projects.
Another Australian filmmaker, Canadian born and now Adelaide based Ursula Dabrowsky, self-financed the production of her low-budget horror feature film Family Demons while doing temp work. After completing principal photography, she took out a personal loan for a computer and editing software so she could cut the film herself. Almost four years in the making, the haunting film is a testament not only to Dabrowsky's considerable skill as a director but also to her determination. Premiering at A Night of Horror this year, where it was particularly well received by the festival's audience and industry judges, Family Demons garnered Dabrowsky the ‘Best Australian Director' award. I expect a sales agent or distributor to snatch up the film in the very near future.
And despite protestations to the contrary by the handout-hungry filmmakers on the Screen Australia site, the same creative success is achievable by self-financed short filmmakers.
Sydneysider Dalibor Backovic used savings accumulated from his $20 an hour casual day job as a court monitor to bankroll his $13,000, thirty minute short horror film The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis (you can watch the film in its entirety on imdb.com).
Backovic's breathtaking film has screened at dozens of festivals around the world, including Fantasia (arguably the world's most important genre festival, which is held in Montreal, Canada) and A Night of Horror, where it won ‘Best of Fest' in 2007. The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis is also included on a number of commercially available DVD compilations of outstanding short horror films. Now under the tutelage of a major Hollywood management agency, Backovic is in the process of developing his first feature film as well as a horror themed television mini-series.
While it is heresy to suggest in Australian filmmaking circles, the long-standing history of animosity from funding bodies to genres such as horror in this country has actually created tougher, more entrepreneurial filmmakers in comparison to most of their non-genre film peers. A lack of government involvement and support has proved to be a catalyst to personal action. Australia's latest high profile horror filmmakers, including James Wan and Leigh Whannell (Saw), The Spierig Brothers (Undead) and Greg Mclean (Wolf Creek), all originally faced numerous rejections by funding agencies (although Wolf Creek did eventually acquire government funding).
In his PhD thesis, A Dark New World: Anatomy of Australian Horror Films, Mark David Ryan points out that in the wake of the industry shake-up mentioned above, funding bodies, finally looking for more commercial films, are now more likely to take a chance on the horror genre. However, these projects will probably be larger budget pictures (i.e. with budgets over one million dollars), which corresponds with the recently introduced Producer Offset scheme managed by Screen Australia. Under the scheme, producers with qualifying Australian projects that have budgets in excess of one million dollars are entitled to a 40% rebate from the federal government upon the film's completion.
The Offset scheme-which, of course is essentially just another government subsidy, albeit one meant to encourage the production of more commercial films-was introduced in part as a replacement for the jettisoned 10BA. The 10BA was a recently discontinued tax concession program that allowed film investment to be claimed as a 100% deduction (it was originally set at a rate of 150% but was gradually pruned back). The 10BA program both encouraged filmmakers to take a chance on investing in their own films and facilitated their procurement of other private investment. Its introduction in the early 1980s dramatically increased the number of feature films produced in Australia.
Many producers, including Ginnane, who is now head of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, has rightly complained that the jettisoning of the 10BA is going to hamper the ability of producers with lower budget films to raise funds. Ginnane and SPAA have been pushing in Canberra and the media to reduce the threshold of eligibility for the Offset to $500,000 or less and their DigiSPAA initiative exists to help emergent ‘no budget' filmmakers achieve recognition. ‘It was hard to raise $50,000 for ‘Fantasm' in 1976 and it's no easier today to get that first micro budget together. But the maverick first timers who break in through their own initiatives are going to be the frontline of change and resurgence in the feature film industry' observed Ginnane.
However, in the best spirit of independent filmmaking while Ursula Dabrowsky laments the passing of the 10BA incentive, she asserts that not having it for her next film ‘still won't stop me.' In the words of Doug Turner, co-creator of I Know How Many Runs You Scored Last Summer, most independent horror filmmakers can still proudly claim of their products: ‘No tax-payer was harmed in the making of this film'.