Most people enjoy a movie. But should the government pay for a local screen industry?
Since the early 1970s, the answer to that question has been “yes”. Before Phillip Adams and Barry Jones convinced John Gorton to start funding Australians to make movies, the majority of the television and essentially all of the movies consumed by Australians were made overseas. Australia has developed a significant local screen industry since, but it’s been highly dependent on government funding.
While successive governments, both conservative and Labor, have trumpeted the value of federal subsidies in creating a “sustainable” local industry, in truth the whole sector is heavily reliant of both regulations, such as local content quotas for television drama, and subsidies for film production, such as the production offset.
The best example of the unsustainability of Australian screen is the Film Finance Corporation, a government-owned film funding agency set up in 1988. Unlike Screen Australia and its predecessor, the Australian Film Commission, the FFC was supposedly set up along commercial lines — investing in profitable films and using the proceeds to plough back into the local industry.
It didn’t work. By the time the FFC was wound up in 2008 it had invested about $1.345 billion in local productions. It made back only $274 million, for an investment loss of more than $1 billion. As the old saying goes, a billion here, a billion there — pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
In many artforms, small government investments reap huge returns in artistic and social outcomes. But this investment is ultimately taxpayers’ money. As with all government spending, we all have a right to to ask whether that’s money well spent.
Labor backbencher Ed Husic made just that point this week, questioning the $21 million being spent on Hollywood feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The federal government is spending the money in order to lure a big overseas studio to produce the drama at Sydney’s Fox Studios. Husic publicly wondered whether the money would be better spent on an MRI machine for his local hospital in Sydney’s west.