To the creative people who make motion pictures, TV programs and computer games, these productions are all about the art, however anyone who has tried to make a career in The Arts knows that the business aspect (aka funding), is every bit as important. Darren House spoke to Graeme Mason, CEO of one premier arts funding agencies, Screen Australia, and discovered the best way to approach a funding submission.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE ROLE OF SCREEN AUSTRALIA CEO?
I was very keen to do this job and it was exciting to come home. I’ve worked around the world and it was a great opportunity to have a job here in Australia. At the risk of sounding like someone in a reality show – I thought I could make a difference – use that international experience and bring it back here.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE JOB’S CHALLENGES?
A big challenge here is getting people to recognise that we are all on the same side and that we are part of the industry. I think it is also a challenge – and imperative – to ensure people understand that we can’t control whether or not they have careers, or whether or not their film or TV project is a success.
Every year new (and) exciting people join our sector; that is fantastic but no one ever leaves the sector and nor should they. But people need to take a step back and think (producers) join the funding pool every year with requests (for funding) but no one leaves the pool. It’s getting very crowded in that water and I just don’t know that the industry here clocks that very clearly.
YOU ARE FROM BOTH THE CREATIVE AND BUSINESS SIDES OF THE INDUSTRY AND YOU ARE NOW WORKING WITH GOVERNEMENT. HOW DO YOU BALANCE THOSE VASTLY DIFFERENT ELEMENTS?
It is an interesting challenge. I think the key for me – and I’ve said this very clearly – is that I am from the industry, I’m of the industry; we are for the industry, and that is why we exist. We are not the ministry, their job is to be quite rigid and ensure that the policy is being carried out appropriately as government – both big and little ‘G’ – would want. Our job is slightly closer to the sector.
But where I am lucky is – as you say – I come from a creative world, the production world, but I also have worked for big studios, and I have worked with little ‘Indies’, and trust me, you have to make the money go as far as you can. I think that is the kind of rigour that we need to put onto projects here.
We need to recognise when someone does a little film, or they do a documentary, or a drama – all of those producers are setting up a business. They run that business very efficiently, and we need to have that same kind of mentality about the sector as a whole. We are making creative stuff but we are all spending money, and there is a hope to make some money from it as well.
TO ADD TO YOUR DIFFICULTY, INEVITABLE CHANGES TO GOVERNMENT OFTEN AFFECTS FUNDING AND POLICY.
We are very cognisant of the environment that we are working in; there are pressures on both private and public funding sources, so it is another reason why it is imperative that the industry works with us, and helps us work with them, to find alternative and additional revenue sources. That is just the reality.
Another thing I would suggest is we are not alone in this situation. Even China – which had been paying for almost everything here and everywhere else – is in an economic slowdown, so you would have to be living under a rock not to clock that there are going to be funding issues for most businesses for some time.
DOES SCREEN AUSTRALIA INTERACT WITH STATE FUNDING AGENCIES?
We interact a lot. I am very keen to let people know that there are separate doors to enter through. Our agencies have different agendas, but I think there are some things that potentially the state agencies could do and we could get out of, and vice versa, which would free up some of our time and personnel, and therefore free up more money to come back into production.
YOU MENTIONED A HIGH NUMBER OF FUNDING APPLICATIONS – RECEIVING SO MANY APPLICATIONS MUST MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO ACCESS ALL SUBMISSIONS.
It does. (Funding) agencies were set up to be very even-handed, treating everybody the same, as you would expect when it is a democratic process and you are spending taxpayer’s money. But at the same time, we are going to mostly say “no”, and that is not because we think the ideas are no good, it is because there are just so many coming in the door. I think we had about 14 feature films come in for the last round of production funding and six or eight TV drama short series. Now that’s more than Australia would normally fund in an entire year.
So people have to recognise that if we are going to have six or seven (funding) meetings a year we are likely to be saying no to 12 out of those 14 features and six out of the eight TV projects. That’s just the reality, even if we think some of them are good.
I don’t think people recognise that a lot of other support is coming in to the sector. Even if we said no with the offset program, as long as they are eligible, there are programs that cover 40 per cent of costs for feature film productions and 20 per cent for television, so you would still be going out to market with that 40 or 20 per cent in your back pocket. That, compared to many places, is a huge support, which is coming from the government.
DO YOU ADVISE PRODUCERS HOW TO PROCEED IF FUNDING IS NOT AVAILABLE?
Yes, and that is where I see I’ll be taking us, trying to help in ways other than just money, and we will do that whether we are putting in money or not. But certainly where we are not, and we believe the project has legs, pointing them in the right direction. That is the reality of the business, worldwide. It is not possible to fully fund everything that comes in the door, and it never has been, but it is certainly getting to the pointy end.
IS IT TOUGH FOR YOU TO BE AN INDUSTRY SUPPORTER BUT TO ALSO SAY ‘NO’ MORE THAN YOU SAY ‘YES’?
It is very tough. No one really is going to care or be interested in the issues that we face internally, but I am trying to ensure our overheads and keep costs as low as possible because the most money should be going into projects, industry developments and people development.
But the more submissions we receive and the more feedback they need, the more people we need to employ and the more overhead we encompass, so it becomes this monolith.
It is why I encourage the industry to find as many other ways as possible to get films, TV shows, games, multi-media projects, made without full whack from us.
DO YOU GIVE FEEDBACK ON UNFUNDED SUBMISSIONS?
We do give some feedback, though that’s another thing we are looking at because if people – and I understand this – spend five years at night writing their brilliant story and they get a ‘one-pager’ (feedback) back from us, it’s infuriating. But if we were to give real feedback and notes on all the things we said no to we wouldn’t function.
Many sister agencies of ours around the world do not give feedback on no’s at all, so we are trying to find a happy medium where at least we explain why we said no. It may not be creative feedback but it is feedback – for example, we didn’t understand the story, or we didn’t understand its place in the market.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE TYPICAL MISTAKES THAT PRODUCERS MAKE WITH THEIR SUBMISSIONS?
Probably the biggest one is they would have a story that is incredibly interesting and appealing to them, and this is across all mediums – film, telly, games, multi-media, docs, but there is no clear reason why it would be interesting to anybody else. There is no sense of audience and I do not mean multiplex or prime time telly.
We are a cultural agency and we look across many things to reflect the stories of Australia but my number one thing would be people haven’t thought (it) through – would anyone else care, would anyone else want to go see it, and in cinema terms, would anyone want to pay $17? If it’s telly, why will I stop and choose that show out of all the myriad things to potentially watch when I am at home with access to the internet and cable channels? Why would I watch it?
So I think people have to be very clear why anyone else would share their passion. And often they tell the story in such a way that we don’t understand why we have passion for it, so it is not very well told. So it is those two things – why would anyone else care, and show it to us in a way that makes that clear.
AND TO THAT POINT, SCREEN AUSTRALIA DOESN’T JUST HAND OUT CASH – YOU ARE LOOKING FOR A RETURN.
Normally what we look for is some kind of return OF our investment – not ON, – the distinction there is we aren’t like a bank looking for our money back and some more. And the reason we do that is it provides some kind of proof that there was an audience for the project. And we use that (returned) money to reinvest in new projects. Any money we recoup is reinvested into our projects.
AUSTRALIAN FILM TENDS TO BE ABOUT STORYTELLING RATHER THAN HOLLYWOOD-STYLE ACTION BLOCKBUSTERS.
Normally the film and TV projects that we fund are like that because Australia doesn’t have the funds to compete – we couldn’t make Harry Potter without studio backing. Obviously we have very talented story tellers who could make it, but there isn’t the cash. Only a quality studio could fund that.
So by its very nature, most of the film and TV things are slightly smaller, they are slightly more personal Australian stories. Again one always has to be very careful, you have to be cognisant of the audience but you have to recognise that audiences change and sometimes don’t know what they want until it’s there.
But you also couldn’t decide to make a film or TV drama based on what was successful today because by the time it is out, tastes could have moved on. It is a juggling game, which is why everyone should be full of admiration for producers who work with writers and directors to work out what could capture an audiences’ attention years down the line.
AS WELL AS FILM AND TV, SCREEN AUSTRALIA ALSO SUPPORTS NEW MEDIA.
Most of the new media things we support are pretty low-spend from us. Often, of course, some of the things are offshoots or precursors to something else, so they might be a web series that could turn into a TV show or a film. The issue for us, on anything we consider supporting, is to work out how and why our money would make a difference.
We could probably spend our entire budget on multi-media but we are not going to – we do it in a very judicious way and again that means we say no to a lot of the submissions, though in that field particularly, we haven’t found as much resistance because people in that sphere are used to doing it themselves. That is the expectation, whereas I think with film there is an expectation that Screen Australia will fund – and fund majority – and that’s the challenge in that sphere. And it’s also true that film and big TV drama is really expensive to make.
YOU ENCOURAGE FIRST-TIME PRODUCERS BUT INSIST THEY TEAM WITH INDUSTRY PRODUCERS.
I am a firm believer in encouraging new voices and talent, but the best way for them to succeed is to work with experienced people. If you are a first time writer, producer or director, you need to find an experienced person to work with. It is essential, it is how we work and I think that is our role, particularly now as there are different ways to make things yourself. You can – it’s sort of a terrible joke – but you can make can make something on your smart phone – even if it doesn’t deliver the type of quality that you want – that can show something of your story and your flair.
So I like to encourage a teaming-up, it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your story or your economic back-end, you’ve just got to find someone who can assist you. It’s the same as anything else – if you suddenly wanted to be a chair designer or a clothes designer, you might have a great idea but you are going to have to find someone with experience to assist you to make it.
The difference with film and telly is, we have people coming in and asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions or tens of millions, so they first have to show some level of competency and skill.