Australian screen industry problems

The ABC are reporting today that television and film producers from the Australian sector are calling on the federal government to inject A$15 million of funds into the sector to help prop up a failing industry. At the SPAA (Screen Producers Association of Australia) conference today, there will be little to celebrate, with fewer Australian films attracting visits at the box office and fewer Australian dramas attracting ratings in prime time television.

But what is the reason for this decline in interest for Australian content. Certainly there’s no waning of interest in all things Australian, as lifestyle and reality programs based here will attest. One possible reason for the decline is a serious dearth of original ideas here in the Land of Oz, or at least, a resistance to original ideas among possible funding sources for drama and other content production. With the possible exception of Halifax FP and Seachange, there really haven’t been many original ideas screened on Australian television in the past 15 years. And frankly, I’m reticent to even call Seachange original. You might even call it a better-written and slightly more adult version of Home and Away.

I wonder, indeed, about the tendency to focus entirely on the drama category in the first place. Some of the most successful dramas coming out of the US at the moment are either politico-legal (eg: Law and Order, The West Wing) or a combination of drama and comedy (eg: Desperate Housewives, Gilmore Girls). Then you have the rather bizarre mix of reality programming and fictional drama which is Lost. In contrast, Australia’s offerings in the drama category are predominantly modern adaptations of the quaint Country-Vet/Hospital-Cop variety that have been churned out of studios for the past 30 years. McLeod’s Daughters (country battlers), The Alice (country battlers), the older Blue Heelers (country cop battlers), and even the ancient Neighbours (bogun battlers from the suburbs) hardly present Australia and Australians as anything even remotely interesting. Frankly, if audiences want to see a bunch of country or suburban freaks/wannabes, they’ll look at Big Brother or Australian Idol, and if they want to see something worth aspiring towards, they’ll look at Renovation Rescue or Backyard Blitz. There are few attempts in Australian content production to take risks and focus on content that could be controversial and even remotely amusing, unless it’s reality programming. Yet The West Wing, Law and Order, Six Feet Under, Queer As Folk and Desperate Housewives were all of them, highly controversial on release.

And the same goes for Australian film production. The US is presently in the clutches of comic book and superhero obsession with the likes of Sin City, The Fantastic Four, and the X-Men, Spiderman and Batman series. Otherwise it’s all about remaking (or reimagining) earlier classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Bewitched or the Dukes of Hazzard. Really it should be an easy time for Australian film makers to release something extraordinary into the mix. But still Australian film makers have focussed on the typical Aussie battler, in amusing, squalid or quaint country contexts. Take this year’s top box office products:
1. Strange Bedfellows (Michael Caton and Paul Hogan): Two Aussie blokes battling the system. Paul Hogan again? Please.
2. Somersault: Bogan bush love story set in the snowy mountains, with some token Aboriginals. Stereotypical in the extreme.
3. One Perfect Day: An Aussie battler returns from civilised society in London to the harsh urban bushland of a series of rave parties to discover which particular drugs killed his sister. Okay, modernisation of the bush fantasy, but there are still a great number of unpleasant Aussie steroetypes in this production.
4. Thunderstruck: Probably the most original of the top five, but still just a mockumentary about an AC-DC style band tour around the Australian countryside.
5. Love’s Brother: 1950s Bush immigrant love story. They’re a Wierd Mob for Dummies.

It’s all a bit embarrassing. Not a terribly original, admirable or thought-provoking product among them.

I am not so arrogant as to pretend to understand the reason for declining box office and television ratings interest in Australian productions, but I think that as creative developers begin writing new content they ought to take some lessons from what is going on overseas. To engage current audiences, it might be worth considering some new ideas and even exploring some characters and storylines that are not ‘typically Australian’. And rather than complaining about the cheap costs of importing American product, perhaps creators should instead be looking at the content of their programs, the settings and the writing in order to attract investment and interest in Australian productions.

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