Wed, 31 Mar 2021 - 14:38
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Keynote Speech: American Chamber of Commerce in Australia “Hollywood to Harbourside” Luncheon

Twelve months ago things looked very grim for Australia’s screen sector. Today, they are buoyant.

So this is a great time to be talking about the Australia’s screen sector - and how we maximise its impact as we emerge from COVID and for the longer term.

I congratulate AmCham for bringing together an impressive collection of screen industry figures for what is a very timely discussion.

Let me acknowledge Kate Marks, CEO of AusFilm, who has been kept very busy recently; Bruna Papandrea and Jodi Matterson from Made Up Stories, who have been having a stellar run recently, including producing Nine Perfect Strangers in Byron Bay; Kylie Watson-Wheeler who heads up Disney in Australia; Luke Hetherington from Industrial Light & Magic – and the many other industry luminaries who are here today.

In my remarks today, I want to touch on three things: how we have worked to sustain domestic production through the pandemic; the sweet spot we are enjoying in attracting global productions; and the Morrison Government’s policy settings to sustain and build the domestic production sector.

Let me start with sustaining domestic production – and the $50 million Temporary Interruption Fund (TIF) I announced in August last year.  At the time production sector activity was sharply down. COVID had led to many productions being halted; and it was a blocker to them getting going again.

The Australian screen sector had moved quickly to agree COVID-safe protocols - and I want to acknowledge the leadership of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in this work.  But the big problem was that screen financiers would not release funds because of their concern that production could be interrupted if a key cast or crew member were to fall ill due to COVID-19.  With insurance for this risk not available, the government decided to step in.

We quickly devised a scheme under which Screen Australia would provide financial cover for this particular risk. With this cover available, financiers could release funds. In turn, this meant local productions could get underway and cast and crew could return to work.

I am very pleased with how TIF has worked. Screen Australia has done a great job. So far 41 projects have been approved for cover under TIF, underpinning projects in every State and Territory.  The sum of the production budgets for these 41 projects is more than $294.5 million.  

Screen Australia tells me that around 290 people have been employed and 140 businesses supported on each production. Over the course of 2020/21, Screen Australia expects TIF to have assisted with over 10,000 production roles and 5,000 business contracts.

The scale of domestic production activity is pleasing. What is even more remarkable is the extent of global screen production now occurring in Australia.

I think there are four powerful factors that have come together to drive this boom.

Firstly, Australia is perceived around the world to have managed COVID well. That has made us an attractive location for global productions to choose in a very difficult time. 

Secondly, that pull factor has been reinforced because major Australian actors and producers like Nicole Kidman, Chris Hemsworth and Bruna Papandrea have used their industry stature to bring global productions to Australia.

Thirdly, all of our traditional strengths are important.  We have great locations.  We have highly skilled and professional crew and actors.  We have good studio facilities in multiple locations.

Fourthly, there’s the money! I refer of course to the Australian Government’s Location Incentive Program.

In July last year, as clouds gathered around our screen production sector, the Prime Minister announced the expansion of the Location Incentive over seven years, boosting the total funding to $540 million and extending to 2026-27.

The Prime Minister personally drove this decision to expand the Location Incentive Program.  When he and I discussed it, he was determined to seize the opportunity that the pandemic presented.  He wanted to attract global productions to Australia – because they generate thousands of jobs, because they boost skills and capacity in the Australian screen sector, and because many of these productions will showcase Australia’s spectacular scenery to the world.

The decision to extend the program out to 2026-27 was very deliberate.  Our aim is to build a pipeline of large scale productions in Australia – rather than the boom and bust pattern which we have tended to see in the past.

We estimate that this program will attract $3 billion in foreign expenditure and creating 8,000 new employment opportunities for Australians each year.

Thousands of jobs are already flowing to carpenters, lighting technicians, local actors, set designers, extras, crews and special effects experts with film and television productions choosing to film in Australia, both now and over the next seven years.

We have so far announced support totalling over $216 million for 22 productions to film in Australia under the Location Incentive.

These have included three productions for NBC Universal in Queensland – Joe Exotic, Irreverent and Young Rock; Thirteen Lives for MGM filming on the Gold Coast; The Tourist in South Australia; Blacklight in Melbourne; and most recently announced, Ticket to Paradise with George Clooney and Julia Roberts to shoot in Queensland.

I had the chance to visit the set of Thirteen Lives and speak with Director Ron Howard.  Here’s what he told me about why he brought his movie to Australia:

The combination of the talent base here, along with the local locations and also the job the government has done as it relates to COVID [mean that this is] a place where we have a very complicated movie to make and we can feel safe.

I want to touch lastly on the work the Morrison Government is doing to sustain and build our domestic screen production sector.

Politics being what it is, the remarkable success of the Location Incentive has led to some grumbles from the domestic industry that the Morrison Government seems more interested in attracting Hollywood movies than supporting the domestic sector.

I might say I do not get those comments from the many Australians I meet working on big budget, large scale movies which have been attracted by the Location Incentive.  Overwhelmingly they are pleased to be working on movies where they can practise at the very forefront of their craft – be it the stunt guys I met on the set of Mortal Kombat in Adelaide; the Hunter valley based provider of horses for Marvel’s Shang Shi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; or the Australians working in very senior roles on Thirteen Lives.

But the more fundamental point I would make is that it is a false dichotomy to say that attracting big global productions comes at the expense of Australian film and TV productions.  They are complementary parts of the ecosystem.  Industry people move between global and domestic productions, and the skills they hone on large budget Hollywood movies help them do a better job when they work on local productions. 

If we have a big pipeline of productions, both global and domestic, it makes the business case stronger for new studios and other facilities.  For example, the Victorian Government committed to a new studio at Docklands as a result of Dick Cook Productions securing funding under the Location Incentive for Ranger’s Apprentice and The Alchemist.

As Minister my focus has been on updating our screen production funding arrangements and policy settings to deal with a vastly changed world. On the one hand domestic free to air television is under pressure. Between 2014 and 2019, the average primetime audience for free-to-air television declined at an annual rate of six per cent. This meant the traditional quota system for Australian content on free to air television had therefore become a somewhat shaky pedestal for our screen policy.

On the other hand the explosion of the streaming sector creates substantial new market opportunities for the Australian production sector –domestically and globally.  At the end of June 2020, 16.3 million Australians subscribed to at least one SVOD service – an increase of 32 per cent from the previous year.

Last year we made significant changes to the policy framework for screen, following release of and consultation about the Options Paper from Screen Australia and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Supporting Australian Stories on our Screens.

We also committed substantial new funding.  There is an extra $20 million for the Australian Children's Television Foundation, and an extra $30 million to Screen Australia.

As well, Screen Australia will receive $3 million over three years (commencing in 2020–21) to establish a competitive grants program to cultivate quality Australian screenwriting and script development. 

I pushed to include this measure in our policy because I think it is really important.  Great TV shows and movies depend on great scripts. Too often Australian scripts are underdone and shows are rushed into production too early. 

But there is more on the horizon. Late last year I released a Green Paper suggesting further reforms to support the future of Australia’s media and production sector.  This included proposals to introduce specific Australian content requirements applying to ABC and SBS – which oddly face no such requirements today – and to introduce Australian content spend obligations on subscription video on demand services. 

Let me conclude with the observation that the screen sector is important to Australia – culturally and economically.  The explosion of streaming services is just one of the many ways in which the market for screen content – in Australia and around the world - is growing and changing.

Australia has always had a strong and globally oriented screen sector.

It’s a sector that Liberal National governments have backed for many decades – for example when then Prime Minister John Gorton committed to a national film school in 1969.

Today the Australian screen sector’s output – and its prospects - are stronger than ever. 

And the Morrison Government is backing you strongly – to tell great stories; to generate jobs and economic activity; and to showcase our country and its people to the world.