Feature Article by Caitlin Burns
What have you been watching lately? Have you been getting your daily dose of Neighbours or watching the contestants battle it out on MasterChef? Or are you more engrossed with independent dramas such as ABC’s Mystery Road and Jack Irish? Whatever it may be, it would be fair to say that Australian-produced television has exceeded in keeping the nation entertained during eight weeks of meticulous, and often mundane lockdown.
In late March, each Australian state and territory implemented their own social distancing rules and lockdown regulations. Screen practitioners were among the many businesses considered ‘non-essential’, which has now caused over 60 productions to shut down or postpone, including television programs: Back to the Rafters, The Bachelor, Survivor, and Marvel’s action-blockbuster, Shang-Chi.
The halt of homegrown entertainment has led to a loss of over 20,000 jobs, and with no support package available for those working in the arts industry, many are struggling financially and mentally.
On March 30, the Federal Government launched the JobKeeper subsidy package to compensate businesses and sole traders who have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. But those freelancers who work from one project to the next, as film directors, set designers, electricians, make-up artists, actors, among others, are ineligible to receive the stimulus, as they are contracted under the Pay As You Go (PAYG) system by the production company.
In late March, Elise Tyson was stood down from her role as production secretary on a Fremantle Media television show filming in Melbourne.
“I’ve been living off my savings and the JobSeeker supplement. As a freelancer I am always conscious when working to put my savings aside each week because of the instability of the work.”
Ms. Tyson went on to say how the Australian Government’s support for workers in the arts and entertainment industry is dismal. “Without a federal package announced to help our industry, I just don’t know what more can be done.”
Recently, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg MP, announced that the $130 billion JobKeeper Payment was overestimated by $60 billion. Mr. Frydenberg has said repeatedly that the Government will not distribute the money into the arts, hospitality, or tourism industries, which were especially hit-hard by the pandemic.
“Now that we know that the government over-estimated the total cost of the scheme, it’s not hard to see that they could have altered some conditions to include us.” said Ms. Tyson.
Meanwhile, the Minister for Arts, Paul Fletcher MP, stated that there will be no upcoming stimulus support for those greatly effected in the arts industry. In an article written for The Guardian, the Arts Minister mentioned that those with a “more fluid or flexible employment, JobSeeker is available for at least six months, at a rate which is around double the national median per person income for arts-related activity, and around 70 per cent of median artist income.”
However, Mr. Fletcher failed to address the differences between the two packages; JobSeeker is almost $400 less than the JobKeeper payments and does not come with the advantage of guaranteed employment.
Where is the support?
Well before coronavirus, freelancers and funding bodies have continued to slam the Australian Government for their lack of support towards an industry that was reported in 2016, by Deloitte Access Economics, to contribute to $3072 million in value add to the economy; and 25,304 full time equivalent jobs each year.
Up until their merge with Screen Australia in 2007, the Film Finance Corporation continuously encouraged federal and state investment bodies to increase their spend on developing local content. As film production budgets have escalated since the 90s, government funding has remained “relatively static” according to a 2004 inquiry.
Without an increase in investment this will ultimately reduce the number of projects created in Australia, placing the thousands of jobs that are needed to sustain the industry at risk.
Since the rise of Ozploitation films in the early 70s a large amount of production funding has come from the Federal Government. Today, the Government directly funds around $80-90 million per year in the form of grants which are administrated by federal funding body, Screen Australia. This funding is also supplemented by tax-based support and tax incentive schemes.
Both the Producer Offset and Location Offset, implemented in 2007, have contributed to numerous benefits to the Australian economy. The Producer Offset supplies a rebate of 40 per cent for Australian-made films; and the Location Offset of 16.5 per cent, encourages international productions to be created in Australia, increasing the amount of locally sourced jobs.
Photo. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is controversially considered to be an Australian film which meant it was approved for the 40% Producer Offset in 2013. (Source: AAP/Warner Bros).
It is clear that these government-based initiatives have had pragmatic effects on the industry. Within five years of their implementation Screen Australia had given 500 new productions the green-light for development, including films, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and The Great Gatsby (2013). In addition, television dramas had increased by 36 per cent.
However, despite this positive impact, Screen Australia claims that these offsets are simply “outdated” in today’s digitally advanced society. As Australian television productions rise, so does the funding needed to produce them. The Producer Offset favours feature films by a 40 per cent rebate, compared with 20 per cent for television shows. Today, television programs now exceed the amount of films created each year and have a higher employment rate, therefore the distinction between the two formats is no longer valid.
Even the Location Offset of 16.5 per cent is hardly competitive with that of the United Kingdom or New Zealand who have a much higher offset of around 20 per cent.
“I didn’t know what to do or who to talk too.”
The film and television industry is often perceived as having billion dollar budgets, large pay-cheques, a-list stars, private trailers, and a never-ending snack table consisting of finger sandwiches and freshly ground coffee. However, this ideal of glitz and glamour is far from the reality seen within most Australian productions.
The industry is highly competitive and extremely unpredictable with the irregularity that freelance work entails. Work hours can range from 12-14-hour days, expanding over a 5-7 day working week, and often there is no added bonus of benefits or job security.
Joshua Smith was working as a unit assistant, setting up catering tents and facilities, on Marvel’s new superhero film, Shang-Chi, when production halted in April. The production began in February at Sydney’s Fox Studios and was expected to employ around 770 local crew during its time of filming.
“It was such a great gig to work on whilst I could. The company really looked after us unlike other shoots I’ve been on… Last year I worked on a small budget shoot where I’d have to get up at 3am each morning for two weeks straight.” said Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith has worked in the entertainment industry for almost 17 years but was unfortunately not eligible for the JobKeeper supplement either. His 2020 work schedule was looking great; he’d work with Disney on Shang-Chi for a couple of months and would then go on to work on another big budget production for the following seven months. This meant he’d be earning a consistent wage and would not have the added stress of looking for employment in the meantime.
“I was completely shocked when I learnt my work would be effected. I didn’t know what to do or who to talk too... I think the government could always do more. Not just financially but even if they implemented programs to help those struggling mentally and to stay motivated during the crisis.”
A 2017 study by mental health charity, Entertainment Assist, found that workers in the entertainment industry experience double the amount of suicides, are five times more likely to show signs of depression, consumption of alcohol is twice as high, and rates of other drug use range from seven to twelve times higher, than that of the general population.
According to the charity the reason for such high rates of poor mental health is “passion”.
“You have creative, sensitive, passionate people working in one of the most cutthroat industries there is. The supply is way more than demand… The industry itself is a factor and has enormous impact on the health and wellbeing of people.”
Fortunately, mental health awareness is continuing to grow, especially with the creation of online support videos and programs by Entertainment Assist. Recently, the Federal Government even stepped in to provide financial aid; announcing a $10 million funding package to open up the Support Act Wellbeing Helpline to all members of the arts and screen industries.
“I wasn’t aware of the helpline,” said Mr. Smith, “but I definitely think it is a step in the right direction. It is great to hear that there are thousands of workers who now have at least some outlet to talk about their issues and receive help.”
Can the industry survive?
Can the film sector recover from the losses endured during the pandemic, or will it continue to struggle as it once did pre-corona? Already, postponing productions has led to a loss of $195 million according to a survey by Screen Producers Australia.
Cara Hurley was the 1st Assistant Camera Operator on the Packed to the Rafters reboot, called Back to the Rafters, when the production shut down amidst coronavirus safety concerns.
An industry veteran of 14 years, she believes that the industry will be able to recover financially after coronavirus, “but that does rely quite heavily on the Australian Government supporting it, both monetarily and by reinstating Australian content quotas”, which have been dropped during the pandemic as the industry shutdown.
Content quotas set the minimum number of hours that network tv and streaming services must assign to Australian-made content. Without these quotas the networks and streaming services are under no obligation to fund, produce, or air Australian entertainment. Instead, they can flood their service with overseas films and television shows that are typically easier and cheaper to purchase in bulk. “This is the real danger to the Australian film and television industry right now.” Ms. Hurley said.
Senior Lecturer at Deakin University and documentary filmmaker, Simon Wilmot states that it isn’t so much about whether the industry will recover financially, “a better measure is through the framing around employment levels.”
The more local audiences use streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, the more money goes offshore and so the less money remains onshore to be invested in local production and so create Australian livelihoods. “The question then is, what impact has the pandemic had on viewing patterns? If the answer is that Australian’s are more engaged by US based platforms, then we can expect that there will be less money for local production.” said Mr. Wilmot.
The people of Australia therefore play an integral role in supporting the screen industry. When Australians watch local content on Free-to-Air broadcasting networks or reputable ‘catch-up’ streaming platforms such as ABC iView, 9Now, SBS On Demand, they are essentially backing the thousands of employed freelancers.
A reduction of Australian content streamed across the country and globally, will also greatly effect the tourism industry. In 2017, a Deloitte Access Economics report estimated that around each year 230,000 international tourists either visit or extend their stay in Australia because of viewing Australian film and television content. This creates a diverse domino effect, as international tourists, and the productions that film around regional Australia, inject enormous amounts of money into local economies. This spending surges the need for hotels, hospitality services, transport, tourism, and job opportunities within the productions themselves.
It is clear that the impact coronavirus has had on the Australian Film and Television Industry is widespread; causing productions to cease, jobs to be axed, a rise in mental health awareness, and a look into the current state of support offered by the Federal Government. Although the industry may be able to recover financially, the thousands of employees affected may not be so lucky.
There is a strange irony of not being considered ‘essential’ at a time when people most need escapism. Coronavirus has disproportionately affected communities that have never before had a platform or seen themselves represented properly.
“If one positive thing can come from it, it may be the push we need to finally force us to change the status quo. Now, more than ever, let’s allow these voices to be heard.” said Ms. Tyson.