Does Australia need the Great Gatsby?
As film producers and Screen Australia bureaucrats argue about whether Baz Luhmann’s 3D remake of ‘The Great Gatsby’ is more worthy than other feature films to be financed in part by the Australian taxpayer, some questions are worthy of consideration.
What will Australian taxpayers get for their $40 million contribution to the coffers of Warner Brothers - an American producer of film and television entertainment whose primary market is the United States?
What will NSW taxpayers get for their contribution to Gatsby’s budget – a sum that the Keneally government tells us, with its customary lack of transparency and accountability, must be kept secret?
That a substantial part of Gatsby’s $120 million budget will be spent in Australia will be good news in the short term for the film technicians who work on it and for the providers of other services required in its production - but is it good news, in the long term, for the Australian film industry?
Why is it important that we have an Australian film industry? Would it really matter if the federal and state governments stopped subsidising it and allowed it to die a natural death as other inefficient industries are? (The Chinese could, after all, make Australian films for a fraction of the cost!) Or if, for whatever reason, we feel that an Australian film industry is in some way important to our culture, are there ways in which $40+million of taxpayers’ money might be better spent?
The word ‘industry’ is problematic - conjuring up, as it does, a product for which there are identifiable consumers and from which a profit is expected to accrue. Virtually no Australian films make a return on the investment in them (the Australian taxpayer being a major investor) and to pretend that they ever will is to delude ourselves and lead to the wrong questions being asked.
Imagine if we referred to ‘the Australian ballet industry’, ‘the Australian Opera industry’, the ‘Sydney Symphony Orchestra industry’, ‘the poetry industry’ and so on. As industries they are all abject failures so why do we bother to subsidise them?
Drop ‘industry’ and think only in terms of ‘Australian film’ and the questions become both more interesting and more pertinent. Harking back to the days when political parties on both sides of the political divide felt that Australian film was important provides us with a context within such questions can (and I believe should) be asked today.
As far back as 1963 the Senate Select Committee Report on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for television felt that there was “a responsibility to protect an industry with a strong cultural element”.
In the late 60s and early 70s the various bodies involved in providing the industry with a philosophical base stressed that “(T)he industry (should be) pre-eminently Australian in character, not dominated by other cultures; that government sponsorship would support ‘film and television projects of quality’ and produce ‘distinctively Australian’ films that would ‘provide the Australian people with a national voice and a record of their way of life”.
The Report of the Interim Board of the Australian Film Commission declared that:
Australia, as a nation, cannot accept, in this powerful and persuasive medium, the current flood of other nations’ productions on our screens without it constituting a very serious threat to our national identity. The Commission should actively encourage the making of those films of high artistic or conceptual value which may or may not be regarded at the time as conforming to the current criteria of genre, style or taste, but which have cultural, artistic or social relevance.
Some may not become commercially successful ventures, but these may include films which posterity will regard as some of the most significant films made by and for Australians. Profit and entertainment on the one hand and artistic standards and integrity on the other, are not mutually exclusive. In the long term the establishment of a quality Australian output is more important for a profitable, soundly based industry that the production exclusively as what might be regarded as sure fire box office formula hits.
Baz Luhrman’s Great Gatsby may well be a box office hit. It might be a masterpiece. It will undoubtedly provide, for a brief period of time, much wanted and needed employment for those who crew on it. It will not, however, be an Australian story told for Australian audiences and reflecting aspects of our own culture for the benefit of present or future generations of Australians. It will an American story with zero relevance to Australia above and beyond the relevance that all great cinema (all great art) has for mankind in general.
So, how might Gatsby’s $40+million of Australian and NSW taxpayers’ money be better spent to nurture the production of Australian films that speak to and of being Australian? In this new digital era in which it is possible to produce feature films for comparatively low budgets and to distribute and broadcast these on a variety of different platforms. As Paranormal Activity revealed a couple of years ago (budget $11,000, worldwide box office in excess of $100 million) if a story captures the imagination of the audience, it matters little whether it is shot on widescreen 70 mm or with a mobile phone.
But that’s just a one-off, like the Blair Witch Project, it might be argued. Fair enough. How about The Kids are Alright - budget $4 million, worldwide box office $30 million. Yes, the film was undoubtedly helped at the box office by the presence of film stars (Annette Benning, Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska) but why did they choose to work on the film for a fraction of their usual fee? Because it was a terrific screenplay. Could we make 10 Australian films of the calibre of The Kids are Alright (with or without stars) for the cost, to the tax-payers of one Great Gatsby? Yes, if there were 10 screenplays as good (why there are not is an important question but space does not allow it to be gone into here).
Another low budget that most readers will not have seen (get the video out if you can) is Once - a $150,000 Irish film that took $19 million at the box office. Then there’s Catfish, still screening around Australia. The film has taken over $3 million worldwide to date and, while its budget is not public knowledge, it certainly looks as thought it could have been made for almost nothing. And this is the point.
Audiences (albeit niche) don’t go to see films such as Catfish in the expectation of stunning photography and marquee stars. They go to see it because it is fresh, original and in sync with the zeitgeist.
$40+ million would fully finance 20 $2 million features, 40 $1 million films, 260 $150,000 features and God only knows how many films with budgets similar to that of Catfish.
Take Nigeria, for instance, with no tax concessions, no Screen Australia, no highly paid bureaucrats in control. 300 producers turn out around 1,200 feature films a year (budgets around $23,000) that are uniquely Nigerian in their stories and themes and which have given rise to the world’s second largest ($500 million) film industry in terms of features produced.
No, I’m not suggesting that Australia emulate Nigeria, whose industry arises from unique circumstances peculiar to that country. I am questioning, however, whether $40+ million of Australian taxpayers’ money might be better spent on maintaining a continuous output of low budget Australian films that speak of and to our culture. And, when the script warrants it, make $15 million films such as The King’s Speech. (Australian taxpayers could almost fully fund three Kings Speeches for the amount they are contributing to one Gatsby!) Or the Australian equivalent of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Despite the film’s lack of stars and subtitles this $13 million film has taken over $100 million worldwide.
The Great Gatsby will have to take around $900 million at the box office to be as commercially viable as The Kids are Alright. Perhaps it will, but it still won’t be an Australian film.
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