"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 $10 million contribution to Gatsby’s budget – or whatever the amount might be?" (The size of the investment is a secret which, in itself, should be a scandal. How can the state government essentially give away up to $10 million and reveal no details!?)
That a substantial part of Gatsby’s $120 million budget was spent in Australia was good news in the short term for the film technicians who worked on it and for the providers of other services required in its production - but was it good news, in the long term, for the Australian film industry? Short term gains versus long term viability?
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 $50 million of taxpayers’ money (or whatever the secret sum is) 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? And why, leaving the arts aside for a moment, do we as a nation massively subsidize athletes who will compete in the Olympics in a few months? If we were to think in terms of the ‘athletics industry’, conversation about the role that these athletes will play in our national life becomes skewed in a way that most would find laughable. And yet we cling to the word ‘industry’ doggedly.
Drop ‘industry’ and think only in terms of ‘Australian film’ and the questions become both more interesting and more pertinent. Baz Luhrman’s GATSBYA may well be a box office hit. It might be a masterpiece. 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 $50 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 few 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).
Regardless of the precise amount of money invested by Australian tax-payers in GATSBY the question remains: Might this sort of money be better spent in terms of fostering both the industry and culture of Australian film? This is a debate which it seems to me should be in the forefront of our thinking all of the time – even if it turns out that GATSBY is a huge hit and that Australian tax-payers get a financial return on their investment.
Looking backwards is usually problematic but at times it is worth considering where we have come from and why we have been on this journey at all. 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 questions about Australian film (both the industry and culture) 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:
The Report of the Interim Board of the Australian Film Commission declared that:
I believe that these inspirational words are worth bearing in mind today as we debate the pros and cons of investing 10s of millions of tax-payer dollars in films that are not in any way Australian – as is the case with GATSBY.