Saturday, May 26, 2012

Is THE GREAT GATSBY an Australian film?

Baz Luhrman’s GREAT GATSY is in the news again, as it will be on and off for months to come. The questions remain:

"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:

 “(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.”

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.


  1. out of work filmmakerMay 26, 2012 at 7:28 PM

    Agree whole-heartedly. Why is there so little discussion about all this money being spent on a non-Australian film? Not just within the Australian film industry but in the community at large? Why should taxpayers fork out $40 or $50 million or whatever the figure is for a product that does nothing but benefit a small number of Australians (film crews) for a few months? At least with 'Australia' there was a product that had some relationship with the country after which it was named. How will Australians who footed the bill for up to a third of 'The Great Gatsby's' budget benefit from it?

  2. I like the Blog here James. I do. But who gives a fuck what the monkeys in the departments do with the taxes. It makes no difference to the quality of life experienced in Australia. Thinking a state department has any place i making a good film is a treasonable idea. I like the idea of the forum but for the part where, 1: it included the involvement of public servants, 2, that you furthered the fansiful idea that QandA actually produces any outcome whatsoever. Going to the state for money to eat can be forgiven. Going and ass kissing a pube to get money to make a film is a dogshit effort. Why would you even offer them suggestions? Just about everyone else is more deserving of your efforts James. I 'll happily sign up to your advice, but not if you wanna give it to the ATO as well. We live in a country where the real issues don't matter because we have one of the highest standards of living. If that changes, I think people will only then expect governments and its gazillion departments to operate on our wishes. But as it stands James, I would feel just as safe if you took the national defence budget and invested it in three hundred sequels and prequels of Snakes on a plane and the merchandise themed to it. Maybe it is a generational thing but If tax dollars weren't being spent on ridiculous things or implementing community programs that harm the taxees, I would start to think something was very, very wrong. It will be a fucking miracle James. I 'll greatfully welcome any story and script advice though. It is so useful. Take it to the man and show him I say James. State departments and the executive are largely inaffective and always have been.

  3. I'm not sure we can talk about Australia with the specificity that your comments suggest, James. What are the identifying characteristics of 'Australia' - whose Australia? There is an Australian history, to be sure, and there are Australian myths and legends, but even then we might ask who are they for. The Tingarri song cycles provide the ultimate law and meaning for life among the Pintupi, Walrpiri, Kukatja, or Pitjantjatjarra people of the vast Australian hinterland, but I'm not sure what relevance they'd have to Australians living in Bankstown or Rylestone. And if we speak of an Australian language, why be so narrow as to limit our vision to "she'll be right mate", "struth", and "fair bloody dinkum?" I copped a lot of criticism about my play SIXTEEN WORDS FOR WATER when it premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company in the early 90s, with a fair whack of critics and others questioning its right and mine to call it an 'Australian play' because all the characters were Yanks and it was set in a mental hospital in Washington DC. My usual reply was to ask why it was okay for Shakespeare to be an English playwright when he wrote so much about Italy. I think it's time we got over the cultural cringe, but saying this I am also mindful of the very real cultural imperialism that competes with our best work. All I can say is that we have to go on making great films, like The Rocket, and keep making them, and making them better and better. It's no good begging for attention if when you get it you have nothing to show your audience that's going to make them care. The play's the thing, always has been - always will be.