The Guardian June 7, 2000


Australian film and television:
Corporate grip on the arts

by Marcus Browning 

A program on ABC Radio National last week had a panel discussion and talk-
back about television, specifically the Australian industry. In looking at 
aspects of television the dollar bottom line was noted but not criticised. 
It was accepted as a given, including that the non-commercial ABC must make 
the commercial imperative part of its production values.

This reflects to some degree the extent to which the corporate mind-set has 
penetrated people's thinking (aren't the free market and privatisation 
natural and inevitable?), and raises the wider issue of the lack of 
critical examination of the tightening corporate grip on film and 
television in Australia, and the need to rally the forces opposed to it.

With governments tucked in their pockets and the power and influence of the 
mass media at their fingertips, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer have pretty 
much had a free run in their appropriation of Australia's film and 
television industries.

Stripped of any specific cultural context and fitted up with American 
accents, mannerisms and values, the films churned out at Fox studios are 
dazzling but sterile pods: they have no life or meaning beyond their own 
closed-off existence.

What Packer and his ilk are doing to television is more subtle but no less 
pernicious.

Hoopla and hype

And there's no end of hoopla and hype on television and in the print media 
exalting the great contribution Fox is allegedly making to the Australian 
film industry. Certainly in Murdoch's The Australian and his 
tabloids. 

Murdoch's papers carry gushing, gossipy accounts of the premiers of the big 
budget action movies at his Fox studios on the Sydney Showground, which it 
should always be remembered was handed over to him for less than nothing by 
the NSW Labor Government. 

This form of promotion has been Murdoch's modus oporendi from the 
beginning when he first invested in film, with show business entrepreneur 
Robert Stigwood, in Peter Weir's 1981 film, Gallipoli.

When Gallipoli screened in Britain the only up-market broadsheet to 
heap praise on it was The Times, with the paper's film critic David 
Robinson finishing his review thus: 

"The entry of Messrs Robert Stigwood and Rupert Murdoch into films, with 
their R&R Productions, caused a great deal of apprehension and suspicion 
among the proponents of a policy of indigenous films, who felt that big 
business entrepreneurs like these must take the Hollywood trail. As it was, 
R&R, as their first production, finally provided financing for Peter Weir's 
long-cherished project. 

"Gallipoli justifies the investment in commercial as well as 
artistic terms. In demonstrating the universal appeal of a national 
subject, unpromisingly treated, it may also prove a decisive factor in 
determining the course of Australian films."

Murdoch, of course, owned The Times. And were those supporters of 
the local film industry right to be apprehensive and suspicious?

Figures show differently

Well, figures from the Department of Communications, Information Technology 
and the Arts show that an increase in film and television production of 20 
percent  to $678 million in the last financial year  is entirely 
because of Hollywood productions made here in Australia i.e. The Matrix, 
Star Wars, Mission:Impossible I and II.

At the same time local film and television production fell 30 percent and 
the Federal Government is now brandishing an axe at the Australian Film 
Finance Corporation because of its temerity in having $26.4 million set 
aside for local films.

Work on another Star Wars blockbuster has begun here. Like the 
Mission Impossible films, only part of it will be made in Australia, 
the part where it requires, as its producer Rick McCallum puts it, "the 
most flexible English-speaking crews in the world".

This is in part because they've learned to work on shoestring budgets. The 
rest of the film will be made in Tunisia and Italy. McCallum is also 
impressed with Australian tradespeople: "The carpenters here are 
fantastic."

Dissenting voice

The Australian Screen Directors Association, one of the dissenting voices 
in opposition to the Murdoch monopoly, sees things somewhat differently to 
McCallum and the Government. 

"A lot of directors are trying to get projects up but they are struggling", 
notes the Association's executive director Richard Harris. "There hasn't 
been the money to allow producers to run their offices and properly develop 
projects.

"We are slowly seeing the results of a lack of development money for a 
number of years."

* * *
Next week: television in the marketing wasteland.

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