Independent filmmaking is rare in Australia because it has become very difficult for independent filmmakers to compete with the government-funded and foreign studio films. Independents must compete for finance, talent and the all-important ‘shelf-space’ in the way of cinema screens.
At the birth of cinema, Australia was a prolific filmmaking nation. For several years we produced more films than any other country, and they were all independent productions. Among them was the world’s very first feature film called The Story of the Kelly Gang, in 1906. This was followed by two years of rapid growth in which we produced dozens of independent films. Unfortunately this ended when the government banned bushranger films, and established a strict regime of censorship.
Today, our film industry is mostly government-funded. Some very good quality films still manage to sneak through, but industry growth is not as high as it should be. Australia’s market share has shrunk in recent years, in part because our industry is running at a huge financial loss. Increases to government funding can not possibly keep pace with a profitable commercial industry.
Clearly we need a self-sufficient film industry that does not rely on government handouts. Australian films must be good enough to stand on their own two feet and rely only on ticket-sales, rather than tax dollars to fund production. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to attract private investors to an industry that is notoriously unprofitable, and a product (Australian Films) that have earned the reputation as being non-commercial, or worse, non-entertaining.
The solution to this problem is independent filmmaking. Some of the best and most profitable Australian films have been independent productions. Films such as Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, The Castle and Gabriel are a few.
Independent films tend to be more profitable and make a better connection with audiences, simply because they need to. If they don’t, independent filmmakers can’t survive. Independents don’t have the luxury of huge budgets to splash on production values and marketing and they don’t have a ready source of public finance. Independent filmmakers treat filmmaking more like a business, which means they need a greater respect for the audience. They can’t afford to be self-indulgent or socially detached.
Independent filmmaking also allows filmmakers greater creative freedom. They are not at the mercy of the filmmaking bureaucracy or the establishment--with their various political considerations or entrenched views and formulas. Independent filmmaking forces filmmakers to push the boundaries of creativity and take the art form to higher levels. Indeed, to stand out from the crowd, independents need to be very creative.
Independent filmmaking has now become a more realistic alternative thanks in part to digital technology. Films can be made relatively cheaply, and micro-budget filmmaking has become very profitable. In fact the films with the highest cost-to-profit ratio are generally micro-budget films. American films such as The Blair Witch Project, Open Water, and Paranormal Activity have proven that micro-budget films can compete at the highest levels.
Australia can follow this example and rebuild our industry from the bottom up. We need to concentrate on connecting with audiences, and if we can do this well – if we can do our job – then we may be able to attract private investment. We also need to keep costs to an absolute minimum. We need to innovate.
There’s no excuse for Australia not to have a self-sufficient film industry. We have both the talent and the wealth. Now all we need is the independence.
Jason Kent is the founder of Pure Independent Pictures. He wants to encourage other filmmakers to remain true to their vision and remain purely independent.