Sunday, 25 March 2012

Pure Independent Pictures: How to rebuild our film industry from the bottom up

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.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Pure Independent Pictures: Creativity is the key to sustainable filmmaking

Most Australian films are not successful at the box office, which is why the industry is heavily subsidised, and running at a huge financial loss. Even after decades of extensive government film funding, Australia's share of the box office is shrinking. 
Australians don't have any trouble making world-class films overseas, so what's the problem here? Why do we still not have a commercial self-sufficient film industry?
A crucial ingredient of good filmmaking is creativity. The problem with our mostly state-controlled industry is that the government is limited in how much creative freedom it can allow filmmakers. They can't merely hand out blank cheques for filmmakers to create freely, so they impose a range of selection criteria. The trouble is, the criteria are not necessarily based on entertainment value or even the bottom line. If they were, it's clearly not working.
The same type of thing occurs in the American studio system, but for different purposes. Corporations tend to obsess about profits while governments tend to obsess about social control. Under both systems the filmmaker's creative freedom is limited. This is why independent filmmaking is so important.
Independent filmmaking is the lifeblood of any film industry. It acts as a breeding ground for emerging talent, and can work as both a springboard and a selection process to feed the broader system. Also, independent filmmakers need to connect with audiences in order to survive. If they don't see a return, they simply can't continue to make films.
Though all too rare, some of Australia’s best films have been independent productions. Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, The Castle and Gabriel are good examples, and there are many more if you go back even further in time. At the birth of cinema, Australia was a prolific filmmaking nation. We made hundreds of films before the state had anything to do with it.
Australia produced the world’s very first feature film in 1906 called The Story of the Kelly Gang. This followed a mini boom in what became known as 'bushranger films'. In a very short space of time Australia produced dozens of films. We got off to a flying start and this was 100% due to the efforts of independent filmmakers.
The government's first involvement in filmmaking was to ban all bushranger films. Apparently these films were so popular that they were causing civil unrest. This killed the early industry success. Later, the government maintained a strict regime of censorship and gradually independent filmmaking became a thing of the past.
Today it is almost impossible for independent filmmakers to compete for finance, talent, and the all-important 'shelf-space' in the way of cinema screens. Also, non-commercial films (ones that wouldn't exist if it weren't for the government handouts) create a poor quality image for Australian films that makes it more difficult for independent filmmakers to raise finance. Investors don't want to invest in an industry that makes a loss, whether the loss is taxpayer funded or not.
Our industry is in a catch-22. If Australian filmmaking becomes profitable, the government will no longer be able to justify funding films, so the production money will dry up. Alternatively, if Australia continues to produce non-profitable films, private investors will not invest.
The only way to achieve a self-sufficient film industry is to attract private investment. To do this we need to get back to basics and focus on producing good films with small budgets. Then we can grow organically. We can promote Australian Independent Films as a profitable alternative.
Fortunately, today, there is a new opportunity for a revival in Australian independent filmmaking. Digital technology has paved the way for micro-budget films to compete with the bigger budget foreign and government films.
American films such as Paranormal ActivityClerks and Open Water have proven that micro-budget filmmaking is not only possible, but it can be highly profitable. In fact, some of the most profitable films of all time have had very low budgets. Mad Max is one of them and for a long time it held the world record as the film with the highest profit-to-cost ratio.
Crocodile Dundee, with a relatively modest budget and financed locally, was the second highest grossing film worldwide in 1986, beaten only byTop Gun.

More recently, the independent film Gabriel did very well at the box office, though relatively little was made of the success here in Australia. Some people probably think Gabriel is an American film and maybe its producers prefer it that way. No surprises for guessing whereGabriel's filmmakers are now.
So there is no question that Australia can produce world-class commercial films. We have both the talent and the money. What we lack is the independence.
Independent filmmaking is the future and the lifeblood of our film industry.
Jason Kent is an independent filmmaker and the founder of Pure Independent Pictures, an initiative dedicated to supporting only purely independent Australian films.