Graeme Mason has a long history working in Australia and around the world. The CEO of Screen Australia told a Mediaweek podcast this month: “That was helpful to me when myself and the staff were working out last year to help as best we could, to keep the sector going through Covid.”
In Britain Mason worked across all aspects of film production, sales and acquisitions, and distribution for companies such as Polygram Filmed Entertainment. From 1998 to 2002 he was president of worldwide acquisitions for Universal Studios. He then joined Channel 4 Television UK as head of media projects and later as managing director of rights before moving to New Zealand to lead the New Zealand Film Commission from 2009 to 2013.
Some highlights from the podcast:
Australian film and TV market
We have a very different way of funding. I might be a little biased, but I feel our crews, our production houses, the facilities and the actors and producers are really very extraordinary. What I have always felt, and feedback I get back internationally too, is that we are a nation of problem solvers.
We are incredibly supported by government, even though some may disagree. I work for the Federal Government and we have a lot of great things like the ABC, SBS, NITV, we have production offsets across film and television which is unlike anywhere else, except New Zealand, vest in the producer.
The Federal Government also funds the Film and Television and Radio School, and it contributes to NIDA which turns out everything from actors to set designers.
Then there are State Governments who plan an enormous role in local and international projects. There is a big eco-system of funding support to ensure Australian stories get told.
Show me the money
Screen Australia is spending in the vicinity of $90-$100m in direct investment whether it be in the development of stories or investments into projects via grants. We also administer and run the Producer Offsets for both film and television. That is in the range of $200m a year. The two key groups we look after that for are the Federal Government who gives us the money, and the sector which we are trying to help grow and develop.
The differences between loans and investments
Traditionally anything under a $500,000 amount we will give out as a grant. If the amount is more than that it becomes an investment. We then take a position in the recoupment of that investment in that film or TV show.
Screen Australia was formed in 2008 by the merging of the legacy agencies [Film Finance Corporation, Australian Film Commission and Film Australia]. I was working for another company at the time, but we had a pitch about drag queens on a bus going through the dessert. My then company Polygram invested in it as did Australia’s then Film Finance Corporation (FFC). The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was a very, very successful investment and it was great to work with Stephan Elliott and Rebel Penfold-Russell and the other people on it.
We were part of See Saw’s movie Lion which was a great thing to be part of.
I should say in principle we are not about money. We are nothing like a studio. We also look at the potential audience who will consume the content. For some of the online projects we fund for not very much money, the makers are getting millions of views around the world. That is an extraordinary return for the Australian taxpayer as well as helping those people along to the next things in their careers. RackaRacka, twins from Adelaide, have had over 1.3b viewers of their YouTube content. The highest-trending thing on YouTube in Australia in 2017 and 2019 was Superwog. Two brothers from Sydney doing their own take on their lives. At all times we are asking, ‘Where is the audience for your content?’
What do people neglect on applications?
One of the biggest failings I see is people neglecting the audience question. Probably because they have spent so much time working on the creative idea. If you can’t explain to us who you are hoping will enjoy this, or moved by this, or learn by this, and how you are going to get to them, then you are not doing the full job. Making the content is only the very first part of the war.
Do applicants get much more than a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ from Screen Australia?
It varies. People probably don’t understand the volume of stuff that comes in. We get literally thousands of applications a year. In feature documentaries for example we had 20 applicants in one round and maybe 12 feature films. That’s for funding. For development add a zero to those numbers for every single round. If a project falls at the first hurdle then all people will get is a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ response.
As projects move up the chain they will get slightly more feedback.
What sort of volume is there in terms of movies, and does much get made with your support?
We probably invest in the high teens in terms of feature films a year via direct funding, not counting offset. In a normal year there is something between 60 and 100 Australian films made. We are only in maybe a third at best – more films are made without us than with us.