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submitted by George Poulos on 18.06.2004

George Miller - lamenting the loss of Australian identity and culture

George Miller - lamenting the loss of Australian identity and culture
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Australian Broadcasting Corporation


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Broadcast: 30/7/2001

Australian culture fades from screens

Tony Jones discusses the future of Australian film and television with two of Australia's best-known producer/directors, George Miller and Hal McElroy.

Compere: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: Joining me in the studio is one of Australia's best-known producer/directors in both movies and television, George Miller.

He's had a string of international successes, including the 'Mad Max' trilogy, starring Mel Gibson, the two 'Babe' films and a variety of TV miniseries such as 'Bodyline' and 'The Dismissal'.

George Miller has been nominated three times for Academy Awards and he's presently working on 'Mad Max IV'.

Also joining me is another giant from Australian film and television industry, Hal McElroy.

He's produced films including 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' and 'The Sum of Us' as well as some of Australia's most enduring and successful television dramas such as 'Blue Heelers' and 'Water Rats'.

He also recently produced an interactive drama series for SBS called 'Going Home'.

Welcome to both of you.

Hal McElroy, let's start with you and the Australian television drama crisis.

It seems obvious from everything that we've heard that there definitely is a funding crisis.

How serious is it?


I don't want to be too alarmist because there's a passion in the industry that will always keep us going but the truth is that the costs are rising, inevitably.

The market that we're facing is dominated by the American product and the networks in Australia have been paying reducing level of licence fees for the production that they're putting to air.

What that means is that the production values that you can put on screen for Australian television is effectively reducing and it makes it very hard, therefore, if you're competing on those same screens with American product which is sold here at very low costs, to compete for that desirable target, particularly the younger demographics.

The younger demographic like American product and they like that expensive look and we just can't deliver it to them and that's a problem for us.

TONY JONES: So when I ask how serious is it, what would be the consequences if the situation we're in now continued?

HAL McELROY: We wouldn't have the mirror that Australian content on Australian television represents to the audience.

We would have our young people growing up watching American, primarily, popular drama and music and film and we would have lost the battle for their minds.

Now, that's not a battle I'm prepared to give up on.

I have three relatively young children and I care about what they see.

And I think we should all care about that.

Australian content protects us, as parents and adults, against an invasion, a flood, of American, English and, to a lesser extent, European product that is sold at a fraction of its production cost, so the content regulations are crucial to our survival and have been the underpinning of the film industry that George is such a hero in.

So the two industries, film and television, are hand in hand.

So, if television is suffering, so is film.

TONY JONES: Alright, we'll come to that in more detail in a little while.

George Miller, you've made some of Australia's best-known television miniseries, sticking with television for a moment.

We mentioned some of them -- 'The Dismissal', 'Cowra Breakout' and 'Bodyline' for example.

Could you do that today under the present funding arrangements?

Could you even hope to make those miniseries?


I mean they were -- what was interesting about them is they were very parish-pump stuff.

When we made them, we weren't required to sell them overseas.

They did, ultimately, but they were for Australia, to reinforce or amplify Australian culture.

TONY JONES: How were they funded, though, because it's clear that these days you can't get the money to make that sort of stuff?

GEORGE MILLER: They were funded in two ways.

Basically, legislation which still exists and also, at the time, a network which was very keen to get good product.

It was started by Rupert Murdoch when he started Channel Ten and basically, whatever you say about Murdoch, he gave us one brief, basically, and that was to make really bold television, no strings attached, no creative controls.

And we said, "We want to do 'Dismissal'" and despite many of his executives saying, "No-one's going to watch it," I think it rated incredibly highly.

I think that was back in the early '80s.

So it came from the will of the proprietors to push for something bold and secondly, we had the legislation.

We were able to fund it and they were done reasonably effectively and efficiently.

TONY JONES: Hal McElroy, that will among the networks -- does it exist even anymore?

I mean the sort of thing we were hearing about Rupert Murdoch there.

Does anyone running a television network in Australia have that sort of sensibility these days?

HAL McELROY: I think producers recognise that running a network is a very big business.

They pulled in $3.2 billion in revenue.

They have obligations to shareholders to maximise their return and, if they can get the cost of programming down, then that means their profits increase.

Unfortunately, too often they think of the Australian production as the weakest link in the chain and so they want to squeeze us because they want to protect the bigger suppliers -- Warner Brothers, whomever -- at the expense of the Australian production.

What we have to say as an industry is that there is a price you pay having control of the -- Australia's spectrum, broadcasting to Australians.

The price you pay is Australian content and, if you want good content, you must put up the right amount of money for it because it would be a very sad thought if we contemplated a history of Australian television that did not include 'The Dismissal' or 'Bodyline'.

If they are absent, then there's something wrong.

We have to do something about that and, if the ABC chooses to spend more than a commercial network on a production such as 'Changi', then good luck to them.

I hope it's a fine production.

It's a wonderful story and I encourage people spending good money to make quality production because, if we can make quality, we've got a chance of selling it internationally.

TONY JONES: But, Hal, how are you going to encourage these hard-headed businessmen and their accountants, if you like, that run these networks, to take a risk with drama when they now know that, for spending a lot less money, they can get something like 'Big Brother' which has other spin-offs -- you know, they can get people paying money to dial in and vote.

They can get money on the Internet.

HAL McELROY: I think, for start, let's correct a misapprehension.

It is no longer a risk to put good Australian production on air.

I think that 'Blue Heelers' every week, 'Water Rats' every week, 'All Saints' every week, 'Home and Away', 'Neighbours' every week demonstrate that a good Australian production will get an audience and hold that audience better than any other form of television programming, better than current affairs, better than comedy, better than sports and, if they're prepared to pay $450 million for five years worth of AFL shared amongst three networks, then spending $110 million a year on Australian production is, I think, relatively cheap.

And so I think -- we shouldn't also speak of networks as being all the same in their attitude.

Channel 7 may have five television drama series -- Australian television drama series on air next year.

Now, I applaud that.

There's more work for all of us and more mirrors we're holding up for both old and young.

Other networks have a more aggressive attitude in regard to the bottom line but I just want to encourage them, not threaten them, to say that there is an audience out there.

We must meet that audience need and help us by giving us the money to do it well because, if we do it well, you'll be proud, you'll achieve your ratings goal, your revenue goal, we will achieve our goals and we'll have something worthwhile to sell internationally.

TONY JONES: You say you don't want to threaten them but would you consider what the US screenwriters did, which is a strike, industrial action.

They figured they had industrial muscle.

Now, they may have been proven wrong in the end but would the Australian industry ever be in a position to do something like that?

HAL McELORY: I think there's sufficient feeling amongst people that we've got to address this issue.

If the networks turn their back on us, I don't know what's going to happen.

What I do know will happen --

TONY JONES: By "turn their backs on you", you mean continue with the status quo?

HAL McELORY: Correct.

They have to do something about it.

And I think they're beginning to recognise it.

TONY JONES: But let me move back very briefly to that point -- you believe there is scope for industrial action?

You believe there's a possibility that might happen?

HAL McELORY: I think that there is always that sort of possibility alive when the level of passionate commitment that is common in the industry is invested and we're denied opportunities so, yes, there is that, but I don't want to be alarmist.

I want to work to solutions.

I want the networks to listen and to respond because the audience out there will say "thank you" when they do.

TONY JONES: George Miller, how do you put pressure on the networks and the network heads to think like Rupert Murdoch thought when he said to you, "Do what you need to do in order to put that Australian drama on?"

Well, I don't think you can because even someone like Rupert Murdoch was looking to make a name for his newly acquired network.

I think you have to appeal a little bit more deeply than the bottom line.

I think it's about Australian culture.

As Hal said earlier, basically, nearly all our culture has been filled up by American culture.

We have to get our narratives from somewhere.

It's what defines who we are as a nation and that's a very, very significant thing and, when you have people who run networks, people who run policy not even understanding how important that is, it slowly fades away, falls away and, pretty soon, no-one even knows what Australian-ness is anymore.

TONY JONES: How important is the ABC, for example, and the SBS as breeding grounds for talent for this industry?

GEORGE MILLER: I think you cannot underestimate what has been done by the ABC.

Going back decades, traditions not only -- virtually every major talent in commercial television and most of it in the cinema and television business in Australia, here and overseas came out of the wellspring of the ABC.

TONY JONES: What about the ABC now, George?

I mean, a lot of those people, those budding cameramen, they no longer work here?

GEORGE MILLER: It's tragic, this brutalisation that's happening in the name of I don't know what -- economic rationalism.

I have no idea what is happening in the management here.

It is tragic.

And it's something -- it's very easy to destroy something, it's very, very hard to build it up.

It has taken decades and to see it sort of thrown away by sort of lazy thinking and really not even understanding the problem is actually shocking.

A great resource and it has nothing to do with politics.

It's a resource that transcends politics.

It's the means by which we have been able to tell our stories.

You take that means away, that void will be filled and we'll all become American.

I can see it with the kids around me.

They're more influenced by American culture.

They don't know what it is to be Australian.

TONY JONES: What about the broader problem, though, Hal McElroy, of selling this material overseas?

I mean, one of the most successful television drama series the ABC's ever done, 'Sea Change', took a $5 million loss.

Is it that what we're doing is too quintessentially Australian and doesn't sell overseas or is there some other problem?

HAL McELORY: Is that so bad?

If we're telling stories that really mean a lot to Australians then that's a very, very valuable achievement and I think that 'Sea Change' is one of those programs that we can all be very proud of.

The fact that they may not be interested in Israel is not necessarily of concern.

TONY JONES: But the producers of 'Sea Change' and the people who took that loss, they're not going to do that again?

HAL McELORY: No, that's true.

And we should understand that.

The Government should understand.

Australians should understand.

The voters should understand this next election that there may a price we pay to see 'Sea Change' on air and that is we have to put a little bit more money up.

GEORGE MILLER: Which is perfectly reasonable when you look at what has been spent on sport and I think -- I'm a big sports fan but, when you see what's being spent on sport per, say, gold medal at the Olympics, it's a loss leader but the symbolic power of that, the potency of that, is exactly what happens in our film and television.

And it doesn't matter if 'Sea Change' loses.

What the nation gains in something like 'Sea Change' is much more.

TONY JONES: What sort of stories, then, should our film makers and television drama people be telling?

I mean, should we be telling generic stories or quintessentially Australian stories?

GEORGE MILLER: Well, this is a very big question and I think, without giving a bit of a lecture on it, I think you've got to see it in two parts.

There's the world hyperculture, basically dominated by America and there's a kind of parish-pump culture that's to do with the local culture.

Virtually, what Australian cinema and television has used up over the last three decades is virtually all its history so movies are moving -- and television -- are moving into the more contemporary culture and the problem is a contemporary culture tends to be fairly small because it's borrowed.

If you want a powerful story set in -- if you want a story about drugs, for instance, or police corruption, sure, you're going to get it in NSW, Queensland or whatever but you're going to get a much more powerful story out of Dade County, Florida or Bogota in Colombia and so on.

We have to find ways of retelling the story.

I personally think, you know, we're behind -- we're falling so far behind because, if we've mined all the great sort of epic stories, we now have to move into vernacular.

I think we start dealing with things like 'Moulin Rouge'.

Basically, they're old stories told with new style.

TONY JONES: In the end, how do you compete -- in television terms first, Hal McElroy -- how do you compete with glossy Hollywood miniseries or Hollywood dramas like 'ER' for example, which cost, to make, millions per episode when we simply don't have that sort of money here?

HAL McELORY: Competition is very difficult so what will help is if the networks agree to pay a larger proportion of the costs rather than half or less than half -- sometimes as little as 15 per cent or 20 per cent on a television movie which, to my mind is ludicrous -- or 20 per cent of the cost of production.

That just doesn't figure in my view.

So the licence fees should go up.

Maybe to encourage that the Government should introduce, in its content regulations, some allowance for the licence -- the size of the licence fee.

We should be supporting the Government organisations and increasing their financial support -- that's the FFC, the AFC, Film Australia, SBS Independent and the Children Film and Television Fund.

And we should be trying to create an environment where so-called foreign production -- in other words productions made in Australia using foreign money -- example 'Matrix' -- can, and Australian productions can, co-exist with each other and complement and support each other.

That may mean that we should look at the legislation about tax incentive for film and television production and look at variations there that would make it easier to attract investment or to include television series.

They're the sort of range of options because it's all about, in television terms, reducing the deficit to a manageable level because, otherwise, what will happen is, if the deficit is too large, we'll simply have to make generic stories which have little to do with Australia and then the value that they could provide us with in terms of teaching our children who we are will be lost.

TONY JONES: George Miller, we've covered a lot of ground here but I know that you do have at least one big idea.

Could you let us have it?

GEORGE MILLER: Well, actually the big idea is to first of all recognise the problem and all be party to its solution.

I think to even recognise there's a cultural problem in this country.

The way to do it -- sure, financing and funding and quotas and so on are fine.

I think they should be a given.

I think our politicians should simply do it.

That's not even the issue.

It's how do we generate the stories we tell.

And as Peter Weir called that, the creative gymnasium of a kind of cinematheque, a national cinematheque, which I've been an advocate of down at Circular Quay for over a decade now, a place where you can gather together like minds accessible to everybody in Australia, where ideas can be thrown around because how do you generate the new ideas?

How do you, first of all, throw up the mirror to your culture and then throw up the stories that somehow are significant?

You need to formalise that process in some way.

TONY JONES: So it's like a university of film and television?

GEORGE MILLER: These accidental informal campuses that happen.

They're no longer happening at the universities.

Tropfest is a fantastic example.

It started, you know, in a coffee shop, formica-tabled coffee shop.

It was run purely on enthusiasm.

We started making films in television.

There wasn't a buck in it.

It was run purely on enthusiasm.

But you need to create those spaces for them to happen.

Another virtual creative gymnasium was the ABC and I'm really gobsmacked at how that's been lost on the people who are sort of picking over its corpse at the moment.

TONY JONES: We're going to have to leave it there, I'm afraid.

We could talk all night.

And we'll hold our hopes that the ABC will once again become a wellspring for creative culture.


TONY JONES: There's still a few people here who believe in that.

George Miller, Hal McElroy, thank you for joining us tonight.


HAL McELORY: Thank you.

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