Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner today opened the 36th SCREEN FOREVER conference at The Star Event Centre Gold Coast:
I’ve been considering the best way to frame to you the challenges that have faced the industry in the policy and government space in the last few years. There have been many, and they have created existential threats for many in the industry. But in thinking back over this, my mind takes me back to my first few weeks at SPA, and the first SPA Conference I attended in this role.
After a full-on week of conference activity, I feel a weighted obligation on my shoulders, as through the conference I came to appreciate the weight of the industry’s anxiety and concern around what it needs SPA to do, while representing its interests to the Government.
And what I quickly came to understand was that this anxiety and concern all comes back to the conditions of business, and the uncertainty that arises when the settings around the policy interventions in our market are unclear or are under pressure.
And in many ways, this is unavoidable, as we are an industry that provides a product that is totally dependent on third parties to trigger the elements that bring a project together. None of us are an island – we all rely on that layer of commissioning to see our visions become reality.
But there are a range of other really significant variables, the degree to which they create uncertainty is almost entirely reliant on the settings put in place by Governments of the day, and this is what we have seen play out in vivid detail over the last 12 to 18 months. We can very rationally judge the impact of Government actions in terms of whether they create more, or less uncertainty for the sector.
In terms of certainty of commissioning demand, the shape and depth of regulated quotas determine so critically the conditions for operating in our sector. There has been no greater illustration of that than the fall out to our industry as we saw the Government first suspend, then devalue, the quotas applying to commercial free-to-air television. The rules for subscription TV were also suspended. The impact was immediate, with well-developed projects cut from slates, sharp downturns in commissioning activity, and severe impacts on individual member businesses.
Empirical data is now available that reveals the true impact of these changes – investment by commercial free-to-air television in Australian drama in 2020-21 was half the amount of the last full year of the outgoing regulatory framework. The amount of drama made for commercial free-to-air television also sharply declined as a result of deregulation, and there was a devastating impact on children’s content, where there are now no regulatory protections and pretty much no production even though in the middle of this all one of the broadcasters launched a children and YA content focused channel – obviously valuing that audience – that now uses our spectrum just to show US content. And investment from subscription television reduced to almost nothing for a whole year, with permanent cuts on the Government’s agenda.
All in all, the current Government’s response to heavy pressure on television quotas fiercely exacerbated uncertain operating conditions for drama and children’s producers in particular and SPA will take every opportunity to put this case to whoever forms the government following the coming Federal Election that is only weeks away now.
We are fully aware of the damage done, and what we must do to correct it.
This uncertain outlook has been made worse, not better, by the slow, protracted and largely ineffective proposals to regulate safeguards for Australian content on streaming services.
The moment before us represents a unique opportunity to push for a forward-looking, effective and meaningful framework for Australian content on increasingly pervasive streaming services. The delay in achieving this over the past few years makes the task harder but our case for fairness and consistency across platforms is strong.
Streaming services are incredibly successful platforms that are starting to replace traditional platforms as the predominant place Australians seek entertainment.
The history of public policy intervention in media in this country centres around the principle that platforms with a high degree of influence on Australian society should bear corresponding responsibilities to contribute back.
There is also ample evidence that Australians want and expect access to their local stories on these services, and that they want more than is currently available.
SPA believes that any new regulatory framework for screen content must also directly incentivise or require the production of content from First Nations people.
A requirement or incentive for streaming platforms to work with Indigenous-led businesses on projects with a genuine Indigenous voice is critical at a time when the preservation and maintenance of First Nations language, culture, food and way of life is extremely important to Australia’s cultural identity.
Whilst some streaming providers have pursued some engagement with local audiences through Australian content off their own bat, it is often at a minimum level of true local story and it is certainly not true of all providers, and it is not true across some critical genres of production such as children’s content.
Years of experience tell us that voluntary engagement is uncertain and vulnerable to a range of external pressures.
We have a history of hollow if not sometimes well-intentioned promises in this industry that fall away without firm regulatory backstops.
We also have a local production sector that is geared up and ready to be more consistently engaged with the streaming platforms to deliver greater levels of the content Australians love.
It’s abundantly clear – the time is right to move decisively and with clarity of purpose to set up a framework that is future-proofed and will deliver for current and future generations.
Unfortunately, what we have seen emerge from the current Government acts not to address any of the contextual uncertainty in this space, but rather to exacerbate and deepen variability of demand from commissioning streaming platforms.
Our assessment of the Government’s proposal, which is currently out for consultation, is that it creates a soft, years-long and uncertain pathway to regulation, featuring an untenable amount of Ministerial discretion and uncertainty, with a possible result of less new Australian content on streaming services.
There is no justification for the ‘wait and see’ basis of this proposed framework. The policy conversation regarding these issues has been in train for a decade, and the need for meaningful regulatory action has been clear for many years.
In contrast, the industry has put on the table a progressive and effective proposal, which we stand by, and which would deliver rich dividends in terms of certainty of investment, jobs and creative content. Not only do we address the central issue of an internationally competitive rate of obligation, but we also have a proposal before Government for negotiated terms of trade, to provide some structure and predictability to negotiations between producers and commissioners – negotiations which, at this point in time, are marked by volatility and a striking imbalance in bargaining power.
We will continue to engage with the current Government through its consultation process but are making it abundantly clear to them that the uncertainty and risk that its proposal would create will damage the sector and let industry and audiences down.
Beyond the Federal Election, we will continue to advocate strongly with whomever the new Ministers are for clear and well understood regulatory obligations that bring certainty to existing and potential new market participants.
I want to pause for a second and reflect on the seismic shifts in our industry since we last came together.
Whilst the world around us has tipped on its head, our industry has certainly not stood still. While COVID raged, and lockdowns spread, the world still turned, with global entertainment behemoths launching into our market, broadcasters tearing down quotas, a COVID crisis in our industry and the Government response, big money into footloose productions, existential threats to children’s content producers, an almighty fight on tax offsets, shifting sands underneath Screen Forever and the sharpening of the policy debate around Australian content on streaming services.
I don’t need to tell all of you here how much has happened since our last gathering – there’s a lot to process – but it makes me even more elated to look out onto a room full of familiar (and some new) faces.
When I look back on the last 12 to 18 months, I can’t help but reflect on the amazing set of circumstances surrounding the other key influence on uncertainty or certainty in our sector – the existence and nature of funding incentives, namely the Producer and PDV Offsets.
We started 2021 having been dealt an extremely difficult hand, with cuts to the Offset for feature film and a range of other measures which would have made accessing the Offsets harder for a broad swathe of producers. Things looked bleak for many in the sector, and the changes cast a pall of uncertainty across many projects and many businesses.
These were significant changes to a mechanism that has at its core a purpose to create more certainty and sustainability for producers, not less. From the very start, the Offsets have been intended to support screen businesses and provide a reliability of funding that builds foundations for success in a difficult market.
I won’t recount the blow by blow of the story of the Offsets over the last year, but here we are in 2022, with the film Offset retained at 40%, an increase in the television Offset to 30% and without any of the major cuts to eligibility that were on the table.
It was a white knuckle ride that many in the industry will not forget in a hurry, as we engaged across the Parliament to get this outcome. But here we are, undoubtedly in a far better position than we expected to be. And I continue to thank everyone who was involved in getting us here.
And this brings me back to the very start, the feeling of responsibility that arose very quickly for me as leader of the organisation that exists only to help producers and their place in the industry – it became clear to me very quickly that my role, SPA’s role, the industry’s mission, it all comes down to doing whatever we can to address, correct and constrain as much as possible, the inherent uncertainties our members face, day in, day out.
And that’s what I’ve strived to do in every aspect of leading SPA. Whether it’s fighting the fight on quotas, wrestling an outcome on Offsets, or framing industrial conditions which help guide and nurture good businesses. It’s all done with a singular focus on making it easier for our members to do what they do best – create some of the best content in the world, for audiences here and all over the world, and to do so in a way that sets them up for even greater success in the future.
I know, nothing in life is certain. But if we want to retain businesses, build employment and attract and retain the best of the best in our industry, we have to (and we will) continue to, scrap for every last measure or decision that will lift the gaze of our members, clear the air, and let them move forward with confidence to get on with the job that is the magic of creation.
I want to end my comments this morning by once again celebrating everyone in the room and congratulating you on the remarkable work that has been undertaken by this industry. It is remarkable what has been achieved.
And while this is an event for everyone, I hope you will permit me the indulgence of for just a moment celebrating the producers and their particular role in our ecosystem.
It’s often asked of me – what does a producer do? – and I understand that question – when it is a lot clearer sometimes what an actor, director or writer does.
So, we thought under the SPA brand we would put together our latest showreel to help explain the role that the producer has. Enjoy.