Cinema: An invention without a future?
The career prospects for first-time feature film directors in the Australian Film Industry
This presentation is based on research conducted for my Masters thesis (2017).
The talk consists of some of the research findings, which make an attempt to explain aspects of the Australian feature film director’s career.
Drawing on concepts from critical theory, political economy, education, and filmmaking disciplines the original study examines the way that these workers make a career in a precarious and uncertain industry.
Today’s presentation highlights how one of the biggest determinants for an ongoing career is strong support from favourable government policy.
I begin by proposing that the Australian Feature Film Industry is an ideal workforce prototype for a Globalised Economy predicated on traditional Hyaena economic rationalism (Dean 2014, pp. 6,7).
I would argue that the Australian feature film workforce is characterised by the following features:
Individual enterprise bargaining for wages and conditions;
A heavily constrained jobs-market;
Subjectivation (Hampson & Morgan 1999, p. 764);
Extreme uncertainity and precarity (Gill & Pratt 2008, pp. 3,4); (Hamann 2009, p. 38); (Lazzarato 2014, p. 48.9);
And high competition level for a few positions.
These are features of a 21st century ideal for labour and have been the characteristics of the feature film labour force for the past 45 years.
This paper is divided into four sections.
The first section is a brief overview of the fairly recent history that immediately pre-dated the 70s revival.
The second section provides an outline of the development of the epochal categories and the part they played in the conceptual sensitising phase of the research.
The third section of the paper is a brief description of the survey results, which concentrated particularly on trying to understand the part that training and education played in the individual director’s career development.
The fourth section briefly deals with an overview of the findings from the case studies and presents the overall conclusions drawn from the research project.
A brief historical overview (Slide Two)
Between 1950 and 1970 the Australian Feature Film Industry produced one-to-three films a year.
These films were highly reliant on foreign co-production financing arrangements, particularly due to the restrictions on raising investment capital in Australia, which was part of the Australian Government’s post-war recovery policy (Moran 1987, p. 4).
The Australian Film Institute was formed in 1958 with a cultural mission to promote and help develop an active film culture in Australia.
It was also at the beginning of the 1960s that the Australian feature film industry began to develop a distinctive official government policy objective.
This period has been referred to as the third stage in what Radbourne (1993) cited in Craik (2007) has characterised as phase three of a five-stage evolutionary process in arts and cultural policy-making in Australia (Craik 2007, p. 3).
This period, which Radbourne calls ‘the establishment of an inspectorate,' saw the creation in 1964 of a government working party to consider a national film and television school.
In 1968 the Film and Television Committee of the Australia Council for the Arts was set up and in 1969 the council produced recommendations for the establishment of the National Film and Television School.
These events were followed in quick succession by the creation of the Australian Film Development Corporation in 1970;
a Tariff Board Inquiry that was set up to investigate the extent of the foreign domination of the Australian distribution and exhibition network (1972/1973);
and finally the passage through Federal Parliament in 1973 of the Film and Television School Act, which paved the way for the start of operations for the first National Film School in 1974.
This paper argues that this chain of government initiatives directly resulted in the increased film production of 153 feature films in the decade 1970 – 1980 when the previous decade 1960-1970 realised only thirteen feature films.
Furthermore, the study maintains that this policy initiative and direct government funding created the talent pool and the infrastructure that led to today’s film industry.
In 1970 the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC) was set up under an Act of Parliament to encourage the making and distribution of cinematographic and television films.
In 1975 the AFDC was replaced by the Australian Film Commission (AFC) (Dermody & Jacka 1987, pp. 58-69).
The original aim of the Australian Film Commission was to treat the first years as ‘developmental’ (Mitchell 2006, p. 5).
What at first began with adventurous investment risk-taking was hoped to eventually settle down into a stable commercial industry.
In fact, in the period between 1975 and 1979, investment returns started to flow and the investment community as well as the producers and directors in the screen sector grew increasingly confident as the reputation of the nascent industry continued to grow (Alysen 1981, p. 351).
At this point (1980), the Australian Film Commission began to explore ways of moving from a direct funding model to a taxation incentive model with the explicit purpose of encouraging the private investment market (Alysen 1981, p. 352).
When the Fraser government introduced tax concessions in 1981, there were ninety-two applications for certification lodged.
Division 10BA taxation concessions granted investors a 150 per cent deduction on the qualifying capital expenditure of an ‘Australian Film’ (Clark 2000, p. 68).
The net result of the 10BA provision was to attract a dramatic increase in private funding.
Private funding rose from $120 million in 1982, to $180 million in 1987, at which time the incumbent Hawke government wound the scheme back, claiming that the investment represented too large an amount of foregone tax revenue.
The survey and case studies (Slide 3)
Some of the following conclusions are drawn from mixed methods research conducted for my Masters’ research project.
(Slide 4) The research project was based on a Screen Australia report in 2012 that revealed that, over a thirty-year timeframe, 66% of feature film directors make only one film.
This immediately raised the question for me of the Return On the Training Investment.
Another immediate question concerned the notion of the simultaneous precarity of the feature film career and its obviously deep attraction to hundreds of members of the creative workforce.
While some creative industry theorists steer away from what is perceived as a ‘negative critique’ (Cunningham 2013), by pointing out that creative workers often work outside their chosen industry, it is a concern of this study that this view counters the idea that a restricted productive working life will reduce the probability of achieving artistic success within the film directing sphere (Lubart & Sternberg 1998).
Hesmondhalgh & Baker (2008) extended Thompson’s (1996) theory of symbolic power, which they claim is unique to people who work in areas of immaterial labour. This became a key insight into the motivation that led people into what was otherwise a highly precarious workforce.
(Slide 5) The two methods employed were a survey of the feature film director population and a follow-up semi-structured interview conducted across fifteen case studies.
I appealed to the Australian Directors Guild to advertise the survey because I was looking for people who were only feature film directors.
There are currently 169 active feature film directors working in the Australian feature film industry (Australia 2016).
The survey returned 30 completed surveys out of an initial response of 45 who completed the survey to varying degrees.
30 respondents represent an 18% sample size of the specific target group.
33% of the respondents were female and this is significantly higher than the number of active women feature film directors (16%).
I maintain that this sample size of 18% of the specific population is sufficient to make a claim for generalisability.
Fifteen post-survey interviews were conducted as face-to-face interviews between May and September 2014.
Four face-to-face interviews were conducted interstate, and ten face-to-face interviews were conducted in Sydney.
There was a breadth of age and experience between the members of the sample population.
Five members of the participant group were between 50 and 70 years of age (30%), and the remainder (70%) were aged between 20 and 40 years of age.
While most of the participants contacted me after doing the survey, the rest of the group were found through previously established contacts in the industry. This was important because the study was looking for particular representatives of the feature film director population.
(Slide 6) Looking at this table, it is possible to see a direct influence of the government policy on the individual success of each of the case studies.
For the purposes of the research analysis, I grouped the case studies into historical epochs in relation to the timing of their debut into the feature film role: New Wave (1970 – 1980); Middle Period (1980 – 1990); and Late Period (1990 – present day).
The part luck plays (Slide 7)
The part that historical luck played in the director’s career trajectory is an unavoidable topic of examination.
From the accident of being born into a supportive family to the accident of being born at a particular historical moment, chance plays a role in all of the respondent’s narratives.
There was also some comment about the spirit of the time and the part that played in making a career decision.
The case studies that started their careers in the early 1970s and right up to 1990 undoubtedly found the path to their first feature much smoother than filmmakers who started after that period.
By the evidence from their narratives alone, it is possible to argue that they were the clear beneficiaries from Division 10BA and the two decades of favourable government policy-making, which resulted in one of biggest contributions to the current industry, the creation of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.
Directors, who are graduates of the AFTRS, particularly in the early years of the school when it was in its elite cultural training school mode, are more likely to have found success over the past thirty years.
Although, it is interesting to note that three of the respondents who started their careers in the epoch before the creation of the school experienced a larger field of job opportunities than generally anybody else.
Between 1970 and 1990 (the end of the 10BA investment regime in its less restricted mode), there were around 490 productions when the previous twenty years (1950 – 1970) had seen less than 15 productions.
(Slide 8) The case studies from this research project make clear that there is no one pathway to a career.
The cases report that they have had to invent the means to reach their job goal and have often had to work on the very margins of the film industry to secure their final objective.
These findings accord with the 2004 findings of Peterson and Anand, whose 2004 review of the literature surrounding careers of cultural production workers identified three key features, which are confirmed by this study (Peterson & Anand 2004, p. 317).
The first of these three features is the very structure of the industry.
The film industry in Australia consists of small competing firms producing a diversity of products.
This type of organisational structure conforms with an early stage of industrial development that Peterson and Anand recognised in the commercial music industry (Peterson & Anand 2004, p. 316).
In this organisational environment, while there is much cultural innovation, careers are chaotic.
The first obstacle that successful career builders have to overcome is a series of gatekeepers.
In the Australian feature film industry these gatekeepers are represented in the first instance by the film schools; secondly by the firms that give the young protégé their first work experience; and thirdly by the various government agencies that provide funding.
(Slide 9) The other clear and repeatedly reported feature of entrepreneurialism that emerged from the case studies was the importance of being able to recognise and act on opportunity (Keh, Foo & Lim 2002).
Many of the reports included accounts of being constrained by other life decisions, such as the choice to have a family, and many cases were under the impression that opportunities would continue to emerge from their initial success. This however, in every case, was not what happened.
Cultural capital (Slide 10)
The successful directors have also discussed at some length the contribution that their family circumstance brought to their careers through encouragement and material assistance.
Encouragement by parents and teachers was a factor that was a feature of a large proportion of the interviews.
Their exposure to a wide range of literature and films was also universally acknowledged as a factor in their development, both professionally and culturally.
The respondents statements about their appreciation of cinematic history was distinctly at odds with the survey outcome (Table 1.1) that reported a low score for both the importance of knowledge of cinema history (66% thought is was important) generally and Australian film history (42% thought is was important) in particular.
(Slide 11) The feature film industry is of course just one aspect of the culture of the modern Australian society.
It can be seen as a class culture, characterised by ‘socially ranked symbolic differences that mark out classes and make some seem superior to others’ (Gartman 2012, p. 42).
This is the theory of habitus postulated by Bourdieu and is part of his idea to explain the way culture is used to legitimate and reproduce class power and wealth.
This aspect of habitus was played out amongst all of the respondents. A large part of the interview record is comprised of what some from outside the industry would label as gossip.
The respondents all made reference to other directors and their work. Apart from one of the respondents who may have been seen as an outsider to the general director population, all respondents spoke in a very positive way about their association with other local directors and particularly about their association with leading local industry figures.
The display of knowledge about leading director’s current work and future projects could be ascribed to a form of identification with the industry through the sharing of this information.
Another way of looking at this is afforded by De Carolis and Saporito (2006) who suggest that entrepreneurial behaviour is a result of the interplay of social networks and certain cognitive biases in entrepreneurs.
De Carolis and Saporito cite Adler & Kwon 2002 and Leanna & Van Buaren1999 in describing the ‘bonding’ form of social capital.
We can see the ‘bonding’ perspective of social capital played out amongst feature film directors when we look at how they talk about eminent directors amongst their cohort.
The discussion of other directors suggests a self-identification, which, in itself, represents a tacit shared-agreement about norms and goals amongst the collective group (De Carolis & Saparito 2006, p. 42).
Personal qualities (Slide 12)
Unsurprisingly, the main qualities that directors brought to their careers were perseverance and tenacity.
Every aspect of their autobiographical account illustrated their focus and their personal commitment to the task.
The same informant who gave accounts of missed opportunities also offered examples of other opportunities that were exploited.
It seems, that for this population they were displaying a form of hyper vigilance to opportunity and it was more a case of choosing one opportunity from among many than it was a case of missing out altogether.
Conclusion (Slide 13)
In the mid-to-late-twentieth century, when futurist predictions seemed to have persuasive power, obsolescence generally referred to consumer goods, best summarised in the phrase ‘planned obsolescence’ (Toffler 1970, pp. 61,4).
Market uncertainty amongst consumers has now been replaced by labour market uncertainty as a monopolising preoccupation of futurists.
Accelerationism, which has been described as a ‘strategy that tries to ride the infinitely self-expanding value of capital’ (Noys 2014, p. 96) has seen capitalism abandon any pretence of a commitment to labour.
The neoliberal global hegemony sees itself as setting free the forces of ‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter 1942, p. loc 642) while unleashing ever-accelerating technological invention (Glezos 2010, p. 2).
One of the side effects of this growth of endlessly improving technology is the inevitable relegation of carbon life forms to redundant figures in a futurist landscape, with neither our labour nor our intelligence required.
Furthermore, it also leads to a growing economic uncertainty, which in turn makes it increasingly difficult for workers to make decisions and plan their economic future.
But, it wasn’t like that at first. According to Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock, the mass migration of scientists in the 1940s and 1950s from Europe to the USA could be ascribed to a version of Accelerationism.
Toffler saw the scientist’s desire for a faster-paced existence as a hidden motivating force (Toffler 1970, p. 37).
As James, cited in Shaviro, argues for the neoliberal subject, the point of life is to ‘push it to the limit… privileged people get to lead the most intense lives, lives of maximised investment and maximised return’.
The Australian society saw a similar mass-migration of young people during the 1950s and 1960s, attracted to a Europe that was extending the possibility of a vibrant culture.
This ‘brain drain’ was reversed by the resurgence in the film industry in the 1970s.
Thus, a previously unacknowledged benefit of an active film industry as a result of deliberate government policy intervention was the bringing home of a large talent pool in the creative industries.
This reverse brain drain could be said to be an important aspect of an argument in support of further and more widespread government funding and involvement in the arts.
As Santagata (2010) points out, a country’s cultural heritage is a resource that can be invested to generate jobs, and in a globalised world a country that does not accumulate culture will risk hegemony and invasion by other countries (Santagata 2010, p. 10).
This is not to say that the involvement of government ministries and departments in the funding of the arts is entirely unproblematic.
The film industry is an industry where ‘extreme artistry’ might be fostered by official institutions ((Adorno 1991, pp. 126-8) but the very structure of bureaucratic institutions acts to neutralise the danger inherent in art but even worse continues to support the neoliberal ideology which constrains the artist and forces them into a conformity with the mainstream population.
It is in this push for a heterogeneous workforce where the ideology of neoliberalism can be seen to contradict the creation of dangerous and contradictory art forms.
Government policy makers readily acknowledge the significant effects of government policy decisions on the levels of feature film production in Australia but at the same time their understanding about what to do is curtailed by what others want them to do.
A 2001 inquiry by the US Department of Commerce and International Trade found that 50% of Los Angeles film producers were concerned about the ‘lack of surety’ surrounding Australian tax incentives.
In September 2001 a new tax incentive was announced by the Australian Federal Government, ‘reportedly after consultation with the American Motion Picture Association and studios including Warner Roadshow and Fox (AFC 2002, p. 15).
A common report from this study, while mentioning the value of a screen education, emphasised the importance of the first-hand experience on a film set. It was pointed out that this experience was tough to come by and that often, the small number of opportunities that arose led nowhere.
This study also found that the average age of a first-time director was around 35 years. Historically, previous entrants had come into the industry in their mid-20s.
Several reports attributed this to the fact that people were finding it harder to balance a career and family life, primarily due to the increased cost of living.
Some respondents reported a further barrier, which was the difficulty in gaining and maintaining steady employment.
It was these reports that led the study to look for underlying theories to explain why, given the difficult circumstances and the high risk of career failure, so many highly creative people are attracted to a feature film directing career.
This study reveals compelling evidence that shows how important ongoing government intervention is to the maintenance and growth of the Australian feature film industry.
This study also suggests some issues arising out of current attitudes to training for the screen industry.
Some respondents expressed concern for the future of the AFTRS and its move away from its previous role as an elite cultural training school for the film industry.
(Slide 14) While the dominant employment model for feature film directors is what Cunningham describes as ‘sole practitioners’ (Cunningham 2013, p. 104), some feature film directors manage to make a success of working within the film industry while simultaneously managing to capture all of the promise of entrepreneurial life.
There is no question that much can be learnt from a close observation of entrepreneurialism but this study concludes that it is really in the domain of strong and direct government policy formulation where the most employment stimulus can be found.
It is an historical curiosity that it was a nascent neoliberal political party that did so much to lay the foundation for the resurgence of the film industry in the 1970s.
Through direct policy intervention, the Menzies and Gorton governments acted as if they were operating a mixed economy, contrary to the espoused beliefs of the Australian Liberal party.
There is some optimism that perhaps there can be a softening of the current neoliberal approach to matters of employment and recognition on the part of policy makers of the importance of a direct intervention in this fragile employment area.
While it is a given that global changes in modes of production and consumption, and in the organisation of labour, are having a profound impact on our lives, the analysis tends to focus on the macro changes, as illustrated in the immediate aftermath debates about the ‘global financial crisis’ (GFC).
What is needed now at this time of changing employment conditions is more research into how employees experience their work and how they make sense of it through the creation of a professional identity.
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