Why don’t Australians like Australian films?

It’s the debate that just won’t die. Australian films continue to draw just a few percent of total Australian box offices, and the local industry continues to scratch its head and wonder why.

On October 22nd, Metro Screen held a sold-out forum on the issue, chaired by Andrew Urban and featuring a panel of distinguished panelists including Margaret Pomeranz, Tony Ginnane, Troy Lum, Rachel Ward and the new boss of Screen Australia, Ruth Harley.

The debate swirled around many of the same-old, same-old standards of the “what’s wrong with Australian film” issue, which has been debated extensively in the press and the industry by critics and commentators like Jim Schembri, Luke Buckmaster and Lyndon Barber.

Does “Australian film” have a branding issue? Are Australian scripts and movies too depressing, mundane and dull? Are the marketing budgets unrealistic? Does cultural imperialism mean Hollywood is a natural advantage? Should we abandon “telling stories” and instead concentrate on “creating myths”? Do Austraolian film-makers and funding bodies even understand their audiences and why they go to see movies? And is it all about to change with the coming of digital delivery anyway?

One issue that came to my mind immediately was the uphill struggle most Australian cinema faces. Not only is it competing with the Hollywood juggernaut, but the small size of the Australian market means limited sources of capital investment, development funding and ultimately cinematic audiences.

There’s also no doubt that, structurally speaking, the market for film production in Australia is skewed towards blockbusters and against independent productions. That’s just an unsurprising fact of life; even though film has certain unique facets it is still hostage to the sorts of competitive advantages and economies of scale that make it easier to market and screen Transformers than an indie Australian drama.

Having said that, as a cultural economist I am constantly amazed at the lack of price differentiation in cinema. If audiences aren’t going to see Australian films, why not drop the price? It seems insane to me that we expect audiences to pay the same to see a Michael Bay special effects monster as for a $1 million Australian indie. Maybe it would not be more profitable in the long run to do this, but in the name of market share alone it seems to me a no-brainer. Maybe Australian dramas would sell at $9 or $7 or even $5. Of course, there are structural issues to do with distributors and exhibitors that would make this unlikely.

Philip Roth predicts the end of the novel


Philip Roth. Image from The Guardian / Orjan F Ellingvag / Dagbladet / Corbis.

Philip Roth is not my favourite writer, but he is surely a good one. One of the post-war American giants – the generation of Bellow, Updike,  Pynchon and Morrison – Roth has given Tina Brown a wide-ranging and exclusive interview on the future of books and literature. He’s in full “Lion in Winter” mode, but perhaps that’s not surprising.

To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.

Nor will the Kindle rescue the form.

The book can’t compete with the screen. It couldn’t compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen, and it can’t compete with the computer screen. Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn’t measure up.

I think Roth is dead wrong. Cultural pessimism often is (the pessimists of 1930’s Europe are an important exception). Technologies come and go, and so do artistic genres and movements with them. But who’s to say that what replaces them is not just as good, if not perhaps better, than what went before? The advent of the novel polished off the epic poem within a generation, but also paved the way for the great era of 19th Century novelists like Balzac and Dickens. In our time, the success of long-form television drama like The Wire and Mad Men shows that audiences still have a hunger for complex, difficult, detailed stories – as Benjamin Schwarz notes in his masterful critical dissection of the first two series of Mad Men in the Atlantic.

The full interview is here.

Houses of the future in New Orleans?


A photo by Wayne Troyer of a Make It Right home under construction, in 2008. Originally posted at Jimmy Stamp's Life Without Buildings blog

In The Atlantic, Wayne Curtis explains that the disastrous failure of all levels of government to plan and rebuild New Orleans is having some interesting unintended positive consequences.

Four years after Katrina, the rebuilding of New Orleans is not proceeding the way anyone envisioned, nor with the expected cast of characters. (If I may emphasize: Brad Pitt is the city’s most innovative and ambitious housing developer.) […]

In the absence of strong central leadership, the rebuilding has atomized into a series of independent neighborhood projects. And this has turned New Orleans—moist, hot, with a fecund substrate that seems to allow almost anything to propagate—into something of a petri dish for ideas about housing and urban life. An assortment of foundations, church groups, academics, corporate titans, Hollywood celebrities, young people with big ideas, and architects on a mission have been working independently to rebuild the city’s neighborhoods, all wholly unconcerned about the missing master plan. It’s at once exhilarating and frightening to behold. […] Continue reading

Newspapers’ death spiral deepens


US newspaper circulations are crashing

Two articles in the New York Times yesterday illustrate the depth of the tail-spin newspapers are now in.

One article reports on recent Audit Bureau of Circulations figures of hundreds of US newspapers, which show that circulations dropped by 10.6% in the six months to September. As the Times’ Richard Perez-Pena observes, “the two-decade erosion in newspaper circulation is looking more like an avalanche.”

Over in the Times’ Media and Advertising section, an equally gloomy article by Stephanie Clifford reports that a recent recovery in online advertising appears to be by-passing the websites of newspapers.

Over all, the Internet is the only advertising medium expected to grow this year in the United States, rising 9.2 percent, to $54.1 billion, according to figures released this month by ZenithOptimedia, a media service firm.

Newspaper sites cannot seem to catch that wave. The New York Times Company reported a decline in ad revenue at its newspaper Web sites of 18.5 percent this quarter compared with the third quarter last year. Advertising revenue at Gannett’s newspaper sites also declined. The McClatchy Company was an exception, with online advertising revenue rising 3.1 percent from a year ago, though the rate of growth slowed. (Other major newspaper companies have not yet reported their revenues for the most recent quarter.)

That is a sobering trend for newspaper executives, who once hoped that online revenue would make up for plummeting print revenue.

Sobering? These two trends put together would be enough to drive any media executive to drink.

UPDATE: Megan McCardle also calls it a death spiral.

Hazlehurst Regional Gallery’s Sylvania Waters Project


The Kingpins' "Unstill Life" (detail), 2009, from the exhibition page on Facebook

Tonight the ABC screened a documentary on a recent exhibition at Hazlehurst Regional Gallery in southern Sydney entitled “Reality Check”.

It’s a brief but interesting exploration of the curatorial process and ensuing artworks produced as a part of  this exhibition, which was commissioned by Hazlehurst’s curator,  Daniel Mudie Cunningham, and based around responses to the original Sylvania Waters TV series from 1992.

I haven’t seen the exhibition so I can’t comment on the artworks exhibited, but I thought the documentary raised (though lacked the length to explore) some interesting issues. To begin with, let’s look at the artists selected for the show: Mitch Cairns, Carla Cescon, Peter Cooley, John A. Douglas, The Kingpins, David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton, Luis Martinez, Archie Moore, Ms & Mr, Elvis Richardson, and Holly Williams. Sadly, we don’t get to meet all of them. But as a group, it’s collectively what you might call mid-level contemporary artists, some of whom, like Archie Moore and Luiz Martinez, have real talent and artistic credibility, and some of whom, like The Kingpins, I’ve always thought were better known for their splashy performances and canny artistic positioning than for any ground-breaking originality. I found myself wondering what an older, more established artist might have made of the project … or was I perhaps merely curious as to what happens to all the up-and-coming Primavera stars in 15 years time?

The documentary gives us an interesting snapshot of the artistic process in the 2000’s in Australia. One thing I immediately noticed was the run-down condition of the houses many of the artists lived in, hinting at the often penurious circumstances of working artists, even if few nowadays are prepared to take the next step and attempt a class analysis.

We also get to see some intelligent discussion of the original TV series by Catherine Lumby, who I would love to see doing more television and blogging, as well as some photogenic curatorial glosses from Mudie Cunningham.

Overall, the documentary left me a little disappointed. Perhaps it was always difficult to address so much in 25 minutes, but I don’t feel as though – on the basis of the documentary – that many of the artists really engaged with the subject matter at hand. The exceptions are John A. Douglas, who presents an impressively humane perspective on the difficulties faced by the Donaher family, and Luiz Martinez, who painted a scene from the original TV show that beckons an almost Hopper-esque tabluex of ordinary life.

An “island of culture” for the Gold Coast?


A mock-up of Super Colossal's Island of Culture in the Nerang River

This year, the Gold Coast City Council held a “Master Plan Ideas Competition” to decide what to do with a 16 hectare site in the middle of the growing city. The site is planned to house a new Gold Coast Cultural and Civic Precinct, eventually containing the Council chambers and a swanky new art gallery. The competition aimed to “generate creative new visions”, “stimulate community discussion” and “identify specific design features” for the site.

As the Gold Coast  competition website says, “the 16.5 hectare site is located at 135 Bundall Road and is bordered on three sides by rivers and canals. Formerly a simple rural cane farm, the site is now at the heart of a growing city with views across the skyline of Surfers Paradise, Main Beach and Broadbeach.”

Last week, the Gold Coast Council announced the winner of the competition and its $90,000 prize: Sydney firm Super Colossal, who proposed an entirely new island in the Nerang river for the precinct’s various civic and cultural buildings.

Competition judges praised the winning entry for its creation of open space, its many pedestrian bridges and its defensibility in the face of rising sea-levels. One judge even compared it to “the ancient islands in the Laguna Veneta such as the Isola Murano and Isola San Michele.”

“We think the Gold Coast is one of Australia’’s most interesting cities,” Super Colossal’s Marcus Trimble told me in an email. “Nowhere else do you have close proximity of the ocean, high rise towers, waterfront suburbia, natural and man-made lagoons and industrial buildings.” Continue reading

Shepard Fairey versus AP: fair use on trial?


The Obama campaign poster by Shepard Fairy, currently the subject of court action, as photographed by Slate.com

We all now know that Shepard Fairey was fibbing when he said he wasn’t using an AP photography as the basis for his famous Obama “Hope” poster.

While it is certainly not a good look, it shouldn’t change the legal basis of “fair use” on which his defence of AP’s lawsuit against him is based.

Today in Slate, Tim Wu takes a good look at fair use law as it applies in the US jurisdiction:

Copyright lawyers, when asked about fair use, love to emphasize its complexity and opacity. I won’t deny that fair use can be a little dense, yet I firmly believe the basics can be well-understood. My project is to demystify: a few details may be lost, but here goes.

The rest of the article is here.

Kate Oakley reviews the literature on creative work

I’m spending this afternoon reading Kate Oakley‘s new review monograph, “Art Works” – cultural labour markets: a literature review.

It’s a major new addition to the field and I expect will prove an important teaching tool for many lecturers. Oakley surveys the last half-century of research in cultural labour markets, as well as the nature of creative work itself. You could say she examines art as a job, hobby, vocation  and calling, as well as from the sociological and cultural economic perspectives.

She then moves on to discuss the idea that work in the cultural sector is a template for all kinds of work in the future, the geography and organisation of cultural work, outlines the literature on creative work as  ‘precarious labour’ and looks at the implications of these studies for cultural policy and education.

Oakley is a significant figure in the field and so this review will end up defining the way much of the field is envisaged. It’s a thorough and highly readable account that I sincerely hope finds it way to policy-makers in Australia. It should enable them to better understand some of the implications of the nostrums and platitudes that so often litter government arts policies in this country.

One policy point that immediately comes to mind is the evidence this study furnishes for the value of emerging and fringe arts festivals and other infrastructure that supports early-career opportunities for artists. Oakley points out the literature repeatedly underlines the difficulty faced by artists transitioning from education and training to creative work:

Honey, Heron and Jackson find that most of these artists attended art college, and that many considered the years spent there as a ‘special time’ during which they could dedicate many hours to artistic practice (1997:vii). Many artists considered the first year after school the most difficult, a finding which concurred with that of earlier work (Blackwell and Harvey 1999), which found that cultural workers often experience a difficult time post-graduation, as they struggle to make contacts, organise a portfolio, and negotiate (often multiple) work contracts.

Honey, Heron and Jackson find that most of these artists attended art
college, and that many considered the years spent there as a ‘special time’
during which they could dedicate many hours to artistic practice (1997:vii).
Many artists considered the first year after school the most difficult, a
finding which concurred with that of earlier work (Blackwell and Harvey
1999), which found that cultural workers often experience a difficult time
post-graduation, as they struggle to make contacts, organise a portfolio, and
negotiate (often multiple) work contrac

Creative destruction in the games industry

Necessary Force screen shot ... the demo couldn't save Midway in the UK

Necessary Force screen shot ... the demo couldn't save Midway in the UK

At The Guardian, Keith Stuart has a full and detailed description of the death throes of the Newcastle, UK studio of games company Midway.

… it all panned out like a typical studio closure. Often there are a few days, maybe even weeks, of confusion and uncertainty. Then the CEO arrives with awkward platitudes. Then the administrators roll in. Before this, the process of moving on will already have begun for the staff. It’s a tight community in the UK; news spreads fast via closed industry forums and business contacts. Everyone knows someone at another studio. CVs fly out via email to other publishers or to the many recruitment agencies specialising in the games industry.

Continue reading

Does Brisbane have culture?

Matt Condon, writing in The Courier-Mail, says “yes”, but I’m not so sure.

Brisbane City's "Creative City" strategy was a leading piece of Landry/Florida worship - but has since failed to deliver any meaningful policy outcomes

The Brisbane City Council's "Creative City" strategy was heavy on the Landry/Florida rhetoric - but has since failed to deliver any meaningful policy outcomes

Condon’s article points out that the city has a historic legacy of under-appreciation of culture and the arts:

In an anguished letter published in The Courier-Mail on March 27, 1934, one T. L. Smithson Jones asked: “Sir, May I ask if there is any culture in Brisbane? For many years I have spent some months of the year here, and I frankly am appalled by what I see.”

In August this year (75 years after poor T. L. Smithson Jones’ lament) the same question was being batted about on that new-fangled thing called the internet. Acclaimed young Australian festival director and cultural commentator Marcus Westbury incited an interstate debate when he asked similar questions about culture and its comparative robustness in Australian capital cities. “This week, I’ve been discussing the respective state of cultural life in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide and been amazed at the passionate vitriol that comparisons evoke,” Westbury wrote. “It seems we love taking potshots across state lines.”

Former Queensland historian Ross Fitzgerald has described the state as a “cultural wasteland”.

And in an article in Artlink magazine several years ago titled “The New Brisbane”, local writers Stuart Glover and Stuart Cunningham pointed out our city’s “coming of age” had been announced several times in the past three decades, from the 1982 Commonwealth Games through to the Smart State manifesto.

It’s worth taking up on that final paragraph. In that Artlink article, Glover and Cunningham mentioned two festivals in particular as unique and exciting models showing Brisbane was creating new ways of presenting culture: the River Festival and Straight Out of Brisbane.

Today, neither festival exists. River Fest was gobbled up by the influential but charmless  Lyndon Terracini in his crusade to dominate Brisbane’s festivals sector, while Straight out of Brisbane (which I founded and helped to organise) died an agonising death waiting for Arts Queensland funding that never arrived. Add the previously successful Livid Festival to that list and Brisbane now has three fewer nationally-recognised  festivals than it had in the early 2000’s.

Other aspects of Brisbane’s cultural health are also open to question. While ABS data for Brisbane is not disaggregated from the total Queensland figures, across the state employment in cultural industries barely grew at all – flatlining at 48,000 jobs from 2001 to 2006. This was during boom years for other parts of the state’s employment market.

When you add in the substantial growth in state cultural employment at big institutions like the State Library and Queensland Art Gallery in that time, it appears as though private sector cultural employment in Queensland actually fell between 2001 and 2006.

This is in stark contrast to the rosy forecasts predicted by the glossy cultural policies developed by both the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council in the early 2000’s – policy documents with ambitious titles like “Creative City” and “Creativity is Big Business.”

In fact, if you talk to cultural practitioners in Queensland, you find that the micro-economic conditions for cultural growth are stagnating. Music venues are struggling with high costs imposed by tougher licensing and bouncer regulations, while small galleries and incubators are finding it hard to pay the rent in Brisbane’s appreciating property market. While music festivals such as Parklife and the Big Day Out continue to draw strong crowds, government-run cultural centres like the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Brisbane Powerhouse have not lived up to expectations, neither commissioning as much local work as first claimed or creating significant new audiences for their venues. During one recent week of the Brisbane Festival, the Brisbane Powerhouse was nearly completely empty, running only one 60-minute show, Elbow Room’s There.  One show in an entire week of the Brisbane Festival!

Ironically, Elbow Room is basically an expatriate Brisbane company, composed of Brisbane actors, playwrights and directors who left the state for greener pastures in Victoria, where there is a far stronger independent theatre scene.And there are plenty more stories like this.

Film production in the state is another good example. It remains essentially a chase for Hollywood production dollars rather trying to develop local stories and film-makers. The result is that local production is  highly vulnerable to currency fluctuations like the current strong Aussie dollar. Meanwhile, the state film funding body, the Pacific Film and Television Commission, has gone through a series of internal convulsions that have seen a clean-out of top management whom had comprehensively lost the confidence of the local film industry.

In fact, despite the publicity lavished on Brisbane and Queensland’s  so-called “creative indsutries” policies, the evidence suggests that they have failed – even in terms of the economic and employment goals they set themselves.

It’s not all bad. Brisbane’s fertile music scene continues to spawn new bands with significant national and international appeal, while many of the state’s writers are also gaining wide appeal. And Fortitude Valley’s game design sector has grown into a significant employer. But in sectors like the performing arts, dance, visual arts, artist-run initiatives and commercial visual arts galleries, design, festivals, media and advertising and even food and dining,  Brisbane and Queensland trails badly behind its southern cousins – and the gap is if anything widening.