The Film Finance Corporation's (FFC) new requirement for active involvement in the production of films that receive funding has been greeted with concern by the artistic classes. Some see further evidence of the Howard Government's crushing of dissent. Less paranoid filmmakers fear an intrusive corporation will impede their work and compromise artistic integrity.
Yet spare a thought for the corporation. It cops the criticism for the box-office failure of projects it funds. Government has a responsibility to spend taxpayers' money wisely. These days, most Australians regard the revelation that a film is Australian as confirmation it's not worth seeing. Even high-brow critics acknowledge Australia is churning out turkeys, with script development a lost art.
And is artistic freedom really infringed when filmmakers are free to decline both funding and interference?
Still, the FFC’s solution is naive. It assumes bureaucrats will do better than filmmakers at picking winners. Not the bureaucrats I know. Is the successful trend towards privatisation to be reversed by partial nationalisation of the film industry?
Perhaps, given the insularity of our cultural elites, the bureaucrats would achieve a better commercial return. Yet even if the man from the ministry does know best, would that be a film industry worth having?
The public service is about arse-covering, not innovation. The rationale for public subsidy is the development of Australian culture, which will hardly be served by a harvest of movies following whatever populist formula the bean-counters assess is least likely to flop at the box office.
One solution is to move from a producer-focused to a consumer-focused subsidy, proportional to box-office takings. This would give filmmakers an incentive to appeal to wider audiences than the small coterie of like-minded activists and jaded postmodernists who inhabit their narrow world, without curtailing artistic freedom. Despite the arts lobby's snobbish disdain for the rabble whose taxes fund it, quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive, as Shakespeare demonstrated.
Yet even this solution has its drawbacks. For one thing, funding could be calculated only after the event. Most recent Australian films would not attract sufficient private investment to complete production.
More fundamentally, government subsidies have a habit of flowing to established interests. Propping up the industry means stealing the entertainment dollar from competing media, such as interactive Internet services and downloadable animations. Public subsidy of the arts is inherently inimical to innovation, as it distorts spending in favour of the most powerful lobby groups. These generally represent yesterday's industries, not tomorrow's. Yet the greatest works of art are highly innovative and frequently transform or transcend the media of their age.
In any case, isn't government favouritism, giving preference to one art form over another, a more subtle form of control than the FFC’s imminent invasion of the studios? To a limited extent such discrimination is justifiable. Maintaining symphony orchestras, for instance, enjoys widespread support. Lobbyists who decry the idea that government might prefer orchestras to a lesbian remake of Mad Max would nonetheless be appalled at funding Big Brother or, God forbid, The Footy Show. Even the postmodernists of the artistic community do not really believe all art is equal.
But we cannot disregard the insidious side-effects of government funding. Like any addictive drug, it should be prescribed in small doses and only with strong justification. Bending the rules to give schoolchildren an occasional hour's exposure to Mozart is a far cry from government becoming the dominant funding source for an entire industry, which is what has poisoned Australian cinema.
Here's a bold idea: perhaps the answer to the film industry's malaise is not more government, but less. Perhaps by encouraging rent-seekers to jump through bureaucratic hoops in pursuit of public dollars, we have impeded the emergence of inspired filmmakers who could develop concepts with the audience appeal to attract private funding.
Filmmakers argue they cannot survive without public subsidy. That's because their movies are rubbish. For a group that receives a nine-figure welfare cheque, not to mention TV laws that create a partial monopoly for local content, they have done little to show they deserve to survive. If the intellectually anaemic, fringe-dwelling film industry of today is the alternative to the demise of Australian cinema, I'd rather keep my tax dollars and do without.
And who knows? Weaned off the government teat, maybe our filmmakers would surprise us. Maybe they would surprise themselves.