Acclaimed Aussie actor Bryan Brown has made an impassioned speech to the National Press Club to protect the Australian film industry from the claws and jaws of the streaming giants. 

As well as a call to arms to protect our film industry Bryan reflected on his own career.

“In 1968 I was working at the AMP Society at Circular Quay studying to be an actuary. A newsletter went round the company informing the staff that the Drama Club would be staging an end of the year review in the theatrette and welcomed any staff that wished to audition.

I hadn’t any desire to act but maybe there would be some girls there from the company that I hadn’t yet met. 

That half hour or so audition process led me on a journey that has taken me to some 40 countries, seen me thrown into the Pearl River in Guangzhou, taken on a private tour of the White House, celebrate my 40th birthday on top of a mountain in Rwanda, hurl bottles with Tom Cruise, sing with Paul McCartney and share a bath with Sigourney Weaver. Marry one of Hollywood’s rising stars, Rachel Ward. Strange but wonderful happenings. 

As a young bloke growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney in the 50’s and 60’s I went to the movies most Saturday afternoons –  saw a lot of John Wayne and Lassie and the odd Rank movie from England.    

There was one Australian film released during that time.  It was a film of a great Australian play ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’.  

The actors in this great Australian story were the American actors Ernest Borgnine, Shelly Winters and Anne Baxter and the English Actor John Mills. 

So I left Australia in 1972 to become an actor as all I saw on our stages were Australian actors doing English and American plays in English and American accents.  It seemed pretty silly doing that in Australia, so I went to England to do it first hand.”

(Bryan recounted how he pushed around a lot of stage sets, and had small parts until he auditioned and joined the famed National Theatre under Peter Hall.)

“In 1974 I return to Oz to see my mother and found theatre here had changed dramatically.  Australian playwrights were presenting plays about Australians. For me there was no point in returning to England, we now had a voice and it was an exciting fresh new voice for all the world to hear and I wanted to be a part of it.  It was as though the shackles had come off and we were free to explore who we were, where we’d come from and where we were going. And to do it our own way with our own people.

In 1977 I did my first film.  It was a 50 minute feature funded by the Australian Film Commission. The film was called ‘ Love Letters from Teralba Road.’ That was 45 years ago and it was the early days of the resurgence of the Australian Film Industry. 

But we had a thriving film industry way back. The first Australian films were produced in 1886.  Sort of home movies until in 1900 the Australian Salvation Army made what is acknowledged as the forerunner of the feature film, when they made  ‘Soldiers of the Cross’ a multi- media religious production, with slides, 90 second films and 150 odd performers. Six years later the world’s first full-length feature film was produced. . . . here in Australia. ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’ produced by Charles Tait. 

Significantly Australia went on to become the major source of film production in the world. 

But then came the depression, the introduction of costly sound technology and the lack of interest in Australian films by the American owned distribution companies.

So we had to wait until the late 60’s for a resurgence. And what a resurgence it was.

The most exciting part of it was we were telling our stories and telling them with our voice, our sensibility.

All that was needed was a visionary government to recognise it and support it.

 And that’s what John Gorton’s government did. And a modern Australian film culture was born and the film flood gates opened. 

And it has continued and is supported by both sides of politics. For that we Australians can be very grateful.

We made crime and we made comedies. And then Indigenous films with relevant themes from past and present.

I was lucky enough to play a role in the film “Sweet Country”  a couple of years ago and attended the Screening at the Venice Film Festival with the producer David Jowsey and Sam Neill and the writer and the director Warwick Thornton.

You could have heard a pin drop at the end of the screening and then we faced a five minute standing ovation from a highly sophisticated audience!

Early on financing a film was pretty straight forward. A combination of the Australian Film Commission investment and state investment and a distributers advance. And rules on commercial TV to show new drama, kids shows and documentaries on those few channels we had. 

Then we needed overseas sales advances and that started to bring pressure to the casting.

There was 10BA tax during the eighties. A 150% tax write off and a tax on only 50% of the return. Money flowed. But it was a flawed model. It was more about moving money around than making good films. We lost our way somewhat but we kept producing.

Now we have a Tax Offset. For Australian Film a 40% tax rebate on the budget of the film.

We nearly lost that in 2021. There was a move to reduce that to 30%. The Government announced additional support for Offshore production, American films and TV in the main, increasing their Offset to 30% bringing it in line with Australian TV. And our film industry, the Australian Film industry the industry that told Australian films was to pay for that increase in offshore production. Robbing Crocodile Dundee to pay for Forest Gump.

There’s a new game on the block for our industry. Streaming. Australian audiences are loving streamers and a few billion dollars in revenue is handed over by us each year to the Streaming companies. We need some of that revenue put back into Australian stories. And I mean Australian stories. Not stories filmed in Australia with American accents.  

Canada and France have legislated that revenue taken from their countries must go into local production. In France it’s over 25%.

For us a 20% reinvestment obligation, complemented by strong and sound intellectual property arrangements will help secure the future of our industry and keep it vibrant.

The Streaming companies will fight hard to not legislate, they are a business, and we must fight just as hard, for our culture.

I’m sure once again we will all find an answer and so move forward.  

We owe it to Australians. Indigenous, old migrants and new to keep telling our stories.

Our Australian stories.”

(This s an edited extract from the speech Bryan Brown made to the National Press Club July 12, ’23.)

Film Producer Sue Milliken adds, “The Australian film industry virtually changed the way the world saw Australia at a time when, if asked, most people around the world would believe Australia was Austria.

In recent times the change in viewing habits and the rise of the international streaming services has once again meant that Australian material has to struggle to get made – it is always better for the bottom line to buy cheap overseas product than to pay for making it yourself. 

But the rise of the streaming services has broadened the potential for Australian filmmakers to gain access to Australian and international audiences, but as t’was ever thus, they are no more enthusiastic about commissioning local material than the free to air networks were in the 1960’s and 70’s, when the “TV Make It Australian” campaign was necessary to force the government to bring in quotas for Australian content.  It’s always better for the bottom line to buy in already made programming at cheap prices, rather than pay the greater cost of initiating your own material.

 The free to air TV quotas virtually changed the way Australians see themselves, and meant that our culture was adequately represented in the visual onslaught of offshore material.  

The film and TV industry has lobbied the government to bring in quotas for the streaming services and these are due to come into force in 2024.  The streamers are already commissioning some material, but the industry will be on a stronger footing when there is legislation that can work for everyone.”

And Kim Williams, former MD of The Australian Film Commission adds, “Fifty years ago an invigorated Australian film industry burst onto the international scene. In doing so they renewed national self confidence and aspiration equally.  They won plaudits around the world – Australia was no longer seen solely as a farm or a mine! It was a place of creative adventure with fresh dynamic stories. It is to be hoped that the current writers and actors strike in Hollywood creates fresh opportunities for a whole new generation of energetic Australian creators to prove themselves for the quality of their imaginations and remind the world that Australian talent and Australian story tellers are as strong, original and compelling as ever.”

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