Boom and Bust in Australian Screen Policy: Some Reflections

Australian cultural policy maven Ben Eltham and I have a new academic article in Media International Australia #136 (A-ranked ERA 2010 journal).

We examine Australian screen policy and suggest that structural factors not often considered in the literature — trade exposure, currency fluctuations, tax arbitrage, cross-border competition, and the asset allocative decisions of producers — have affected the local film industry. You can read the abstract here and download a pre-publication version submitted to ‘special issue’ editor Mark David Ryan (PDF).

The article concentrates on the aftermath of the 10BA speculative bubble (circa 1981-84) and the portfolio ‘track record’ of the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) a body established in the mid-1980s to fund Australian films. I learned several things:

(1) Whilst researching the article, Eltham and I were lucky to have some email ‘trialogues’ with David Court, the policymaker who conceived the FFC and who now spearheads the Centre for Screen Business at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. It is these kinds of exchanges that can make journalism and collaborative team research so worthwhile. Court clarified his policy process, some of our misunderstandings, clarified what earlier scholars may have misread or misinterpreted, and kindly allowed us to see some of his PhD research and other papers. Likewise, Eltham pointed out from his PhD research that the Australian film industry is one cultural and creative industries sector where there is a wealth of historical data, government reports, and other policy-related information. In both cases, Eltham and Court ‘contested’ my assumptions: the result is hopefully both a better article and a more rigorous and robust analytical framework.

(2) During the literature review, I found a high school final year paper I had written in 1991 about the FFC’s promise. Although we didn’t use the material, I had a moment of self-reflection on the different judgments made about the same subject — the FFC’s investment approach — over an almost 20-year period difference. This involved several variables: difference in lifespan development, subject matter expertise, and ‘closeness’ to the subject under investigation.

(3) The article’s ‘structural factors’ hypothesis emerged from our initial, exploratory discussions. Eltham and I then found and revisited a ‘body of work’ by other scholars who had either reached similar conclusions or used a similar level of analysis. We made a decision not to use certain researchers or work because they illustrated a tendency of descriptive prose that we felt lacked analytical rigour in their conclusions. The article focussed on testing an hypothesis rather than theory-driven arguments between different ‘schools of thought’.

I then realised that some of the cultural and creative industries scholars were missing two dimensions: (a) they had not necessarily worked in the industries that they studied and wrote about, and (b) U.S. producers used and were aware of frameworks from corporate finance, modern portfolio theory and investment management, such as in the contracts they used, how they negotiated access to state-based studio facilities and labour, and the structured investment vehicles created for specific film productions. For (3)(b) we found some scholarly literature and several Harvard MBA case studies on this specific topic.

The pathway from (1) to (3) illustrates one way to uncover a ‘knowledge gap’; to have some conversations over coffee and email with people you might not usually talk with; and how ‘iterative’ cycles of theory-building, theory-testing and evaluative discussions can lead to new insights (even if they appear ‘obvious’ to others). Sometimes the journal article is just the final artifact of personal and collaborative team/group learning processes.

Exercise: For practical lessons on enactment, search for: Carpenter, Corman, Coppola (multiple), Davis (multiple), Geertz, Gilmour-Waters, Goldsmith, Jay-Z, Milken, QPrime, RJR Nabisco, Scorsese, Stone (multiple), Spielberg, Sun Ra, Swensen, Tarantino, Tarkovsky, U2, Wu Tang Clan, and [add your suggestions here]. Pick one and immerse yourselves in their work for a month.

Why is their work meaningful for you (or: what periods and creative artifacts)? What challenges, issues and problems did they face, and how did they overcome them or, alternatively, learn from their failure? What ‘life lessons’ do they offer you and others?

Write up a short, condensed 100-200 word paragraph on what you have learned. Email it to a bunch of friends, blog it, and/or pass along your online and offline social networks. If the above journal article and exercise is personally useful to you then include Eltham and myself on the email distribution list. ‘Iterate’ this exercise for whenever you want and for the rest of your life.