A note on 2019/20 must start with the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The pandemic has hit the screen industry hard. Screen Australia immediately acted to assist productions and people involved.
Drama production was particularly affected, so we directed funding across several programs to support 26 projects that had been forced to shut down or go into hiatus, or were able to either continue working remotely or resume production with additional compliance costs. Many productions were halted for months, so we pivoted from production into development, augmenting our Story Development programs with the launch of the Premium Plus fund. Premium Plus provided late-stage development funding to 17 projects impacted by COVID-19 in 2019/20.
It also became clear that shooting protocols would have to change to support a safe return to production, so we worked with the Australian Film Television and Radio School, industry and other agencies to develop the Australian Screen Production Industry COVID-Safe Guidelines. In addition, Screen Australia provided assistance to stalled productions faced with COVID-19 costs so they could get back into production safely.
The pandemic continues to evolve across Australia and around the world, and Screen Australia will adapt to support the sector to operate safely. We will work with Government and industry to evolve the COVID-Safe Guidelines, provide research as required, update our policies and programs, and administer the Temporary Interruption Fund to help film and television producers provide their financiers with certainty so they can start filming.
The entire sector has been impacted by COVID-19. Many cast and crew are out of work and some are enduring tough times. The whole cinema ecosystem had to close down, while the television advertising market was deeply disrupted. The industry relies on interconnected and passionate people to make Australian content, and I am deeply moved by the effect the pandemic is having on our sector.
I am, however, also buoyed by the strong desire among Australians to see their stories on their screens. We know that viewing soared on free-to-air and video-on-demand services1. The world was also hungry for Australian content, with international sales increasing markedly. Babyteeth, Relic, True History of the Kelly Gang and 2067 all sold into North America, while Netflix took rest-of-world rights to Stateless after its successful premiere on the ABC. Five Bedrooms will also find an audience on the BBC and has aired on the new streaming service Peacock TV in the USA.
Our society has not seen a challenge like COVID-19 before, but it is clear that our culture and our stories will always help guide us through challenging times.
Screen storytellers responded to COVID-19 with creativity, collaboration and tenacity. Many documentarians were able to adapt and move forward – although not always in the way they had hoped or planned. While this is to be celebrated, the realities of additional costs and drawn-out timelines remain. Creators responded with innovative ideas. ABC’s At Home Alone Together provided much-needed laughs for audiences as well as opportunities for the creators. Some animated and online productions were able to continue in the safety of their own homes, while lockdown series Cancelled was filmed entirely within a Spanish apartment on a mobile phone and has already attracted more than 1 million Facebook views2. The irrepressible Neighbours and Home and Away found ways to safely resume work. Other creators embraced the opportunity to develop projects: indeed, Screen Australia received unprecedented numbers of development applications in this period.
Despite the hardship, there are still many successes to celebrate for 2019/20. Children’s show Bluey is being dubbed in Mandarin in China, while millions around the world are enjoying Bluey in its often- imitated Australian voice after the show’s incredible success on the ABC.
Ride Like a Girl was the first Gender Matters-developed feature to go into production and became the highest-grossing Australian feature film in 2019/20. The second feature supported through Gender Matters, Relic, had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and has been critically acclaimed. Feature documentary The Australian Dream screened at festivals across the world and took home local awards. Unique Australian television dramas Total Control,Stateless and Mystery Road secured world premieres at top festivals, including the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. Five Bedrooms was commissioned for a second series and continued to innovate and safely shoot during the pandemic.
Now more than ever, it will be critical for agencies to work closely with the industry. Prior to COVID-19, Screen Australia consulted extensively with the documentary sector about how our funding programs can evolve.
Some changes from this review have been implemented, such as development applications being accepted throughout the year.
However, other reforms have been postponed until 2021 to enable us to take stock, and provide the sector with stability during this uncertain time. More broadly, Screen Australia co-authored the Supporting Australian storieson our screens–options paper with the Australian Communications and Media Authority. This was a significant piece of work for the agency. It highlighted opportunities for the sector as well as recognising the need for change – a need that in some ways has been heightened by COVID-19.
We are pleased that the paper was well received, and look forward to working with Government to best support local, original and risk-taking Australian content in a modern media landscape.
Screen Australia is constantly considering the best next steps to support a more inclusive and diverse industry for cultural, creative, connection and commercial reasons. Efforts such as the initial Gender Matters programs, and research and partnerships with industry across factors such as cultural background, disability, and sexual orientation and gender identity, have been necessary and made a difference. We have a long way to go towards an industry that reflects our nation, both on and off screen. We look forward to working with industry in 2020/21 on the best next steps.
Both industry and audiences face many changes. In the short term, productions will have to continually adapt to be ‘COVID-safe’, which will unavoidably carry additional costs and complications. The changes brought by COVID-19, digital disruption and general economic conditions will have far-reaching consequences not just for the year ahead but for many years. The challenges ahead are unpredictable, and even those who adapt may struggle to preserve the stories they thought they would tell. But there are also opportunities for content creators in a world where Australian screen stories are in demand, at home and abroad, and there are new stories that need telling.
This was the year COVID-19 hit us hard, but also the year where screen stories became even more sought after, and more important. Screen Australia will continue to support the industry, and its tenacious creativity, to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead.
OzTam. (2020) Special Report: Total TV Viewing. Roy Morgan (2020) Subscription TV viewers soar during Aussie lockdown – Netflix, Foxtel, Stan, Disney+ & Amazon Prime all up significantly (Finding No. 8472).↩
Facebook views are reported by Facebook, and are not comparable with viewing metrics from other platforms. Compiled by Screen Australia as at July 2020.↩