Australian film funding shouldn’t be a beauty contest – here’s why

Should the offset for screen producers apply to all films made in Australia? Yes, even the ones that ruffle a few feathers. mark sebastian/Flickr

Controversy flared late last month when The Australian reported that a creationist, anti-Darwinist film had won funding from an Australian government agency through a legal “loophole”.

The Guardian weighed in with a headline that repeated the suggestion of a “loophole” – although it qualified the headline in the body of its report.

Readers were left to draw the implication that creationist filmmakers were taking improper advantage of the funding system, and that they should be stopped.

The facts of the case

There is no loophole. Filmmakers who make an Australian film that meets certain technical criteria (as to format, release strategy, minimum budget) attract a “producer offset” based on the amount of qualifying production expenditure.

There are no rules about subject matter except that the film must have “significant Australian content”, defined broadly by the nationalities of the people involved in making the film and the places where production occurs.

The legal dispute that brought the film to The Australian’s attention was purely about the amount of qualifying expenditure and the right of the production company to count expenditure incurred by a third party.

That the film qualified for the offset was never in question.

Rule-based funding versus beauty contests

Should there be a mechanism then for blocking films that treat subjects from a creationist perspective, as The Australian and The Guardian seemed to imply?

Or more generally, should we subject filmmakers to a process of selection based on the subject matter of their films and their treatment of the subject matter?

This question goes to the heart of the design of subsidy systems.

One approach is to lay down rules that clearly specify the conditions that filmmakers must meet in order to qualify for assistance, and then support all filmmakers who meet those conditions, without favouring one over another.

That is how the producer offset works.

The other is to selectively assist filmmakers through a competitive process with the “best” proposals chosen by one or more experts according to a given set of criteria, and the remaining proposals declined.

This is presumably what The Australian has in mind – in essence, a “beauty contest”.

Pernicious effects of beauty contests

“Competitive selection of the best proposal” sounds like the kind of process routinely employed by managers seeking to allocate resources in a rational fashion. That is, it sounds right.

But there are pernicious effects for those subject to the process.

For those who are unsuccessful – often a majority – it is not just that they have expended effort and resources in a fruitless quest. That is the least of their problems.

For now they find themselves in competition with the successful applicants who with the benefit of subsidy can:

  • Achieve higher production values than their unsubsidised competitors
  • Undercut their unsubsidised competitors’ prices in the marketplace
  • Offer higher returns to their investors.

What’s more the winners have the cachet of selection – what Phillip Adams once called the “koala stamp” of approval by an official government agency.

For the “unbeautiful”, it all adds up to a double whammy. First they lose the beauty contest, then they have to find some way to compete in the marketplace against the subsidised, koala-stamped “beauties”.

Why this matters

Few may care if the loser were solely a creationist film about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle and its aftermath.

But what if it were a Darwinist film about creationism? Or a film about boat people? Or a film about a failure of the justice system? Or about political malfeasance?

We begin to care when the subject matter touches our personal concerns.

The trouble with beauty contests is that so much of what concerns us is “unbeautiful” – and therefore unlikely to find official favour.

Thus films that tack against the status quo may miss out to films that sail with the prevailing winds; likewise films that pursue dissenting perspectives or tell truths that people don’t wish to hear.

Beauty, which is in the eye of the beholder, may be found wanting in films that deal with topics or use methods that are unfamiliar to the beholder.

Originality is often considered ugly or even monstrous, before the eye adjusts.

A beauty contest is thus a poor means of allocating funding unless the intention is to skew safe, deter dissent, favour the known.

By contrast, rule-based funding is open to all comers on the same terms. There is no favouritism – no beauty, no ugliness. The selection of winners is left to the marketplace, where all films ultimately must compete.

If the price of such openness is that films we don’t like sometimes get made, we should be willing to pay it.

Rule-based funding is an enabling and democratic policy tool; a beauty contest is a tool of control and censorship.

We should resist the temptation to reach for it.