Australia’s going to Austria for Eurovision

In other news this week…

Australia has been granted a wild card entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, being held in Vienna at the end of May. It’s been a long held aim of the SBS MD  Michael Ebeid, as the channels been the official broadcaster for the past thirty years. For the past few years the lobbying has got more intense and the pleas have got louder and more desperate. Finally, a few days ago came this announcement by the co-presenter of the show for SBS Julia Zemiro (who’s also rockin’ the dirndl look in the pic above)

It brings in some of the biggest audiences to SBS each year, and having an Australian act in the finals in the Austrian capital  will send that audience into overdrive. I guess the Aussies were just waiting for it to take place in a country with a name a bit like theirs.

Eurovision very much belongs on SBS now, since it was first broadcast in 1983. Electric Pictures made a doc shown on SBS called The Secret History of Eurovision  in 2011, with Mark Atkin and Phil Craig as producers.

For most it’s a celebratory show, an excuse for dressing up in silly wigs and having a party. Last year, Australian songstress Jessica Mauboy was the interval act in the second semi-final – with every cultural stereotype present and correct on stage before she sang. She’d get my vote to be the entry this year. There’s also talk of Kylie, or Guy Sebastian to have a real chance of winning…but be careful what you wish for.  The Guardian’s music critics came up with Nick Cave.

But there’s been a fair bit of debate in a slow news week (since Tony Abbott survived his leadership challenge). Coming so soon after the budget cuts to SBS and ABC, how much is it going to cost for Australia to take part? What if Australia actually wins and has to pay for the following year’s competition? (which would have to be held in Europe in any case). Is it making a mockery of the European identity of the show?  Here’s one writer who’s not in favour…

The links between Australia and Europe are strong of course, and it’s probably right to see Eurovision as an affectionate way of linking some very far away places.  We’re pretty Euro  on SBS.  We do food programmes in which chefs travel to their home countries. Quite a few country house shows. And a lot of mostly Brit history with  British presenters like Neil Oliver. Crime series from Denmark, Sweden, Italy, France. Plus we see people in Lycra pedalling over Europe in the Tour de France, the Vuelta, and the Giro d’Italia. Next to all that Euro content, America is much less visible (though the commercial channels more than make up for it).

Plenty of broadcasting challenges await – Should we be less tongue-in-cheek about it now that we’re actually in the show? how will Australians vote,  given that it’ll be taking place live at 6am East Coast time? (SBS will be broadcasting as every year with a time delay on Sunday evening). What type of act will best represent Australia today? And, again, do we really want to win?

I’m looking forward to seeing how our coverage looks and sounds this year. I’ll be watching from Copenhagen, and feeling just that bit more Aussie…

 

Money for nothing and your flicks for nearly free

Berlinale! BAFTAs! The Golden Globes! The Oscars! February seems to be the most concentrated period in the film calendar, especially the ‘award-winning film’ calendar. But how do all these star-laden and artistically challenging films get funded these days? And why do the plots often include scenes in unlikely countries? Step forward into the spotlight the unsung hero of the film business – the Fiscal Incentive.

In Europe, according to this new report from the Observatoire de l’Audiovisuel Europeene – (stargazers of a different kind) – there are 26 such incentives – eleven tax credits, nine rebates, and six tax shelters – spread across 17 countries. Half of them apply to TV production as well as cinema; three of the twenty-six also apply to funding video games. (Progress! Hooray!). The UK estimates that each £1 spent in the UK on film generates £12 in ‘Gross Value Added’.

praguefilm

If there are Trade or Culture ministers from some of the countries without such incentives reading this blog by the way, the report itself is yours to own  here if you have a spare €100. Which you probably do.

Each country is establishing these schemes for roughly the same reasons – to attract film production to their nation, give work to the production/facilities sector, and perhaps be sprinkled by some of that awards stardust. Sometimes cultural and artistic reasons to support film are also advanced, but that seems to be further and further down the small print these days.

In the last year alone, Lithuania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Netherlands, and Slovakia have all brought in schemes. Ireland’s new Section 481 scheme started last month. Expect to see one or more of these countries on the credits of a few medium-budget productions in the coming months.The report talks about how employment, heritage awareness, consumer interest, economic growth, exports, tourism and so-called national ‘soft power’ are all reasons for these instruments to be set up. It’s certainly not money for nothing (cue the Dire Straits video below) but it comes at a cost.

To the producer, these incentive schemes seem to be an essential part of film and TV financing without which the film simply wouldn’t be made. And taken for granted by the bigger US based studios – who give the impression of just following the money around Europe, Romania one day, then Prague, then Malta. Even within the USA, California is losing out as ‘Hollywood’ movies are now mostly shot elsewhere. The State of California announced a few months ago that it will triple its tax breaks for entertainment companies doing business in the state, the latest effort to stem a tide of runaway production that has cost it billions in revenue.

So in European countries with attractive incentives, a succession of big-budget productions roll into town, with the ‘financial instrument’ largely paying for the employment of the film professionals of that location. The report calls these ‘portable productions’ , and says:

In mature Western European production sectors in particular – such as the UK, France, and Ireland – there are significant numbers of international portable productions attracted to the market. In many cases, portable productions are sourced from the major US studios, which are important users of production incentives.

The money comes in from government and is spent locally. Britain now has a roaring trade in such movies.  Scenes for hundreds of millions’ worth of films are produced in Europe which might otherwise get made somewhere else. Everyone’s a winner, right? I’m not so sure.  If this is national funding, it surely needs to work for the country’s own industry, and questions need to be asked. Does it improve the talent base in a country to make it self-sustaining? Does it encourage (smaller) local producers to work at home, or go abroad? Does it enable a country’s creative community to produce the next Big Thing?

The Muppet Movie, contributing to the UK’s cultural landscape?

The answers are in the Observatory’s densely argued and data-rich study, and I don’t have the film business knowledge to be able to analyse their analysis. The report does say that the government may not particularly care about these issues over pure economic ones

almost all of the incentive structures provide a greater return to the government in tax revenues than they cost to operate, whilst also providing standard trickle-down benefits to the broader economy, also including in areas such as tourism and exports.

I dealt with many creative economy issues when I worked for the BBC on the development of the production sector outside London. How could we incentivise producers? What was the right balance between ‘big producers’ (usually from London) and local/regional ones?  Did the regional film & TV sectors gain at all from this strategy? They weren’t issues with simple answers, and the impact or results weren’t immediately apparent.

As with TV,  measuring the impact of such a film production strategy purely in financial terms may only tell half the story. Is such film funding just making studio popcorn movies easier to finance? Are we using the resources of crews and talent on cinema that has no particular cultural value?  Does it take money away from ‘true cinema’? Or is this all part of a healthy mixed ecology of film production.  Comments, info & links all welcome.

 

 

 

 

Are games the way to reach TV audiences?

Still on my Transfer Deadline theme, yesterday the BBC had a couple of outside experts giving their views on the players who might be on the market.Fifa Interactive World Cup 2014 Grand Final competitor David Blytheway and Football Manager expert Alex Stewart provided insight and analysis of players involved in deals from a gamer’s perspective.Got me thinking about games and TV.

Football Manager is a video game which involves assessing and transferring players from the perspective of the gamer as manager. Very entertaining to read in the deadline day text these gamers’ perspectives on the ‘real’ footballers, using the stats that are part of the video game to back up their observations.

Then I watched on the Guardian site an extract from the documentary “Drone“, by Flimmer Film, which includes a storyline about about the training of gamers to become drone pilots in the US military.

drone-pilots

I have to say that I’m not a gamer; maybe I just haven’t found the right one. But it’s clear that that’s how many peoples’ brains are wired and the way they want to interact with content. So I know I need to find out more.

Doc filmmakers in particular are being introduced to this theme in many industry conferences.

The long-established Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) changed its format this year to Net-Work-Play with plenty of game- and online-related content and speakers in the sessions. Brave call by Joost den Hartog to turbo-charge the conference this year to appeal a very different crowd.

Games for Change is an annual get together in April as part of the Tribeca Film Festival;  in Malmo, Sweden  the Nordic Game Conference tries to make links between the gaming and filmmaking communities.  The aim is I think to apply principles of ‘gamification’ (rather than always actual games) to factual or fiction ideas – using the ‘mechanics’ of a game to change the way stories are told. On a simple level this could be making a factual story more of a process of first person discovery. But I’m sure there’s more to it than that.

Here’s Morgan Spurlock and Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking about Gamification on the collaborative art/tech show HitRecord on TV. Searching for the answer to what actually is a game, and how competition is compatible with art.

As the market for TV becomes ever more competitive, the audience fragments and public funding dwindles,  you need ways to get the audience to find, love and share your content – games are surely part of the answer. I’d love to be able to find a game-TV hybrid that could work for mainstream audiences on SBS – let me know if you’ve got any ideas!

 

 

 

 

A transfer window for TV production companies?

For me today is going to be a challenge to focus on work while keeping an eye on the info-fest that is Transfer Deadline Day. For those that aren’t into football, it’s one of the two days in the year (the other is the end of August) when the transfer window closes, and clubs are no longer allowed to sign players. The day is covered by the BBC and Sky on TV, text, radio, and probably carrier pigeon too. It’s known as the only business where people still use faxes to send contracts at the end of the window approaches, and no TDD is complete without a story of a last-minute paper jam which prevents a deal being done. Leaving shopping till the last day of the sales is something I can really relate to. I’m never through the doors first, unlike this lot…

The Football Transfer Window has been in place since 2002-3, which coincidentally is just before the acquisitions spree that started with new Terms of Trade being introduced for the UK production sector in 2004. This gave companies control of the righs in the ideas they created, and, therefore, made them valuable. Money poured in from VC and other investors in the UK, and from a cottage industry the production sector suddenly became a business worth billions. (Big thanks to Nick Ware who gave me the idea to connect these two themes for this blog even though he’s not into football!)

nick ware
This man likes documentaries far more than football

Britain’s status as the capital of production  company mergers and acquisitions hasn’t changed. It seems that the main reason now to start an independent company in the UK is to be able to grow it fast and then sell it – it’s business, after all.

For Brits, most global revenues still come from America. At last week’s Realscreen summit, 70 UK producers were in attendance. PACT set up a British Pub in the lobby of the Washington hotel where it all happens. The UK trade association PACT also announced the setting up of a US organisation for UK companies and their US offshoots, – with offices in LA and New York to be set up this year.

British Pub Realscreen

PACT’s figures seem to show that the only full commissions for UK companies over the past two years were from the US – though this doesn’t include coproductions, as there have been plenty of those from elsewhere in the world.

Companies in the US have a struggle to hold onto the IP in the formats they create – the channels try and take as many rights as they can – but in the UK that IP is the foundation of their business. That doesn’t stop UK companies pitching, or investing in US companies – the size of the business there means that companies are still profitable even though the rights position isn’t nearly as good. Arrow Media’s John Smithson has a pithy column in Realscreen magazine and he returns to the theme a lot.

It does of course mean that the development focus for companies is on returnable formats, as this is what those investors want to see to get a revenue stream from the company.  Like transferring a football player for an eye-watering sum, there’s no guarantee of success though; while ideas are still dependent on those capricious commissioners, there’ll always be a big element of uncertainty.

Now, how about a Transfer Window for production companies?