Writers hope for “third wave” of Australian storytelling

Changing tastes and demographics, production costs have shifted across the decades -but will content quotas herald a new era in storytelling?

Current trends in film and TV and the government’s impending content quotas for streamers might open a third wave of Australian storytelling, according to a group of writers and producers.

The ambition was raised this week by AWG CEO Claire Pullen, writer Blake Ayshford and Louise Schultze of Melbourne-based Australian Production House, in the following press release:

Back at the turn of the 20th century, Australia was the world’s leading producer of films, with 52 narrative fiction films produced in 1911. That stayed the case until American film companies bought up the infrastructure for distributing films in Australia (cinemas) and started crowding out Australian film and replacing it with American content, as it did globally. By the 1960s the number of Australian movies shown on our big screens had shrunk to around 2 percent.

After the Gorton and Whitlam governments invested in Australian film again in the 1970s, Australia experienced its second movie boom, with iconic films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Storm Boy, and My Brilliant Career made, followed in the 1980s by enormous global success stories like Mad Max, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Crocodile Dundee. That period of global success continued beyond the 1980s with films like Muriel’s Wedding, Moulin Rouge, Happy Feet, and Rabbit Proof Fence.

Australia also experienced a boom in locally produced scripted television after government support. It began slowly in the 1970s with police procedurals like Matlock Police(pictured) and Cop Shop and by 1980s and 1990s we were producing highly popular shows like Stingers, All Saints, and Blue Heelers, along with indies like The Secret Life of Us, and soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away.

But the rise of streaming services in the naughties witnessed a precipitous drop off in Australian film and television, shrinking to 2-4 percent, as once again American-dominated distribution services have sought to maximise returns on films produced and conceived in America, with streaming services largely functioning as one-way distribution platforms, rather than as large commissioners of international works, unless compelled by nation-states to do so.

Blake Ayshford – who began his career as an Australian television writer, getting his first big break writing for All Saints in 2007 – says the nature of writing rooms as well as the types of shows and formats that predominate now have changed and, in many ways, made it hard for young Australian writers to break into the business.

“When I started writing television, we had writing rooms with 10 or so writers in there and 22 episodes a season. It was collegiate, and there was room for young writers to learn and to have a go at writing a show themselves. If your work needed a clean up, one of the other writers could step in and do some script editing,” says Ayshford.

“Back then television was considered low stakes, while film writing was high art. But with shows like Love my Way that perception changed. Of course things have changed dramatically now internationally. Television has almost become the higher form, or on the same plane, with some incredible shows being made.

“But today, with much shorter seasons, each show becomes much more expensive to produce, and therefore the writers’ rooms are small and there’s less appetite for risk. There might be four writers in a room today as opposed to 10 a decade or so ago. That would include the showrunner, a note-taker, and maybe two mid-career writers. There’s not that same space for development of new writers,” says Ayhsford.

The last decade has seen some significant changes to both film and television. Martin Scorcese’s criticism of our, or film producers and distributors, obsession with Marvel movies has meant money either tends to go into high cost, bankable, but safe formula movies like Marvel franchises, or for higher risk films, much lower budgets.

Louise Schultze, Executive Director of Australian Production House works with leading film producers and says some of the trends now include much shorter series TV for streaming services, alongside epic (and long) films at the cinema like Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Napoleon.

“The demographics that attend the cinema are changing. The movies are no longer a go-to date night, they are a social event, with 15- to 25-year-olds indulging in a cinematic retro-revival. They are a generation with a device in their hand their whole lives, so going to the movies is a novelty and at the moment they are the main demographic attending cinemas.

“In terms of what’s popular, horror movies suit the current risk adverse climate in the industry as they are reasonably cheap to produce. They provide scope for creativity on a budget. Outside of that bracket of young people, others are going to see sequels, prequels and large franchises,” says Shultze.

“Due to cost of living pressures, movies are mostly too expensive for young families, so children’s films aren’t performing as well in cinemas either. Instead, children’s movies are doing well on streaming services.

“There are also production side issues changing what we are able to consume. Because of the competition for viewers, there is less appetite for risk in film and television. While Marvel movies and already established Directors can attract big funding, other productions need to be economical, hence the attraction of documentaries and horror which tend to cost less to produce.

“Think about the cost of making an historical drama versus a horror. In one you need to find old cars and clothes for a convincing aesthetic, in the other, fake blood. Are there car chases through streets that will need to be blocked off, or someone running?,” says Schultze.

“These are the practical considerations of film and television making in a highly competitive market. Can you shoot the film in one or two locations and with a small cast? That type of consideration can significantly impact the cost of a film.”

Whereas once large production companies and distributors might be spending 70 percent of their money on commissions and 50 percent buying productions, today that split is closer to 50/50.

The rapidly changing nature of Australian film and television trends means potentially great opportunities for Australian writers and film-makers, if the local policy settings are right, says Claire Pullen, Executive Director of the Australian Writers Guild (AWG).

“We know there have been some wild swings and trends on screen, particularly since the last writers strike in 2007, after which reality TV got a turbo boost as television producers looked to fill that void and create content cheaply.

“And while there is a place for that type of thing, we want to see a renaissance of scripted television and film-making in this country, a third wave of Australian storytelling,” says Pullen.

“In terms of genre trends, you can understand why there might have been a drop off in westerns in the last 50 years or so, there is also a trend toward documentaries. Again, documentaries are great, some of the greatest television series and films are documentaries, but this trend I think reflects that is usually cheaper for streaming platforms to buy a documentary than to pay for a film or television show with paid actors, set-designers, script-writers and so on having to be paid.

“That’s why the legislation around content quotas is going to be so critical. If we have a percentage of hours or revenue being directed toward shows, that’s great, but does that mean scripted content or reality shows? Does that mean those shows are promoted by the algorithm or buried? Will writers get paid royalties that sustain them between jobs, or not? These are critical questions,” says Pullen.

3 Responses

  1. … it’s interesting that Pullen doesn’t mention arguably the most successful drama series of the era, A Country Practice … but back in those days, ACP was two hours a week, forty-four weeks of the year, inexpensively produced, watched by millions and fought over by advertisers keen to tap into that audience … compare today when we have a bunch of Cecil B de Fellinis creating works of televisual art for a mere six hours a year and costing squillions to make … so no, those days are gone …

  2. This is nonsense. The US simply threw millions of dollars into Hollywood. They developed first sound and then wide screen technicolor and Europe couldn’t raise the capital to compete with the budgets of US films that were funded by global distribution networks. That did spawn French New Wave low budget cinema. Another factor was in 1960s Australians were sitting in front of their brand new TVs watching Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Gorton and Whitlam funded the grass roots — the film and TV schools, and NIDA. It was based on first the technical skills and then developing the creativity and Australian uniqueness. Blue Heeler, All Saints, Water Rats etc. were highly profitable. They were subsidised and watched by 2m viewers, who were still watching ads. They were killed off by technology VHS, DVD, DVRs, second TVs and commercial Internet which arrived in 1995. The response was more US output deals as Bond blew up the industry. Netflix didn’t expand into Australia till 2015.

  3. As someone who hopes to one day enter the business of storytelling, whether that be by writing dramas for television or comedy for radio or everything in between, I really hope that it’s true that we’re entering into a new age of Australian storytelling.

    That being said, I’d like to hope we’re already in it. Many ongoing dramas of the 90’s and 00’s (Blue Heelers / All Saints) had started to become repetitive (although I’d give almost anything to have an original show like them come back). Then there was a period where dramas were almost non-existent in the Australian media landscape. But in recent years, some high quality Australian dramas have been making a splash internationally.

    Five Bedrooms has been a huge success in the UK, The Newsreader has a whole heap of Spanish fans on X, Utopia’s made it big on Netflix, Bump had some mild success on The CW, and Fisk made it to ITVX. If this isn’t the beginning of the new wave of Australian storytelling, I don’t know what is.

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