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Thursday, 5 August 1926

Senator GRANT (New South Wales) . - I move-

That, in the opinion of the Senate, a royal commission, with power to send for persons and papers and to move from place to place, should be appointed to inquire into and report upon the moving-picture industry in Australia.

The motion-picture industry has engaged the attention of the British Parliament, both branches of this legislature, and also numerous commissions and committees in various parts of the world, and considerable time has been spent in an endeavour to discover what action can be taken to prevent the United States of America having a complete monopoly of the business. It is difficult to definitely state what can be done ; but I have not the slightest doubt that effective action can be taken, both in Great Britain and in Australia, to ensure the production of British pictures. I have, therefore, submitted this motion for the appointment of a royal commission, because it provides the quickest, most economical, and effective way of submitting to this Parliament reliable information concerning the ramifications of the industry. The grip which this form of entertainment has upon the people of the Commonwealth is generally admitted. According "to published reports, there are, approximately, 600 picture theatres in Australia, in addition to which there are 400 or 500 other places in which moving pictures are exhibited, so that in round figures the number of establishments in which moving pictures are projected is considerably over- 1,000. We are informed by those engaged in the picture business that no less than 100,000,000 persons patronize picture theatres every twelve months, and present indications suggest that the number is substantially increasing. That may be due to the improved character of the pictures displayed or to the higher cost of other forms of amusement. As persons attending picture shows usually do so with their minds relaxed and in a receptive mood, it is of great importance that the ideas conveyed to them should not be inimical to our interests and that British sentiment should at least be given a certain degree of prominence. The general opinion throughout Australia is that that is not done. For that I do not blame the American picture combination. It is its business to protect its interests, and no doubt it is doing so. Up to the present Australian producers have been so severely handicapped in the production of moving pictures that, unless they receive some assistance, they cannot possibly survive. As Australia is a protectionist country, we ought to do whatever is humanly possible to assist the industry. It is comparatively easy for us to produce a locomotive equal to the best imported, but I do not suggest for a moment that we can economically produce a picture which will equal the best of the imported productions. Some years ago, we were told that railway rolling-stock could not be manufactured in Australia, and once when walking through the railway yards at Kalgoorlie, I noticed truck axles that were manufactured by Krupps, of Germany. But most of our rolling-stock is now manufactured in Australia, and is equal to the best imported. A locomotive can be put into action immediately it is completed, and commences to render a payable service; but larger audiences than are at present possible would he necessary to justify the production of moving pictures in Australia on a large scale.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Could not the matter be inquired into by the Tariff Board ?

Senator GRANT - -The import duties on films has been investigated by the

Tariff Board, but it has not been able to give us any helpful information. That is one reason why I am seeking the sympathy and support of honorable senators for the appointment of a royal commission to inquire into the motion picture industry, as I believe the report that would be presented would be of assistance to the Government. I am informed that it costs from £40,000 to £50,000 to produce a big modem picture, and practically all of that amount is spent on labour of some kind. The expenditure of such a large sum in Australia on one film would be of substantial benefit to the community. Efforts to produce pictures in Australia have been systematically frustrated by the American combination. I do not wish to be understood to object to its doing that; it is a part of its business; but it is no part of our business to sit tamely by while that is being done. I am informed that the combination has established what is known as the block booking system, under which every picture theatre proprietor must make arrangements in advance for the supply of pictures for a period of twelve months. If he wishes to exhibit one picture a week he must order at least 52, and if he wishes to exhibit two pictures a week he must undertake to accept 104. The Australian pictures are so heavily handicapped that few, if any, of the proprietors are prepared to screen them, and the combination has succeeded in practically excluding them from the local screen. Another practice of the combination has a very far reaching effect. If a picture is to succeed in the suburbs it must first be well advertised in the city. If the combination either declines or neglects to give it that advertising it is not patronized when it reaches the suburbs. The locally produced picture is thus frozen out of the business, and the combination goes on its way rejoicing. We are assured that the combination, by schemes that are known only to themselves, succeed in evading the payment of both State and Federal income tax. I am not prepared to vouch for the accuracy of that assertion. For several years the United States of America took no part in the actual fighting in the great world war. The attention of that country during those years was devoted to the building up of the motion picture industry. The start, which it received, was so great that no other nation has since been able to overtake it, and to-day the American film industry has a stranglehold on the business in not only Australia, but also Great Britain. It has been reported in the press that not more than 5 per cent.- of the pictures which are screened in Great Britain are produced in that country. Some persons claim that the climate is responsible; others that the climate has no effect, but that, on the contrary, nine-tenths of the pictures produced are made in a strong artificial light. The percentage of pictures that are made in Australia is not any greater than in Great Britain. We heavily tax motor cars and other goods that .are imported from America, in an endeavour to build up Australian industries. I doubt whether the taxation of imported films would prove successful unless it was made exceedingly heavy. There must be sonde other means by which we can ensure the production of pictures in this country. I desire to create such an interest among the people of the Commonwealth and the members of this Parliament that steps will be taken to that end. A royal commission would, in my opinion, be able to suggest the most effective means that could be adopted. It has been suggested that provision should be made by regulation that a certain percentage of the pictures that are screened in Australia must be produced locally. That suggestion has a number of good points to recommend it, and is worthy of careful consideration, but I do not think it goes sufficiently far. I have not seen the statement contradicted that 50 per cent, of the pictures which are exhibited on German screens must be of German manufacture. That, clearly, would be a way out of our difficulty. If we said that 50 per cent, of the pictures exhibited in Australia must be of Australian manufacture, an immediate fillip would be given to local production.

Senator McLachlan - Is that a matter for this Parliament?

Senator GRANT - I think that it is. This Parliament has very wide and extensive powers.

Senator Thompson - - We should encroach on State rights if we did that.

Senator GRANT - We take any action that we think will be of benefit to the country, and we are justified in doing so.

I have been informed that nearly all the picture theatres are controlled by one or two companies. I do not object to that, but I think the fact ought to be made widely known. A great deal of intelligence is not necessary to enable one to realize that, if those companies can make a greater profit by handling American productions, they will not pay a price for Australian pictures that will enable the local producer to continue in the business. If this Parliament or the Parliaments of the States insisted that 50 per cent, of the pictures screened should be of Australian production, the position would be quite different. Then the Australian producer would have an opportunity of showing what he- could do. I do not blame people for hesitating to invest large sums in ventures of this kind unless there is a fair prospect of a satisfactory return. I am informed that a number of pictures have been produced in Australia, but the exhibitors have offered the producers only a fraction of the cost of production. No doubt our American friends are delighted to know that Australian producers have been frozen out of the business. I am also told that plenty of capital' would be available in Australia for the production of films if a guarantee could be obtained that the American combination would allow them to be screened. They certainly would not do that unless action of a character not hitherto determined upon were taken. If a royal commission were appointed to investigate the problem it might be able to suggest steps that could be taken to put that combination in its proper place. The people of the United States of America boast that trade follows the .films. If Australian pictures were more commonly exhibited, our own goods, instead of American commodities, could be advertised more extensively than at the present time through the medium of the screen. Although Australia is not yet in a position to export manufactured goods, it would be well to draw attention in Great Britain and other countries overseas, by means of moving pictures, to the excellence of its primary products. I understand that the Australian climate is similar to that of California, which is eminently suitable for the production of films. During the war, however, the Americans got a stranglehold on the industry to the exclusion of Australian producers. American pictures may be well produced, but they do not appeal to me ; they are neither amusing nor instructive. Australians would get more benefit from pictures illustrating the scenery and the fauna and flora of their own country than from foreign films. The "shows" now presented are patronized because there is nothing better offering. People in the Old Country know little of the agricultural and pastoral industries of the Commonwealth, which could be well described by means of moving pictures. Switzerland is a beautiful country, but our own mountain scenery is unsurpassed. No river is more remarkable than the Murray, and no plain is comparable with the Nullarbor Plain, in "Western Australia. Where can better beaches be found than those on the shores of Australia? The population of this country is so scattered that only a small proportion of the people can ever visit the majority of our beauty spots, but, with the aid of the cinematograph, the great scenic attractions that Australia has to offer can be enjoyed in even the remote parts of the Commonwealth. If " Miss Australia " of 1927 were brought before the people by this means, she would be even more popular, if that were possible, than " Miss Australia " of 1926. I do not lose sight of the fact that strong opposition will be offered to any proposal to. interfere with the present organization of the American film companies; but- I doubt if any honorable senator will allow considerations of that nature to influence his vote. If the commission is appointed, it will obtain a great deal of first-hand information, and it should be in a position to make a definite recommendation to place the business in Australia on a satisfactory footing. It has been stated that an American film company proposes to produce a picture entitled " For the Term of His Natural Life." For my part, and I believe my view is shared by very many people in this country, I should be very sorry indeed to see that done. The Minister for Trade and Customs should intimate at once that the picture must not be shown abroad.

Senator Thompson - We cannot prevent the American companies from producing it in their own studios.

Senator GRANT - The screening of that picture will present Australian life in its most unfavorable light. Many people in other parts of the world have no idea of what life in the. Common wealth is like. They do not know whether the people in this country are white, black, brown, or yellow, or whether they speak the English language. At least, this is what we have been told. The picture to which I have referred will show in awf ul detail all the horrors of that regrettable and horrible period when people were transported from Great Britain to Tasmania. The Minister should issue peremptory instructions that it must not bt. shown abroad. If the American film companies desire to make pictures in Australia, let them show some of the scenic beauties of Queensland, as well as life on the cane fields and sheep stations of that State.

Senator Andrew - That is being done now.

Senator GRANT - Let them show pictures of life on places like the Dunlop sheep station away beyond Bourke, or on some of the cattle stations in Northern Queensland, as well as the Darling river in flood, or moving pictures of Sydney harbour, so that people in other coun-. tries may get some idea of life in Australia. I realize how difficult it is to persuade the Government to do anything that will interfere with business enterprises with big capital behind them. I do not know what amount of money is invested in the American picture business, but I do know that, by means of propaganda, the American companies have secured a footing in nearly every country, and they mean to maintain their position in Australia. If I had my way, they would not be here for five minutes. I would exclude them all to-morrow, and insist upon Australian-made pictures being shown in Australian picture houses. If American films were excluded, we should quickly devise ways and means for the manufacture of Australian films, which could be shown anywhere in the world. It should be the duty of this Government to take the necessary steps to prevent Australian enterprise in the moving picture business from being crushed by American competition. I do not anticipate that we shall be able to oust the American film companies without a great deal of effort, but I believe that Australians have sufficient ability and intelligence to produce excellent pictures, and they should be encouraged in every way.

Debate (on motion by Senator Pearce) adjourned.

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