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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Screen Australia

Screen Australia

CHAIR: We will resume our Senate estimates program. I want to welcome Screen Australia. We've had some issues with getting you on the screen, which is perhaps ironic.

Senator PRATT: I want to ask about the Treasury laws amendment bill No. 5, which passed the parliament with Labor amendments in December last year. The amendments passed the Senate on 1 December and, despite government statements that it could not and would not accept the amendments in the House, later that day the amendments were passed by the House. Was Screen Australia involved at all in lobbying efforts that day?

Mr G Mason: We don't do lobbying efforts, Senator.

Senator PRATT: So the answer is no. Was Screen Australia asked by the department or the government to assist in lobbying crossbench or coalition MPs against Labor's amendments to the bill?

Mr G Mason: No.

Senator PRATT: Was Screen Australia asked to list prominent members of the screen sector to lobby crossbench or coalition MPs against supporting Labor's amendments to the bill?

Mr G Mason: No.

Senator PRATT: Do you have any background or knowledge within Screen Australia about the source of that lobbying which took place, in terms of who was associated with it and how it came about?

Mr G Mason: I'm not aware of anyone being asked to lobby to defeat those amendments.

Senator PRATT: You're not aware. Were you aware of the lobbying at the time, or did you become aware of it later?

Mr G Mason: Senator, I'm slightly confused here. We were not involved, or I was not aware at any point of people lobbying to defeat those amendments. There was a lot of work going on in many parts of the sector to ensure that the bill was being addressed. Screen producers, and every guild and production company, were keenly checking that the bill was going to be debated and looked at.

Senator PRATT: What about the amendments? Did you know about the amendments at the time?

Mr G Mason: No, we were not involved in any way to work against those amendments.

Senator PRATT: Would it be appropriate to lobby or assist in lobbying against such amendments?

Mr G Mason: No.

Senator PRATT: Looking at Screen Australia's Drama report,what's the difference between the 2018-19 and the 2020-21 Drama report in terms of commercial free-to-air drama spend, commercial free-to-air drama titles, free-to-air drama hours, children's content titles, and children's content hours?

Mr G Mason: Senator, I'm looking for a little more direction from you, as to what you're actually asking for. Obviously, the Drama report, is a huge thing and, with respect to those things that you've just mentioned, there's a lot covered there. We can provide you with any sort of analysis between those two years that you require.

Senator PRATT: Is there a significant difference between commercial free-to-air drama spend, looking at 2018-19 and 2020-21?

Mr G Mason: Senator, I think you want a response that, yes, there have been significant changes in the volume of hours and spend between those two years on those platforms. That is something that I could confirm for you quite easily—a downward trend there.

Senator PRATT: Can you go to that. The government's tried to assure us that Australian content levels are healthy, despite their changes to regulation. I'm therefore asking you to quantify and confirm the differences that I think are there, starting with drama.

Mr G Mason: Again, one of the things we've pointed out is that there is still a lot of drama being made, particularly if you add in the newer platforms. There has been a shift away. There was a year, for example, where Foxtel were not involved in any. Of course, Foxtel are now back; I think we've got three on the go with them right now.

Senator PRATT: Okay. My question, with respect to children's content, was more general, but specifically it was about free-to-air drama spend, drama titles and drama hours. Could you go to the issues in free to air, please.

Mr G Mason: With free to air, one of the challenges, obviously, is that dramas are rating less well than they did in the past, and at the same time their costs have gone up. Many people have moved how they consume that content; in particular, they're moving to streamers. It would also be fair to say that at the moment probably our most significant drama partner, single partner, would be the ABC. But with the free to airs, as I said, we have dramas on the go, certainly with 9 and 10 at the moment. There is one with 7 but it's been delayed because of the Western Australian border issues. Clearly, yes, there has been a shift in the number of hours and spend.

Mr Brealey : I can give you some numbers, if you like, from the Drama report.

Senator PRA TT: Yes, thank you.

Mr Brealey : The number of commissioned titles between 2019-20 and 2020-21 for commercial free to airs and on-demand platforms declined from 17 to 11. The total investment has declined from $60 million to $54 million.

Senator PRATT: Did total investment go up or down?

Mr Brealey : It went down by $6 million.

Senator PRATT: What can you tell us about children's content titles and hours more broadly?

Mr G Mason: I'll give you some broad detail and Mr Brealey can probably give you some specifics. Again, one of the things about this is working with the sector, but we're also really looking at audiences. One of the things that our friends from the ABC will probably say when they appear later is that children's content viewership has coalesced very strongly around ABC Me and online. They're the two places where primarily children are watching. So, yes, we were making children's content a partnership with the free to airs and others. Obviously, that requirement has been lifted. Clearly, that has an impact on some of the production; no question. One of the things that Screen Australia is working out with the ACTF is how we still make children's stories for the right places. We work a lot with ABC Me, but we're also investigating things that we might do with YouTube and others, just to ensure that Australian children see themselves.

Senator PRATT: And what do you look at in terms of whether households are accessing Australian children's content? Some households might not use the ABC regularly. What children's content are they therefore accessing?

Mr G Mason: What we are seeing a lot is YouTube as a primary place. Streamers are involved in it, too. We are trying to work on it, as I say, particularly, with the Australian Children's Television Foundation.

Senator PRATT: If you're watching YouTube, you're not watching quality children's content. My son likes to watch other people play computer games on YouTube. I wouldn't call that quality children's content.

CHAIR: I agree with that. It's a great frustration.

Mr G Mason: Senator, even the ABC would also be able to put that content on YouTube. We've had conversations about what role Screen Australia might take in that place, as you say, to ensure longer form, quality content, which we back all the time, from Bluey to Hardball and First Day. We're involved in a lot of this stuff, so it's high in mind.

Senator PRATT: I don't much mind if it's short, provided it's quality, and rehashed videos of other people playing Minecraft are not. Children's content hours—can you tell us what's gone on there, please?

Mr Brealey : Across all platforms between 2019-20 and 2020-21, in terms of spend, spend on live action children's TV drama increased from $24 million to $35 million. On animation, it decreased from $27 million to $13 million. With respect to total hours, live action hours declined from 32 to 26, and animation hours declined from 55 to 13.

Senator PRATT: Why did animation decline, specifically? We've seen it as a growing industry. I imagine that it's not as dependent on having actors in a certain place, so it should not have been subject to the same COVID-type restrictions for actors.

Mr G Mason: It's because a lot of people were acquiring lower cost animation shows to fulfil obligations.

Senator PRATT: Lower cost? Overseas cost or Australian but lower cost?

Mr G Mason: Australian. Of course, it would be much cheaper and easier to make a short animation for your hours requirement than the cost of making a scripted drama for children.

Senator PRATT: I know, but you said animation had declined from $27 million to $13 million. To what do you attribute the decline specifically for animation? Cheaper animation?

Mr G Mason: They used to make animation projects to fulfil their obligations. When those obligations are not there, they don't have to make that content anymore.

Senator PRATT: So you put it down to the fact that the obligation has been removed; therefore the content hours have declined. Was it content hours or cost that declined from $27 million to $13 million?

Mr Brealey : In terms of spend, it's in the millions. Spend on animation declined from $27 million in 2019-20 to $13 million in 2020-21, and that's across all platforms.

Senator DAVEY: I have a couple of questions. I refer to the Treasury laws amendment bill No. 5, and the inquiry that was held by this committee. During that inquiry process there were a lot of concerns raised about the increase in the threshold for the eligible producer offset. I think they call it QAPE in industry jargon. At that inquiry the department noted that an extra $33 million in additional funding to Screen Australia would support high-quality and culturally important Australian content, and that was used as a justification for the increase in the QAPE threshold because lower budget productions could come to Screen Australia for a bit of that $33 million. During the process we also heard that Screen Australia was yet to develop guidelines for administering that additional funding. Have those guidelines now been drafted?

Mr G Mason: No. Obviously, as you're referencing, we were waiting for the legislation to go through to see where the gaps were that we would need to assist with. When the legislation changed back, there were no longer those gaps to be filled. At the moment we are still working on the original intent, going back some time, to specifically help projects of scale and particular interest. We have already been helping, to the tune of $5 million or $6 million in additional COVID costs, for the productions that have gone through in this year alone. We've given additional moneys to the online area, which is the biggest audience focus that we have, by a long way. We've given more money to the First Nations team, and we're also giving more money to help all productions to get their right audience. That is in train at the moment, as we speak. We're going back to version 1, before we were going to have to assist projects impacted by the legislation changes, which did not happen.

Senator DAVEY: During that inquiry, in your evidence, Mr Mason, you noted that Screen Australia already plays a role in funding documentaries. There is a lot of concern about the Australian documentary industry. You said, 'This funding is to target quality and culturally important Australian screen content, supporting producers to find a pathway to audiences'. So you are saying that is what you are going back to. So there are no separate guidelines for this additional $33 million which you still have; you are rolling it into your existing processes?

Mr G Mason: At the moment, yes. Last year we were involved in 57 documentaries; so we were involved in a lot of them.

Senator DAVEY: For groups with projects who want to find out more about accessing funding—in light of the fact that there are no new guidelines—where do they go for information about how to apply? If they have a story that is good enough, and legitimate, and they want assistance to find the pathway to an audience, where do they go? How clear are the guidelines? People are still asking me how they can access the funding that was raised in that process.

Mr G Mason: Our websites are clear on each area. They have guidelines for each separate area, depending on where people are working: whether it be in development, in documentary, or in children, script or features; they are all in there. The last strand would be to help people with their best pathway to audience; that is something we will be doing with successful applicants for production funding, as opposed to new applicants. So it is an additional resource to those projects which are being backed to properly get them in front of audiences. It would be someone we are already working with, as opposed to someone coming in blind, trying to work out how to get there.

Senator DAVEY: Thank you.

Senator PATRICK: I want to ask some questions about the $20 million SCREEN Fund. At last estimates—Dr Arnott was here, along with the secretary; I think I missed Screen Australia—$9.8 million had been spent on 188 cinemas. The discussion at estimates was: how do we take that program, worth $20 million, and deal with cinemas that were still distressed as a result of lockdowns in Victoria and New South Wales and, therefore, movies not being released? My understanding is that an announcement was made just before Christmas to allow people to go back for a second hit. Is that correct?

Mr G Mason: On 24 December.

Senator PATRICK: Okay, so it was a Christmas present! I thank the government for doing that; it is appreciated. How many cinemas have made applications for the second round, how many have been approved and how many have had money dispatched to them?

Mr G Mason: We administer this on behalf of the government. Last time round we managed to get it from nowhere to money out very quickly, which we were thrilled by. When our office reopened in mid-January, applications started coming in to us. As of today, about 166 applications have come in already in this four-week period. Some 125 have already been assessed and approved. About $7.3 million of funding has been approved and is moving towards contracting.

Senator PATRICK: Have the cinemas been notified of their approval?

Mr G Mason: That will be in the process once the contracting has taken place, but that is imminent.

Senator PATRICK: Okay. When you say 'imminent,' that is a week away—in the next week?

Mr G Mason: Correct.

Senator PATRICK: What happens to the other 41? They are still being assessed; is that right?

Mr G Mason: That is correct.

Senator PATRICK: Have you rejected anyone?

Mr G Mason: One or two are not eligible under the scheme, but at the moment no. We expect to have all of the remaining funds assessed, contracted and paid within a matter of weeks.

Senator PATRICK: So some people will get a notification next week. Obviously the reason this is being done by the government is to recognise that there is still hardship in this space. Speed is, in my view, still of the essence. I am not critical of the time frame you have given. So some time next week approvals will be advised, and then money flowing—in what time?

Mr G Mason: Same time.

Senator PATRICK: At the same time. Okay.

Mr G Mason: We are very close. We are ready to go.

Senator PATRICK: Alright. I am really pleased with that, Mr Mason. That is excellent news. Again, I thank the government for that.

CHAIR: Thanks, Screen Australia, great to see you. We might suspend proceedings while we get the department back.

Proceedings suspended from 14:21 to 14:26