In February this year, Chris Cudlipp’s Sydney post-production house Sandcastle Studios had a packed schedule for the next six months with many documentaries and features pencilled in for post-production.
By March, there was nothing on the books.
For Cudlipp, this was the first sign of a nationwide industry downturn wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic and one that Screen Producers Australia (SPA) has indicated could cost upwards of $2 billion and impact on more than 30,000 workers.
To date, more than 130 productions have been put on hold.
According to Cudlipp, the industry won’t be back on its feet for six months “and then it’ll still be limping”.
Media and entertainment Lawyer Stephen Boyle agrees with the grim assessment.
“Production shut down. You can’t make anything. Films that are in the middle of production stop because it’s just not safe to keep filming,” Boyle said.
While certain sectors, such as animation studios and those films already in post-production, have been able to run, the industry has found itself facing an uncertain future.
“We just don’t know and can’t predict what the industry will look like after the shutdown,” Boyle said.
“We just don’t know and can’t predict what the industry will look like after the shutdown.” – Media and entertainment lawyer Stephen Boyle.
Cudlipp said there would be a lot of industry people say, “I can’t do this anymore”. “We’ll lose some really good people because of it.”
Cudlipp points to the harsh reality facing those in the industry. “A person may have spent five years developing a feature, now the cinemas are closed, and funding has dried up,” he said.
The pandemic may have ruined the livelihoods of many people and has certainly put others on edge about their futures.
Award-winning freelance film composer and musician Amanda Brown has experienced first-hand the pressures of the pandemic.
“It was very surreal how it unfolded so quickly,” Brown said. “I was able to pick up another feature documentary, which was lucky because I had expected to be unemployed for the remainder of the year.”
Brown says everyone in the industry is in the same boat. Unless someone was fortunate enough to be working on a project that could continue, they were pretty much unemployed straight away.
Tim Wilson, a producer and editor with more than 30 years’ experience, was one of the lucky few to go into isolation and keep working.
“I have a job, I’m lucky, many people don’t,” Wilson said.
He was working on MasterChef, one of the few TV programs that were able to keep shooting, but this only guarantees Wilson work for the short term.
“I was guaranteed work until the end of June, but after that there’s nothing,” Wilson said.
“There are about 40 to 50 people in post-production on MasterChef. Most of them will lose their jobs,” Wilson said.
With so many in the industry unemployed or about to be unemployed, people have been vocal about the government’s lack of action concerning assistance.
As many within the screen industry and the wider arts sector are constantly on short-term contracts, they were not eligible for the government’s $130billion JobKeeper program, which requires at least 12 months of continuous employment for casuals to be eligible.
Brown said the program did not capture the film and music industry.
“It’s not a one size fits all because we don’t work in that normal employee-employer blueprint,” Brown said.
“We are a gig economy; it doesn’t mean that our work is any less valid. It feels as if our entire industry is being ignored by the government.” – Composer and musician Amanda Brown.
“We are a gig economy; it doesn’t mean that our work is any less valid. It feels as if our entire industry is being ignored by the government.”
Wilson said the guidelines created a lot of frustration in the industry, as many workers have worked for the same productions for years but only on short-term contracts.
“They may have been working on MasterChef for 10-plus years, but it has always been on six- and four-month contracts, so nobody is eligible for it,” Wilson said.
The heads of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and Screen Producers Australia have been in persistent talks with the government about expanding the JobKeeper requirements to better cover those in the arts.
According to Brown: “The fact is the cultural industries within Australia contribute more to the national economy than something like tourism and for an entire industry to be ignored is quite mind-boggling.”
The Australian production industry has a $3 billion economic contribution annually and delivers almost 2000 hours of content for television alone.
Australian screen content is exported to more than 200 international markets, worth $163 million.
Cudlipp was one of the lucky few to receive JobKeeper as his production studio has been operating for several years.
“At the moment JobKeeper is helping us…but it’s just keeping the doors open,” Cudlipp said. But he still faces an uncertain future and is unsure what to expect in the coming months.
The industry hasn’t faced a situation like this since the Global Financial Crisis.
The climb out of the GFC was brutal, with around a 50% hit to workers’ bottom line over the financial year, leaving many barely hanging on.
“There was a very long tail to the GFC,” Cudlipp said. ‘That’s the thing about Covid-19, is how long the tail will be.
“I know there’ll be plenty of businesses that don’t come out of this.”
So, what does the future look like? According to those in the industry that is entirely up to the Federal Government.
The Federal Minister for Communications, Paul Fletcher, has announced that content quotas for television were being suspended until 2021. In other words, the local content rules that have ensured the production of Australian programs no longer exist at least for the time being.
Brown said the industry had lost a level of protection. “There’s a real fear that it will be hard to reinstate them,” she said.
“There is an immediate crisis unfolding in the production sector and the temporary suspension of content quotas has the very real potential of crippling an industry already on its knees.” – Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner.
Cudlipp sees a bleak future if Australia does not reinstate quotas.
“Without quotas, the industry is in strife,” Cudlipp said.
With the Australian television industry not purchasing as much as it has in the past and the film industry still attempting to grow without protection, there is an uncertain future.
“Really if we don’t have a way to force the streaming services to buy, develop, produce and then distribute Australian stories, we’re not going to have an industry, it’ll be a complete collapse,” Cudlipp said.
Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner condemned Minister Fletcher’s decision to suspend quotas, saying “There is an immediate crisis unfolding in the production sector and the temporary suspension of content quotas has the very real potential of crippling an industry already on its knees”.
Cudlipp said the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the issues of neglect faced by the Australian film and television industry.
“There are significant hurdles for the industry that were there before Covid, but Covid has put the spotlight on it,” he said.
“There are significant hurdles for the industry that were there before Covid, but Covid has put the spotlight on it,” Chris Cudlipp, Sandcastle Studios.
Boyle believes only a vaccine with allow the industry to go back to normal.
Wilson believes that it will be the beginning of a restructuring.
“Because of this, productions have been forced to come up with ways which will allow people to work from home,” Wilson said. “Definitely, it will cement the idea of working remotely.”
It may mean a future where an even larger number of the crew works from home rather than on set.
Brown is grateful for an unexpected documentary that came her way just as the pandemic hit Australia. But beyond that, there is little scheduled in her 2020 calendar.
She is uncertain about where the industry will go from here. “We are really in uncharted territory and nobody knows the endpoint,” Brown said. “More generally speaking, I feel there are some great lessons to be learned from this. Whether or not they are taken on board will be seen.”
“I feel there are some great lessons to be learned from this. Whether or not they are taken on board will be seen.” – Film composer and musician Amanda Brown.