By KIERAN FINNANE
The local film industry is in a better place than it was when the Northern Territory Film Office opened, says Penelope McDonald (right), retiring after 12 years at its helm.
Now known as Screen Territory, the office, based in Alice Springs, has never had more than two staff and until recently quite tiny budgets – in fact, the lowest level of funding per capita of any screen agency in Australia.
What helped make a difference to its effectiveness, says Ms McDonald, was her longevity in the position as well as her deep roots in the NT and the industry, both interstate and locally.
In the early 1980s she earned her Dip.Ed. at the community college in Darwin and was posted to Lajamanu. She shot her first film there, Kamira, released in 1985. Made in collaboration with two Warlpiri women about the return to their homeland – by foot, horseback and tractor – it screened, in language and sub-titled, to a positive reception at the Sydney Film Festival.
Along the way Ms McDonald had learned a lot of Warlpiri and cemented not only enduring friendships but discovered her true vocation – film-making. She was accepted as a student in the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and shortly after met Tracey Moffatt and produced her film Night Cries.
After graduation she returned to the NT where she met Central Australian Aboriginal film-makers Erica Glynn and Warwick Thornton. She began producing for both, including My Bed Your Bed for Ms Glynn, Payback and Photographic Memory: A Portrait of Mervyn Bishop for Mr Thornton. During this time she also started a family with Mr Thornton. There were lots of reasons why she would again return to The Centre when the Film Office opened in 2004.
On the ground, CAAMA and Imparja Television already existed and a number of independent film-makers were active. There was early controversy over whether government investment in the Film Office would not have been better channelled directly into the grants pool.
That was always going to arise when budgets were so tight, says Ms McDonald.
Today, it seems the office is accepted as part of the local film-making landscape. Its resources have grown a little but the critical difference it has made, says Ms McDonald is as “a port of call, a touchstone for the industry”.
Left: Shari Sebbens as Jessie in 8MMM Aboriginal Radio, written, produced and shot entirely in Alice Springs.
This has translated into opportunities, she says.
“The main purpose and focus of the office was to develop the local industry, but there was also a role to support external interest in the Territory. Broadcasters, producers and writers were coming here looking for stories and we could help.
“It’s important to get these stories out into the world and they also bring money, resources and opportunities into the NT.
“Big features sometimes came looking for locations and they needed location scouts on the ground, people who knew the Territory. We could put them in touch with the likes of Peter Yates and Chris Tangey, and sometimes other locals got to work on productions in a number of different roles.
“The general population like this – the rub-off glamour – and it contributes to the economy.”
This last is more than wishful thinking. A recent report by a Ministerial Advisory Council* on accelerating the industry in the NT, Charting new territory, provides some hard data on the return for government investment in productions.
For example, the NT invested $20,000 in Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah. The production spent $490,000 in the NT – an economic return of 24.25 to 1, the highest ratio to date. And this doesn’t take into account the positive social return of this highly regarded film (among other achievements it won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival).
More recently, the NT put $60,000 into 8MMM Aboriginal Radio, the first Aboriginal narrative comedy series for Australian television. This yielded an NT spend of $1.2m, a 20-fold return on investment. 8MMM‘s Alice Springs-based production company, Brindle Films, won the 2015 Screen Producers Australia Breakthrough Business of the Year, following the series’ success.
These small grants from the NT government are often the starting point in developing projects, says Ms McDonald, giving confidence to other potential investors.
Above: Baz Luhrman on location in Darwin for his film Australia, with some excited local cast members.
With a major production like Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, a grant of $200,000, large in NT terms, looks like a drop in the ocean compared to the overall budget of $130m. But it came with significant ‘in kind’ support, which Ms McDonald remembers as starting with a call to her office, wanting to know about wharf locations. Later a taskforce was put together, drawn from relevant government departments, to provide smooth passage through the local regulatory hoops.
Again the return on investment was very high: $4.3m spent in the Territory, a ratio of 21.50 to 1.
Sometimes big productions can approach politicians directly about getting government support.
“Politicians can get quite excited by the possibility of star actors and major films coming to the Territory,” says Ms McDonald. “It’s the job of Screen Territory to provide a realistic assessment of the potential investment and its benefits.”
Sometimes, the flow goes the other way, with Screen Territory providing the local knowledge that helps attract a production to the NT. This was recently the case with the multi-award winning documentary Prison Songs.
“The producer called Screen Territory,” recalls Ms McDonald. “He couldn’t get into a prison in Western Australia. I introduced him to the right person in Corrections and also suggested Shellie Morris as a musical collaborator. No money went into it, but they got access, advice and contacts, without which the film may not have been made in the NT.”
Right: Still from Prison Songs, Molly and fellow inmates singing and dancing in J Block.
Charting new territory says attracting productions like this shouldn’t be left to chance, calling for a properly resourced strategic approach, with Screen Territory having online and digital showcases of locations and film services.
The report also recommends that politicians and Ministers stay at arms’ length from making funding decisions, noting the local industry’s frustration with “a lack of transparency and apparent ad hoc processes”. Government support should be centrally coordinated by Screen Territory, with greater resourcing and a presence in Darwin, says the report.
Its recommended three-year funding package comes to more than $7m, with almost $2.5m going into a production program (separate from funding for attracting productions). The previous NT Government appeared persuaded, at least in relation to production funding, with the return on investment having been made clear by Charting new territory. The allocation for screen projects in the NT was boosted by $500,000 this financial year, taking the total to more than $.8m, in contrast to grants of $324,000 in 2015-16.
“This will accelerate the numbers of films being produced,” says Ms McDonald, “but importantly some of the grant funding also goes into professional and project development. Film is a long development process, involving writers, directors and producers before a single scene is shot. The pay-off from additional funding will be seen in a few years.”
To this end, Screen Territory runs workshops, for example on screen-writing, bringing in top industry professionals to help local people hone their skills.
Among the beneficiaries have been Alex Kelly (Queen of the Desert), Fiona Walsh and Chris Fitzpatrick (Dark Science for NITV), Trisha Morton-Thomas (8MMM Aboriginal Radio), Steve McGregor (Sweet Country, a feature film developed from an initial treatment by David Tranter, and to be directed by Warwick Thornton).
The office has also helped people work on their ideas for short documentaries, a good practice ground for developing filmmakers, and usefully instigated and then partnered in projects like the ABC’s Art X *North, which mentored and matched three film-making teams with three NT artists.
Left: On set in Amoonguna, for the ICTV’s Our Place, a another homegrown local production, assisted by Screen Territory.
This list is far from comprehensive but at the same time, Ms McDonald regrets that resources have not allowed even more assistance to young emerging and Indigenous film-makers: “These are the voices to be heard in future NT films.”
She hopes this is where there’ll be stronger focus supported by Screen Territory’s new resources.
As for her own future, she is starting with a return to source: reviving her production company, Chilli Films, and working on an observational documentary with Audrey Martin Williams, one of her Warlpiri friends from Lajamanu, who acted in films she made with Erica Glynn 25 years ago. The film will be about their lasting friendship and what has happened in their lives along the way.
Part of the approach involves making small cameras available to participants to film their own lives directly. In this way a kind of precis is being developed on film.
“I’ll look at raising finance when we’re ready,” says Ms McDonald.
She is also looking forward to continuing collaboration with her son, Dylan River. She took leave from Screen Territory in 2012 to produce his documentary, Buckskin, which went on to win the 2013 FOXTEL Australian Documentary Prize at the 60th Sydney Film Festival.
Film-making is in the family genes, it would seem.
Alice Springs News Online has asked the new Labor Minister for Tourism and Culture, Lauren Moss, for an update on her government’s future support for the NT screen industry. We will report her response when it comes to hand.
*The Ministerial Advisory Council consisted of Simon Molloy (Chair), Rachel Clements, Erica Glynn, Andrew Hyde and Chris Oliver. Ms Clements, Ms Glynn and Mr Hyde are all industry practitioners.