FILM’S GENDER WAR
Trying to address a historical imbalance, or a form of cultural Stalinism? Either way, film agencies’ latest agenda is dividing the industry, writes Rosemary Neill
If you come in for … funding with a project with an all-male team, you will struggle to convince us why that is appropriate in 2017. Screen Australia chief operating officer Fiona Cameron Screen NSW … will not sponsor, support or participate in any initiative, event, conference, market or festival which include all-male panels. Media statement by film funding body Screen NSW
Film producer Sue Milliken suspects her latest project, Ladies in Black, a bigscreen adaptation of the Madeleine St John novel The Women in Black, has benefited from the widely publicised drive to give women working in film and television a better deal.
With typical candour, Milliken jokes: “Bruce (Beresford, the director) and I are very experienced at being rejected by government agencies for this project.”
The long-time collaborators started adapting and seeking backers for Ladies in Black, a 1950s tale of cosmopolitanism, cocktail frocks and incipient feminism, almost 20 years ago. Beresford, Milliken and their co-producer, Allanah Zitserman, finally secured Screen Australia funding for their film, set in an up-market department store and featuring a female-dominated cast, this year.
Milliken says government-funded screen agencies’ present push towards gender equity “didn’t do us any harm. We’ve got a male director and fortunately they didn’t hold that against us.” That remark may seem jarring, given how Beresford’s screen credits include the Academy Award-nominated Breaker Morant and Driving Miss Daisy, which took out the 1989 Oscar for best film. Clearly, though, Milliken is referring to the new, harder line approach to gender equality recently adopted by powerful funding bodies Screen Australia and Screen NSW.
Under the new approach — reflected in the contentious statements above — Screen Australia and Screen NSW have recently stepped up their 18-month-old campaigns to achieve gender parity in the film and television projects they fund. However, some of their measures and statements — such as discouraging male teams from applying for film funding, introducing de facto gender quotas and boycotting events featuring all-male panels — are sharply dividing the industry.
Some of the agencies’ recent statements and abrupt policy changes are being described as “unfair”, “separatist”, “overly prescriptive”, “onerous” and even a form “cultural Stalinism” by prominent producers, commentators and screen professionals, including women. Moreover, a gulf has opened up between different screen agencies, with influential screen funder Film Victoria telling Review enforceable gender targets or quotas are “unwise” and potentially “dangerous”.
Screen Australia is the nation’s biggest screen agency and, in a contentious but littlenoticed move, it recently changed its assessment criteria for all funding guidelines. It is now scrutinising the gender and ethnicity of every creative team (producer, director, writer, protagonist) that applies for film, television or documentary subsidies.
In a March statement the agency’s chief operating officer, Fiona Cameron, said the new criteria “changed the way we now run our decision meetings. Our staff are looking at every single creative attached to an application, and the team makeup is overtly part of the funding decision … Where two applications are comparable … if one creative team is demonstrably more inclusive, we will fund that project.” In other words, when two film, TV or documentary projects are judged to be of equal merit but one features more women or non-whites in key on-screen or off-screen roles, the latter project will get the grant.
The same report included the statement by Cameron warning all-male feature film teams would “struggle” to secure funding from the nation’s peak screen agency, whose 2016-17 funding totals $91.6 million.
Meanwhile, late last year Screen NSW (overseen by state arts body Create NSW) introduced an uncompromising new rule, stating: “All TV drama series must now include female key creatives on their team in order to receive development or production finance.” This sounds like a quota system — hire women or say goodbye to vital funding. But Create NSW chief executive Michael Brealey insists Screen NSW’s requirements are “aspirational rather than instructive” and a demonstration of “NSW’s leadership in this area”. The state film agency also has made clear it will boycott any conference or festival that features all-male panels.
Screen Australia and Screen NSW are both contributing to Ladies in Black. Even so, the straight-talking Milliken says, “It would be wrong for them to discriminate against a film project because there weren’t women in the creative roles. It’s hard enough (to get a film made)
Director Bruce Beresford and producer Sue Milliken