As chief executive of Screen Australia I get around the globe a bit. When I have attended international markets, I am repeatedly told how talented we Australians are as storytellers – actors, directors, producers and crews – often by the world's most influential players. I wonder sometimes whether back home we get just how respected and recognised our screen industry is on the world stage.
In the past few weeks there has been debate about the disappointing recent box office for Australian films. Stalwart supporters like Margaret Pomeranz have been championing the films in the face of industry critics. While we always aspire for commercial success for our films, this is a hugely challenging exhibition environment for independent film internationally, lining up alongside the huge budgets and marketing clout of blockbusters; and it should be noted box office is only one measure of success. Our film industry pays back crucial cultural dividends and the legacy of great Australian films can resonate forever.
Much of the recent debates have tended to focus within our borders. I also want to encourage us all to look up for a moment, and see the value of this work in positioning Australia internationally. From the 1980s when the image of Aussie larrikinism in on-screen portrayals like Crocodile Dundee formed some unusual views of daily life in Australia, to the more diverse offerings of today, our stories continue to resonate. The Sapphires left us wanting to sing and dance with the first indigenous girl group; Australia paid tribute to the harsh yet magical country we live in, INXS celebrated the lives and the music of our iconic rock legends, Jabbed taught us about the diverse stances on the hotly debated topic of immunisation and Charlie's Country took us on a poignant journey into the extraordinary cultures of Arnhem Land.
Charlie's Country's lead actor, David Gulpilil received a rare accolade as the first indigenous person to win Best Actor award in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. The film was just one of three Australian feature films invited to screen at Cannes this year. In total 13 Australian films were invited this year to the top five international festivals – Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Venice and Sundance – selected from an intensely competitive field to feature at some of the most prestigious festivals in the world.
In the past few years we have had 11 top-rating Australian TV drama series sell their format to the US. BAFTA and EMMY award-winning Top of the Lake, high rating drama The Slap based on the best-selling novel of the same name, and innovative drama Secrets & Lies have all demonstrated our ability to produce quality stories with wide appeal.
Earlier this year multiplatform project #7 Days Later became the fourth project in five years involving an Australian company to take home a International Digital Emmy Award.
What does this tell us? We are great at making stories whether it is behind or in front of the camera, for the big, small and mobile screen. Our skilled practitioners in front of and behind the camera are frequently recognised for their expertise – beyond the obvious Cate, Hugh, Russell and Nicole, we also have Catherine Martin picking up two Oscars for Costume design of The Great Gatsby, contribution from local VFX company Rising Sun on Oscar winner Gravity, Snowtown's Justin Kurzel just complete his much anticipated Macbeth and Angelina Jolie choosing our country and crew to make her directorial debut film, Unbroken. This does so much to profile Australia to the world and to communicate who we are and what we are capable of.
Cate Blanchett in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards said "there is just so much talent in Australia and Michael Wilkinson, CM and I are just the tip of the iceberg". My job is to support and celebrate the whole iceberg.
Many would not know that five of the 10 top grossing films at the international box office last year starred Australians – from Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3 to the Hemsworths in The Hunger Games and Thor.
We often see a full circle – emerging talent grow, make the leap to the world stage to then return and tell our stories in Australian voices, such as Russell Crowe going from Neighbours to Gladiator to directing The Water Diviner back in Australia.
Beyond the economic benefits of the $2.2 billion revenue the screen sector has contributed to the economy (2011/12 ABS survey), and beyond the obvious cultural dividends of seeing our own stories reflected back to us on screen, this international success is another key reason our screen industry matters.
It's a cliche to say we punch above our weight – what we should all celebrate is how much this does for our profile on the world stage.
Graeme Mason is chief executive of Screen Australia.