Defining national content: CMF’s Valerie Creighton in conversation with Screen Australia’s Graeme Mason
Our screen-based sector is at a crossroads—and we need to talk about Canadian content. Over the next several months, the CMF wants to spark a conversation about the redefinition of CanCon: What is at stake? Why does it matter? What do we want the future of the industry to look like? This article is part of a Now & Next series that will provide a platform for diverse voices to weigh in on Canadian content, authenticity, ownership, business and funding models, and more.
What can the Canadian screen industry learn from Australia’s media sector? The two countries share a number of similarities: colonial history and the unique place of their Indigenous peoples, large and scarcely populated lands, English as the main or one of the main languages, and when it comes to the media landscape, the growing importance of global streamers, along with a vital need to define and protect local content and stories. At the end of January, the Australian Prime Minister announced that local content quotas will be imposed on international streaming platforms by mid 2024, as part of a plan to revive its cultural sector. This as Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, enters the final stages in the Canadian parliament on its way to becoming a law. An amendment to the historic Broadcasting Act, Bill C-11’s main objective is to compel foreign streamers to help fund and promote Canadian content.
Needless to say, the Canada Media Fund’s President and CEO Valerie Creighton and Screen Australia’s CEO, Graeme Mason, had a lot to talk about during their “fireside chat” at the CMPA’s Prime Time conference in early February.
National content quotas
According to Graeme Mason, it’s “very telling” that the Australian Prime Minister himself announced the ‘Revive’ National Cultural Policy, a five-year plan to revive and renew the country’s arts, entertainment, and cultural sector. In a document, the Australian government recognized the potential threats associated with foreign streaming services, which “unlike free-to-air broadcasting services and subscription television, [...] have no requirements to make Australian content available on their platforms. The ready availability of mass content produced in other countries, particularly the United States, risks drowning out the voices of Australian storytellers.”
Netflix has only existed in Australia since 2015, while the global streamer has been competing for Canadian eyeballs for 13 years. Being much further away from the US has its benefits, agrees Mason, sharing that his country is still in a sort of “sweet spot” when it comes to the international streaming platforms, who are doing “an enormous amount of local work right now,” reaching out to local producers and wanting to help tell local stories. “They've done a reboot of a very successful Australian show called Heartbreak High, which they then pushed out globally. They're going to do more.“ Last year, 75 per cent of the drama spend in the Australian media sector was local and not foreign production. In 2021, 58% of Canada’s total film and television production volume was from foreign location and service production.
“We’re a bit more fortunate than you in that sense,” mentioned Mason when commenting on Canada’s geographic proximity to the US market, to which Valerie Creighton replied “Well, you’re a bit further away to begin with, and you’ve always been great in Australia at making sure everybody knows who is Australian.” Agreeing that service production is great for the Canadian economy and local workers, Creighton shared that what matters is that the domestic market can also continue to grow, with stories that are seen by Canadian and global audiences. “I think the argument here is [...] you either serve or own. And if you're not owning anything, if you don't own the IP, if there aren't strong elements of Canadian creative control, then what have we got? I mean we've got a great service industry in this country. We love it. And all we're really looking at is that we get a little piece of whatever happens in the future.”
Positioning Screen Australia as a “cultural agency,” Mason argued that the way to ensure Australian voices are heard is to pay attention to who the owners and creators of content are, and to keep in mind cultural, creative, economic, and export benefits.
And how to define what is “quantifiably Australian”? “Both for Screen Australia's direct investments, whether it be film, or television, or online, and for the producer offset, a program which we run, you have to pass something called the significant Australian content test. [...] It's a holistic test. So nothing is totally prescriptive. Obviously what we normally want to see is clear creative control,” shared Mason.
However, the details regarding what will be defined as part of the “local content” quotas for the international streamers are still to be worked out in the next six months. Canada has been facing similar issues in the past months, reflected Creighton: “With everything that's happened in Canada with Bill C-11, when it does become law and moves to the CRTC and the government gives the policy direction, one of the critical things for this country will be whatever the definition of Canadian content becomes. Because if we don't get that right, the rest doesn't really matter.”
Both leaders agreed that a central part of each country’s local content is the invaluable contribution of Indigenous storytellers. In Australia, the First Nations department was created 30 years ago, by one of modern-day Screen Australia’s legacy agencies. Mason shared his satisfaction and pride around the phenomenal success of the agency, thanks to three decades of hard work and support from the government. “We over-index for First Nations people on screen. That means there are more First Nations people appearing on our dramas than there are as a representation of the population. And that is an awesome thing.” Creighton in turn mentioned the “phenomenal growth and success” of Indigenous-led stories and projects, which are “taking the world by storm”, citing Bones of Crows, Little Bird and Pour toi Flora among recent examples.
Single agency across multiple platforms
Mentioning that in Canada there have been talks about a potential modernization of the media sector and all of the cultural industries, including the screen sector, Creighton asked Mason about the amalgamation of several agencies that resulted in the creation of Screen Australia in 2008.
“I can't imagine not doing it really. We're too small,” said Mason. “It allows us to have an overview across the sector as a whole. And also now people are blurring into other forms of media. So I think it's essential. It means I can speak with one voice to the key people, which is the government, to give us the money. I can see the health of the whole sector.”
He explained that when he took the position of CEO in 2013, one of his main objectives was to strengthen the economic prospects for Australia production companies, especially in digital media. “That's something I think I'm most happy with, how strong that's become and how I've helped people really flourish in that space and therefore bring new audiences into Australian content.”
In reference to the agency’s mandate to reflect Australian stories and audiences, Mason argued that: “You can't do that if you're only working with people who look like me, sound like me, and are of my generation. It doesn't take much to recognize that most people under 25 consume content differently. So we do a lot of online content; it is the most successful thing we do in terms of eyeballs, reach, and engagement.” Creighton concurred that paying attention to online services is “critically important”.
He also mentioned a partnership between their First Nations team and Instagram, where they worked with 15 First Nations content creators on Instagram to make their content stronger–a partnership so successful that Instagram quickly said they wanted to renew. Screen Australia also commissioned a TikTok drama which had “tens of millions of views” across five series. Mason concluded that the best ways to reach audiences and shine a light on a story is probably through social media and digital formats. “There are huge opportunities there still, which is again why I went home to do this job.”
Finally, Creighton asked if Mason had any advice to share with the producers in attendance. “I think one is to collaborate, and I don't mean necessarily partner up on your own projects, but talk to each other as much as you can. [...] It's also key to speak to the government. That will be my number one thing, collaboration – and across borders,” concluded Mason.