Coronavirus adds fire to WA screen rebuild

Each state has its own unique opportunities and screen community. What are the possibilities for Screenwest? Is there a genuine reason for hope?

Screenwest CEO Willie Rowe and head of screen investment and strategic projects Matthew Horrocks spoke with Screenhub on the phone this Wednesday 18 March. 

‘This is a very serious situation’ said Willie Rowe, ‘but I am a bit of a Pollyanna. What we are seeing in the industry locally is, how are we going to work together to get through this. There is a degree of that collegiate approach.

There is now a huge amount of thinking, which could lead to different ways of doing things which will also solve other problems at the same time. 

‘We need to look at what our options are, but not pump prime but to help the crews to get through this difficult time because these are real people with real lives.’ 

Because the WA industry has developed very recently, crew and producers don’t necessarily have any reserves. ‘Some of them are living hand to mouth and living on debt to fund their businesses.’ he said. 

‘We need to be looking at what we can, but to provide meaningful work and not a handout. It’s what we can do to enable practitioners and creatives to develop new projects, to look at new opportunities to have a business that is going to be red hot, ready to go when the turnaround actually happens which it will inevitably do.

The community does have some advantages. There is a strong documentary sector, with recent funding decisions to allow more development. Production companies don’t have huge overheads, Screenwest has concentrated on smaller budget features, it shoots regionally and has no studios. It is also used to working remotely across the vast spaces of WA. 

As Matthew Horrocks said, ‘We have projects that are shooting in regional Western Australia. Like, Outback Opal Hunters and also Aussie Gold Hunters which we hope can continue. Obviously they are a critical employer in the state.’

‘The upsetting thing for us is that we’ve had a very quiet start to the year but the second half of the year was looking like being very very busy.’ That of course is crucial for the crews, who would have been expecting to recover from a thin opening to the year.  However, it does give the sector and its agency more opportunity to come to grips with the issues. With no feature in production, Screenwest doesn’t have to deal with productions which are shutting down midstream or just as they launch. 

By sheer accident, Screenwest has just finished a survey to explore the health of the local sector. With a solid baseline it launched a survey this week to gauge the impact of COVID-19. The results should be out next week. 

Top of the list in the recent interagency summit is the raw question of what to do. Horrocks, like everyone else, wants to repurpose some of his budgets with a focus on development. ‘There’s some production companies that can be supported in terms of slate and business development. We are also looking at talent initiatives which can be done by teleconference. And another thing we could potentially do is look at putting more money into our existing development programs, because a lot of it can be done through video. And also, they can be low-cost initiatives that will have an exponential impact.’

He notes that agencies across Australia are concerned with the capacity problem. Smaller production companies can develop slates and seek the support of larger companies to find finance, only to discover there is no additional space to absorb outside projects. 

‘Everybody is prioritising development because that’s what we can do so inevitably when the situation changes we’re all got strong slates and projects ready to go. But we are also looking into helping people repurpose the type of content that they’re developing, so they are not as dependent on traditional distribution networks and means of funding. ‘

Is there a space for radical mini-budget projects made outside the economy?

We’ve been gaming that out like everyone. The reality is that it’s pretty tough. If you can find quarantinable areas where the crew could live in the same spot, then you can think about doing it.’

Willie Rowe is very much about sustaining the confidence of the sector. Projects up for contracting will be contracted, deals already made will be honoured even if projects are delayed. He claims the solid support of the state government, while Screenwest now has the freedom to sculpt its own budget without checking with its financial masters. 

What is more Screenwest will be relatively nimble. It can help producers hit the marketplace with guaranteed funding from their state agencies to give partners a degree of confidence, they don’t need to queue for a sound stage, and their small(ish) Australian-focused shows have less need for major stars. 

Screenwest has been reviewing itself and its relationship with the production community pretty thoroughly over the last six months and COVID-19 has upped the urgency. 

‘We don’t need to find vast amounts of money,’ said Willie Rowe. ‘We can look at how we operate which is conducive to the production companies. How can we work more effectively. more efficiently, to make productions happen seamlessly rather than the stop-start-stop process they may go through. 

We can reflect on how we operate, and producers can reflect on how they interact with funding agencies. Out of adversity may come some good.’

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.