Yeesh – it seems the PFTC is damned no matter what they do.
Today’s Courier Mail had a headline on page three that read “Movie body backs down on search for ‘slave labour’“. You can view the online version of the article here (note the online edition is now gone – it had a less sensationalist headline, but the body of the article appears the same as the print edition). After reading it a couple of times, it looks to me like the PFTC tried to do the right/smart/realistic thing on a slightly touchy subject, handled it a tiny bit clumsily, and got well-and-truly roasted for it.
Now I don’t have very much to do with the Pacific Film and Television Commission (PFTC) – not because I’m “against” them, just because almost all the work I do is paid for by clients (or by nobody). Sure, I’ve been quick to pick fault with some of their decisions in the past, but since I have practically nothing to do with them my views are like the views of most other working stiffs – not heard and probably not relevant.
Note: In this rant, unless stated otherwise, I’m referring to the PFTC’s work promoting the expansion of the local industry and local films, not their equally important work attracting overseas filmmakers to shoot (and post?) in Queensland. For those that don’t know, in addition to many other tasks (like supporting film culture-type events) the PFTC has the work of both promoting Queensland to the world’s filmmakers as a great place to make films, and encouraging local production on local projects (the latter role they picked up when the late not-very-lamented Film Queensland body was wound up). Some have argued that there is a tension between these two roles (can the one body effectively attract and assist overseas filmmakers while also looking after local production?), I for one see no contradiction there, and in fact lots of potential opportunities in the one body doing both tasks – but that’s a rant for a different day.
So all faults aside, when I read the Courier Mail article I was reminded that the PFTC has a very difficult job (or set of jobs) to do, and they’re operating under a set of not very favourable conditions:
- They’re a government body – and Australians like to complain about government bodies as much as dogs like to chew bones (heck, it’s practically a national sport),
- They’re a government body that gives out money – this means that the unsuccessful applicants (which will always greatly outnumber the successful ones) have an extra-bitter axe to grind when complaining about the PFTC,
- They’re a government body that gives out money largely to filmmakers of the “emerging” or wannabe variety – a group of people that seem to take things more personally and complain more loudly and eloquently than most Australians (yes, I include myself in that definition!), and lastly
- They’re a government body that gives out money largely to filmmakers while operating under goals that are difficult to define and ultimately, in my opinion, impossible for any government body to achieve – namely, the emergence of a viable (ie, profitable) local film industry. This just isn’t the sort of thing a government body can do, no matter how hard they try, no matter how much money they spend (within reason). The film industry is the type of industry that can be ruined by bad government policies, but never created/sustained by good ones, that’s just the way it is (another topic for a future rant).
Today’s article in the Mail? The cause of all the fuss was the PFTC daring to advertise for an unpaid position on a feature film. Horrors! Almost every person I’ve met in this group of professions sometimes called “the film industry” has done their share of free work in their early days, and I have a small rant on a closely related topic on this website (casting for free). My personal position is that working for free (in any profession) is perfectly acceptable as long as it’s done with respect and as long as the person working for free is gaining valuable experience and knowledge. Feature films are one of those “businesses” that have many more hopefuls for each position than there are positions – so the potential for abusing the work-for-free system is definitely there. For example, unscrupulous producers could simply work their way through youngsters willing to work for free, ditching them as soon as they dare to ask for pay. But such producers would not only rack up a mountain of bad karma, but would constantly find themselves training newbies, which is itself expensive. Eventually, dedicated people get paid what they’re worth.
One of the policies of the PFTC I never understood was their reluctance to officially recognise this standard method of breaking in to the business. From what I understand (second hand, since I’ve never sought or received PFTC funding for a film) is that the PFTC will not fund a film that uses significant numbers of people working for free or for cut-rates (I believe there are some exceptions for some types of tightly-defined “attachments”). Basically, if the PFTC is the primary investor then everyone must get full pay – even for short films, which is odd, after all, who makes short films for money? Short films are for experience, credits, and maybe awards.
The PFTC’s everyone-gets-paid policy has always struck me as being unrealistic – if people are willing to work for free or cut-rate to build up their credits list then surely the PFTC’s money (tax-payer’s money of course) is better spent meeting those costs that cannot be defrayed (catering, rentals, etc) – thus making many more projects fundable, thus providing even more experience for more people. This policy is doubly odd when you consider that the Brisbane International Film Festival, of which the PFTC is the major sponsor, couldn’t exist without their volunteer labourers – so what’s the difference? Lastly, this policy is even harder to justify when set against the very, very quiet working scene here lately (everyone seems to agree that things are frighteningly slow in Queensland at the moment).
Which brings us to this recent flap. It started when for once the PFTC dropped its insistence on paid-only positions and tried to organise, even promote, a good opportunity for someone to gain potentially valuable experience by getting involved in some pre-pre-production work on a feature. What happens? The relevant union spits the dummy, describing the idea as “slave labour”. Doubtless the union sees their stance as protecting workers in general and their members in particular. Doubtless they see PFTC endorsement of working-for-free as the thin end of a wedge – after all, I imagine they argue, there are plenty of people willing to work for free, might this not lead to their members having to compete with zero-cost/micro-cost labour? My own view is that there are many problems facing the Australian industries, and the Queensland industries in particular, but legions of experienced and talented people willing to work for peanuts at all levels in all departments is not one of them, and nor is it likely any time soon. Even further, if more people willing to work at junior level positions for no or less money ends up making it possible for more films to be funded (thereby employing more paid workers in more senior positions) then I’m all for it.
In the face of such criticism of their promotion of this free position, what does the PFTC do? They fold, of course, and back down. What else could they do? They were contradicting their own established approach, and no one wants to hear the brutal realities of breaking in (ie, you usually have to work for free for a while to make it). The PFTC is not actually in the business of making films, so they only know what they are told, and they were being told that working for free is unfair, slave labour, exploiting workers, etc. So they backed down. I doubt they will make the same “mistake” again soon.
Meanwhile, hopefuls everywhere are still willing to work for free or peanuts to break into the film business, and on non-PFTC-funded projects that’s exactly how most of them will make it.