PFTC Slaves

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.

2 thoughts on “PFTC Slaves

  • February 8, 2004 at 3:15 pm
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    As a staunch trade unionist from way back, I have to say the union has had a problem with entry point for a long time. They need proper agreements to cover interns, they need a workshop agreement to cover AFC and state agency projects, and they need to stop gouging student productions to cash out residuals which the actors are often embarrassed to accept from some impoverished tertiary joint. VCA for one.
    They need a bit of creativity, but they have resisted this with misplaced defiance.. if things keep going like they are, there won’t be an industry to get trained into soon. And I fear Latham doesn’t think that a few films will help his outer suburb battlers up the ladder of success. And Howard got us into this mess in the first place.

    Reply
  • February 8, 2004 at 4:45 pm
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    * As a staunch trade unionist from
    * way back, I have to say the union
    * has had a problem with entry point
    * for a long time.

    It’s a unique industry, so I think a unique approach is needed. Sure, just about every industry could claim to be unique – but film and video production is so diverse in the skills its practitioners posess, so difficult to break into, and based so much on a “feast-or-famine” existence that I really think standard approaches to protecting/supporting “workers” in the industry barely apply (except safety stuff, I’m all for tough safety regulations that are rigourously enforced).

    * They need proper
    * agreements to cover interns, they
    * need a workshop agreement to cover
    * AFC and state agency projects, and
    * they need to stop gouging student
    * productions to cash out residuals
    * which the actors are often
    * embarrassed to accept from some
    * impoverished tertiary joint.

    I agree. Nothing is more galling for many people than having to accept payment up front for a job when others of similar talent and experience are receiving dramatically less or nothing at all. Obviously pay scales should reflect talent and experience, but what about the absolute newbie willing to work for nothing just to get those elusive first credits? Are we really going to say no because we think it’s the thin end of the wedge (the thick end being reduced pay for all)?

    * VCA
    * for one.

    Students shoots seem a no-brainer for complete flexibility in pay, but I’m thinking of bigger shoots, where established industry folks are getting award wages or near to it – can there be no credited workers working for free in this situation? Such a situation is a great chance to learn for those willing to work for free, why kill it off? Maybe we should just call all these workers “work experience” people (but give them credits). It all seems awfully tough to me (the union and eventual PFTC approach that is).

    * They need a bit of creativity, but
    * they have resisted this with
    * misplaced defiance..

    Agreed – though the fact that the film had government investment does complicate things a bit (there is an established policy there – I think it’s misguided, but it does exist). But they did over-react. Also, I’ve heard similar complaints about people working for free on 100% privately financed projects too, and that just seems silly to me – if people are willing to work for free for a credit, then who are unions or the government to say no? Is there potential for abuse? You bet, but preventing free work from happening at all seems extreme.

    * if things
    * keep going like they are, there
    * won’t be an industry to get
    * trained into soon.

    It is a bit bleak in Qld at the moment (thank heavens for corporate and training work).

    * And I fear
    * Latham doesn’t think that a few
    * films will help his outer suburb
    * battlers up the ladder of success.

    Alas, he’s probably right. It’s another uniqueness of filmmaking as a business – when a film is shooting it spends all sorts finished and packs up, it’s GONE, having no further impact on the local economy. As for crew members, do we really want filmmakers forced/encouraged by governemt policy/incentives to hire people based on them coming from a “battler” area? (I think that’s what you meant?) Come to think of it, I wonder what the demographic background of most regularly-working people are?

    * And Howard got us into this mess
    * in the first place.

    Not sure how you come to that conclusion, this problem predates Howard in my view (and Keating, and Hawke, and Fraser, and…). Sure, the government should have stepped in during that regrettable 10Ba mixup a while ago (with Moulin Rouge etc). Investors need as much certainty as possible, and I believe that that ATO change of heart, where they removed some films’ 10Ba certification many months or years after they were complete, really put a moxie on certain types of investment.

    But other than things like that I don’t think any politician is the problem, nor do I think they can provide the solution either. Let’s face it – most Australians do not like most Australian films – this is the primary cause of problems with the Australian film industry (as an employer and any other way you want to look at it). After all, if Australians supported Australian films more at the box office and on DVD/TV/etc, there would be more steady work available. Plus Australian films rarely travel to other markets in any significant way. Generally speaking, we don’t make crowd-pleasing films, and this dries up the pool of film investors. You know, I’ve actually heard people talk about this problem as if it’s a problem with the audience rather than the films? There’s a lot of denial out there.

    And to that basic self-sustained employment problem we can add the recent shift of American shoots away from Australia to elsewhere for numerous reasons – from our improving dollar to NZ offering both better government incentives and better private facilities (WETA just plain rocks). So that’s another source of employment dying (well, for below-the-line crew anyway, Americans almost never use Australians above-the-line).

    Together these two things result in Australian crews being out of work more often than many would want them to be. I can see no way that any Australian government can fix the problem with Australian audiences being turned off by Australian films, and only very limited ways they can help with getting more foreign shoots to come here. So until we start making films that more people like and are willing to recommend to their friends, things won’t get much better.

    But maybe I’m just pessimistic! 🙂

    Skev

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