The Slap… Not Just An Aussie Drama Series

While the Australian screen industry is different from ours, there are sufficient similarities to warrant us keeping a close eye on what happens across the Tasman. The uproar that occurred when Freemantle Media hired a Canadian female director to direct an iconic Australian TV series, and later saying that there wasn’t a good enough Australian female director to do it brought into the open what many members of the Australian Directors Guild felt was the disdain that Australian production companies had for Australian TV drama directors. In Australia, this is directly reflected in the terms and conditions of employment of Australian directors and  forebodes for directors  here in New Zealand what Australian producers’  attitudes could be on Australian only or Aus – NZ copros shot here. We are all aware already how the NZ director’s position and the terms and conditions particularly have been eroded in the New Zealand screen industry over the last 15 years. I therefore felt it was important to put out Australian Directors Guild CEO Kingston Anderson’s entire op ed in their latest newsletter for your reading.

Op Ed from Australian Directors’ Guild
CEO, Kingston Anderson:

At the end of 2016 the ADG discovered the Fremantle Media was importing a Canadian director to direct the new television version of the iconic Australia story Picnic at Hanging Rock. The ADG was inundated with calls from members shocked at this move. There had not been an overseas director imported to direct a major Australian mini-series before and the fact that it was an iconic Australian story puzzled everyone. When challenged by the ADG about why this occurred the producers said they could not find a suitable candidate to direct the series. This slap in the face to such directors as Daina Reid, Rowan Woods and many other highly experienced and internationally produced directors was the final straw for many ADG members as it highlighted the disdain and disrespect many production companies had for Australian television drama directors.

But this is not a recent trend and it is highlighted by the ongoing battles the ADG has been having with producers and broadcasters over the retransmission rights that were  granted to directors in 2006. This was supposed to provide a director with a small royalty that would recognise their copyright in a film. However, the resulting opposition by producers to allow directors to claim this right has left a bad taste in many directors’ mouths, especially on productions that have gone on to be great hits and returned the producers both awards and money.

It also goes to the heart of the way director’s fees have stagnated over the past ten years leading to many leaving the industry or leaving the country. At the 2015 SPA Conference in Melbourne, the eminent TV producer John Edwards lamented the demise of long-form TV drama to increasing costs, except in one area – directing. The fact that he specifically mentioned that directors were the only ones who had not seen increasing fees speaks for itself.

It is these three things – Respect, Rights and Remuneration that are the heart of a campaign the ADG is running to highlight the situation TV drama directors find themselves in 2017. While Australian directors who work around the world are both respected and rewarded, many are disappointed at the attitude of Australian producers and production companies to their work. The lack of respect shown to Australian directors when choosing the set-up director for Picnic at Hanging Rock highlights a sea change in the attitude of producers. This attitude, to treat Australian directors as “just crew” has also seen occasions where the DOP on a television series has been paid more than the director.

As Paris Barclay, President of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) said on his recent visit to Australia to support local directors, “The director will shape a TV production in their own creative way. If you give the script to another director it will be a different production from another director.” This seems obvious to many but for producers their attitude to “cookie cutter” television belies this fact.

The advance of quality television around the world driven by the likes of HBO  has seen the movement of feature film directors to the small screen. This has occurred most notably in the United States but recent examples such as Rowan Woods and Tony Kravitz directing “The Kettering Incident” for Foxtel reflect a changing environment where the directors are asked to deliver more higher quality productions to attract that elusive audience. This importance of the TV director is recognised around the world and as such many of our most talented directors have left these shores – Kate Dennis, Michael Rymer, Jessica Hobbs, Daniel Nettheim to name a few. Most are directing in the UK or US where they are respected and paid well and where they receive royalties if their shows are successful.

The ADG is not calling for rates of pay that match their US or UK cousins, we want rates of pay that reflect the large increase in budgets. Those per episode budgets keep going up but the directors fee stays the same. We also see overseas productions being shot here using Australian directors alongside overseas directors, their rates of pay for doing the same job wildly different. A recent television production shot in Melbourne saw the overseas director getting paid more than three times the level of the Australian directors for doing the same work. If the show is successful, the overseas director will get rewarded in residuals but the Australians will not.

So what to do about this inequity?

The ADG is in negotiation with Screen Producers Australia (SPA) to address these issues in an historic agreement for directors. It will address these issues and hopefully with the co-operation of Australian producers we will be able to properly reward our talented TV directors and promote the respect they deserve for their high level creative work. Otherwise we will continue to lose the best and brightest which will inevitably lead to a reduction in quality on our TV screens. And in a world where competition for eyeballs is truly global, this will put the Australian television production industry at a disadvantage.

To illustrate this a producer at a recent SPA conference asked why he couldn’t get one of our directors back from the US to direct his new show.
My question was “Are you going to pay him the same as you always have?”
His answer was “Yes”.
My response was “Then why would he come back?”

Kingston Anderson
CEO
Australian Directors’ Guild
 & Australian Screen Directors Authorship Collection Society