The Moving Image:
The History of Film and Television in WA 1895-1985

Edited by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith

Producing TV Drama in TV
An Interview with Ann Macbeth

with Alan Mansfield

Alan:

Ann, how did your involvement with Barron Films begin?

Ann:

Paul Barron was director of the Perth Institute of Film and Television (PIFT)I and was very much taking it into a production house mould. Falcon Island for instance was produced out of PIFT. Paul at this time was becoming more and moreinterested in the possibility of drama production occurring in Western Australia. Drama production to that date had been totally insignificant. There was no production houses existing in Perth doing drama work either for television or film. All kinds of script properties would come into the Institute and Paul would be aware of the great source of material out there. What the local industry was saying at that time, i.e. the documentary and commercial advertising industry, was that it was not commercially viable in WA to produce drama material. PIFT showed through Falcon Island that it was commercially viable given certain conditions that PIFT had, i.e. quite reduced costs because much of the production could be in-house and PIFT was a publicly-funded institution. So Paul Barron and I decided to try and investigate the economic feasibility of being commercially viable. We did a fair amount of research for about 9 months both locally and then a quick trip to Europe and America with our ideas, our notions and our figures. We discovered that, yes, there was a great deal of keen interest in America for the kinds of products that we thought could be produced here in WA. Also there was an interest in Britain for Australian material generally. So what we were promoting in North America was West Australian material and in England we were talking about Australian material.

Alan:

How do you think then that Barron Films differed from other production houses in WA?

Ann:

Well, Barron Films is the only company that set out to be primarily a drama production company. There's no other production house in Western Australia that is primarily interested in drama. There are two other companies that are - that's United American and Australasian (UAA) - John Picton-Warlow, and Film Corporation of WA which was Jeff Pearson, but they do not produce in WA.

They make feature films that are national and international. UAA - John Picton- Warlow is involved in what we refer sometimes facetiously as mid-Atlantic films and Film Corporation of WA used to be involved in one feature film per year: films such as We of the Never Never, Running on Empty, which were produced over east. John Picton-Warlow's attitude towards film is that it is a business for profit primarily and while he thinks that is good for everyone, he has no qualms in telling you that that is why he is in the business.

Alan:

There was one more innovation.

Ann:

That's right. This was the international innovation when the Perth Stock Exchange created a second board of the Stock Exchange which Paul listed a prospectus on. It was the first time in the world that a prospectus had been listed on a stock exchange: in other words you could buy trade shares in that prospectus, just as if it were any other commodity, whether it were a diamond mine, a manufacturing company or whatever.2

Alan:

So all three of these devices have significantly increased the availability of funds.

Ann:

Yes, particularly because of the image that it then creates in terms of the seriousness, the stability, the calibre of Barron Films Ltd and Paul Barron. In other words, the respect it creates, and that is the big killer in terms of producers trying to get started - they do not have the investor's confidence that they will handle the money side well.

Alan:

Looking back over the history of Barron Films it does seem that it produced some remarkably successful products. Paul Barron has made a number of innovations in film funding. It can't all have been easy. What were some of the difficulties that Barron Films and other WA producers faced?

Ann:

Difficulties? As I said, the killer for any new person, any new producer starting up is to get investors' confidence. Investors are still very very wary of anything to do with the arts world and film is the most expensive, highest risk industry in the world. To convince people that they should part with their dollars was very difficult and each success decreased the difficulty of the next one. But even today, it is still difficult. There is an increasing pool of people trying to get a decreasing pool of money - the tax incentives are being reduced, the number of people competing is increasing, the quality of the product generally is declining and the quality of competing industries for investment is increasing. All these factors make it more and more difficult. Paul also had to confront the attitude of the existing industry. The existing documentary makers still believe that it is impossible to produce drama material in this State, otherwise they would be doing it, they say. So there is internal resistence within the industry, scepticism, particularly from the east. To Sydney and Melbourne film people, Australia ended at Adelaide in terms of its Western borders: nothing beyond that. And so when Barron Films first started up we were treated with a great deal of condescension. Most of the industry over east would still consider Barron Films a freak occurrence, not a significant statement on the viability of a drama production company in Western Australia. There are approximately 45 production houses listed in the yellow pages for WA; only one of those does mostly drama and that is Barron Films. Most of the others do a predominance of either industrial training films, sponsored documentaries or commercials and so those people would also view Barron Films as a kind of freak occurrence, as the only drama productlon house. Paul, because of his stature in terms of financial innovation etc., has a great deal of respect but at the same time is still regarded as a freak.

Alan:

Who would have been some of the other significant personnel involved in Barron Films' history?

Ann:

David Rapsey, who was one of the first members of the Board and who maintains a very close liaison - he was the producer of Fran and he is currently producing another project under Paul with Barron Films. Also another Canadian I might point out, and who has a great deal of experience internationally in film and television.3

Alan:

Can you say anything about the project that he is involved in at the moment?

Ann:

It is called Tudawali. It is about an early Aboriginal and it looks like it's going to be a lovely programme that I think is intended as part of a series - a one-off programme as part of a whole series. There is also Harry Lodge, who is a very respected senior partner of Parker and Parker which is one of the largest legal firms in the State. Harry Lodge is Alan Bond's personal corporate lawyer and Harry Lodge was one of the first people to give Joe Sullivan support to get PIFT happening -' he's that kind of person - and Harry Lodge again recognised the entrepreneurial ability of Paul and greatly assisted morally and with financial and legal advice etc., getting Barron Films going. There are other people: look at the early Board members, Bernie Eastman, people like that.

Alan:

Surveying the last decade, what do you think are the achievements and failures of WA film and TV production?

Ann:

When you're looking at Australia in the last decade, in 1975 Australia was producing things like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Sunday too far Away, in other words films that I would consider still some of the finest products to come out of Australia, and I think that our quality now is less than it was then. In WA 10 years ago I was not heavily involved in the film world but on reflection it was a boom time with the mineral boom happening and so there was immense growth for industrial training films, documentaries to do with the mining and the outback world. And so it was a time when most of the existing production houses got started and then after that, 6 years ago or whatever, went through a real economic depression and process of rationalisation. Many in fact didn't survive. There was no drama being producted at all before that - before Barron Films.

Alan:

How do you think the future's shaping up?

Ann:

I think there will be a drama industry in WA. There isn't right now, there's a single production house. I think there will be an industry. It will never be Hollywood, the same way people think it should be. I think it will grow and it will be healthy and it will expand into more than one production house. We are not yet at the point where our size, our being the drama industry, is sufficient to support full time professional crews and that is very very important. However, in the last 3 years, more and more people who originally were from WA, who had their training and went off to gain that experience in the rest of the world, are choosing to come back for the quality of life available in WA, and they're prepared to work on commercials, on documentaries, whatever they can find just to survive. That pool is expanding. We are getting more and more not only the trained but also internationally well experienced people coming here. So it's all adding up. The writers are starting to gain more support to get their writing skills up to functional level for film and TV and the Producers and Directors Guild is bringing in more a,nd more experiences whether it's through individuals or courses or whatever. All in all it's providing an impetus, a momentum that can't be stopped by a decrease in tax incentives for, I think, a slowly developing industry. It should be very healthy.

Alan:

How do you think a third commercial station will affect firstly Barron Films and then WA film and TV production?

Ann:

Given that it is a commercial TV licence I don't think it will change the existing structure very much at all, regardless of who gets the licence. I think what will have a much greater impact is when we get SBS next year. I think it's coming in late 1986.

Alan:

Because they're more likely to buy your programmes?

Ann:

That's right. And also they will open up to what I would call corporate broadcastings where the non-commercial material will have air time. There's no possibility of that in WA right now, none. Except, I apologise, there's the Golden West Network down in Bunbury. The SBS therefore will not only present audiences here with different programming that they have never had an opportunity of experiencing before (which will educate taste somewhat), but also actually provide air time. The other thing that is pending that should have a great impact on the industry is the State Film Authority which has not been included in this year's budget but will be presented in next year's. We are the only state that does not have a State Film Corporation there to support the commercial industry. We have a State Film Council with very minimal funds that is not a statutory body. Therefore it's at the whim of cabinet.

Alan:

Getting a State Film Authority established would have been one of the functions towards the WA Film and TV seminar which was held here at FTI?

Ann:

The notion of establishing a State Film Authority was why the seminar was put together.

Alan:

What do you think the outcome of that seminar has been? Do you regard it as a success?

Ann:

Yes. It was a success not because of any decisions coming out of it but because of the dialogue that occurred during it. For the first time in one place in the west, there were important people from all the other states, all aspects of the film world. Not only the government agencies and the Australian Film Commission but also other producers and the local producers, be they documentary or whatever, were able to interact and listen to those people talking, ask questions, hear other people asking questions.

Alan:

Perhaps this is a good place to ask you something which has been worrying me for some time. Whether, in fact, Iocal and national organisations - in this case State and Federal organisations - do they help each other or get in each other's way?

Ann:

Yes.

Alan:

And if they are, what kind of things do you see being necessary to solve this?

Ann:

The tensions are always based on financial resources. Something like film is very problematic because it is viewed as an art form and also as an industry with a pure commercial base. So that in WA in particular it's a problem that the State Film Council and its funds are under the jurisdiction of the Minister for Industrial Development. Whereas we, the Film & Television Institute, who get support from Federal and State funds, we're under the Arts Council under the Minister for the Arts. The Minister for the Arts and the Minister for Industrial Development have great difficulty in agreeing over who should fund what in terms of film. The dichotomy between art and industry is totally disfunctional in terms of film in this case and we very clearly represent that problem. What happens between the State and Federal level is the jurisdiction over who should be supporting what and so in terms of us so-called arts organisations the Federal people say that the states should support them more because we're in the state. However, the states say film as art is a national responsibility. All the arts are predominantly national and therefore the Australian Film Commission should be funding us. The battle gets more and more vicious each year. I think the discussions are becoming more open between Federal and State bodies across the board in terms of film.

Alan:

Would this be one function of the State Film Authority then? Perhaps to, in some senses, mediate between the Federal and State levels?

Ann:

It's a nice idea but it has the opposite effect in that the State Film Authority will be there for film as industry only as is the case in all the other states, except Victoria. Victoria is moving more now into supporting non-commercial, non- mainstream films. But they are only doing it after having existed for a long time and they now have a 7 million dollar budget. In all the other states the State Film Authority assists the commercial or mainstream industry and quite often has a detrimental effect on the small independent film-as-art film-making people because it makes it more difficult for them to get money.

Alan:

Barron Films would presumably have put in a submission about the need for a State Film Authority. Is it possible for you to give me a summary of Barron Films' submission?

Ann:

I wasn't at Barron Films at the time, I was at the Film & Television Institute when that was all occurring and we certainly put in a submission. I can judge, but do clleck with Paul of course, that Paul would be most concerned as was John Picton- Warlow and Jeff Pearson. Their biggest concern is that the model of the South Australian Film Corporation would be adopted here and what that eventually did in South Australia and would do more effectively in WA would be to take all potential production away from independent production houses and bring them into a government funded body with the idea that a Government funded body could contract out or whatever. What it does is that it removes any incentive or initiative for the individual production house to exist. I know that Paul felt so strongly about that as did John Picton- Warlow and Jeff Pearson that the three of them said that they would leave if that was the case, they couldn't survive here.

Alan:

It seems to me that there are actually two more things which might have the possibility of effecting both Barron Films and the WA film industry in general. One is a specific thing and the other's a more general thing. The more general thing first perhaps is the significant amount of video penetration in Australia. What kind of effect to you think that has on Barron Films?

Ann:

Being a very young company Barron Films is able to be quite attitudinally flexible to change. In fact they haven't necessarily had anything entrenched that needs to change, they are constantly reflecting the current needs. Also Barron Films have the policy and always has from the word go that they would not buy any capital equipment ever, beyond a tape recorder or a video playback. So that changes in technology are minimised for a company that doesn't sink overheads in that way. That's very very important, very wise.

Alan:

That's a tip for prospective film entre- preneurs then.

Ann:

Absolutely. Build into each budget the cost of hiring and don't lump yourself with capital investment.

Alan:

What about the distribution of finished products? Do you think that the increasing use of video recorders makes that more viable?

Ann:

For certain kinds of material. I am very much in favour of video because the quality of production of video is now so good. It is a different experience to sitting in a cinema. This is not what you're asking but I'm going to talk about it anyway. I think the long term effect of video on cinema is good in that what we are now getting up there on the screen is of superior quality in terms of the understanding being offered to that group experiencing it. And also videos are just so much more sensitive to the world. There are Aboriginal groups up north and in the west, northwest of WA, that do not have television, they do not have cinemas but they do have videos and to be able to reach them and for them to be able to reach each other is I think quite powerful. Video just accesses international information so much more readily.

Alan:

Is this going to possibly change the direction of Barron Films? Are certain kinds of material more suited to video, or if video is more suited to certain kinds of material do you think that Barron Films might decide to produce that kind of material?

Ann:>

Barron Films has always had a very clear range of kinds of materials that are economically viable to produce here. In other words low budget features or telemovies or TV series, low budget being emphasised - meaning anything under 2 Alan: million dollars in those days.

Alan:

Has the search for that kind of cost effective product led to any new significant developments do you think, in terms of, let's say, drama documentaries or something like that? Are there new kinds of programmes developing?

Ann:

Well, in the sense that there were no kinds developing before, anything that developed in WA is new to WA. In terms of the industry generally, no. In terms of the focus of, say, writers and other people involved in any production, the focus has obviously been placed on a certian kind of material, not on others. So we aren't thinking of Star Wars. No one in this state involved in the industry would consider for a moment a Star Wars in WA and you don't think of Gone with the Wind or Ben Hur or Towering Inferno.

Alan:

Ronnie Biggs4 was one project which I would regard as fairly innovative. I wonder if you could say something about it.

Ann:

In terms of the satellite link-up you mean? Well, basically it was a documentary on Ronald Biggs, the Great Train Robber, and it was decided that what would be of great interest to people would be not just to see and hear of Ronnie Biggs, but for those who were aware of Ronnie Biggs'past, there was one Scotland Yard detective who had spent 14 years of his life tracking down Ronald Biggs and these two developed a very close relationship based on a great deal of mutual respect for the hunter and the hunted. Each respected the professionalism of the other - the professional criminal and the professional cop. And so the idea was to link them up. Ronald Biggs could not leave his country of sanctity and there was no way that a Scotland Yard detective who had recently retired could go and actually shake Ronald Biggs' hand in South America. So they were linked up by satellite and that was the first international link-up for that kind of issue between America and Britain. It has since been copied by several Japanese.

I have just thought of one other thing in terms of video. When you say video production, I just automatically think of TV, so when you talk about using video material versus film I am thinking of TV material and in terms of Barron Films TV has always been very very obvious as an international market. TV is much easier to break into than film.

Alan:

That's a deliberate strategy?

Ann:

Oh yes.

Alan:

A specific local possibility which occurred to me was the impact of the America's Cup and perhaps even extend that to the bicentennial ... that seems to be something that could be picked up by an innovative company.

Ann:

And I'm sure it will be: every person, dog and video camera.

Alan:

It occurred to me that Kicking Around had a style that was very much Fremantle and in fact a re-release of that or a remake of something close to that would be popular for perhaps America's Cup initiated reasons?

Ann:

There was much discussion actually just before pre-Cup days in the first race about sailing, West Australia etc. etc. in terms of international recognition. That will have immensely increased and I don't know if Paul has anything in the works. I'm not aware of it, but as I'm saying it takes from 2 to 5 years to develop a significant project and therefore the planning required would take you right through. There's going to be a vast amount of garbage out over that period and it's very tricky. The worse thing that you can do in terms of bringing a product up to the market is to be two days after someone else has brought a similar product to the international market - It's dead.

Alan:

I wonder then, if we could just close by perhaps asking a few questions around training and recruits so to speak? What kind of influence do you think the production courses in WA at Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) and at FTI are having?

Ann:

WAIT produces very good technical people, so that people are able to go and work for the commercial networks very easily and readily. The commercial networks are the main employer of WAIT graduates. Training for film and TV is hellishly expensive and hi-tech and it's intensive. That is why there is a national school and that national school puts out a maximum of 25 graduates a year and that is some of the most expensive per capita education in the world. Its more expensive than the most sophisticated medical training.

Alan:

I wonder if I could ask you to change hats in mid interview and ask you as the Director of FTI what function you think the production courses at FTI serve?

Ann:

We aim to duplicate WAIT or any other existing training ground so we are filling in the gaps and the gaps that we are in are the people that are aleady employed as professionals or whatever that wish to gain some knowledge and experience of video and film making to use in their profession. Or maybe they wish to actually pursue it and so they come to us weekends and evenings and learn how. We are also here predominantly to support independent film-makers and their needs. So if they need super-fine super-top-class specific skill training in, say, sound recording. lighting or whatever, we are here to organise that for them. We are also here to assist people actually in their production, non-commercial people in their production, and again that can involve specific training needs.

Ann:

I was going to ask you whether you thought that there is some kind of relationship between commercials/ advertsing and the production of documentary drama production. But perhaps we could make that two questions. Do you think that that is the case, the production of commercials and advertising leads to documentary and drama production? It doesn't seem to by what you've already said about Barron Films being the only drama producers in WA. And perhaps when you have answered that you could consider whether it's true that the so-called independent film-makers gradually move into the commercial world.

Ann:

Your first queston doesn't necessarily lead - there isn't a causation or a consequential relationship there.

Alan:

Adverts are not regarded obviously as a training ground to make the real stuff.

Ann:

Not for most people. However, that's changing now and what is changing more than anything else are the video clips. Because the rock video clips are some of the most innovative and most dramatic material being produced and you do a three minute rock clip and the skiUs involved and production details are almost as great as a television series or a feature film or telemovie. So that is really bridging that gap and you get people like Russell Mulcahy going from a video clip to a feature film Razorback. And you have always had individual directors who begin in the advertising or commercial world. But they are probably exceptions rather than the traditional pattern. I see any production of any nature being good for the development of the whole industry. So that the more commercial work that is happening the more people are operating cameras and are setting up studio lights, the greater the opportunity for drama production to happen.

Alan:

What about the - if I might use the somewhat problematc word - independent film-makers? In other words the people who make films for art or without specific audience markets in mind and so forth?

Ann:

They too have to eat. It's becoming increasingly diffcult to survive with government assistance which means that they also have to earn an income to survive. To be able to move in and out of the mainstream industry for short periods, to gain enough financial backing for their own projects that are not going to be commercially funded is a very viable relationship that exists in Britain and North America. Most independent film- makers in Britain and North America work for commercial crews and then have their own projects when they've got enough money saved up to do so. The relationship is not just healthy financially but it's essential for maintaining skills, for maintaining up-to-date knowledge, interaction and just keeping in touch with what is happening in your profession. But we probably do not have a large enough industry here to ably support the independent film-maker to move in and out. Much of the industry is based on full- time jobs here, institutionalised jobs.

Alan

: I wonder if you'd answer just one more question. Has TAIMAC made any difference?

Ann:

TAIMAC, yes. In that there is now a studio that's available to use for inside shooting so that when 'Fran' was being shot TAIMAC was there and could be used. Previously you had to build your own set and create your own studios. So it is easier. TAIMAC is, of course, clearly part of a bid for a commercial licence - that does colour its relationship to anything. But TAIMAC is the source of up-to-date technology too. They do have Betacam that you can hire. They do have the best technicians at Betacam so that when we need a technician, that technical knowledge, that person is there. If TAIMAC didn't exist that person wouldn't be in the State. I don't know what we would do.

Alan:

Ann, thanks very much.

Other Barron Film Projects

Minister of Intelligence - now called 'Anyone Can Be A Genius' has been completed. This won a Greater Union award for the best documentary at the 1985 Sydney Film Festival. Sale is currently being negotiated with the ABC.

River of Giants, has been finished and sold in Ireland. This is about an early pioneering family in WA, the Bellangers.

Reflections of Myself: Tom Storrier. This documentary, about Tom Storrier the artist, is in post production.

Making Waves (Windrider) is currently in production. Filming is due to finish on November 9, 1985. This is to be distributed theatrically through Hoyts and stars Tom Burlinson (of The Man from Snowy River fame) and Nicole Kidman (who appeared in Bush Christmas).

Tudawali is due to be filmed in January,1986. Written by Geoffrey Nottage and David Rapsey it will be directed by G. Nottage and produced by D. Rapsey. It concerns the Aboriginal actor Albert Tudawali - also in the Tudawali prospectus - called an Australian Trilogy - are 'The Veteran' and 'Zelko'.

Shame - written by Beverley Blankenship and M. Brindley, this will be directed by Steve Jodrell. Filming is due to begin in early 1986.

Ann Macbeth was born in Vancouver, Canada and moved to Perth in 1970. After graduating from the School of Human Communication, Murdoch University, Ann helped Paul Barron set up Barron Films early in 1981. Barron Films was registered as a Ltd company on May 18, 1981. Ann Macbeth worked as Information and Research Manager for Barron Films from its inception until May 1984. Ann is now director of the Film & Television Institute in Fremantle, W.A. She was interviewed for this dossier on October 23rd, 1985.

Footnotes

The Film & Television Institute was formed in November 1982 by the (forced) amalgamation of Free Video and the Perth Institute of Film and Television.

Take Two, a prospectus containing Fran and I Own the Racecourse was listed on the second board of the Perth Stock Exchange on 24th May, 1984.

Much of the detailed information in this interview was provided quickly and cheerfully by Kim Schmidt. Kim has worked as Distribution Coordinator for Barron Films since mid 1982.

The Ronald Biggs film is now finished and has been sold to Channel 10.