Covid's $325m hit to Australian TV and film industry 'unprecedented'

Amanda Meade
·3-min read

The near shutdown of the television and film industry due to Covid-19 meant 26 drama productions with a combined budget of $325m were delayed, the annual drama report from Screen Australia has found.

Screen Australia’s chief executive, Graeme Mason, said the screen sector was on track for a record year when the pandemic hit, forcing the majority of scripted narratives – covering comedy as well as drama – across feature film, miniseries, telemovies, series and online dramas to shut down in March.

“Never in the 30-year history of the drama report have we seen an event like the Covid-19 pandemic,” Mason said. “This large-scale impact is unprecedented.”

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As a result of the interruption, expenditure on drama fell short of $1bn, with the total expenditure of $991m down 18% on 2018/19. But the full economic cost will not be known for years.

While some crews returned to work before 30 June, most did not restart until the second half of 2020.

Some productions will never resume because finance fell through or they were time sensitive.

The pandemic sparked some creative solutions too, including At Home Alone Together, the ABC’s eight-part comedy series that was one of the world’s first Covid-19-inspired TV productions, Retrograde (ABC) and Housos vs Virus: The Lockdown (Seven).

Productions that started shooting in June again with special safety provisions include Network 10’s Neighbours and the second season of Five Bedrooms, and series two of children’s series The Bureau of Magical Things for Netflix and Network 10.

Screen Australia’s chief operating officer, Michael Brealey, said the screen industry was flexible and robust and had adapted to adversity.

“Australia’s ability to stem the spread of the virus to date has made us even more attractive as a safe and viable location for globally backed productions, which is already creating exciting opportunities and long-term potential,” Brealey said.

The commercial television industry said the report showed that commercial free-to-air broadcasters remained the largest investors in Australian drama production, investing $61m across 18 titles.

“While the Screen Australia report shows this was undoubtedly a tough year for all in our industry, it also highlights broadcasters’ absolute commitment to providing great Australian content,” Free TV CEO Bridget Fair said.

Commercial free-to-air broadcasters produced 336 hours of first-release Australian drama including The Lockdown, Home and Away, Informer 3838, Halifax: Retribution, Five Bedrooms and Neighbours.

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“This was despite the unprecedented challenges faced by the industry, including suspension and cancellation of program production across all genres, a significant reduction in advertising revenues and increased costs of producing and delivering content during this time,” Fair said.

Overall, television drama expenditure was down by 39% on last year, which was a record year.

In 2019/20, $198m was spent on 20 general Australian TV drama titles, while $205m – 36% below the previous year – was spent on feature films.

A total of 19 domestic films began shooting, including The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, Streamline and Penguin Bloom, and two co-productions, Falling For Figaro and The Power of the Dog.

Screen Australia handed out more than $45m in production funding for drama titles in financial year 2019/20, according to its annual report, including $17.1m for television drama, $12m for features, $8.4m for children’s television, $4.3m for online drama productions and $3.5m for Indigenous productions.