Screen industry wants rules to hang on to royalties

·4-min read

Perhaps the most spectacular dish MasterChef has ever plated up tastes like a billion dollars in royalties.

Since the show launched in the UK in 1990, the intellectual property it has generated - from screening rights to aprons and books - has made massive amounts of cash.

Australia's slice of that pie has been used to make many more local shows, according to former Shine 360° chief executive Ben Liebmann, who helped build the cooking program into a global brand.

"MasterChef was the crown jewels of the Shine group portfolio and it allowed them to not only grow the business across different genres and categories but also into international markets," he told AAP.

The Australian government will impose quotas for local content spending on big streaming companies by July, with the local screen industry lobbying for a 20 per cent spend.

But this show has a B-plot: the industry also wants rules to ensure Australian producers can hang on to the intellectual property (IP) that comes with their bright ideas.

In this, MasterChef is instructive - the program's makers managed to keep their IP thanks to UK rules that have helped build the British industry into a global player in screen production.

In Australia, the industry is pushing for a "rights reversion" system, where IP from films and TV must return to its makers after three to five years.

Unlike free-to-air and subscription television, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ have never been forced to make any Australian content.

The local industry view is that when they do, the streamers tend to negotiate contracts with all the IP rights they can even if they don't intend to use them - to make sure competitors don't get the chance.

Up against these streaming giants, Liebmann believes rights negotiations have become more difficult, especially for smaller production companies.

Liebmann went from MasterChef to building a global food empire from Rene Redzepi's Noma restaurant, and in his view, the government should impose IP rules at the same time as content quotas.

For the managing director of media firm RACAT Group David Haslingden, retaining IP is the difference between making enough money to get a show made and creating content that can produce ongoing income.

"It's extremely hard to build a world-class, internationally competitive production company that has long-term sustainability unless you've got the recurring revenue stream that comes with IP ownership," he told AAP.

The former News Corp executive and Nine Network director says Australia needs a legislative framework for IP that's at least as supportive for the industry as those in the UK, France or Canada.

In part, that's about cash flow while new ideas are developed, but it's also about building an industry that can attract and retain world-class talent.

Haslingden believes Australia has a disproportionate share of talented screenwriters, producers and directors but many are drawn to work overseas.

"I wish we had a more vibrant and healthier independent production industry in Australia, so more of them would choose to work in Australia rather than in Hollywood or the UK," he said.

New research from lobby group Screen Producers Australia details several well-known Australian productions that have cut deals to keep their IP.

While Brisbane's Ludo Studio licensed global distribution rights for Bluey to the BBC, it retained the rights to ensure its involvement in all future productions.

The research shows lucrative IP sometimes lies in unexpected places - the firm behind feature film The Dressmaker retained education rights and IP for a "making of" documentary and exhibiting costumes.

Since the feature's release in 2015, the costumes have been exhibited across Australia, while the film has been added to the school curriculum.

IP is the difference between the Australian industry becoming a mere production hub for international content and growing to be robust enough to make its own stories, according to Screen Producers Australia's Matthew Deaner.

"Global streaming businesses have changed the game," he told AAP.

"They want all the rights in perpetuity in all territories, and that hobbles the capacity of the industry to continue to reinvent itself."

Other advocates for Australian storytelling, including The Wiggles and Jimmy Barnes, descended on Parliament House on Wednesday to establish a Parliamentary Friends of Australian Children's Storytelling group.