What Future For Television?

How Graeme Mason rose to the top of Screen Australia

Graeme Mason"This is a sweeping generalisation, but young people don’t own TVs," says Graeme Mason, former UTS Communications student and now head of Screen Australia.

“They don’t watch TV. They don’t watch the news. They don’t watch long-form drama unless it’s Game of Thrones or House of Cards.

“They are consuming things on their computers, on their phones, on their tablets. There’s been a fundamental shift in who consumes things and how. Broadcasters and makers, and funders of films and television like us, have to be cognisant of that, and adapt.”

Mason took over from Ruth Harley as chief executive of Screen Australia in 2013. It’s his job to decide which Australian films, TV dramas, documentaries, multimedia projects and Indigenous productions win public funding.

Mason is the first to admit that 2014 was an annus horribilis for the Australian film industry. Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner, released on Boxing Day, became the biggest grossing Australian film of the entire year simply because there was nothing else. That prompted a national debate: Why are so many Australian movies so bleak that few people are tempted to pay money at the cinema to see them?

Mason points out that film accounts for only one-third of Screen Australia’s funding, with small screen products accounting for two-thirds. “And in telly, the dramas we were able to support were all going gangbusters – shows like The Code, House Husbands, Puberty Blues and Secrets and Lies. Australians still want to watch Australian TV. We need to think a little more about this when it comes to film.”

Poor attendance for locally made films isn’t just an Australian phenomenon. “They’re having this same debate in London, Denmark, Ireland. The audience for film – not just Australian film – has changed,” explains Mason.

When he was a 1980s undergraduate at UTS, people went to the movies for spectacle and event, but also for thought-provoking movies that everyone would discuss afterwards over a drink. “But people now largely get those thought-provoking things from TV or online. Cinema is having to play catch-up and is struggling to connect.”

Nevertheless, he admits, “People were making films which were never going to reach an audience.” Not that bleak films can’t prove popular. “Snowtown and Animal Kingdom were both very bleak and both were big hits.”

“My father begged me to come back and complete the degree, but I was young and having fun in London. He was right though. I’m glad I did come back. I got a lot out of those final semesters."

Born in Sydney and raised in the Blue Mountains, Mason is the third child of two academics. His father was once the deputy registrar of the University of Sydney, while his mother was a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney. There was always expectation for him to go to university, but he kept his parents on tenterhooks.

Mason was offered a place to study medicine at the University of Sydney, but instead waited a year before studying communications at UTS. During the course he took further time out in London before returning to complete the
final year.

“My father begged me to come back and complete the degree, but I was young and having fun in London. He was right though. I’m glad I did come back. I got a lot out of those final semesters."

“Then, as now, UTS was known for its hybrid courses – industry focused but also embracing thought. I did the theory of film and psychology, but also worked in radio and TV labs.”

After graduating, Mason embraced his love of sports and worked as head researcher on a sport documentary series, before returning to London in 1989. There he worked for Sky TV for a year before his partner’s sister, Wendy Palmer, offered him a position at Manifesto Film Sales. 

“In those days, film sales were how independent films were financed. We used to go to distribution companies around the world and pitch films, at script stage, and they would commit to buying the rights for their countries. You took those contracts to the bank (to get the money to make the movies).

“Two of the films Wendy was working on when I joined were Wild At Heart and Barton Fink, the very beginning of David Lynch’s and the Coen Brothers’ careers. It showed me, very quickly, that film is a global business.”

In 1992, Mason joined Polygram Filmed Entertainment, eventually becoming senior vice president. Some of the films he helped sell and distribute were Working Title’s Four Weddings and a Funeral and Billy Elliott. He also worked on Trainspotting and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Polygram merged with Universal Pictures in 1995 and Mason stayed on as president of film acquisitions and sales. In 2002, he joined Britain’s Channel 4 as head of media projects. His brief included music programming, documentaries, co-productions, education and learning.

It was a time of huge transition in the TV industry, with HBO, Showtime and Channel 4 leading the way in producing dramas and docos that had once been the domain of film. “Channel 4 was fun and edgy – an interesting mix of culture, creativity and business.”

In 2009, after a short spell living in Thailand, Mason was appointed chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. While the Australian film industry was in the doldrums, New Zealand was in the middle of a golden age.

“At one point, we had Sir Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg all making films in Wellington. And at the other end, there are people trying to make films for $250,000.”

“At one point, we had Sir Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg all making films in Wellington. And at the other end, there are people trying to make films for $250,000.”

New Zealand filmmakers were producing local stories that local people wanted to see. Boy, for example, is now the most successful independent NZ film of all time, with traditional Maori stories such as Whale Rider also having success.

Interestingly, Mason recalls the 2014 horror movie, The Babadook was “seen by very few people in Australia, but was a big hit in the UK, France, Spain, Thailand and Singapore. It was critically acclaimed and a commercial success – just not here.”

Mason reputedly beat 250 other candidates for the Screen Australia job. What distinguished him from the competition was his top level experience in all aspects of film and TV – not just the creative side, but the hard-nosed business end: pitching, buying, selling and distributing product that people want to watch.

Multi-platform will be the growth area, he says. Increasingly consumers will watch product online. He cites the example of Mighty Car Mods, “two guys who live in Sydney and run the most successful car channel on YouTube. They have hundreds of millions of viewers”.

He continues: “We have supported 50 of Australia’s top online video creators through the multi-platform program. These creators reach phenomenal views – collectively their content has been viewed on YouTube over one billion times globally.

“This is the most exciting growth area we’ll be involved in over the next few years. It’s certainly something all the current UTS communications students will be interested in.”

As Dorothy put it in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

Story by Steve Meacham
Photography by Kevin Cheung

UTS: Lumniaries

Graeme Mason has been named a UTS:Luminary. Click here to read his profile.