Screen Producers Australia CEO, Matt Deaner, has made an insightful submission to the federal government on the future of work, creativity, and industrial innovation, and in doing has pointed to the screen sectors’ dilemma of a brain-drain.

“the domestic industry does not have the volume of productions currently to keep our world-class actors, directors, writers, technicians and crew in Australia. As much as we want to tell Australian stories holding our intellectual property… many people are pursuing commercially lucrative and career-advancing opportunities overseas. Australia's loss is Hollywood's gain...”

With this, I think there is perhaps another dimension to the challenge faced by Australian screen industry which pertains particularly to mid-career screen creatives.

The simple observation is that writers, directors, and producers in their mid-career stage (defined for argument simply as having a good degree of experience and credits behind them but still with as many or more years ahead of them) should - in theory - be the engine-room of the Australian screen industry. The distribution of creative production arguably should appear like a Bell-Curve; new emerging talent at one end, well established senior talent at the other end, and the bulk of the bell being the mid-career, creatives in between. In theory this group are the best equiped and positioned to Innovate - they have enough experience to make their work practical, informed, and viable. Yet have the energy and younger perspective to create fresh ideas that exploit new opportunities. In other words, Mid-Career should be the sweet spot for the bulk of Australian screen-production and creative IP generation.

But, like so much about modern economies, the ‘middle-class’ appears to have been squeezed.

Matt Deaner makes a similar observation in regard to screen production companies and the need to drive “content so that businesses are not so much service businesses but also create and develop their own products and sell that content globally…”

This makes me wonder if the same issues apply to the large proportion of Australian Screen industry creatives who are not companies but freelancers? Writers, script editors, story producers, directors, producers, and script consultants, all creative workers who make a living moving from project to project. The demands of being a freelancer in this industry (consistent with freelancing in other sectors and the ‘gig-economy’ in general) can be brutal. You spend half your time and energy just in the pursuit of work and the other half handling the paperwork to manage the personal business enterprise that a freelancer invariably becomes.

In the Australian context , the amount and scale of local production is not large enough make being a full-time freelancer an easy proposition, or even a viable one to most. To have consistent work and make a full-time living means chaining each job into the next, moving nimbly from project to project, being hyper-flexible and adaptable with multiple projects on the go at any given moment and little to no down-time between.

As Matt points out in the article, the “key to the sustainability of the screen industry is the creation and protection of IP that is owned and exploited by Australian businesses” But this points to the key issue with Mid-Career creatives and IP…. They’re too damn busy to make any!

Theoretically Mid-Career workers should be where the bulk of new IP is being generated in the form of new shows, new movies, and new properties. But the reality I suspect is that most mid-career creatives are so busy working as gun-for-hire freelancers on projects generated at the other ends of the bell curve, that they are Servicing but rarely Creating IP. Such creatives are either steering, developing and mentoring the IP of emerging early-career creatives, or working as high-skilled labour on the IP of well established later-career creators. Both ends make for great work but do naturally result in spending very little time on their own IP.

The reasons for this I suspect are oddly practical. Mid-career creatives are, generally speaking, those in their late 30’s and early 40’s. But such people in this age bracket are also those who often have young kids, mortgages, and adult responsibilities. As such the primary objective of freelancing for them is ‘making a consistent living’. Inevitably this means selling their creative-skills to anyone who is buying. They certainly work long hours but cant work like they did when they were in their 20’s! They have obligations and commitments to family, kids, school pickups, ageing parents, and a host of domestic duties; all of which mean that work time and non-work time are demarcated.

I’m a mid-career practitioner and consider myself very fortunate to be able to make a full-time living as a freelancer in this industry. If I achieve nothing else the fact that I get to do this for living at all and support my family is more than achievement enough. But, like so many of my colleagues in the Aus screen industry, I struggle with the eternal challenge of how to maintain cash-flow of income with consistent work, AND find time to develop my own creative projects…? The answer is, for the most part, I dont…

When faced with a choice between a gig to pay the bills and unpaid time on my own ideas, financial stability wins almost every time. And with the above mentioned demands on non-work time, the simplistic idea to work more nights or weekends on my own stuff, simply isn’t viable as divorce and/or madness would quickly ensue.

At a personal level this is, of course, frustrating. But if we step back and look at it from a macro industrial point of view, I think the implications are more significant… If what I describe is true, then we have an industry wide problem that the engine room of the sector is under-utilised.

At one end, late-career creatives are often financially and industrially established enough to be able to work solely on new IP and earn enough from those creations to support them through periods of no other income. At the other end, early career practitioners - by virtue of being younger - don’t generally have mortgages and kids and other financial demands so they can live much leaner and on smaller incomes, which in turn affords greater work-time flexibility to put into new IP.

By contrast, Mid-Career practitioners have neither of these advantages. They don’t have the financial position to support themselves through a non-income period in order to work on new IP, and they don’t have the flexibility or the ability to live on less that would allow them to find extra time for working on new IP.

My simple point is to suggest the Australian industry perhaps hasn’t yet found a way to utilise it’s most potent resource. Mid-Career creatives are potentially the best source for innovation and new ideas. The mix of youth and experience as the sweet spot in the aim for both creative and commercial success.

I don’t know if there are any viable solutions to this but I do wonder if there is a good discussion to be had of how the Australian industry might better utilise its ‘middle-class’ skill base less as as service department and more as the vibrant engine room for new IP it could potentially be.