Monday, 20 August 2012

The Australian Film and TV industry

I recently had a screenplay listed as a semifinalist in the PAGE 2012 International Screenplay awards. I have had to withdraw my entry because I either misread the rules or failed to read them at all. To confess, I have entered a number of competitions before, some with success, and I guess I got a little casual about entering assuming the better known competitions like PAGE were similar to Scriptapalooza in their eligibility requirements. They aren't and it's a lesson I've learnt.

August 16, 2012

Dear Scott,

CONGRATULATIONS on advancing to the Semi-Final Round of the 2012 PAGE Awards contest!!  We received over 5,100 entries this year, and you had some fierce competition from your fellow contestants, so you should feel very proud of this achievement.
At this stage of the process, there are two subjects I need to discuss with you...

According to the rules of our contest, in order to be eligible for one of our prizes, you (and your writing partner if you have one) may not have individually or jointly earned more than $25,000 (or the foreign equivalent) as a screenwriter and/or television writer, effective as of the date you entered your script in the contest.
The moment I realised my mistake I wrote to them and withdrew. I have earned more than this, over a fourteen year career, from writing scripts for Australian Serial drama - 'Neighbours' and "Home and Away'. Who would have thought writing for these shows would rule me out of getting a significant break with a screenplay. They are certainly worlds apart and writing for serial drama (Soap) leaves a writer with a lot of bad habits and so much still to learn about writing a screenplay. But they are the rules so apart from my own embarrassment at entering when I shouldn't have, I abide by them.

It is, like many others, a competition of vital importance because it gives new writers an opportunity to break through with a great idea and a well written script.

I wish we had something similar in Australia.

Most of our Film and TV projects are funded in part or in whole by government funding bodies. That's our industry - that's how it works. And the people who judge and grant these funds to projects try to select work that is, firstly - a high standard, secondly - worthy of funding in story, social commentary and cultural significance.

The result is a lot of wonderful films and very few commercial successes. It seems most people would rather watch something that entertains through adventure, suspense, inspiration or laughter than witness of depressing slice of life, a dark or tragic recreation of a true story or a story that meanders slowly around in depth character studies. It's the 'Arthouse Vs Commercial' debate. Is it more important to produce 'The Piano' than 'Dumb and Dumber'?

The Piano = World wide box office to date 40 million
Dumb and Dumber = World wide box office to date 127 million

So where are our commercial writers? Where are the extraordinary new voices? And why has making films and television in Australia lost any comparison to being a business? Have we ignored the idea that entertaining people and attracting the largest audience possible should be the first entry at the top of those very worthwhile list of criteria objectives?

I can only go on my own personal experience to explain why there are not more success stories coming from the hundreds of trained writers being graduated every year from very reputable writing courses around this country.

Over a fifteen year career as a writer I have won an Australian Writer's Guild award for theatre. I have been nominated for another for serial drama. I have been script producer of Neighbours for two years, Senior story editor on Home and Away for another two years. I have set up drama shows for Fremantlemedia in Indonesia, Poland and Russia and worked in their London office in world wide drama development. I have story edited over 500 hours of produced television drama, I have edited over 200 hours of produced television drama and personally written around 30 hours of produced television serial drama.

The Australian film and television funding bodies don't consider I have gained enough experience as a writer to apply for funding towards a film or TV project that I have written and created.

To put this into context, imagine if the patent office changed their rules and stated that in order for any inventor to APPLY for a patent for their newly thought up and created invention, they had to sign over all their rights to that invention to a manufacturer with the means and experience to make the invention.

That would be outrageous. Anyone can see such a thing would be totally unfair to the inventor and unjust. That inventor may have spent years working out how to make the new product work perfectly and now they have, they are being asked to sign away their rights just to submit it for an application for a patent. It is a ludicrous idea and would never be allowed to happen - right?

In Australia, I and any writer who doesn't qualify under their strict standards as an 'eligible writer' must option their rights to the project to a producer of appropriate standing and then have that producer apply for funding, under their name, towards getting project funding.

Imagine you've been working on a screenplay or TV concept for years. It's now ready to go forward, but just to apply to receive funding you have to sign over your rights, usually for two years, to a producer. Then if the funding isn't granted - and only about 10% of submissions do get funding - the producer retains the rights to your project and you cannot submit it or take it to anyone else until those rights lapse, because you no longer own the rights to your own unfunded project.

What if you've written something incredibly time sensitive around current topical trends or fashions? Now the project is sitting in someone else's drawer and the chances of it being the original voice on a subject when you finally get your rights back are unlikely, in fact, the timing for such an idea may have passed by completely.

I don't see why each of the funding bodies, either individually for their state or in combination with the Australian federal funding body, making it nationwide, can't run competitions or at least a single competition like Scriptapalooza or PAGE or the Nichols Award - for any writer who falls outside their 'suitable experience' criteria.

Combine resources between all the funding bodies, making it state based with finalists being forwarded to a final from all states and create one large competition that would pay for itself through entry fee and feedback services. Part of the package for winners would be exposure to funding body readers and possibly even development funding. Certainly granting funding, 'provided' a suitable producer is found - would give a writers at least some clout to choose a producer and have them take the project on, given there is a guarantee of funding when they did.

I am sure the administrations, both state and federal, will argue it is in the 'too hard' basket. But many very worthy Australian writers have their careers in that basket at the moment so it's worth trying whatever can be done to change that. Crying, 'too hard' or arguing amongst separate bodies seems petty and short sighted. Such a competition would allow great ideas from Australian writers of both Film and TV to be tabled. These lost writers currently have no outlet for their hard work or even their ideas. They have no opportunity in their own names to seek funding, or gain the sort of attention the overseas competitions bring to a someone in need of a breakthrough towards attracting an agent to their career or a producer to their project.

I am not taking a swing at our funding bodies for their system. I just think it can be improved. At the moment, the same names, deemed experienced enough to access funding, are accessing it over and over again. If they are making viable Films or TV then why the need to keep dipping into the publicly funded trough - and here of course is the rub?

Australia's film and TV industry is not an industry at all. It is a tax payer funded sheltered workshop where products not sustainable in any other business model are propped up and continually produced by the same experienced fund's applicants and offered for sale.

We are a small nation. Maybe that's the only way it can be. Although I am betting that without the funding - if producers and networks had to produce products on a profits basis alone - without the added funding body support, there would be far more incentive to look for and consider ideas from anyone, regardless of experience or standing.

Success and failure would come down solely to a producer's intuition about what an audience will like and the quality and strength of the words on the page. Who wrote those words on the page should be entirely immaterial.

Perhaps the criteria is in place because without it the funding bodies would be swamped with far too many applications to consider.  If this is so then it's a weak excuse. Name one business in the world that limits opportunity because its difficult to assess all the opportunities on offer?

Every year in Australia around one hundred new students graduate from higher education with the skills needed to write for film and TV. Maybe ten a year get the opportunity in their lifetime and of them, half will fail because the one or two opportunities they do get come to soon, because they clashed with someone personally or they fall foul of any other of the many variables that can easily derail a career in one of the most egocentric industry on earth.

So how do we move forward? My honest advice to any aspiring Australian writer - in order of the success I've seen from each method:

1/ Get yourself to America or the UK and start knocking on doors for that big break. Anywhere but here. The moment you have anything worthwhile on your resume you'll have the option to come back home where you can write your own ticket.

2/ Become a writer/director/producer and build up from short films to gain the needed credits until you are in a position to apply for, or seek out funding for your own projects.

3/ Become a lawyer, an accountant, a marketing specialist and join a production company - (PA is also acceptable). Then (and this is the tricky bit) slide across to production in a senior position. (Ignore the complete lack of experience or training in production - it's not applicable.) Next, commission your own idea.

4/ Find an entry level position, learn, work hard and gain promotions, piss no one off along the way, be patient and hope one drunken night you meet a producer you click with who knows good from bad but can't write it themselves. Then show them something of yours and if they like it - grab onto their coat tails and never let go!

Good luck to anyone on the same journey!

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