Sunday, November 27, 2011

Who is responsible for the 2nd rate screenplays developed by Screen Australia?

Most Australian films require the imprimatur of Screen Australia to get made. They require that certain readily identifiable Screen Australia employees, in senior positions, believe that the script is ready to go into production and that the production is worthy of investing large sums of Australian tax-payer money in. These readily identifiable bureaucrats make their decisions in the belief that the films they greenlight will appeal to an audience – whether it be multiplex, arthouse or somewhere in between. When the films turn out to be turkeys these bureaucrats do not feel in any way responsible for their failure and nor are they held to account in any way. Year in, year out they can make what are clearly bad decisions, keep their jobs and become more or less permanent fixtures – moving from one funding body to another, sitting on one panel or another and generally being treated as ‘experts’. 

Given Encore’s moderation policy, these readily identifiable bureaucrats cannot be identified. Why should they be treated with a level of deference not extended to filmmakers?  If a film critic (or Encore blogger) is able to say, in public, “James Ricketson’s film was deservedly voted the third worst at the film festival…etc.” and then go on to explain why is was so bad (“amateurish screenplay that needed a few more drafts”, say) why can’t this same level of criticism be levelled at Screen Australia bureaucrats?

Martha Coleman is Head of Development at Screen Australia. She reads every script proposal that receives Screen Australia development funding. She reads the various drafts that are developed with this funding. At the point where she feels the screenplay isn’t living up to the potential she felt it had at earlier stages in its development she can stop funding it. If she feels that the screenplay is getting better from one draft to the next she can continue to fund it. During this development period she is, to all intents and purposes, the head of a studio. When the producer, director and/or screenwriter feel that they have produced a final draft and that the project is ready to be considered for production funding, Martha is in the position to say, “Yes, I think this is a terrific screenplay ready to go into production,” or “No, sorry, but the screenplay still has flaws in it that need to be addressed before I can recommend it to my production investment colleagues as being ready to going to production.”

In short, Martha Coleman is in a very powerful position when it comes not only to the development of screenplays but to the decision as to whether or not the screenplay is ready to go into production. My own opinion is that most Australian films developed during the past three years were not ready to go into production at the time they were greenlit by Martha and others at Screen Australia. Many were not even close to being ready. Some havebeen so bad from a script point of view (A HEARTBEAT AWAY) that one can only shake ones head in wonder that anyone in the Screen Australia food chain thought that the screenplay would result in a film that audiences would actually want to see.

No doubt Gale Edwards (director) and Julie Kincade (screenwriter) felt as devastated as I did when audiences hated HEARTBEAT as much as they hated my film. HEARTBEAT will be an albatross around both their necks as they try to get another film made. That’s showbiz. However, for Martha Coleman and her script development team (with not one experienced screenwriter amongst them!), plus the Screen Australia Investment Managers who thought there was an audience for HEARTBEAT, the films dismal failure is not an albatross around their necks.  No number of such box office turkeys will threaten their jobs – as would be the case if Screen Australia not only acted like a studio but took responsibility for what the studio produces. If these senior bureaucrats are ever asked, in a public forum, if Screen Australia accepts any responsibility for the poor quality of Australian screenplays, here’s the kind of answer you can expect – this one from Martha Coleman.

Although Martha is captain of the Good Ship ‘Script Development’ in the Screen Australia fleet, it is not her responsibility as Head of Development, if the screenplays she develops are no good! This abrogation of responsibility is symptomatic of the major structural problem that lies at the heart of Screen Australia: No-one is responsible for any of its many failings.

Martha has had ample opportunity to demonstrate that she knows the difference between a good and a bad (or underdeveloped) screenplay. She clearly doesn’t. It is time to give someone else a go. It’s not as if there is a shortage of other filmmakers with similar (or far more) experience than Martha who could step into her shoes! The same applies for the Investment Managers who thought that HEARTBEAT and so many other truly bad Australian films would find an audience. Why not give some other experienced filmmakers a chance to make their mark? And, if they don’t or can’t, give some others a go? New faces, new blood, different ideas and approaches are what is needed in an industry/culture such as the one we all work in. Such an approach would require a CEO at Screen Australia, Admiral of the fleet,  prepared to get rid of the dead wood that (excuse the mixed metaphors here) that clogs the arteries of the organization. But that’s another topic…

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