Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the changing relationship between filmmakers and film bureaucrats

When I began my film career it was not a career at all. I loved making films and did so, as did many of my generation, out of a passion for my craft, for my art. A lack of money was not a reason not to make a film, and this was back in the days when film stock, processing and editing were much much more expensive than they are today. The Sydney Film Coop,which many young filmmakers may only be dimly aware of having existed, provided both the training ground for young filmmakers and a venue where filmmakers could meet each other and start collaborative relationship – many of which are alive and well 40 years later. This was a time when filmmakers made the films they wanted to make – aided and abetted by a film funding body called the Australian Film Development Corporation, soon the be renamed the Australian Film Commission. There were very few film bureaucrats then. The people making decision about which screenplays to back, which projects to invest money in, were filmmakers like myself who worked in the industry and who, for short periods of time (and often part-time)  assessed the film project of our peers. Six months, a year later, these same peers might well be assessing our projects.

The idea that lay at the heart of this system was the belief that a healthy industry was one in which film practitioners rotated in and out of the nascent film bureaucracies – bringing skills they had learnt in the real world of filmmaking back into the bureaucracies but not staying long enough to establish a power base. More importantly this rotation of filmmakers in and out of the funding bodies meant that there was a constant replenishment of ideas and a diversity of approaches to the making of films. The advantage for filmmakers was that a particular panel of assessor/filmmakers (there were always at least three back then) might dislike your project intensely but be replaced six months later with a panel of assessor/filmmakers who love your project. This is not because one set of assessors was better than another. It was because we all have our own different tastes and blind spots – as one would expect and hope for in a diverse film industry and culture. There were particular genres of film that were of no interest to me at all and which I acknowledged I was incapable of assessing with total impartiality. Not a problem for the poor filmmaker who did not get my vote since six months later another assessor/filmmaker with a different sensibility would be sitting in my seat making a different set of creative value judgements.

This was also a time when every filmmaker with a project being considered for funding (and I mean EVERY) had an opportunity to meet with a panel of three assessor/filmmakers to respond to queries, criticisms and to pitch their ideas. And to hold the assessor/filmmakers accountable if we had skim read or made some fundamental error in our reading – not hard to do when you have 40 applications to plough through. More than once, in my own experience, the applicant managed to turn the panel around with their sheer passion and with talents that emerged when they pitched their project but which were not necessarily there on the page. I can think of two such applicants from my own experience as an assessor who went on to become major names in film – not just in Australia but internationally.

So what do we have now? Gone are the panels. Gone is any opportunity for an applicant to pitch his or her project to actual human beings and to answer questions about their project. Gone is the opportunity for an applicant to engage in a dialogue, a debate, perhaps even an argument, with an assessor whose judgement might have been influenced by a blind spot of the kind that we all have. The free flow of filmmakers in and out of the funding bodies has given way to career bureaucrats who, if they ever made a film, did so some years ago. Some, many (too many) have never written a screenplay, never directed a film, never set foot on a film set. Some assessors (the titles given to these people keep changing) know what they are talking about and some (again, too many) are rank amateurs whose experience of the craft of screenwriting seems limited to the reading of a few books and their involvement in an intensive (and expensive) weekend spent in the presence of whoever the latest script guru who has flown in from overseas!
“We do not have the resources to talk with filmmakers,” will be a familiar mantra to anyone who has ever tried to enter into a dialogue with a bureaucrat at Screen Australia about his or her project. No, these development and investment bureaucrats cannot waste their precious time talking with actual filmmakers! This would cost precious money which can be better spent on films that, by and large, neither Australian nor international audiences want to see.  And why do they not want to see them? The reasons are many and varied but one thing these films all have in common is that the screenplays from which they were made were undercooked, underdeveloped or (too often) just plain incompetent. Of course there are exceptions, but not nearly enough to justify the virtual tenure that so many of these people have acquired within the funding bodies. And if they manage to develop and fund one failure after another, are there any consequences as far as their career path as a bureaucrat is concerned? No, it was a committee that made the decision to fund the development of this turkey or that one. No individual is responsible. No-one’s job is on the line.

Since its inception I have not been able to have a single conversation, not even on the telephone, with anyone at Screen Australia about any script development application I have made – and there have been at least 15 of these. This, despite 40 years experience making films. It gets worse. Screen Australia will not even read certain of my screenplay because I am not a ‘proven producer’. Yep, after 40 years of producing, writing and directing films (both drama and documentary) I am not acceptable to Screen Australia as a producer – not even of my own films to be made for a low budget. Mind you, other filmmakers with a fraction of my experience and in contravention of Screen Australia’s guidelines can nominate themselves as producers and be accepted as such. And this is the problem, or at least one of them: If you are one of the favoured set of filmmakers the Screen Australia guidelines are incredibly flexible (as they should be) but if you are not a favoured filmmaker (unofficially banned) you can have your application knocked back, unread, because you have failed to put a tick (literally) in the right box.

One of the screenplays of mine that Screen Australia refuses to even read (long before I posed a risk to Screen Australia staff) is entitled HONEY. Those who have read SHIPS IN THE NIGHT will find some similarities between HONEY and SHIPS in terms of the central character – the smell-of-an-oily-rag film my attempt to place a similar central character in a film that I can actually get made – even if I am a banned filmmaker:


  1. Its a pity James that you have been banned by Encore also. There is food for thought here and discussion of the kind that the industry should be having in the dying months of the Gillard government and with our new minister in all likelihood, Senator George Brandis.

  2. ‘Banned’ is probably too strong a word to use in relation to Encore’s decision not to publish my opinion pieces any more and to refuse to answer emails. ‘Persona non grata’ is probably a more apt description. I can appreciate Encore’s point of view to a certain extent. Whilst I can somewhat blithely dismiss veiled threats from Ruth Harley to sue, Encore cannot. A successful defamation suit could wipe the magazine out. The threat, the possibility, of such a suit is something that Encore needs to be very careful to avoid. As we have seen for decades now with the Church of Scientology and other entities that do not wish to be publically criticized, there is nothing quite like a letter from the legal department of a powerful cashed-up organization to suppress information and stifle debate. My knowledge of any such letters from Screen Australia to magazines such as Encore is anecdotal only and perhaps pure scuttlebutt. However, if it were possible to ask questions of Screen Australia and get answers (which, alas, it is not) one question I would be interested to get an answer to is: “Has Screen Australia ever threatened to sue a film magazine for publishing material critical of it?” Or, to phrase the question a little differently: “Has Screen Australia written any letters of the kind that Ruth Harley wrote to me which contain veiled threats?” The question could also be put to Encore: “Have you ever felt under pressure from Screen Australia not to publish opinions pieces, articles or comments online that are critical of the performance of either Screen Australia or individuals working in the upper echelons of it?”

  3. The problem is that not only has Encore been neutralized by Screen Australia, so too have all of the industry bodies whose job it is to represent filmmakers, protect them from the kind of entrenched tyranny that inevitable creeps into organizations such as SA when the power of those in charge is unchecked. This is not done with threats to sue(you are wrong about this, James) but by handing out money or other
    favours. Encore relies on the good will of Screen Australia when it conducts one of its wickedly expensive talk fests and both the Writers Guild and the Australian Director's Guild reply on Screen Australia's
    largese when they conduct their various seminars, workshops and other such talk fests. Screen Australia does not need to say, in so many words, "You criticize us in public and we won't give you any money."
    This is understood by both parties. This is the way those in power work. This is the way bosses are able to bully their employees. Do you want your job or not? If you want it, put up with whatever I do or say
    and don't complain. If you don't, you can find a job elsewhere. This is the way tyrants have always operated and it is the dynamic that guarantees that none of those who should stand up to Screen Australia
    and other state funding bodies will do so. They have all been emasculated. The bureaucrats have won. This is their industry now. It does not belong to filmmakers. Bureaucrats call the tune and if youcan't or don't want to dance to their tune, fuck off!