Sunday, February 3, 2013

for Martha Coleman, Head of Development, Screen Australia

Martha Coleman
Head of Development
Screen Australia
Level 4, 150 William St.
Woolloomooloo 2011                                                                              4th Feb 2013

Dear Martha

Very early on in your tenure as Head of Development, 2009, you decided
that I was not a ‘proven producer’ and was therefore incapable of
developing my screenplay HONEY without a ‘proven producer’ to hold my
hand. You knew at the time that I was in fact a ‘proven producer’
(well documented) but used the letter of Screen Australia’s guidelines
to refuse to accept a script development application from me. The
criteria you used to prevent me from making an application did not
apply to other filmmakers, of course!

Even if I had not been a ‘proven producer’, what logic impels you to
believe that a ‘proven producer’ is better able to shepherd a
screenplay through from first to twelfth draft than an experienced
screenwriter? If it were so, Australia’s ‘proven producers’ would only
be taking into production high quality screenplays. This is not the
case as any viewer of most of the films produced this past four years
could attest. With rare exceptions (very rare) Australian films made
during your tenure as Head of Development are based on screenplays
that have been nowhere near ready to go into production.

It is no more a criticism of producers to assert that many of them do
not know how to develop a high quality screenplay than it is a
criticism of screenwriters to assert that many (probably most) do not
know how to produce a film. The skillsets required of producing and
screenwriting are quite different. The most accomplished of producers
may well be able to recognize a good screenplay when s/her reads it
but have little idea of how to develop a screenplay from ‘promising
first draft’ through to ‘polished final draft’. Again, I stress that
this is not a criticism of producers. It is merely recognition of what
seems to me to be a blindingly obvious truth: A great screenplay can
be produced without the input of a producer. This is a truth that your
narrow guidelines does not acknowledge. Yes, there is a time when a
good producer is worth his or her weight in gold but it is not
necessarily at first draft stage. Had such criteria applied when I was
developing BLACKFELLAS the project would never have proceeded beyond
first draft because no producer wanted to touch it with a barge pole
when it was still in its rough developmental stages. I don’t blame
them. It was up to me to prove, with about the 9th draft, that I had a
project worth backing. It was not a prospective producer’s job, at
first draft stage, to see the potential in amidst the confusion of the
first few drafts.

Your refusal to read or assess HONEY this past few years has not, of
course, deterred me from continuing to work on the screenplay and I
have recently completed a fourth draft – which I am in the process of
publishing online. You will not read it, of course. Nor will anyone at
Screen Australia. It is a given, in the script development world that
you live in,  indeed which you have created, that no screenplay beyond
first draft could possibly be any good if there was no ‘proven
producer’ attached to it.  For this screenwriter, at least, a much
more appropriate condition to apply would be ‘no funding beyond first
draft without a good script editor attached.’ Whilst I can write draft
after draft without funding I am not, alas, in a position to pay a
script editor - much more valuable to me as a screenwriter than a
producer, unless, of course, the attached producer is also a skilled
script editor. Such men and women exist but they are rare as hen’s
teeth and I think the quality of most Australian screenplays that go
into production attests to this.

The absurdity of your guidelines vis a vis ‘proven producers’ becomes
apparent when a close look is had at what you consider to be a ‘proven
producer.’ Essentially it is anyone whose name appears as ‘Producer’
in the opening or end credits of a film. A used car salesman looking
for a tax-break and a vanity credit could appear in the list of
producers and, in accordance with your guidelines, be eligible to
shepherd a screenplay through Screen Australia’s script development
processes. S/he would be eligible also to act as a producer/mentor to
young filmmakers despite having zero experience in any area of
filmmaking. I, in contrast, with five years of university study in
drama, as a graduate of two film schools, with an AFI award in
screenwriting and 40 years experience writing screenplays am not
qualified to act as a mentor to young filmmakers! The logic being
applied here has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of the
creative process whereby an idea becomes a treatment and moves through
various drafts to become a film.

I make no claims at all regarding the quality of HONEY. It may be a
lackluster screenplay, lacking in potential, or it may have potential
to be a wonderful film. You will never know which it is because, in
2009, you excluded it from the pool of projects you or your staff
would read on the basis of narrow guidelines that have nothing to do
with the screenplay’s quality or lack thereof. And this was well
before (three years before!) Ruth Harley decided that for you and your
staff to read HONEY or any other of my screenplays would be to place
you at risk! This is such an absurd proposition that it makes my head
spin! At what point in the reading or assessing of HONEY or any other
of my screenplays would it even be possible for me to place you or
your script assessing staff at risk?

A few days ago I read the following:

“If you’re an artist, being a good man – or a good woman – is pretty
much beside the point when it comes to your actual accomplishments.
Moral perfection won’t compensate for your badness as an artist.”

Ruth’s assertion that I have intimidated and placed at risk members of
Screen Australia is a lie, as you and the rest of the staff at Screen
Australia know all too well, but lets presume not only that it is true
but that I am in fact a psychopath in jail for multiple axe-murders. I
have written a screenplay that may be crap or it may be brilliant.
Would you refuse to read and assess it on the grounds that I was a
morally reprehensible human being?

The flip side of this is: Is it necessary to refrain from criticism of
Screen Australia, from asking questions, to be eligible to apply for
script development money? I won’t get an answer to this because this
particular administration of Australia’s peak funding body does not
answer questions such as the ones I ask - as a matter of principle.

A couple of years ago a Screen Australia employee in a fairly senior
creative decision-making position said to me, “James, why do you make
your life so difficult for yourself by always criticizing us?”  The
question was well-intentioned and the advice in it implicit. I was,
nonetheless, more than a little astounded. “My job is to write good
screenplays,” I replied, “What do my criticisms of Screen Australia
have to do with the quality of my film projects?” No answer was the

Screen Australia has effectively silenced all public criticism and, in
its banning of me, made clear what future is in store for anyone who
asks questions Ruth Harley does not want to answer or who expects her
to be transparent and accountable in her decision making.

best wishes


  1. James the question by the well intentioned SA employee gets to the heart of this issue. Although logically you are right and your behavior shouldn't have any relation to how SA treat you obviously in real life that's not how it works.In any field of human endeavor. I am surprised that you are surprised by this.

  2. Your problem wont go away when regime change happens. What type of briefing do you think the new CEO will receive regarding yourself? There is no medal for being in the right. Behaving like an irritating prat has permanent consequences.

  3. AWESOME to see a photo of you, for starters, James. Wonderful.
    2ndly, awesome to come by you, but not so awesome the circumstances.

    Loved: "If it were so, Australia’s ‘proven producers’ would only
    be taking into production high quality screenplays. This is not the
    case as any viewer of most of the films produced this past four years
    could attest." !

    Ruth Harley & the alleged potential 'risk'; my head spinneth with thee.

    (creative paraphrasing)“If you’re an artist, being a good wo/man is ugly
    much the point when it comes to your actual grant accomplishments.
    Roman Polanski is an artist."

    Would heaps love to stay in touch, James, IF you're not a filmie nomad at present; & if you are, good luck to ya, HONEY.

    I plan to publish my novel this year/I ACTUALLY HAVE A GOAL after being suicidal (me no love me) long time.; see the 'ABOUT' if you care to. Posted today, actually...

    Will follow you, but not if it means joining blogspot, hope you understand: I don't like too many online pies. Not on Facie, Pinterest, Twits, etc.

    Typo/grammos: "when s/heR reads it"; "narrow guidelines doES not acknowledge"; "but lets (') presume not only"... soz, can't help self - addicted to Englais.