Thursday, November 14, 2013
Screen Australia's $50,000 sponsorship of 'The Conversation'
The ‘Arts and Culture section of news and commentary website, ‘The Conversation’, has been funded to the tune of $50,000 by Screen Australia. Is this new platform for discussion, dialogue and debate about Australian film and TV a step in the right direction?
Georgie McClean, Screen Australia’s manager of strategy, research and communications explains:
“Screen Australia has sponsored The Conversation’s new arts, culture and creative industries section (with $50K) as a platform for new research and public debate on the Australian screen sector. Screen Australia’s remit includes support for Australian screen culture, in which discussion, debate and research play important roles.”
My problem with ‘The Conversation’ is that practicing filmmakers cannot initiate discussion, dialogue and debate, as I discovered when I offered to write an article.
“The Conversation only publishes articles written by academics with current teaching or research affiliations with universities. Before we go any further I thought I'd check to see whether you are attached to a university?”
“No, not attached to a university. Am a BA with honours, finished half a masters degree, did post graduate work at New York University, graduated from the Australian Film and TV School but, no, do not work in a university. I have been a practicing filmmaker for 42 years…”
“You've clearly got a lot of expert knowledge about film and I agree it's a shame we can't make space for it on the website - but as a university funded website, it's our policy only to publish academics.”
There is nothing wrong with ‘The Conversation’ wishing to limit contributors to those who work in universities, but why has Screen Australia chosen to sponsor an online magazine that the vast majority of filmmakers cannot write for? How many practicing filmmakers also teach in universities?
‘The Conversation’ is a high quality online magazine. I check out the ‘Arts and Culture’ section every day in hopes of intellectual stimulation. I feel amply rewarded. The recent article “Soft power: how TV shows like Borgen put Denmark on the map” by Helen Vatsikopoulos is essential reading for all Australian film and TV screenwriters as we ponder how best to tell stories that will appeal to local and international audiences. And Lauren Caroll Harris’ “The Horror at the Heart of Australian Cinema” is a an important contribution to the debate that filmmakers, film funding bodies and distributors need to have if Australian stories, told by Australians, are to find a place in the globalized digital market we must compete in.
The comments following these articles are intelligent and insightful and, because ‘The Conversation’ does not allow for anonymous comment, free of the vitriolic anonymous comment that often blights online dialogue within the film community – the angry and frustrated venting their spleen, as a rule, on film funding bodies.
I would love to write a piece for ‘The Conversation.” This piece, for instance. Am I qualified to do so. Well, yes because I have sufficient experience as a filmmaker to express opinions that might stimulate discussion and dialogue of the kind that ‘The Conversation’ wishes to encourage. But, no I cannot be a contributing because I am not an academic! The quality of my writing is irrelevant. I need to be able to tick the ‘academic’ box!
Before becoming a filmmaker I was well on my way to becoming an academic – my Masters degree being drama. After five years of university study I was less than a year short of being qualified to become an academic but chose, instead, to go to the Australian Film and Television School and become a filmmaker. If I was now teaching in a university I would be eligible to write scholarly articles about film for ‘The Conversation’ – even if I had never made a film or worked in any capacity in film or TV!
Of course, my academic qualifications have no bearing at all on my ability to make good films. Nor does my filmmaking experience necessarily have any bearing on my ability to write insightfully, thought-provokingly, challengingly, about Australian film. The same applies to all filmmakers who have to work in the real, the actual world of filmmaking – juggling their artistic and story-telling ambitions with the harsh realities of, amongst other things, dealing with the film bureaucracies without which it is very difficult for us practice either our art of our craft.
The notion that only academics can write about Australia film and TV culture in such a way as to stimulate discussion, dialogue and debate is questionable.
‘The Conversation’ argues that it is an academic magazine and, presumably, wishes to maintain a certain academic standard. Fair enough, but why is Screen Australia in the business of supporting academic writing about our sector of Australian ‘Arts and Culture in such a way as to preclude most practicing filmmakers as contributing writers?
Might this sponsorship money have been better spent contributing to an established film and TV online magazine that is open to contributions from filmmakers – Encore, IF, the Hub? This is a question that one would hope would be discussed at a Board meeting. It appears not. There was no Board meeting. No discussion. This raises the question: Did ‘The Conversation’ approach Screen Australia or did Screen Australia approach ‘The Conversation’?
To quote from Tim Burrows’ recent Encore article:
“The benefits of Screen Australia’s sponsorship arrangement with The Conversation, agreed to by Georgie McClean, Screen Australia’s Manager of Strategy, Research and Communications, include providing a platform to disseminate the agency’s research outcomes, detailed tracking information and logo and name recognition. Does that sound like a typical sponsorship deal to you? It doesn’t to me.”
It doesn’t to me either.
I have no reason to question the integrity of ‘The Conversation’ but I do wonder if the ‘Arts and Culture’ section would willingly publish an article critical of Screen Australia and place at risk its $50,000 sponsorship deal? Or, to put it another way, would Screen Australia provide another $50,000 of sponsorship money to ‘The Conversation’ next year if articles published by the magazine raised the sorts of questions about Screen Australia that the organization does not wish to answer or address?
As any reader of Encore online will know, as all filmmakers who have had dealing with Screen Australia know, there are many aspects of the organization’s modus operandi that are open to criticism. This is as it should be. Just as criticism of our films (which can be savage and painful) is an integral part of being a filmmaker and learning from our mistakes, so too should criticism of Screen Australia (savage and painful though it might be) be an integral part of the film bureaucrats job.
I eagerly await a university academic’s article in ‘The Conversation’ that is critical, in a constructive sense, of Screen Australia policy, of the way in which Screen Australia relates to filmmakers and, most importantly, critical of the kinds of films and TV the organization believes it should be supporting to satisfy the dual expectations of Australian and international audiences. Why is it, an observant academic might ask, that for certain filmmakers, repeated failure at the box office is no impediment to their receiving Screen Australia money for their next film? And the one after that?
In hopes of some feedback from Screen Australia before publishing this piece I wrote to Georgie McLean.
“In the ‘arts, culture and creative industries section” in which we filmmakers work (producers, directors, screenwriters etc) can there be genuine ‘discussion, debate’ if the only people able to generate discussion and debates are academics who are not practicing filmmakers? Would Screen Australia’s $50,000 be better spent on a website on which the thoughts of practicing filmmakers were also welcome? Surely, the initiation of ‘discussion, debate’ should not be limited to either academics or practicing filmmakers but should be open, in a free market of ideas, to anyone with good, confronting, insightful and perhaps ‘dangerous’ ideas.”