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:

“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…”

The Conversation

“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.”


  1. Can't help yourself can you, James? Here you go intimidating Screen Austalia staff again :-)

    1. "I feel intimidated by your correspondence," Fiona Cameron said to me when I asked her to point out at least one instance in which i had intimidated her in my correspondence. It it not necessary to write anything intimidating in the Alice in Wonderland world of Ruth Harley's Screen Australia. What counts is whether or not a member of staff FEELS intimidated!

    2. Disingenuous, Ricketson. Referring to members of Screen Australia staff as liars in your blog is intimidating in my book.

    3. If you use the word ‘liar’ as an epithet, an insult, yes, I suppose it could be intimidating. If you use the word ‘liar’ to describe someone who tells lies (demonstrable lies), it is merely a descriptive word. Both Ruth Harley and Fiona Cameron have claimed that I wrote things in my correspondence that I did not write. They have consistently refused to identify letters, emails, paragraphs, sentences or even phrases that bear witness to what I am supposed to have written. At first I used ‘spin’, then ‘playing fast and loose with the truth’ and ‘being parsimonious with the truth’ to describe their demonstrably untrue allegations but when these euphemisms failed to elicit a response, I began to use the words ‘lie’ and ‘liar’. If Harley or Cameron could produce any one instance in which I have intimidated or placed anyone at risk in my correspondence (as I have requested for the past 18 months) it would be me who is the liar. And if anyone used the word in relation to me this would be fair. It would not, however, be intimidating. It is this flexible and fluid use of words that makes it possible for senior management to justify the unjustifiable – in this instance the attempted silencing of a critic insisting that Screen Australia be transparent and accountable in its dealings with filmmakers.

    4. Ricketson, there are ways of resolving disputes and calling Screen Australia staff members 'liars' is not one of them.

  2. Storm in a teacup. $50,000 is money well spent if it results in articles of the quality we have seen so far.

    1. Reluctantly anonymousNovember 15, 2013 at 1:00 PM

      As a producer with more than three decades of experience I would like to think that I would be able to write an opinion piece about the impact that Screen Australia policies have on the minds of films we make. As I am not an academic I cannot do so for The Conversation and this is wrong. It is all very well for academics to lament that our films die at the box office as a result of obsolete distribution models and poor quality screenplays but unless they have actually worked at the coal face and had to deal with funding bodies such as Screen Australia they can only write at one step removed from the world we producers must work in. In addition to this concern there is another. Why was this $50,000 sponsorship deal not discussed by the Screen Australia Board? When did the Board hear of it? Does the Board believe that The Conversation should have been given $50,000 without other online magazines devoted to Arts and Culture being able to apply for sponsorship monies also?

  3. Any answers to the questions you put to Georgie Mc Clean?

    1. Not as yet. Given that the way in which questions are asked can be deemed by Screen Australia, to be 'intimidating' and in the interests of transparency, here's my entire letter to Georgie.

      "13th Nov 2013

      Dear Georgie

      I have read with interest the piece that Tim Burrows wrote about Screen Australia’s $50,000 sponsorship of ‘The Conversation’ and the comments in response to it.

      There are aspects of this sponsorship that concern me and other filmmakers I have spoken with. I have expressed my concerns in an Opinion Piece – a draft of which is to be found enclosed.

      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?

      You will have noted at least two things from the comments made in response to Tim Burrows’ piece. One is just how many filmmakers are critical of, suspicious, of Screen Australia’s motives in this sponsorship deal. The other is just how many filmmakers choose to remain anonymous. The reason for this, you must be aware, is that filmmakers are, with some justification, fearful of biting one of the few hands that will feed them. This is an unfortunate state of affairs.

      My own belief is that there should be at least one online forum (preferably more) where all involved in Australian film and TV can both contribute as writers (generating ‘discussion, debate’) and take part in the ensuing ‘discussion, debate’, using their own names, without fear of retribution. Such open dialogue is essential in the collaborative medium in which we all work and in an era in which the rules of the digital game change with frightening rapidity.

      I will be happy to include any response you may have to the contents of my article, “A conversation with ‘The Conversation’”

      best wishes

      James Ricketson"