Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Alternative Script Development Model for Screen Australia (a suggestion)
It is a step in the right direction that Screen Australia is, this month, consulting with film and TV producers, directors, screenwriters and others whose careers revolve around story-telling. No doubt there will be many ideas tossed around. Hopefully, some of them will be radical as we need, I think, to make some very fundamental changes to the way we work as filmmakers. This necessitates, of course, that Screen Australia make some bold moves also in the way it works.
An alternative model for script development at Screen Australia.
(1)Screenwriters do not apply for script development funding; they are invited to apply by Screen Australia Project Managers.
(2) Project Managers invest time and energy in script development applications proportional to their quality or potential. High quality projects and those with the potential get more attention than poor quality projects.
Here, in broad brushstrokes, is how it could work with fair and equitable outcomes for all involved and a better use of Screen Australia’s limited human and financial resources.
Screenwriters register with Screen Australia and, perhaps, even paying a modest fee to do so. S/he then uploads her screenplay/synopsis/treatment to the Screen Australia website as either (a) for Screen Australia eyes only or (b) for other registered filmmakers also.
A screenwriter’s registering and uploading of a project in development does not constitute an application.
Screen Australia Project Managers are free to view all the screenwriters’ materials online and form opinions regarding the quality of what is on offer – individually and collectively.
Imagine 100 hypothetical script development applications. Divide them into four categories. These are my categories, based on my own experience. Screen Australia may decide on a different set of (and more appropriately named) categories:
(1) Non starters, (2) Not overly impressed but perhaps further down the track? (3) Maybe, but lots of work required and (4) Great project and/or great potential. How can we help?
(1) Non starters
Out of 100 script hypothetical development applications, fifty are amateurish, badly written, reveal little or no understanding of the craft of screenwriting and have no discernible potential, in the view of the SA Project Manager(s), to become screenplays that are likely to be produced on any platform.
This 50% is, obviously, a ballpark guess on my part but I suspect not far from the truth for those who have to read all 100. (The Project Manager might be wrong, of course – always a possibility with any assessment process.).
There are various polite ways in which these 50 applicants are not invited to apply for script development funds without resorting to a form letter. It would take less than ten minutes for a Project Manager to suggest (on the phone) that the applicant learn more about the art and craft of screenwriting and/or come up with more compelling stories before posting this or any other project online again. In the process, the Project Manager could acknowledge s/he may be wrong: “If you feel passionately about your project don’t let anyone, including me, saying ‘no’ stop you from pursing your filmic dream.”
(2) Not overly impressed but perhaps further down the track?
Some potential here but not enough to warrant investment. Twenty of the hundred (ballpark guess, again) fit into this category. They show promise (or the potential thereof) but there are some glaring problems that need to be addressed; problems that the screenwriter seems to be unaware of and perhaps is ill-equipped to solve.
The Project Manager, who should be experienced in the craft of screenwriting, may be able, in a ten minute telephone conversation, to help the screenwriter identify the problems and suggest that s/he do another draft and post their screenplay in development again in a few months. Or, the Project Manager might suggest that whilst Screen Australia is not prepared to fund a full draft at this point, it is prepared to consider an application to fund the employment of a mentor or script editor or to make a screenwriting workshop available to the screenwriter to improve their craft skills.
So far, up to 70% of potential applicants are much more in need of advice from an experienced filmmaker (Screen Australia Project Manager) than they are of actual funds. If they are not prepared to write their screenplay in the absence of funding they are in the wrong business! Most screenwriters, indeed most filmmakers, work for zero or close to zero income most of the time. This is simply a fact of life.
(3) Maybe, but lots of work required.
My guess is that around 20% fall into this category. These screenwriters understand the craft, are probably experienced and need funding to buy the time needed to develop their project to the next stage. They may be onto a winner or they may not be. The Project Manager can’t be sure. But s/he can be sure that the screenwriter is competent and has the requisite skills to pull off what s/he is attempting to achieve in story-telling terms. In conversation with the screenwriter (more than ten minutes now) the Screen Australia Project Manager seeks to discover how best SA may help. In conjunction with the screenwriter, The SA Project Manager recommends a course of action in the screenwriter chooses to make an application.
The screenwriter may be part of a team (producer and or director) but the same guidelines apply.
(4) Great project and/or great potential. How can we help?
The screenwriter, in conjunction with the Project Manager figure out a game plan that is going to maximize the chances that the next draft, the next stage of development, is going to result in a screenplay that has the “wow’ factor that lies at the heart of what separates a good story from a ‘must see’ story.
Bearing in mind that these are just ballpark figures, 10% of the projects posted online receive the lion’s share of the Project Manager’s time and energy and 50% receive minimal attention because, in the view of the Project Manager(s) they are nowhere near to being up to scratch.
Is this undemocratic. Probably, but if those who fall into the 50% whose projects are not invited to apply (though they can if they want to) come back with a more developed version of their project, they can ask that it be looked at by a different Project Manager. Let’s face it, different Project Managers are going to like, be attracted to, different projects. What one Project Manager might see as a project without merit, another might see as having the potential to attract an audience – even if only in a niche market. There is, after all, no accounting for taste and we are all (thank God) surprised every now and then by a film that captures the audience’s imagination but which did not appear on paper to have the potential to do so.
I am working on the presumption here that Project Managers can be wrong and that ample opportunities are made available to screenwriters to prove them so.
So, instead of every Tom. Dick and Harriet making an application and, in the spirit of democratic process, having their project assessed by two Reader/Assessor/Project Managers (time and energy consuming), some Toms Dicks and Harriets are invited to apply for what they have agreed to in conversation with the Project Manager. And others are not so invited.
A significant advantage of such a system is that the amount of time spent by a Project Manager in assessing a script application becomes proportional to the quality and potential of the project. 7 of the 10 would not need to be read by a 2nd Project Manager under most circumstances but all 7 would have the opportunity to speak briefly (at least on the phone) with a Project Manager.
This idea – invitation to apply replacing the right to apply - has been expressed in broad brushstrokes only here but the finer details are not hard to work out. At the outset, as it is being road-tested, ‘application by invitation’ could run alongside what is currently in place – every Tom, Dick and Harriet being accorded the ‘right’ to have even the most dreadful of screenplays (or ideas in development) read and assessed by two Reader/Assessor Project Managers.
Regardless of the fate of any particular project as far as Screen Australia is concerned, (and the reality is that only a small number of projects are going to receive funding) all registered screenplays will be available online (if the screenwriter/filmmaker so wishes) and may attract attention from others in a position to help get the story onto a screen – big or small.