Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More Random thoughts about Screen Australia's dealings with screenwriters

Given that Graeme Mason is consulting with filmmakers and seems open to new ways of doing things, here's one suggestion as to how, in this digital age, a new approach to script development could work.

One of the arguments presented over the past few years as to why Screen Australia keeps communication with Screenwriters to a minimum is that:

“It’s just too expensive to talk with screenwriters face to face!”

The argument against talking with screenwriters, even on the telephone, is that the sheer bulk of applications makes this form of dialogue too expensive for  Screen Australia.  This argument sounds persuasive unless, that is, we fail to  take into account the millions of Screen Australia dollars invested in the production of films based on screenplays that are not nearly ready to go into production. And very often (all too often) quite clearly not ready to go into production.

“Might the quality of our screenplays be improved if Screen Australia communicated more effectively with screenwriters?”

How much would a five or ten minute telephone conversation cost Screen Australia if Project Managers were to call each and every applicant and have a brief (say ten minute) conversation with them?

I don’t know how many script development applications Screen Australia receives each year and can’t find out from Screen Australia, (I have asked but this information is, it appears, classified!) but let’s work on the presumption that it is 1000 and that each applicant is given the opportunity to have a ten minute conversation with the Project Manager whose job it is to tell them that their application has been unsuccessful and, briefly, why. That’s 10,000 minutes.

Such an exercise would involve 165 hours or 23 days of ‘extra’ work for Screen Australia Project Managers. Divide that by 3 (presuming three Project Managers) and you arrive at 55 hours per annum each or roughly 7 working days per Project Manager. Working on $350 a day for Project Managers (an uneducated guess), this works out at roughly $58, 000 a year to engage  in brief conversations with all screenwriters.

These are ballpark figures, obviously. The sums may add up to more than $58,000. But even if the figure added up to $100,000, this sum needs to be viewed in the context of the amount of money Screen Australia invests each year in productions based on screenplays it has played a significant role in developing that do not find any substantial audience on any platform.

There are a whole range of reasons why individual films do not find the audience for which they were intended but a significant reason, usually, is that the screenplay was predictable, derivative, lacklustre or just plain bad. How and why it is that second rate screenplays receive Screen Australia production funding remains a mystery to many of us! Is it because those whose job it is to ‘green light’ projects cannot tell the difference between high quality and low quality (or underdeveloped) screenplays? Or is it because the screenplays that are ‘green lit’ are the best available for funding? If the latter be the case, why not spend another $50,000 solving yet-to-be-solved script problems? Or $100,000. Whether a screenplay is destined for wide screen cinemascope or a mobile phone, it is not going to find an audience if the screenplay is bad.

From a Screen Australia numbers crunching point of view the question is:

“Might this $100,000 (or whatever the sum is) that could be invested in communicating with screenwriters result in an improvement in the quality of our screenplays? Or would this $100,000 be better spent fully funding one ‘dangerous’ low budget feature film?”

No doubt my fellow filmmakers would bring many different perspectives to this question. And these should, I believe, be discussed and debated. Perhaps filmmakers are quite happy (or resigned) to receive form letters only and brief notes from anonymous Reader/Assessor/Project Managers? Perhaps they do not want to engage in dialogue with Screen Australia about their projects. I don’t know because there have been no for a this past five years in which such questions have been discussed. At least no fora in which Screen Australia gathered all interested filmmakers in one place (in the major film centres) and listened to their suggestions as to how Screen Australia might improve on the delivery of its services in a way that improves the quality of our screenplays and hence our films. (This is changing, this month, with the consultations being organized by Screen Australia – a great step forward.)

I am sure that the various guilds and associations make their submissions and their leaders lobby Screen Australia but all such bodies have their own agendas and their own agenda is, quite obviously and appropriately, to get a better deal for their members. What I am suggesting is that there be fora in which all filmmakers are invited to discuss, debate and to toss around ideas that relate to Australian film and television in general and to how a particular policy (or lack thereof) impacts on their particular sector.  (We all, after all, want to make films that connect with audiences. We are not doing so. The reasons for this may be many but first and foremost, I think, it is because we fall down badly in the script department.)

Screen Australia could take the lead here and, at least twice a year, organize an open forum in each of Australia’s filmic centres – along the lines of the consultations occurring this month. Whilst the discussion could be free-ranging it could start with a debate about a particular topic. The one I have mentioned here, for instance, could be one topic.

“Would filmmakers prefer to have the opportunity to talk with Project Managers about their projects or to see the money this would require (in terms of wages for Screen Australia staff) spent on production?”

Have a debate. Two teams of three. Five minutes each to speak. That’s 30 minutes. Open the debate to the floor. Another 30 minutes. Let any and everyone speak for up to two minutes – either in the form of statements of their own or in response to what a member of either team has posited in response to the debate topic. Have a good and strong moderator that keeps comments and questions to the two minute limit.

This hour of debate may well take an hour and a half. Fair enough. Time well spent, I would suggest. Then, at the end of the formal debate, an hour of mingling with glasses of wine etc.

My suspicion is that two and a half hours spent in this fashion twice a year would yield enormous benefits to all of us. We would all acquire a much better idea of what our fellow filmmakers are thinking; of what ideas are floating around. Screen Australia staff would be able to glean how well (or badly) SA policies were are impacting on and perceived by the people who have to live with, work with, them. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ barriers between filmmakers and film bureaucrats would be lessened – with both sides more appreciative of the problems the other side faces.

From the informal discussions that break out on Facebook it is clear that there is no shortage of filmmakers with great ideas that could be discussed in such fora. None of us has a monopoly on good ideas but as we all know, in the collaborative field in which we work, it is the meeting of minds, the sharing of ideas, the clash of different aesthetic and artistic sensibilities that great ideas emerge. The ideas which, when translated onto the screen (big or small) render in the viewer a “Wow!” response.

This is what we all want and need – for audience’s jaws to drop when they engage with the stories we tell. For them to be able to say, to themselves and their friends, “Wow!”

I have no idea if my fellow filmmaker screenwriters would prefer to be able to communicate with Project Managers or if they would see this as an exercize in futility? I would sure like to find out. This applies to many another topic that goes to the heart of what we do as story-tellers, why we bother, whether what we do is important and whether it matters, in this new digital era we live in, that we tell Australian stories for Australian audiences.

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