Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Some questions for George Brandis re my ban and Screen Australian Board accountability, 29th April 2014

The previous 8 pieces of communication (#1 - #8) constitute my attempts, this past six months, to bring this farcical dispute to an fair and just end based on verifiable facts.

The Hon George Brandis MP
Minister for the Arts
Commonwealth Parliament Offices
Level 361 Eagle St
Brisbane QLD 4000                                                                                       

29th April 2014

Dear Senator Brandis

Following on from my letter of 6th Jan. Some questions:

- How much script development money did Martha Coleman earmark for Goalpost Pictures when working at Screen Australia before joining the company in Jan this year?

- How much development and production money has Screen Australia provided to Goalpost Pictures since Rosemary Blight became a member of the board?

- At the March 2014 board meeting, was Goalpost’s HOLDING THE MAN really one of the two only film projects deserving of Screen Australia production funding?

- Is there any limit to the amount of funding that the Screen Australia board can vote to provide to board members film and TV projects?

- Has the board ever knocked back a project presented to it by a board member?

Is it possible to even ask such questions without being accused of intimidating or placing at risk members of the Screen Australia board; of being banned for having the temerity to ask such questions?

The intention of the Screen Australia board two years ago, when it voted to ban me for asking questions such as these, was to do all in its power to destroy my career as an Australian filmmaker. The Board has succeeded in this goal, leaving me with little option but to re-write most of my screenplays in such a way as to hide their Australian origin and to render them American (and in one case) British stories.

In the event that any of my screenplays is produced as a non-Australian film, the Screen Australia board’s victory in banning me will be a pyrrhic one! At present it seems that the most likely contender will be LIFT FOR A LADY (developed in large part by the Australian Film Commission), retitled BAG LADY. If the film is produced as an American story the board will have achieved…will have achieved, precisely what?  

These are the people in whom future of Australian film has been entrusted!

I am now developing most of my film projects in countries where it is the quality of my screenplays that counts; in which producers have zero concern as to whether they like or dislike me personally or feel that I ought to be punished (regardless of the quality of my screenplays) for having the temerity to question their honesty, their integrity, their commitment to the precepts of transparency and accountability. My screenplays are either good, have potential or are deemed to be without merit. This is as it should be. Only in a film culture as parochial as Australia’s is the quality of my screenwriting of secondary importance to whether I am friends with, or a critic of, those who control the script development purse strings.

Parochialism at its worst!

The real shame here is not that I have been banned (I will survive such small-minded bureaucratic nonsense) but the mind-set that such a ban reveals in those within senior management at Screen Australia who make decisions as to which films get made and which are allowed to wither on the vine.  

A couple of years ago a fairly senior bureaucrat at Screen Australia wishing, with the best of intentions, to be helpful, said to me, “James why do you make it so difficult for yourself by criticizing us all the time?” To which I replied, “It is not your job to be backing projects by filmmakers who don’t criticize you and punish those who do. It is your job to back the best projects – regardless of your personal feelings about particular filmmakers.”

Members of the Screen Australia board may well have good personal reasons to dislike a particular filmmaker but their own personal animosity should not interfere with their core job as board members – to develop, nurture and assist into production film and TV projects of the highest possible standard that speak of and to both Australian and international audiences.  This is not the way Screen Australia functioned under Ruth Harley’s stewardship, however. Alas, it is Australian film, Australian culture, that has suffered as a result.

That three fellow filmmakers (four when Rachel Perkins was also a board member) would wish to destroy the career of a fellow filmmaker simply boggles my mind. Regardless of their filmmaking talents, the lack of accountability on the part of Claudia Karvan, Richard Keddie and Rosemary Blight, (refusing to provide evidence of the crimes that led them to ban me) speaks volumes of what is wrong with Screen Australia.  The pettiness, the small-mindedness, the vindictiveness they have displayed in banning me (along with their fellow board members) runs counter to the whole notion of developing and financing vibrant ground-breaking films with the ‘Wow!’ factor that will excite Australian and international audiences.

The board members you should consider appointing during your tenure as Minister, are those capable of putting aside all notions of shared history between applicants and senior bureaucrats (good and bad); putting aside animosity (deserved or undeserved) and being able to base their judgments purely and simply on the quality of projects and not on an assessment of the personality of the filmmaker. The Australian equivalent of Lars von Trier would be banned by the board as it is constituted now because he/she almost definitely not be ‘nice’ to them. On the contrary s/he would probably be quite rude to them and possibly treat them with contempt. I am not a great fan of Lars von Trier and suspect that I would not want to count him amongst my circle of friends, but so what! I don’t particularly like most of his films either, but so what! If it were my job to assess one of his projects I would do so on the basis of the quality of his project, in my opinion, and not on the basis of whether or not he was ‘nice’ to me.

The corollary of punishing Screen Australia critics, of course, is rewarding sycophants, friends, former lovers and business associates. In short, the nepotism that has been rife within Screen Australia for all its short history as Australia’s peak film funding body. Nepotism is not just wrong for the most obvious of reasons, it also plays a significant (and deleterious) role in the production of the poor quality films that have come out of the development and funding processes Screen Australia has had been in place for more than five years now. The lack of transparency and accountability within the organization, (including assessors and the assessment process) has allowed mediocrity to flourish and for repeated failure on the part of filmmakers (and Project Manager and assessors) to be rewarded - the triumph of bureaucratic process over the creative impulse, exemplified by Chief Operating Officer, Fiona Cameron.

If the basic principles of natural justice were operating within Screen Australia, the entire board would be sacked for having banned me without providing me with one iota of evidence of the crimes I was accused of in May 2012. This will not happen of course. There are now too many people, including those within your office, who know that my allegedly intimidating correspondence does not exist, to back down now. Better to sacrifice one filmmaker than to acknowledge, publicly, what all the evidence makes clear – namely that Fiona Cameron, a very senior and powerful members of Screen Australia’s senior management, is a Machiavellian liar. Such is the Screen Australia that you now have under your wing, Minister. Good luck in your attempts to get high quality films produced through organization riven with systemic problems. There will be some good films made, of course, but these will not be because the system in place is working but despite it.

The board’s decision to try and convict me in the absence of any evidence does not, I am sure, have anything to do with animosity towards me personally. I have never met most of those who have banned me. The ban on me is about  sending a very strong message to any future critics of Screen Australia, to any filmmakers who might have the temerity to ask questions or complain about their shoddy treatment: criticize senior management in public, criticize the board in public, and you will suffer the same fate as James Ricketson.

If you believe, Minister, that senior management at Screen Australia and the SA board should be transparent in their dealings with the film community and accountable for the decisions they make, ask them to provide you with whatever evidence they have suggesting that I intimidated and placed at risk members of staff with my correspondence. If they cannot do so, the question must surely, arise:  “What other and more significant issues are senior management and the Screen Australia Board not being transparent and accountable about?” With millions of dollars of tax-payer monies up for grabs, with no complaints process to speak of within Screen Australia, and with a board that bans critics, the stage is set for corruption to flourish and to go undetected.

The issue here, now, is not the ban placed on me (the horse has bolted, the damage done) but the fact that the Screen Australia board could implement such a ban without without providing any evidence at all in support of it; without being accountable to anyone and with no-one within your office even expecting such accountability.

best wishes

James Ricketson


  1. Ricketson, if you poke around with a stick inside a viper's nest, don't be surprised if you get bitten. This is a compliment, incidentally. Screen Australia is a nest of self-serving vipers that takes care of the select few (including, especially, board members) and has no time for anyone who questions a status quo that has resulted in a slate of very bad films since Ruth Harley took the reins and employed incompetents such as Martha Coleman - now earning, no doubt, a fine wage, from the money she earmarked for Goalpost before she left Screen Australia.

  2. If you are Emile Sherman, Jane Campion or a member of the Screen Australia board your project will be financed by SA, regardless of quality. Fact. Emile deserves it, mostly, though TRACKS is a crap film and I can’t believe, Emile, that you didn’t see that at script stage. Still, you’ve made some good films so I guess you’re entitled to one turkey. But, hey, 30 years in development and you come up with a screenplay devoid of drama, devoid of characters and devoid of motivation for the central character! And surely the director could have got more than one expression (surly) out of the wonderful Mia Wasikowska. But I digress. James, the board will continue to crucify you if you continue to ask the kinds of questions that bureaucrats fear most. Forget Australia. It is a parochial backwater, fatally attracted to mediocrity. Take your talents elsewhere.

  3. I liked TRACKS. Slow moving and not much in the way of story but beautiful to look at. How much did it cost? How much has it taken at the box office? Is it true that the director John Curran is Martha Coleman’s ex-boyfriend? And what about Ms Coleman’s former-business partner, Megan Mc Murchie? How much development money did Ms Coleman give to Ms Mc Murchie while she as in charge of development at SA?

  4. In the hope that Senator Brandis would insist that the Screen Australia board provide evidence of my crimes and to make another point about why my being banned is so stupid, I wrote the following to our Minister this morning:

    Dear Minister

    No doubt there is someone in your office who monitors online discussion about matters relating to your portfolio. You will be aware of articles written about the poor quality of TV programs being voted for at the Logies. One, entitled “We have the talent, but not the shows”, by Rita Panahi, caught my attention:

    “Perhaps we need to concentrate on quality that we can afford; great writing and acting needn’t cost the world. Sadly, our TV networks have a habit of going to the same dry well for inspiration; the usual suspects who have failed previously get more opportunities while talented newcomers are overlooked.”

    And this led to my own response:

    “Spot on, Rita.

    I am not qualified in any way to comment on what takes place within the hallowed halls of commercial TV stations but can when it comes to the funding bodies that are in the business, supposedly, of developing high quality screenplays – in particular, Screen Australia.

    “The same dry well” applies not only to individuals but to well-established script development processes that have been proven to fail repeatedly. These processes were consolidated during the Ruth Harley era by Martha Coleman, now working for Goalpost Pictures – owned in part by Rosemary Blight, a member of the Screen Australia board. See:

    Despite 40 years of experience and several film awards Screen Australia refuses to even read one of my screenplays, let alone assess them on the basis of their potential to appeal to TV or cinema audiences. Why? Because two years ago the board of Screen Australia banned me not only from making any applications to but from even speaking with members of Screen Australia staff on the telephone. Why? Because I had, it was alleged, intimidated and placed at risk embers of Screen Australia staff in certain correspondence I had had with the organization.

    Now, you would think that such an allegation would be backed up with evidence, right? A paragraph, a sentence, a phrase or even one word that could be construed to be intimidating; that could, reading between the lines, be construed as placing SA staff at risk? No, no evidence has been presented to me. I have been asking for it for two years now. Transparency and accountability are not precepts to be adhered to within Screen Australia, regardless of what the organization might present to the world. be continued

  5. ...The ban on me is significant in what it reveals of the mind-set of the members of the Screen Australia board, four of whom who signed off on the ban on me are fellow filmmakers – Claudia Karvan, Rachel Perkins, Rosemary Blight and Richard Keddie. As to why they decided to ban me (and to continue the ban until this day) you will have to ask them. I have done so many times. They will not answer.

    To write a good screenplay takes a lot of time. It can take months before an idea that once seemed terrific to a screenwriter leads her into a blind alley and to the realization that the kindest thing to do with it is to take it out the back and shoot it. This is unpaid work. Screenwriters do a lot of it. Screenwriters accept this as a fact of life. They did not get into the scriptwriting business to get rich. However, if they are going to do their best work they need to be treated with respect by those whose job it is (I am referring specifically to Screen Australia here) to identify, nurture, develop high quality screenplays. If those who are making these decisions are lacking in talent, lacking in a track record (the ‘dry well’ syndrome) or refuse to read and assess screenplays written by people they do not like, it is hardly surprising that mediocre screenplays emerge from the development processes in place. And it is virtually impossible to produce films and TV programs that audiences want to watch from mediocre screenplays.”

    My being banned by Screen Australia is not just plain stupid. It is symptomatic of what is wrong with the organization – Australia’s peak funding body having on it so many filmmakers who are not only able to vote for their own projects but can vote to ban any filmmaker who has the temerity to raise questions about this state of affairs. If the board cannot produce, for you (and for me) evidence that I have intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff, it should be fired and replaced with board members with a commitment to the precepts of transparency and accountability. These should not, preferably, be filmmakers. Decisions as to the quality of film and TV projects should be made by senior management within Screen Australia (ideally, people well equipped to make such decisions), not by filmmaking board members who stand to gain from decisions made in their own interests or in the interests of their fellow board members. This is, as is being revealed daily in the newspapers, is the breeding ground in which corruption is able to flourish.

    best wishes

    James Ricketson

    1. This isn't the only agency that this type of strategy is being used. Having attempted several years ago to get ScreenAustralia support to address unconscionable conduct through another film development agency several practitioners in this region have been targeted, undermines and their businesses disstabilized by dreadful whisper campaigns. Only discovering your site recently your letters and experiences do not surprise me.

  6. I'm surprised that Eddie Obeid's name hasn't been mentioned yet! Surely he is involved in all this one way or another!

    1. Reluctantly AnonymousApril 30, 2014 at 10:23 PM

      As the current ICAC hearing make readily apparent, as all similar enquiries have made apparent, when there is a lot of the tax-payers money floating around and inadequate or non-existent controls and oversight, the Eddie Obeids of the world will find a way of siphoning off as much of the money as they can - preferably keeping just this side of the law. It should come as no surprise, given the unattached money floating around within the film industry that there will be clever men and women who find ways, just this side of the law, of siphoning as much of it into their own film projects as they can. If you have the right network of friends.....

  7. It will be interesting to see, James, if George Brandis, champion of free speech, a believer in the right of bigots to speak their mind in public will support your right to be critical of Screen Australia in public or supportive of the SA Board's right to silence critics by any means possible. Methinks, sad to say, that Brandis' commitment to free speech will not extend to defending your right to it.

  8. So, Martha Coleman recommends funding to Goalpost pictures. The Screen Australia board, including Rosemary Blight, votes n Ms Coleman's recommendation. Then ms Coleman goes to work for Rosemary Blight. Am I missing something here or is this the kind of scenario that ICAC has been set up to investigate?

  9. The real tragedy here, is not Screen Australia board members taking care of their own interests, but that as an industry we produce so few films of which we can feel proud and which, in 20 years time, Australians will look back on as valuable cultural artefacts.

  10. Sick of the CorruptionMay 2, 2014 at 8:07 PM

    The answer to the question above re money that went to Megan Mc Murchy is half a million dollars. And yes, the director of 'Tracks' is an ex-boyfriend of Martha Coleman's. It will be interesting to follow the funding patterns of the current lot of senior execs at SA - their former business partners, lovers and buddies no doubt in for a few years of few questions asked funding!