Wednesday, September 17, 2014

2nd letter to Hon Tony Hunt, Minister for the Arts

The Hon Troy Grant
Minister for the Arts
PO Box A226
South Sydney
NSW 1235                                                                             

17th September 2014

Dear Minister

Following on from my letter of 16th.

I would like to draw your attention to one paragraph in my letter to Megan Simpson Huberman in 21st July in relation to my script development application for ANGKOR, which I described as:

“…a 6 x 1 hour thriller series by the name of ANGKOR, ‘The Organization’ set in Cambodia. In the event that I and my team of co-writers come up with six terrific screenplays I believe that the film can be financed without any Screen Australia involvement.”

So, if ANGKOR turns out to be a ‘go’ project, my team of co-writers (all Australian) miss out on a job because I have not made a feature film in 10 years! Between them and myself we have close to 80 years of screenwriting and directing experience. Did Mark Hamlyn evince any curiosity at all to know who my co-writers and directors were? No. Join the dots, Minister.

I have produced, directed, filmed and sound-recorded a 10 part documentary series in the past 10 years (VIVA) – sold all around the world – but this does not count. I do not get any ticks in the correct box for having done so. No, as far as Screen NSW is concerned, I might just as well be a 23 year old novice who has never made a film before. If on the other hand I had, this past few years, produced or directed a film that opened on five screens and which was so bad that no-one came to see it I would be eligible to apply! Surely you can see and understand what a nonsense proposition this is. Again I ask:

“Who thought up this policy and for what reason?”

I have been down this obstructive bureaucratic path before, am too old and have been in this game for too long not to be able to read between the lines. If this was a hard and fast policy (excluding a filmmaker with 43 years experience), Mark would not have prefaced his statement with "after careful consideration”. The reality is that when it suits Mark's purposes he will not adhere to this guideline and will allow another filmmaker with less experience with me, with less of a track record, "after careful consideration” to make an application.

This is the way these things work, as you know, as we all in the ‘industry’ know. In reality, guidelines such as this are like goalposts – to be shifted this way and that to exclude certain filmmakers from contention without seeming to be biased and to include other filmmakers without appearing to be helping out old friends and business associates, former lovers and so on. And when, as I am doing now, any filmmaker is foolish enough to have the temerity to point such things out in public a spin doctor is brought on board (as no doubt will be the case here) to argue that a pig’s ear is, in fact, a silk purse. If all that I am going to receive in response to this letter, Minister, and that of yesterday, is spin, please don’t bother. Instead, get whoever it was that dreamt up this policy change to explain to yourself and to those of us working in film and television why it has been implemented and to what end.

The end result of this policy will be to drive young filmmakers into the arms of failed 'experienced' filmmakers who, no doubt, will be paid for their 'mentoring' and, in the process, kill off the very thing that young filmmakers have to off - daring, breaking the rules, going out on a limb. In an age in which drama can be shot on an iPhone (or something similar) there is only one rule left - a good story well told that captivates its intended audience. But Screen NSW, in its stupidity, will not even read a story (no matter how brilliant) unless the applicant can put ticks in boxes – whether that applicant be a filmmaker with 43 years experience or a 17 year old with no experience.

For the record I was, in the last 10 years, the producer, director, cameraman and sound recordist for a series made for a 10 part documentary series for SBS (VIVA) that sold to multiple territories  around the world. However, because it was a documentary series this does not tell Screen NSW anything about my skills as a producer. The same applies for BACKPACKING AUSTRALIA – a 13 part series produced, directed and filmed by myself – and for BLACKFELLAS, a filmt hat I was writer and director of and which I also produced up to three weeks before the commencement of principal photography.

There is absolutely no creative logic in this policy. There are a host of different reasons why a filmmaker might be inactive for several years or, as is the case with myself, working in lots of different media and/or doing jobs unrelated to filmmaking. 

I have been a mentor to young filmmakers for more than 30 years now - both officially and unofficially but your policy, Screen NSW's policy, now makes it impossible for me to be one again. What sense is there is this.

I was recently in New York and Los Angeles talking with financiers, producers and broadcasters about a number of projects - including ANGKOR. What a pleasure it was to talk with intelligent people who are looking for one thing only - scripts, projects that have the potential to induce in an audience the 'wow' response that gets them to tell their friends, "Hey, you've got to see this movie/TV series." In New York and LA such people do not care how long it is since I made my last feature film. “Sorry, James, we think your project is terrific but it is 10 years and one day since you made it and, alas, we have our rules and…sorry to disappoint.”) What they are interested in is ideas. Good ideas.

And then I arrive back in Cambodia and find that for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of my projects, Screen NSW will not even read and assess them. I am an AFI award winning screenwriter and you have in place a policy that precludes even reading 30 pages of mine! This is just nonsense! It is also symptomatic of a mind set that inflicts not just Screen NSW but Screen Australia; a mind set that acts as an albatross around the necks of filmmakers’ imaginations. And you all wonder why it is that Australian and international audiences, by and large, stay away from our films in droves!? The powers-that-be, on the lookout for any excuse that absolves them of responsibility for their bad decisions and policies, apportion blame to any and every quarter but never look at how stupid policies such as this one actually discourage creativity, originality and eventually drive from these shores the young filmmakers who realize that they are bashing their head against a brick wall.

My advice to young filmmakers now - get out of Australia as soon as you can. Yes, it will be tough for you overseas but you will rise or fall on your talent and not be held back by guidelines that shift like goalposts in accordance with the latest whim on the part of film bureaucrats.

best wishes

James Ricketson

Following is the letter I sent to Megan Simpson Huberman – to which Mark Hamlyn replied:

Megan Simpson Huberman
Director, Development and Production
Screen NSW
GPO Box 1744
Sydney 2001              

21st July 2014

As you will no doubt be aware, the Screen Australia  board has implemented what amounts to a lifetime ban on me for, they insist, my having intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff with my correspondence!

In theory the ban ends in May 2016 but the board will have to extend it as I have no intention of ceasing to ask questions of it and senior management or of being a critic of Screen Australia policies.

With one hand tied behind my back I continue, however, to develop screenplays, though not, for the most part, as distinctively Australian films. Given the virtual impossibility of making a film in Australia with the Screen Australian ban in place I am now in the process of re-writing THURSDAY’S CHILD such that the story (BAG LADY) takes place in the New York. This is a project that Screen NSW (under a different name) invested script development monies in. I would now like to buy out Screen NSW and to find out what sum I must repay to Screen NSW to do so. The project was once known as A LIFT FOR A LADY. If you would let me know how much I owe Screen NSW I would appreciate it.

I am also developing a 6 x 1 hour thriller series by the name of ANGKOR, ‘The Organization’ set in Cambodia. In the event that I and my team of co-writers come up with six terrific screenplays I believe that the film can be financed without any Screen Australia involvement. Because I am Australian, I have conceived the central  non-Cambodian characters to date as Australians. There is no compelling dramatic reason why they need to be Australian and I can, if need be, re-write them as nationals from any one of a number of countries.

The series will be shot on location in Cambodia and in a studio. Again, where the studio is located does not matter too much. My preference is Australia but it is not imperative that it be so.

Regardless of my status as a ‘banned filmmaker’ I am making an application to SCREEN NSW to develop ANGKOR further and have arranged for a USB with my application contained within it posted to you. It is in the nature of the story that is ANGKOR, and the way it is being developed, that I add more to it each and every day. If I were to keep going the way I am there would soon be much too much to fit into the Screen NSW 30 pages allowed. As it is I have had to severely cull to squeeze my many ideas into 30 pages. However, there is more than enough here for Screen NSW to figure out whether or not this is the kind of project it would like to be involved in. In addition to the requisite 30 pages I have also included a one page synopsis which can either be read or ignored – depending on how seriously Screen NSW takes its 30 page limit.

To the best of my knowledge ANGKOR is unique in that no-one has yet used Cambodia as the focal point of a TRUE DETECTIVE-style series. After 19 years of visiting the country I know it well and am probably better suited, as a screenwriter, than anyone else in the world to initiate such a project and act as ‘showrunner’ for the series.

Cambodia has the advantage, from a dramatic point of view, of being a totally corrupt country. As such, in the absence of any real rule of law, any and everything is possible. The country is, in essence, run by gangsters – those in government, carpet-baggers, brothel owners and the myriad unscrupulous individuals exploiting the country’s natural resources. The cliché ‘life is cheap’ applies in Cambodia. This, combined with rampant corruption,makes for fertile ground out of which to grow a thriller of the kind I am developing.

None of the various ways in which I develop an idea for a screenplay (different with each one) is in accord with the requirements of film funding guidelines. All I can offer, by way of  description of the way I work, is that I sit down every day and write. Not according to a plan but with the whole overarching story in my mind but with little or no idea what I will write on a particular day. This, needless to say, causes disquiet in the minds of readers (usually those who have never written a screenplay) who have read books and attended master classes with ‘script gurus’ and who believe that there are a series of steps that need to be applied to the preparation of a screenplay.

My 30 pages (+ one!) speak for themselves – in either a positive or not so positive way – of ANGKOR’S potential to be an Australian series of the quality of TRUE DETECTIVE.

best wishes

James Ricketson

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