Thursday, October 30, 2014

Filmmaking team with 120 years of experience ineligible to apply for script development funds!

The Hon. Troy Grant, MP
Minister for the Arts
52 Martin Place
Sydney, NSW 2000

Dear Minister

Can you please address a problem relating to Screen NSW guidelines. In brief:

I have been producing and directing films (both documentary and drama) for 43 years and yet am not eligible to apply for Early Stage Development funds from Screen NSW.

Even if I team up with a script editor with 40 years experience I am still not eligible to apply. Add a producer with 40 years experience to the team - who has not produced a feature film in 10 years - and I am still unable to apply.

So, a filmmaking team with, between them, 120 years of experience, is not eligible to apply for funds to develop a germinal idea from synopsis/treatment stage through to a first draft.

This is nonsense.

My attempts to enter into a dialogue with Screen NSW about this matter have failed utterly. Maureen Barron does not believe that she needs to justify such guidelines to either myself or to the Australian Writers Guild.

My experience is merely symptomatic of a significant problem. It is absurd that Screen NSW should formulate policies and guidelines such as the one that excludes me in a vacuum. And it is inappropriate that it should do so without proper consultation with filmmakers who are affected by their policies and the organizations that represent them – in this case, the Australian Writer’s Guild.

Whilst Screen NSW's exclusionary policy clearly has an adverse effect on me and other experienced screenwriters it is, I believe, the younger and inexperienced screenwriters that will be most affected. And in a deleterious way from a creative point of view. Why should young screenwriters, at the conceptual stage in the development of a screenplay, be saddled with a producer whose field of expertise is not screenwriting? Or saddled with a director who, though s/he may have had a film open on five screens in the past decade, has demonstrated a lack of talent by producing or directing a film that audiences stayed away from in droves? To insist that a screenwriter team up with a producer at treatment/synopsis stage is akin to insisting that an architect, submitting his or her first rough plans, team up with a builder - well before there is any guarantee that that the building will be built.

Given that most screenplays do not become films why hang an albatross around screenwriters' necks in the form of an unwanted producer. And an unneeded producer. A producer may be brilliant at putting together deals, at understanding tax laws, at drawing up schedules and budgets and so on but that does not mean that s/he necessarily has any skill at all when it comes to the development of a high quality screenplay. In my experience there are very few producers who understand the craft of screenwriting. Yes, they may be able to recognize a good screenplay when they read one but this does not necessarily mean that they can be of much value shepherding an idea through treatment/synopsis to first, second third and fourth drafts.

Just as an architect has no need for a builder until his or her plans are well developed, not does a screenwriter require a producer until his or her screenplay is developed to the point where it looks as though it has a very good chance of going into production. And at this point, given how few truly great screenplays there are floating around, the screenwriter is then in a position to choose the producer and director he or she thinks is most appropriate for the project.

An experienced script editor or script consultant, on the other hand, can be invaluable to a screenwriter during these development stages – from synopsis/treatment through to a draft that captures the attention of producers.

In accordance with the current guidelines, there are half a dozen experienced senior script editors/screenwriters who would not qualify to be my script editor/script adviser  - even of they had written a screenplay that had been produced as a feature film in the past decade.

This is absurd.

Please ask Maureen Barron to consult with filmmakers before formulating policy and guidelines. Such consultation should not happen merely with organizations such as the Australian Writers Guild or the Australian Directors Guild or SPAA but with the whole film and TV community. There needs to be an open forum in which the pros and cons of different policy and guideline options are discussed, debated. The current handing down of policies and guidelines without consultation, and then acting at though they are biblical commandments writ in stone, is out of sync with the realities inherent in the way in which germinal ideas are developed into screenplay.

My most recent attempt to enter into a dialogue with Maureen Barron is to be found at:

best wishes

James Ricketson


  1. Ricketson, you should know by now that screenwriters are just employees of producers and do what they are is producers who make films and unfortunately they have to deal with these neurotic malcontents who go by the name of screenwriter. Where would we be without the brilliant producers in this country who churn out one massive box office hit after another!

  2. Your demonizing of producers is bullshit Ricketson.

    1. Producers play a crucial role in the production of a film. So do directors. So do screenwriters. No one of them can make a film without the other two – plus, of course, a cinematographer, actors and a whole range of essential technicians.

      Each of these members of the creative team has their area of expertize – including, of course, the screenwriter. If this team is gathered together to produce a film it will be because a screenplay had been brought into being by a screenwriter. It may well be that a producer was involved, at a very early stage, in the development of the screenplay. It may also be that the screenwriter worked for years before producing a screenplay of the quality that attracted the attention of the producer and those who have invested in the film.

      It is not ‘demonizing’ producers to suggest that a screenwriter does not necessarily need one (or a director) in the early stages of script development.

      There is no reason, no point, in forcing a screenwriter to work with an ‘experienced’ director or producer at the treatment/synopsis stage of script development. This applies in particular with young filmmakers who are (or, hopefully should be) challenging the status quo and setting out to break all the rules.

      There is a purely practical reason why the forcing together of screenwriters and ‘experienced filmmakers’ early on in the development process makes no sense. It can take years for a decent screenplay to come into being. And the screenplay at 8th draft stage can be quite different from what was anticipated at treatment/synopsis stage. It may well be the treatment/synopsis that caught the attention of the ‘experienced filmmaker’ and s/he may want to stick with that whilst the screenwriter wants to take the story in a different direction. The question then arises: Whose project is it? The screenwriter’s or the ‘experienced filmmaker’s’? Does the producer sack the screenwriter or does the screenwriter part company with the ‘experienced filmmaker’.

      Screenwriters should, I believe, be allowed the freedom to do what they please with their idea at least until second draft stage. This could be the subject of some debate.

      The right producer for a project is essential but s/he does not need to be on board at treatment/synopsis stage.


  3. No exciting policy initiatives can be expected from Screen NSW for as long as the funding body continues to re-cycle the same tired old bureaucrats. New blood required. New ideas.

  4. Reluctantly AnonymousOctober 30, 2014 at 6:47 PM

    Why was the policy guideline implemented in the first place?

    1. It has been explained to me that the reason for the 10 year cutoff point is that the whole production, broadcast, distribution landscape has changed in the past 10 years and, presumably, only those who have made films in the past 10 years could possibly understand this. If this logic were to be carried through to its logical conclusion, the cutoff point should be 2 years ago since the whole ballgame has changed radically in that time. And it will continue to change with frightening (but very exciting) rapidity in the next 12 months. The notion that only filmmakers who have had open on 5 screens this past decade have their fingers on the pulse is belied, every day, by clips seen on Facebook that have gone 'viral' and been viewed by millions - made very often by young people with no experience at all. And, of course, many (perhaps most) of the great steps forward in the digital world have been made by men who, a decade ago, were only just entering high school. It is only a matter of time before a teenager, armed only with mobile phones, creates an 'entertainment' that is viewed by millions. I would like to think that this teenager might be Australian and that the funding bodies are capable of dealing with him or her and do not shut the door in their face as a result of silly guidelines. We are uniquely positioned to be out ahead of the wave when it comes to taking advantage of the new technologies but will be playing catch up if our funding guidelines are not in sync with the new production an broadcast realities we are confronted by.

  5. Socrates' WifeOctober 30, 2014 at 7:06 PM

    Dialogue with screenwriters? Yes please. Debate? Bring it on.

  6. I am a screenwriter with close to 40 years experience and, whilst I never approach a funding body for script development funds, I am shocked to learn that if I did I would need to have my hand held by a producer or director in the early stages of conceiving a story. I don’t want anyone anywhere near my story until I have developed it to a stage where I feel confident that I am on the right track – usually at 2nd draft stage. And even then I only want a competent fellow screenwriter, who understands the craft of screenwriting, to read what I have written. In the early stages of writing, when the story is so malleable and when you may be unsure that you are on the right track, voices from outside can confuse and derail. If any funding body believes that an idea for a screenplay is worth developing, allow the screenwriter to develop it in the way that she believes best suits her. If this involves a producer s/he trusts, all well and good. If this involves a spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend, all well and good. If it involves flying sol all well and good. Forced marriages are not a good idea.