Wednesday, October 15, 2014

to Maureen Barron re Screen NSW's exclusionary script development policies

Maureen Barron
Chief Executive
Screen NSW
Level 5, 323 Castlereagh St
Sydney 2001                                                                                       

15th Oct 2014

Dear Maureen

Imagine this: A young Australian Mark Zuckerberg applies to Screen NSW’s Early Stage Script Development fund to develop a feature film screenplay to be shot, multicam, with the latest (and best) mobile phone available on the market.

Mark Hamlyn and Kate Stone refuse to read and assess the project on the grounds that ‘Mr Zuckerberg’, aged 21, has not made a feature film in the last 10 years. They tell him that he must have, as part of his development team, someone who meets the criteria clearly laid out in the guidelines.

Imagine, at the other end of the age spectrum, that Bob Ellis has teamed up with Mark Latham (or Malcolm Fraser) to develop a political thriller along the lines of BORGEN. They told by Mark Hamlyn and Kate Stone that their application can cannot be read and assessed because neither of them qualifies in accordance with Screen NSW guidelines.

Just last week there was a story in the Sydney Morning Herald about a 15 year old boy, Ben Pasternak who, “bored one day during science class…decided to design an iPhone game.”

Stories such as this abound these days but Australian versions of boys such as Ben Pasternak, young men such as Mark Zuckerberg, could not get their idea read and assessed by Screen NSW as a result of the exclusionary policies that you, as Chief Executive, are responsible for keeping in place?

What purpose do such policies serve other than to force young people with exciting ideas into collaborative relationships with ‘experienced’ filmmakers who may not only be inappropriate for the project but damaging to it?

How many young and not-so-young filmmakers and would-be filmmakers are there in NSW whose feature film ideas cannot be read and assessed by Screen NSW for no other reason than that your guidelines forbid it?

Does a good idea, in its initial stages, require a ‘team’ of experienced filmmakers to assist a screenwriter in its early stage development?

An example from my own life. In brief:

A screenwriter falls in love with a book. This is me, falling in love with Archie Weller’s novel, DAY OF THE DOG.

Screenwriter/Director/Producer develops first draft. No producers interested. “Depressing”, says one.

Screenwriter persists, writes half a dozen more drafts. Still no interest from producers.

By about the 10th draft a senior executive at the Australian Film Commission (Peter Sainsbury) sees potential in the screenplay for BLACKFELLAS and funds two more drafts. He then declares that he is prepared to recommend to the board that the AFC invest in the film.

On the basis of this ‘promisory note’ the Producer/Writer/Director approaches the ABC, which also expresses its interest in investing.

With nominal commitments of two thirds of the budget in place the Producer/Writer/Director approaches an Executive Producer who, very cleverly, manages to structure a deal whereby the entire budget for the film is raised.

The Producer/Writer/Director then hands the producorial reins over to the Executive Producer – three weeks before the commencement of Principal Photography.

A couple of points:

Under current Screen NSW guidelines BLACKFELLAS would not have received any script development funding at any stage.

If I had not persevered with the project, through around 10 drafts when interest in the project was zero, there would be no film.

This kind of tenacious commitment to an idea, a screenplay, a project is, of course, commonplace. How long did it take Baz Lurhman to develop STRICTLY BALLROOM? Would Baz have qualified for Early Stage Script Development funds under the guidelines you now administer? Would YOUNG EINSTEIN, as an idea in development, have been read by the equivalents of Mark Hamlyn and Kate Stone? No. MURIEL’S WEDDING? ANIMAL KINGDOM?

I suspect that many of the very best Australian films, the ones that we now consider to be ‘classics’ and of which we are justifiably proud, were made by producers, writers and directors who persevered over a number of years with a project they felt passionate about but who would not, under your current guidelines, qualify for Early Stage Script Development funds.

I am but one of many ‘victims’ of your exclusionary policy – one that dictates my 43 years of producing, writing and directing films not equipping me to apply for Early Stage Script Development funds for my thriller series, ANGKOR. And, if some young Australian Mark Zuckerberg or Ben Pasternak were to approach me and ask if I could help them develop their feature film idea, your guidelines dictate that I would not be qualified to do so. This policy is counter-productive, absurd and has nothing in it that I can discern that is likely enhance the quality of Australian screenplays!

There is a time when, in the best interests of the film to be produced, it makes a lot of sense for there to be a team involved. This could be at the project’s inception or it could be when there is a 15th draft screenplay in place. Horses for courses!

You are responsible, Maureen, for these exclusionary guidelines. You are the Captain of the good ship Screen NSW and you have put in place (or refuse to dismantle) guidelines that preclude a whole range of applicants from having their projects read and assessed. Why? To what end? Please explain to those of us working in Australian film who are mystified by a policy that has no discernible upside!

best wishes

James Ricketson

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