WIFT Victoria and the nitty-gritty on gender and diversity

by Mark Poole (first published in Screen Hub pm  Friday 9 September, 2016 )

This week Women in Film and Television Victoria took stock of diversity and gender matters with a panel which made the barriers and frustrations all too real.
WIFT Victoria and the nitty-gritty on gender and diversity

On the panel was Emma Freeman, a familiar name but not such a familiar face. Freeman has gone from being the first woman to win Tropfest with a short film to directing more than 60 hours of television drama including Love My Way, Offspring, all episodes of Glitch and the recent Secret City.

She is currently in preproduction on a feature film, The Circus, to be produced by Leanne Tonkes, the second member of the panel, whose first feature was My Mistress in 2014. The third member of the panel, chaired by Lisa French of RMIT University, was researcher Amanda Coles who provided an overview of the ecology of gender and diversity issues in film and television with research she has conducted in Canada.

Freeman has been working consistently as a director since 2002. However she recently realised she’d had an idea for a feature film in development for that entire time but failed to gain traction on the project. Meanwhile she has seen her male colleagues manage to make two or three features.

One problem for Emma Freeman, as a working director, is to have a life outside her work. She works 15 hour days, 6 days a week when employed on a show, and on her day off she wants to do ‘normal things’ like anyone else.

She first met Leanne Tonkes by accident.  Tonkes had just lost a director to the UK, and had been told about Freeman’s talent by the Victorian College of the Arts. Then she heard Freeman interviewed on the radio after winning Tropfest. ‘So I called the radio station and asked them to pass on a message for Emma to call me,’ Leanne recalled. They began to work together on television commercials, and discovered a shared liking for certain types of stories.

Although Tonkes acknowledged that financing first time feature directors is tough in the current climate, she expected that Freeman’s credits on series and the telemovie Hawke would ease the way. ‘She’s won heaps of awards and clearly knows what she is doing as a director,’  said Leanne. With an all female team, including writer Alice Bell, the increasing sensitivity to gender equality seems to be helping.

The duo are seeking support for their feature project The Circus. It grew out of stories told by Emma’s mother about growing up in a remote part of South Australia and sneaking off at night to visit the circus when it was in town. It’s a period piece which makes the piece financially challenging, but Tonkes commented that bigger budget films should not be viable for male directors only.

According to researcher Amanda Coles, the film and television industries are risk averse since the chances of any project failing are high, so the traditionally white male gatekeepers attempt to minimise the risk by hiring men to key positions of director, producer, writer and cinematographer. Yet Coles pointed out that this risk management strategy is deeply flawed, since films created by women are more successful than those by men, despite being low budget. ‘There is absolutely no business case in support of minimizing risk by employing men,’ said Coles. ‘Despite smaller budgets, films made by women have higher returns.’

Tonkes added that at the end of the day a producer should be able to present a package that can include women in all areas, not just a token one or two women. Women should be able to be cinematographers, composers and directors as well as makeup artists and costume designers. ‘There are so many areas where women are overlooked,’ she said.  ‘You are not getting the best out of the industry because  we’re not finding the people whose light would shine, given the opportunities.’

Chair Lisa French asked if the panel felt that women have a different perspective on storytelling, and Emma agreed. ‘Yeah, I think there is a female gaze,’ she stated. ‘A male director would direct a project differently to a female, and what you want is a balance of the male and female gaze.’ As an audience member she wants to see women on screen that reflect her point of view, and she rarely sees them on the big screen, but it is better in television. ‘I directed all the episodes of Glitch and Secret City. With both of those projects I know that if a male director had made them they would be different.’

Freeman said she’s been extremely fortunate to be able to work with some stellar women producers such as Louise Fox, Penny Chapman, Joanne Werner and Imogen Banks, who understand the need to create opportunities for strong female characters. On the recently aired Secret City, the books upon which the series was based featured a 60 year old male protagonist named Harry, and producer Penny Chapman urged the writers (Matt Campbell and Belinda Chayko) to change Harry to Harriet (a role played brilliantly by Anna Torv). Emma said that it made a huge difference to the sensibility of the series.

‘Women definitely need more opportunities,’ Freeman added. ‘When I go on set I’m often in a sea of men. They are beautiful people, and extraordinarily talented at what they do, but it’s an odd feeling to discover I’m one of the few women there.’

Asked if she forms networks of other female directors to share experiences, Freeman said that she has a friendship with Daina Reid and Kate Dennis. ‘There’s a lot of chattering amongst ourselves,’ she said. However they are all incredibly busy working, and Kate is presently based in LA.

Freeman checked out the LA scene a while ago but was put off by a meeting with a powerful female agent, whose first question was ‘So, what do you want to do, have a baby?’ Emma recalled that she’d been mortified at the assumptions underlying the query. ‘So I didn’t go with that agent,’ she said with a laugh.

Leanne Tonkes noted that the recent Screen Australia initiatives Brilliant Stories and Brilliant Careers have created opportunities for female creatives, although Screen NSW has gone even further, aiming to distribute funds 50:50 to men and women by 2020. Furthermore, Amanda Coles reminded us that Screen NSW has stated that they won’t fund television projects where the key creatives are all male, nor film festivals where judging panels are all male. Leanne added that Film Victoria has a Women in Leadership Development Initiative, of which she is a recipient, and Film Victoria have also introduced a Women in Games Fellowship to help address the gender imbalances within this industry as well.

‘Screen Australia will match fund up to $300,000 for distributors investing in projects which have women in key creative roles,’ said Tonkes. ‘So for bigger budget productions a distributor may take a risk where they know the project meets the Screen Australia gender guidelines, where previously they wouldn’t.’ Lisa added that producer Sue Maslin has been reported as saying that the distributor Universal were the only ones that understood The Dressmaker project and its potential for attracting female audiences – and the film went on to gross $20 million at the Australian box office last year.

Debra Allanson, producer on the Board of Film Victoria was in the audience, and she suggested that the old distribution models were no longer sustainable, and if the current crop of gatekeepers are white and male, that will change as models are shifting massively. ‘There will be new gates and the old gatekeepers will go,’ she said. ‘It will provide a more equitable landscape.’

As Amanda Coles reminded us, diversity and recognition of talent regardless of gender and race benefit us all.

Books at MIFF 2016 – fostering the slow growth of adaptations

From straight reversioning to simultaneous development, Australian cinema is slowly embracing adaptation.

By Mark Poole

Books at MIFF 2016 - fostering the slow growth of adaptations

Image: the MTC stage adaptation of Jasper Jones. 

For those with long memories, Books at MIFF was ten years old this year. Part of the Melbourne International Film Festival and held in conjunction with industry event 37 South, the initiative bringing together publishers and producers with the aim of facilitating adaptations to the big and small screens.

As MIFF Chair Claire Dobbin said in introducing the one-day event, around 50% of producers’ slates are taken up with adaptation projects, an increase from previous decades when there was a focus on original work rather than adaptations. And since Books at MIFF was created to redress that imbalance and promote adaptations to follow the US model where far more films result from adaptations than original ideas, this event has certainly contributed to that increase.

As in previous years the Books at MIFF event commenced with a case study presented by a panel of industry experts, expertly steered by MC Sandy George. This year’s panel featured Debbie Lee, director of scripted development at Matchbox Pictures, producer David Jowsey whose impressive body of credits include Ivan Sen’s current film Goldstone as well as the director’s previous feature Mystery Road and the forthcoming film Jasper Jones, plus three representatives from the publishing field in Sophy Williams from Black Inc Books, Fran Berry from Hardie Grant Books and Benython Oldfield from Zeitgeist Media.

The focus of the discussion was how adaptation has put diversity on our screens by offering us a rich source of diverse stories, and so the first such story to be discussed was the Matchbox television series Barracuda. Debbie Lee told the audience of producers and publishers how Matchbox producer Tony Ayres had previously established a fantastic working relationship with author Christos Tsolkias on the iconic and highly successful 8-part series The Slap. Barracuda, screening on ABC, is a four-parter shown twice a week on ABC1, and all episodes were also made available on iView. Lee said that early considerations about how to adapt the book centred around whether it should be four by one hours or two by two, and how it should be approached stylistically. One factor in the show’s success is that all four episodes were directed by the highly experienced Robert Connolly, who is also expert at adaptation, which has been a central focus of his feature film work (think The Boys, Three Dollars, Romulus My Father, and Balibo). Interestingly for a panel discussion on adaptation, Barracuda’s two screenwriters Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko didn’t actually get a mention, so when the AWGIE nominations were announced a few days after this panel session, it was great to see the two Barracuda writers honoured on the list.

The panel also explored the development of another Matchbox production, that of forthcoming feature Ali’s Wedding. Fran Berry explained that this project came into being through a conversation between Berry and Tony Ayres at a Books at MIFF session six years ago. Tony mentioned to Fran the stories he had heard from Osamah Sami, a young actor he’d directed in a film called Saved for SBS in 2009. Tony felt there was a film project in the stories Osamah had told, about growing up in Iran where Sami was born. Apparently Sami went on to write the screenplay for the film and the book version more or less simultaneously. (IMDB cites this film as being ‘based in part on the book’, and the screenplay for the film, co-written by Sami and veteran Andrew Knight is nominated in the AWGIE original feature film category, so it seems that this is one project that defies easy categorisation as an adaptation.) The book version is titled Good Muslim Boy, and Osamah also stars in the film version, playing the lead role as Ali. Fran Berry described the story as being about an Iranian boy who moves to Melbourne with his family and attempts to bridge two cultures by going through with a marriage arranged by his parents while being secretly in love with another woman.

Debbie Lee also talked about a third Matchbox production, that of The Family Law, which is written by Benjamin Law and tells the story of growing up Asian in Queensland in a dysfunctional household. Law’s book was published in 2010, selling well in part through the author’s extensive social media networks. Ben is represented by Benython Oldfield, another member of the panel, who persuaded Matchbox in acquiring the rights to hire the author as the head writer of the television show, since it couldn’t be realised without Law’s distinctive voice.

When asked about the dollar numbers of these projects Sophy Williams was guarded, suggesting that people get depressed when numbers are discussed, since in a small territory like Australia, the numbers are always going to be small. However if a book is adapted for the screen the numbers of books sold gets a solid boost.

The publishers on the panel pointed out that in Australia a successful book is likely to sell only around 4000 to 5000 copies, and if you manage to sell 20,000 that is a great success. But Ben Law has forged a new career in screenwriting due to the adaptation of his book into television, which is a great thing for his career, maintained Oldfield.

Bonython explained that his starting point is a book that has sold at least 10,000 copies, or has won a prize, as something that can be taken to producers. Oldfield was adamant that authors need to be paid for their work and so producers should be paying up front for options, despite the length of time it takes for production funds to come through. He talked about keeping pressure on producers to follow through and not just sit on the project, and he may agree to a peppercorn advance if that means that the producer must pay a premium in six months’ time when the project looks like eventuating. Oldfield also sets milestones for the producer to hit, such as a timeframe for the completion of drafts, which must be met in order for an option to be renewed. Sophy agreed that stepped options can be extremely useful.

Producer David Jowsey talked about the adaptation of Craig Silvey’s book Jasper Jones into a feature film, which has recently been completed and will be released next year. The screenplay was written by Silvey and Shaun Grant, and it too has been nominated for an AWGIE this year. Over 200,000 copies of the book have sold which provides a great base to build an audience, Bonython chipped in. The film is directed by Rachel Perkins who did a terrific job, Jowsey told the audience, and they are very happy with the end result. Author Craig Silvey was a presence on the set during the filming, and that experience has convinced Jowsey of the benefits, since the author can provide a lot of backstory to help the director wrestle with a problem.

‘It was always going to be a long and arduous journey and it took many years,’ said Jowsey.

The panel agreed with MC Sandy George that publishing is more open to diversity than the screen sector, as they aren’t as scared of it. ‘Perhaps diversity is less confronting on the page than on the screen,’ Fran Berry mused. However Debbie Lee reminded us that the sector has been really successful bringing indigenous stories to the screen, over a considerable time period with programs such as Shifting Sands, partnerships with government agencies and ABC and SBS, which created and environment where indigenous people were skilled up. ‘That has been hugely successful and I think everyone would recognise that.’

‘I really like the fact that we have series like Transparent and Cleverman where people who are diverse can screw up and be human,’ Sophy said. ‘Even a show about a gay Asian male can be transcended by witty dialogue, and it helps to create a sense of connection and breaking down barriers.’ She added that Benjamin Law’s stories are about humour and family, and they are universal themes that even straight white guys can connect with.

How The Dressmaker was adapted into a film

Books at MIFF: how The Dressmaker was adapted into a film starring Kate Winslet


The film of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel The Dressmaker will gain greater recognition for the author. EPA/TAL COHEN

The Books at MIFF event – held yesterday in Melbourne – saw producers mingle with publishers in the never-ending search for the next book-to-screen adaptation. Although Hollywood is based on adaptation, the Australian film industry has always relied much more on original screenplays, and that is something that Books at MIFF – now in its ninth year – aims to redress.

The Dressmaker, to be shown for the first time at Toronto International Film Festival in September, could well be Australia’s next highly successful adaptation. Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Liam Hemsworth, the film was adapted from book to the screen by Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan.

The Dressmaker (2015) trailer – Jocelyn Moorhouse.

For those who don’t yet know, The Dressmaker (2000) is a Gothic novel, written by the Australian author Rosalie Ham.

It tells the story of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who returns to her childhood town of Dungatar to take care of her ailing mother Molly. While people in the town are blown away by Tilly’s dressmaking skills, learned in Paris, she plots and exacts revenge on those who have wronged her in the past.

So what did we learn about the book’s journey to screen adaptation at yesterday’s event?

The Books at MIFF panel featured the book’s author, Ham, alongside screen producer Sue Maslin, the film’s director Jocelyn Moorhouse and the book’s publisher Michael Duffy.


The Books at Miff panellists (L-R): MC Sandy George; panellists Rosalie Ham, Sue Maslin, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Michael Duffy. Photograph courtesy of the author

Ham – who studied Creative Writing and Editing at Melbourne’s RMIT – told us her lecturers advised students to write a marketable idea, and that she soon realised The Dressmaker wasn’t what they had in mind. It didn’t have a typical story arc, and it lacked the sort of happy ending publishers usually go for.

Undeterred, Ham decided to write it anyway, to get all those things “that got up my nose” out of her system, and then she could start her second novel, the one that would hopefully be marketable.

But the book was picked up by Australian publishers Duffy and Snellgrove. It “erupted from the pile”, according to Michael Duffy, who was also on yesterday’s panel:

We began our publishing business intending to do lots of fiction, but ended up publishing almost none […] It seemed that most of the manuscripts we received were written by bored public servants about their fairly uninteresting lives.

Duffy and Snellgrove published the book without making any stab at sales projections, but it sold steadily thanks to word of mouth and positive reviews. Anyone who has read it seems to love it, including film producer Sue Maslin.

Maslin was returning from a shoot in the Pilbara region (Western Australia), for the feature film Japanese Story (2003), when she saw The Dressmaker in a bookshop and was drawn to the author’s name. Wasn’t that the Rosalie Ham she went to school with, who had grown up in rural Jerilderie with Maslin? It was, and as soon as she read the novel she was hooked:

I just fell in love with it immediately. It captures brilliantly what it’s like to grow up in a small community, and what happens if an outsider comes to town.

Maslin got in touch with Ham, only to find out that the film rights had already gone. Ham explained:

I had ten offers on the table within weeks of the book coming out. I selected a producer who seemed passionate about the book and determined to make it happen.

But it was the producer’s first project, and over time Ham began doubting it would be realised in the way she had envisaged, if at all.

In the meantime, Maslin and Ham played golf. Maslin said:

We wanted to resume our childhood friendship and golf seemed an excellent way to do it, even though we both play terrible golf. We never discussed the book. Once a year I asked politely how it was going, and that was it.

Ham used the hours spent wielding golf clubs to find out more about the film industry, and eventually, when the option to the film rights expired, she turned to Maslin, who jumped at the chance.

Maslin approached US-based Australian director and writer Jocelyn Moorhouse, who had directed Proof (1991) – another drama with an ironic tinge. But Moorhouse wasn’t interested:

I didn’t even read it, as I was having a major personal drama at the time. My son had just been diagnosed with autism, and I wanted to focus on that.

So Maslin was patient. A year later she called Moorhouse and suggested a meeting as she was travelling to Los Angeles. Moorhouse said:

I’d read the back cover and it was interesting, but I didn’t want to read the whole book in case I really wanted to do it, and I couldn’t. I told Sue she seemed a great producer but I couldn’t do it, and she said just read the book, and so I did and I was hooked.

By then Moorhouse’s son was in a much better place than he had been previously, and reading the book made Moorhouse feel homesick for Australia. So she agreed to do it:

As soon as I met Tilly [the protagonist] in the book I fell in love with her, because she’s a femme fatale. And then I read about the cross-dressing policeman …

She didn’t know how she could adapt a novel with so many characters into a feature film. But she did know that, if she could manage it, the screenplay would have the power to attract actors of the calibre of Kate Winslet and Judy Davis – they would be attracted by the complex roles.

Maslin tracked down Winslet’s London agent and pitched the book to him. Winslet considered the role, and since Moorhouse and Maslin were sure she was their perfect lead, they waited for her decision, which was an eventual yes.

The film was financed with Winslet on board, but as they prepared for the shoot Winslet told them she was pregnant. That delayed the film for a year, which meant re-financing the project.

Ham jokingly told the audience that, since she had done a year on screenwriting at RMIT, she felt qualified to have a shot at adapting the book herself – but as soon as she realised she would have to cut out many of her beloved characters, she realised she couldn’t:

A lot of the film’s dialogue is from the book, but we had to make the story more of a three-act structure and focus on Tilly and her mother as the throughline.

For publisher Michael Duffy, the film will provide new readers for the book, especially overseas where it will now be published in more than 16 territories.

Has it been lucrative for the author, MC Sandy George wanted to know?

I get A$2 per book sale and that ticks over nicely and pays my credit card bill. But when I got the big cheque from Sue, that paid off my mortgage.

Books at MIFF is part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs until August 16. Details here.

https://theconversation.com/books-at-miff-how-the-dressmaker-was-adapted-into-a-film-starring-kate-winslet-45376

iBook Production: how to enter new terrain

Lisa French and Screen Hub correspondent Mark Poole have turned their history of the AFI into an iBook just in time for the third AACTA Awards. He explains the process. 

“Shining a Light: 50 Years of the AFI” is a book first published in 2009 by ATOM. Since then, the AFI has morphed into AACTA, wrestled with its sponsorship issues and rebadged the awards. So we were delighted to be able to upgrade the book, and release it on Apple’s iTunes store just in time for the 3rd AACTA Awards.

The sheer accessibility is amazing. We have a defined audience focused on the combat of the awards, and for a pretty modest $5.99 they can read it on their iPhone, iPad, or Android device.

We are familiar with traditional publishing, and digital film production, but we could see that combining the two would be a challenging learning curve. This is some of what we learnt.

So why make an iBook?

Shining a Light was the ideal candidate for the digital realm, because it would bring the book alive with snippets of the interviews the authors have done with many of Australia’s iconic filmmakers they talked to for information about the book: people like John Flaus, Bob Weis, Denny Lawrence, Annette Blonksi and many others.

Putting the book onto the Apple store allows people to access it whenever they need information about Australia’s makers of film and television content. Because the AFI is such an integral part of the screen sector, the book is far more than a narrow account of the institution. Spanning 54 years, from 1958 to the present, It maps the progression of our industry, particularly since the revival in 1970 to today, and the interviews accumulate to an important oral record of our film history.

Barry Jones, speechwriter for Prime Minister Sir John Gorton, explains in the book how he and Phillip Adams sold the notion of supporting a film industry when Gorton unexpectedly became PM after Harold Holt went missing off Portsea. It was Gorton who began the revival with an initial capital investment of $1 million, in 1970. This enabled the AFI’s Experimental Film and Television Fund, the first film funding organisation, to support such iconic filmmakers as Bruce Beresford, Scott Hicks, Paul Cox, Yoram Gross and Peter Weir.

How is an iBook different?

The main thing is the accessibility to a global audience. These days everyone has a smartphone in their pockets, and many have other devices too such as iPads that are capable of downloading books in digital form. Even your 87-year old Dad can use an iPad and for many, the tablet is a more accessible way of reading books, in part because you don’t have to physically drag several weighty tomes around. As well it’s often easier to search an electronic version of a book than it is to sift through an index in the hope that what you’re seeking can be found there.

Ever since the AFI decided on a name change to the AFI/AACTA Awards, the authors knew they would have to update our history. This edition of Shining a Light includes a new chapter on the AFI’s initiative in establishing the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in 2011, and its implications. As well, this new edition has updated its database of AFI/AACTA award winners and nominees spanning from 1958 to 2012. And since every year a new set of AFI/AACTA Award winners and nominees come out, an iBook makes it possible to update the database, and purchasers will be told that they can download the latest version as soon as it becomes available.

How much does it cost to make?

For the adventurous and digitally astute, you can make an iBook yourself using appropriate software. For Shining a Light, the authors chose to pay others to do the encoding, design work and uploading necessary. Peter Tapp, publisher of ATOM, is familiar with the process and sponsorship was raised to engage the appropriate technical support staff to make it happen. The fact that the book was already in digital format via Adobe InDesign software was a help.

That contract was signed a while ago, and prices have changed. He pointed out that it was a large project, with many pages, a lot of clips, and additions to the existing text. The price range depends very much on the number of interactive elements such as galleries and music clips. At the moment it will range from $3500 to $7000, depending on scale, and what the client can afford.

How long does it take?

As with the price, the time the process takes depends on how complex is your material, how much needs to change and the additional extras you include. Shining a Light has more than 60 video clips from our interviewees. The process of selecting the clips from the hundreds of hours of material we had at our disposal took a while, and the clips had to be encoded to Apple’s specs so they would play back via iOS devices. We were determined to include them for their oral history value.

So what are the takeaways?

Firstly, if you’re embarking on a book project in the 21st century, you should futureproof it. If you are recording interviews as you go, consider videoing them, using high quality gear. It’s not rocket science, but you do need to know the basics. Being filmmakers, we used broadcast quality equipment and one or two lights to light the interview subjects, and broadcast quality audio equipment to record pristine sound.

We also made sure interviewees signed the appropriate releases.

Secondly, consider getting the advice of a publisher as early as possible. Think ahead. If you are amassing stills to augment your work, consider digitising them at high quality and in colour.

Thirdly, who is your audience? Are they iPad savvy, or technophobic? Ipads are pretty easy to use but some people resist technology – yes, some people still don’t possess a mobile phone, and there are probably more in that category than you realise.

Was it worth it?

You be the judge. It will only cost you $5.99, the price of a latte and a muffin, to find out!

Shining a Light: 50 Years of the AFI

Mark Poole

from Screen Hub

DISABILITY MEDIA LAUNCHED

Last Tuesday night, the 23rd October 2013, Disability Media was launched at RMIT in Melbourne. Or relaunched, to be precise. The organisation was rebadged as Grit Media some time back, but people were confused by the name, so they’ve returned to the original moniker.

Disability Media aims to bring together the film and television community with the world of disability in order to portray people with disabilities on our screens, so that they become commonplace and unremarkable. As President Greg Dee explained, the ultimate aim is to live in a society where disability goes unremarked, because every individual has complete access to everything whether they have a disability or not.

Disability Media encourages audiences to see disability as a natural part of life by bringing awareness of disability into people’s homes, through the production of realistic, compelling and engaging content.

Disability Media grew out of the television program No Limits, which has screened for more than a decade on Channel 31. Now in its thirteenth season, Greg Dee and CEO Sarah Barton were instrumental in launching this highly successful series, which will air in December.

Sarah Barton, a well-known filmmaker, pointed out that thriving in the screen industry is tough for everyone, and if you’re not at the top of your game you stand to be overlooked for someone faster, sharper or younger than you. But where does that put someone with a disability who has aspirations to work in the business?

“Unemployment among people with disabilities is nearly 50% in Australia,” said Sarah, and so most people with disabilities are unable to get a foothold within film and television.

“Ten years ago we began making television with people with disabilities and I can tell you that it is absolutely possible,” she told us. “From the beginning we had people with disabilities behind the scenes working as tape operators, editors, camera operators, floor managers and producers.”

She introduced patron Stella Young, who has graduated to ‘grown up ABC land,’ where she has a regular gig. Stella told the audience that she uses the Twittersphere to point out examples where people misrepresent disability, but she acknowledged that since disability is her world view, she can get used to the discrimination and not notice it as much as she should.

The launch took place at RMIT’s building at 150 Victoria Street, Carlton, courtesy of past Chair Paul Ritchard from the School of Media and Communication. Paul was thanked by numerous speakers at the group’s AGM prior to the launch for his support on behalf of RMIT.

After Stella Young played a clip based on material fron No Limits, she introduced film and television producer Ade Djajamihardja and Kate Stephens to the podium.

Ade Djajamihardja is someone who after a long and successful career in film and television, suffered a major stroke. “We call him our most committed Board Member,” Sarah explained, saying that Ade suffered his stroke only three days after joining the board.

Ade said that he had joined the industry at 19 as a floor manager for ABC News. He had a thriving career over 25 years, including work in Singapore and Malaysia. “After a very fortunate career, I was approached to join the board of Disability Media Australia and I felt it was a great cause,” said Ade. “I was looking forward to making a substantial contribution to the mission, to advance the rights, inclusion and increased visibility of people with disabilities in the media.”

Ade went on to tell the story of a young boy who watched TV like most children, but assumed that because he never saw anybody on the screen with a disability like he had, that he would not survive to become an adult. “Wow,” said Ade, “what an impact the media can have! With 20% of the population having some form of disability, they need to be represented.”

Ade now gets around in a wheelchair, and he has found that poses its own problems. His partner and now carer Kate explained that Ade had been keen to get back into the industry while still in the recovery stages, but it proved more challenging than he had expected.

Kate mentioned several examples: a government agency which has steps leading to the office from the street; an organisation which welcomed Ade to a meeting only to change the venue at the last minute to a room in a café up several flights of stairs; a recent Film Festival opening night where they were dispatched to the only toilet available through freezing rain across a muddy path; and an industry conference which accepted the registration fee on the basis that access would be available (confirmed in writing) and then told Kate and Ade that some events would not be accessible due to lack of wheelchair access.

Many in the screen industries pride themselves on an informed sensibility to issues like disability access, but it seems that at the end of the day actions speak louder than words, and the screen industry organisations just don’t get it, even if they think they do.

Kate said in her speech that while these barriers to entry were frustrating and humiliating, what was even more galling was the attitude of such organisations when these problems were pointed out. Far from apologising or even acknowledging such issues, these organisations were prone to deny the problem existed, and when preseed to blame Kate and Ade by implying they had been warned of problems with access when they in fact had not. What is worse, when Kate was able to prove her contention that access had been confirmed via an email exchange, the organisation concerned was unrepentant.

Everyone within the film and television industry is aware that industry events are sometimes organised in a hurry and with inadequate funding and staff, and the people at Disability Media know that their colleagues have their hearts in the right place. But it’s difficult to understand the mindset of such organisations when they seem incapable of providing suitable access (which is actually a legal requirement), and then having failed to do so, would rather blame the victim than admit error. It’s like with friends like these, who needs enemies?

“I do hope that in the future the staff at such organisations consider how they would like to be treated if they ever suffer a stroke or an accident where they require a wheelchair,” said Kate. “These experiences were hurtful, disrespectful and discriminatory.” She added that after being hospitalised for months, people can be depressed and almost suicidal, and this kind of discrimination when they are trying to enter the community again can be enough to send them ‘over the edge.’

Perhaps, if Disability Media succeeds in putting images of people with disabilities out there on our screens, then people may eventually understand the difficulties people in wheelchairs and other special requirements face, every day. Even people in screen sector organisations. And when media organisations allow people with disabilities to enter their workplaces, those people will be able to make a contribution to production too, in front of and behind the cameras. Let’s hope it happens – soon!

Mark Poole

BEAU WILLIMON, SHOWRUNNER, HOUSE OF CARDS

For me, the final session at Screen Forever, the 2013 SPA Conference, was the best. It was inspirational as well as fascinating.

Beau Willimon, showrunner for the Netflix series House of Cards, spoke to The Age’s television writer Debi Enker about the creation of the show. Debi began the session by explaining that the new series was the first to be commissioned by the online delivery organisation, heralding a new chapter for the television industry. When it was released, all episodes were released simultaneously, allowing audiences to view them one by one or binge the entire season if they chose. And many did.

Beau began by posing five thoughts, saying that he said he hoped the audience would disagree with them all.

One. I don’t think there is any distinction any more between film and television.

Two. Viewers have absolutely no interest in brand.

Three. Data is not a predictor. Data can only shed light on what has been, not what will work in the future.

Four. The entertainment business rewards risk-takers. Suffocate creativity and you suffocate your product.

Fifth. As cinema was the definitive art form of the 20th century, the definitive art form of the 21st century will be video games. Video games are where the future is.

Debi – You’ve described your arrangement with Netflix as a group of people with no experience in television.

Beau – None of us knew what the fuck we were doing. Neither David Fincher nor I had worked in television before. We didn’t think of it as making a TV show at all. For me, it was more of a novel. We didn’t have a single development executive. Not one. Netflix said to us ‘we will get the story you want to tell out to the world.’

Debi – How did you get to Netflix?

Beau – David Fincher approached me to write it for the production company MRC (Media Rights Capital). I don’t know what MRC’s deal was with the BBC, who did the original series written by Andrew Davies.

“We sat down with the usual suspects,” said Beau. “On a Sunday all three of those networks came to us. We said thanks for coming, we don’t want to do a pilot, we want to be commissioned for a whole series. I’d put a year of my life into that script.”

“The very next day we sat down with Netflix. I wasn’t sure what they wanted. We said the same thing, we wanted a season up front. They said ‘we’re in the content business and we would need two seasons.’ We said ‘okay, we’ll get back to you.’”

“So with Netflix, we had creative freedom and two seasons guaranteed. That blew the competition out of the water.”

“When you haven’t been shaped by the status quo, you are kind of figuring it out as you go. When I’m doing something, I want to have no idea what to do, how I’m going to tell the story. As my dad told me: ‘a job you know how to do isn’t worth doing.’”

Debi – Knowing you had two seasons up front, what sort of freedoms did it give you?

Beau – Knowing we had 26 hours, I knew I didn’t have to fight for survival the way a lot of shows do, creating cliff-hangers to entice audiences to come back next week. At the end of Season One there was not a question about whether there would be a Season Two. So that doubles the real estate canvas you can paint on.

Debi – At what point did Kevin Spacey come on board?

Beau – Kevin came on board after I’d done several drafts of episode one. When David and I spoke to the networks we only had the script of one episode. I had ideas about the progression of the series, and I gave them some ideas on where we might end up. They wanted to have some notion of where the first season might take us.

I worked on the first episode for almost a year, going through several drafts. David started having conversations with Kevin, who he knew well as they’d worked together on Se7en. He also knows Robin Wright from way back when. David and I both felt that if we didn’t get those two stars, if they said no we just wouldn’t do it. Without them you were just limping in. So we put the script in their hands, and thank god they said yes.

Debi – Did they have any input into the writing?

Beaut – Absolutely, and they still do. That the difference between television and film, you have a constant and evolving dialogue.

As the showrunner, I’m on the set from the first rehearsals to the final shot. We have 140 shooting days a year. Kevin and Robin are both incredibly incisive when it comes to script, and willing to push themselves. I talk to them about throwing out a story and introducing new ones. We will also change things at the last moment on set, if we feel something can be improved. I’ll watch a few takes and say what if we do this? Right until we do the last setup of a scene.

I saw that Pierre Rousseau had an amazing interaction with Kevin Spacey on the set, so I built up his role and changed a lot of scripts to accommodate that. I had a staff of writers to help me.

I don’t mind changing things at the last minute. I don’t agree with this idea that the script is a Rosetta stone and completely unmalleable, because with that approach you are completely shutting out the input of the director and the actors. I’m meticulous, going through 6 drafts of every script. But refusing to allow any changes means you are saying you’ve achieved perfection. I think a script is a blueprint for behaviour. People don’t watch something because of the script. I think that a great story should function on mute. You should understand everything that is going on with the sound down. The script is the strategy for achieving this great behaviour. You have to have a great script as a jumping off point. You are all simply there to try and capture magic.

Debi commented on the opening of the show, where Francis Underwood does something rather brutal while dressed in a tuxedo.

Beau – That’s one way to start a show! It’s based on the English show written by Andrew Davies. Right up front, David Fincher said he had no interest in doing an adaptation of the British show. A lot has changed in 20 years in both television and in politics, and we wanted to have our own tone, our own stories and our characters.

Originally, I started the show with Kevin going through a New Year’s Eve party, and it felt a little tepid. I wanted it to not feel like an introduction, but more like a punch in the face.

I wanted it to be a movie star entrance. Underwood was in a party so he’s in a tux. That’s good. And you can have the double doors open and Kevin comes out and that’s good, that’s a movie star entrance. So why does he come out, I thought? Maybe it’s a car accident. OK but maybe it’s a dog. Why don’t I have him kneel down and put this dog out of his misery. He speaks to camera and he kills another life-form and it’s his world view of being able to be ruthless.

Beau explained to the audience how in television, as in film, you can kill as many humans as you want, but if you kill a dog, the audience goes insane. “We discussed it and we weren’t cavalier. Anyone who was repulsed by this, they probably weren’t made for this show,” they decided. “We felt like it was a sort of litmus test for who was going to connect with it. If we had been in a network, we would have been told by someone that we couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t even have been a conversation. A focus group would have told you, you just can’t do it.”

It was a great beginning because then you see Underwood wash his hands and go into the party.

Debi – You’ve described him as some kind of optimist. He’s driven by ambition.

Beau – In terms of Francis being an optimistic, I firmly believe that. I am seeing it from his point of view. I don’t have an agenda. In his view, ideology is a form of cowardice. Your moral code proscribes your behaviour and leaves you no choice.

“If people say I’m not going to bend on my moral code, it’s a form of paralysis. A great example of that is the recent shutdown in the US. What was the result? People suffered and died. That definitely happened. That was the result of people who refused to bend from their morality.”

“Do the ends justify the means? Francis would say absolutely. The truth is, all heads of states, all Presidents are murderers. We entrust our leaders to kill on our behalf. They decide where the troops go. If we elect a leader who doesn’t, they’re incompetent. That’s not a pretty thought, but it’s a reality.”

“In America we want our leaders to be effective, but also to be saints. They can’t be both. And that’s why we are always disappointed with them.”

Beau added that Abraham Lincoln was a moral president but he did things that were illegal, that were unconstitutional, because he had to. “We forgive him as we understand that he did what he had to do.”

Producer/writer Susan Bower asked about the production schedule for House of Cards.

Beau – “We shoot 6 pages a day, shooting two episodes at a time. We complete one episode in 10 days and shoot for 20, so a director can spend 20 days working with us, which allows a director to settle in with the cast.”

Beau mentioned that Steven Soderburgh, who famously announced his imminent retirement recently, is doing a show called The Nick about a hospital in New York at the turn of the century. Soderburgh is apparently shooting all ten episodes simultaneously, and he is directing and also director of photography, hand holding the entire thing.

“We have very strict rules for our DP. It comes from Fincher’s ideas on filmmaking. No pans, no steadicam, no long lenses. You’ll never see bright red in our show, because vibrant colour is comedy and black and white is drama. In case you didn’t know.”

A discussion ensured about whether this was true, and Pedro Almodovar’s vibrant colour palette was mentioned, even in his dramas. But for Willimon the director’s work is best as comedy.

Q – how does the writer and director work together?

Beau – It’s very much a collaboration between a lot of people.

Beau talked about working with David Fincher. He was warned initially that he would have more interaction with Fincher than he could possibly want.

“We share a lot of similar approaches,” Beau said. “He has this vast mind. He is a savant. He went to the RED factory and showed them how to build a RED camera. He is one of the great minds on editing. If you see him with a DP, he will tell them where all the lights should go, and names each one.”

“He does a lot of takes but I think that’s a strategy to get actors not to act.”

I’ve never gotten better notes on a script. He’s a great guy, deeply collaborative. Even now when he’s shooting Gone Girl (2014) he’s looking at every edit of House of Cards.”

Note – a quote on directing from David Fincher on IMDB: “People will say, ‘There are a million ways to shoot a scene’, but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.”

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000399/bio?ref_=nm_dyk_qt_sm#quotes

When asked what constitutes great notes, Beau retorted that the questioner was looking for a schema or a formula, and they can’t get that. “You need a brilliant person to give great notes,” he said. “I don’t say that to be an arsehole, I think it’s true. We want the best outcome possible. David wants to achieve clarity of story, sophistication in terms of character development and originality.”

“Fincher has years of experience and a sense of honesty that few people have. It’s very hard to find people who give great notes. A lot of times people who are giving notes are doing so to justify their own paycheck.”

“Sometimes the best thing a producer can do is to get out of the way. Sometimes a great producer knows when to get in the way, when someone’s ego is getting in the way, or it’s just the fact that you can’t bat a thousand all the time. Producers like Scott Rubin know about story.”

Willimon said that sometimes David Fincher will highlight a couple of lines and say ‘better.’ “But I know what he means. Other people might give that note and I would have no idea what they mean.”

Beau said that they stole the piece to camera style outright from the BBC version. “It’s sort of like Richard the Third, the Shakespeare play. Kevin Spacey calls him ‘Dick the Shit.’ Because he lets you in on it, it builds conspiracy from the audience.”

Willimon suggested that the 13 by one hour format of the show is driven by the need for international sales. It has to be in one hour chunks. However he feels that this comes from a bygone era, and he’d love to have episodes of different lengths, or dispense with episodes altogether and have one continuous 12 hour stream. “I’m serious,” he added.

Like being the President, there’s no way of preparing for the job of showrunner, said Willimon. “You have to wear a ton of hats. Collaborate with a lot of people. Editing it. Thinking of the design of sets. It’s what a film director would do times 7.” He said he worked 100 hour weeks for nine months of the year. “It’s a form of insanity, like making 7 feature films in one year. You get to make a feature film every 20 days. Plus, I get to work with the best people in the business.” However he said that he has never been able to grow a beard, so he’s hoping that as he goes grey he’ll eventually look older than 15 years.

Finally, Willimon told the audience that the only award he’s ever won was the AACTA Award in 2011 for Ides of March. He showed us a photo of it sitting on a table in a diner in LA after the ceremony. “I turned up to this full-on event with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. So thank you Australia.”

Mark Poole

 

 

IN CONVERSATION WITH PAUL BRADLEY (MERCHANT IVORY) – SPA 2013

This session saw producer Rosemary Blight talking to Paul Bradley, Executive Producer of Merchant Ivory Productions, the makers of A Room With a View (1986), Howard’s End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993) and countless other period films.

The most inspirational component of the talk was the film Paul screened that had been made as a homage to Ismail Ivory when he passed away. The documentary was a fascinating montage of images of Merchant as a young boy, as a young film producer and later in his career.

As Paul Bradley explained, Merchant Ivory was a combination of three disparate spirits – Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Merchant was an Indian scoundrel with an indominable spirit, Ruth was a German-born British writer, and Ivory was an American whose sensibilities were more British than the British.

One of the charms of the documentary that Paul screened were the interviews with Merchant and Ivory, who constantly contradicted each other despite the rolling camera. It seemed they could agree on very little, yet their business partnership, always precarious, lasted 45 years, and was only finally broken by death, not commerce.

Paul told us that the trio were very different people.” Ismail was an ambitious, charismatic Indian who moved to New York. Jim was Californian but his sensibilities were very much English. Ruth was a German, a quiet, retiring, shy individual who was a great writer – in English.”

So this strange melange of three completely different people someone shared a vision for something that was beyond words, and almost beyond tastes. It was certainly a shared vision for making ambitious projects. “They would argue, but in the end agree,” Bradley told us. “They had that commitment, heart and soul.”

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for her novels, and won two Academy Awards for her screenwriting, completing 23 films all told. She remains the only person to have won both the Booker and an Oscar. Plus she had three daughters and six grandchildren!

Ismail Merchant was famous for being a great chef who would always cook up a storm when energies and finances on a shoot were running low. Paul said they used to joke that Ismail was a better chef than a producer, and he published four books on cooking. A loveable rogue, Merchant would pay particular attention to feeding the cast and crew when he was unable to pay them their wages.

Paul started working for them to set up a London office, except they couldn’t afford an office, so the contents of the entire UK operation were contained in a briefcase he carried around. Paul got a sense of Ismail when he applied for the position and was asked what was the minimum pay he could exist on, whereupon his new employer tried to negotiate him down. As they didn’t have an office, they didn’t have a phone, so Bradley used to make business calls when in other people’s offices at meetings.

After numerous failures the Merchant Ivory team scored a huge success with A Room With A View. It made such a splash in America that Sam Goldwyn approached them wanting to do a sequel. “We said it would be difficult to dig up E.M. Forster and get him to write another novel.”

He told how after Howard’s End, they cast Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, and he wanted Emma Thompson to star in that one as well. But Hollywood thought she was too English, and they had to fight hard to keep her in the cast. “We had to fight too against Meryl Streep who devoted herself to land the part, turning her agents on full blast to make us hire her.” But they stuck to their guns and Emma got the part, and Meryl sacked her agent.

Asked by Rosemary Blight about the temptation to make films for bigger budgets after a string of box office successes, Paul explained that they made Remains of the Day for only $14 million, and he was personally very angry at Ismail for not accepting larger budget levels. “But he was adamant that more money wouldn’t equate to better films, it would just be splashing money around for its own sake, and then the next time they want to make a crazy low-budget film, it would be difficult to back pedal. And so it would have inhibited our choices, our freedoms.”

Bradley said that while the Merchant Ivory team relished their successes, the key experience was making the films. “There’s a huge passion for the end product, but the process is all important, working with people on ideas, making friends for twelve weeks or for life.”

“I learnt how to turn my hand to many different things during the productions,” he told us, “and when you end up with something on screen that moves an audience, that’s a wonderful feeling.”

Paul noted that despite Merchant Ivory’s success in the UK, they were never recognised by the establishment. “To be frank, they absolutely hated us,” he told us. “We didn’t go to the grand lords and ladies and ask for permission as we were supposed to. We paid people less than minimums, which was regarded as bad form. Our films won BAFTAs, Oscars, but Ismail in particular was seen very much as an outsider.” He said that he did apply to join the union in 1984, only to be told that he didn’t earn enough.

Bradley described Ismail Merchant as “not always incredibly trustworthy, not always loveable but he always came up with the goods at the end of the day, and that’s what producers need to do.”

Mark Poole

POSITIONING YOUR FILM IN THE MARKETPLACE – SPA 2013

For the cynics, this session could have been rebadged ‘Flogging A Dead Horse,’ particularly given the drubbing Australian films are receiving at the box office, with only a few notable exceptions.

Is it pertinent to this discussion that I never heard “The Great Gatsby,” “Goddess” or “Tim Winton’s The Turning” mentioned even once during this conference?

Perhaps Gatsby is currently filling the role previously occupied by Crocodile Dundee (1986), an outstandingly successful Australian release that did huge business both at home and overseas, yet managed to be comprehensively ignored as a model for twenty years.

The speakers at this session were Bec Smith from UTA, Clay Epstein of Arclight Films, Craig Emanuel of Loeb & Loeb, and producer Brian Rosen who ably steered it with incisive questions.

Brian revealed the budget of one of his recent films, Around the Block, which released at Toronto, but I’m not going to mention the figure here, for fear of making a tough job even harder. Rosen added that despite being in English, our films are regarded as being foreign, certainly in the US. His point was that the film was invited to Toronto International Film Festival, which might have generated international sales five years ago, but today that is no longer the automatic case.

The session discussed whether it can be damaging to get into the wrong film festival, or to release a film too early, and whether film festivals can help you to secure a distribution deal.

Craig Emanuel from Loeb & Loeb pointed out that you may get invited to Sundance, where all the buyers will be from North America at least, but if your slot comes towards the end of the festival, all the major players will have returned home.

Someone made the point that if you do get invited to a major festival, it will be worth it to engage a publicist to accompany you, so that you can get reviewed by the key reviewers and have your film at the front of buyers’ awareness.

Bec Smith said that if the goal of a film’s release is to build a director’s career in Hollywood, an invitation to Cannes may not be as ideal as Toronto or Sundance. Cannes is extremely prestigious, and any filmmaker going there with a film will have a ton of fun, but it’s expensive for the producer to be at Cannes, and you can leave Cannes with a hangover and no distribution deal.

The panelists talked about how difficult it can be to get a yes from a distributor, who may prefer to give you a ‘soft pass’, which means they’re not saying no, but they’re not saying yes. They’re waiting to see how the film goes on the festival circuit.

Clay Epstein described a film which got into a small festival, Telluride, which is held in the mountains, and has a secret program which isn’t released until the first day. Some buyers who had given the film a soft pass were corralled into a screening, they saw the audience response and bought the film. “It doesn’t happen all the time, but I fondly remember that moment.”

On the other hand, some festivals like Toronto can give buyers a false impression, since Toronto audiences love movies, and that doesn’t mean that a mainstream audience will agree.

Craig said it’s hard to manufacture a bidding war these days, in part because the distributors all know each other and swap information with each other. If one passes, the others will know immediately. So if there’s a good offer on the table, you have to think seriously about taking it, before it gets withdrawn.

The session demonstrated the complexity of this arena for outsiders; Bec mentioned how she watched Harvey Weinstein spending three and a half hours at a party, ‘something he never does,’ and Harvey and others bailing up the director and producer of a film they wanted. “It was really fun and we sold it for a lot of money,” she volunteered.

On the other hand, you may only get one reaction to a film and it’s a soft offer. So what do you do? You wait, and wait, and if it’s the right distributor, they may take months to commit but eventually they probably will.

Craig said that pay or play offers don’t exist now as the business won’t support that model. Today, you start with a great piece of material in a screenplay, and then you attach a director and cast. “These days there are fewer studio pictures getting made, and actors want to work, so it’s becoming a little easier.”

Clay Epstein suggested that the Chinese mainstream audience was not attuned to success at film festivals, like the US mainstream audience. “The bigger films that go to a film festival are using it as a launching pad, they’ve already got a distribution deal in place.”

Bec Smith said as an Australian she is sympathetic to Aussie projects, and mentioned how she fielded a phone call about The Sapphires, and was able to chip in that Wayne Blair is amazing, Jessica Mauboy is amazing, and so on. “People internationally don’t understand the Australian production system,” said Bec. “So you need to provide as much info as you can about how the film can be made and why people should get involved, beyond the screenplay.”

Emanuel also cautioned against entering a film at a festival before it’s ready. “You only get one chance, and it has to be as good as you can make it,” he told us. “If you show a distributor a rough cut and they pass, you’ve just killed your movie.”

He added that he feels theatrical distribution for independent films will become the exception rather than the rule. “I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing if it helps get more eyeballs onto your content.” He cited the example of Behind the Candelabra (2013), which was released on HBO, and received great creative freedom as a result. “We have to change the way people view content, and see that kind of release as a positive, not a negative,” he said.

MY FILM IS GREAT, SO WHY IS NO-ONE INTERESTED? POSITIONING YOUR FILM FOR THE MARKETPLACE.

For the cynics, this session could have been rebadged ‘Flogging A Dead Horse,’ particularly given the drubbing Australian films are receiving at the box office, with only a few notable exceptions.

Is it pertinent to this discussion that I never heard “The Great Gatsby,” “Goddess” or “Tim Winton’s The Turning” mentioned even once during this conference?

Perhaps Gatsby is currently filling the role previously occupied by Crocodile Dundee (1986), an outstandingly successful Australian release that did huge business both at home and overseas, yet managed to be comprehensively ignored as a model for twenty years.

The speakers at this session were Bec Smith from UTA, Clay Epstein of Arclight Films, Craig Emanuel of Loeb & Loeb, and producer Brian Rosen who ably steered it with incisive questions.

Brian revealed the budget of one of his recent films, Around the Block, which released at Toronto, but I’m not going to mention the figure here, for fear of making a tough job even harder. Rosen added that despite being in English, our films are regarded as being foreign, certainly in the US. His point was that the film was invited to Toronto International Film Festival, which might have generated international sales five years ago, but today that is no longer the automatic case.

The session discussed whether it can be damaging to get into the wrong film festival, or to release a film too early, and whether film festivals can help you to secure a distribution deal.

Craig Emanuel from Loeb & Loeb pointed out that you may get invited to Sundance, where all the buyers will be from North America at least, but if your slot comes towards the end of the festival, all the major players will have returned home.

Someone made the point that if you do get invited to a major festival, it will be worth it to engage a publicist to accompany you, so that you can get reviewed by the key reviewers and have your film at the front of buyers’ awareness.

Bec Smith said that if the goal of a film’s release is to build a director’s career in Hollywood, an invitation to Cannes may not be as ideal as Toronto or Sundance. Cannes is extremely prestigious, and any filmmaker going there with a film will have a ton of fun, but it’s expensive for the producer to be at Cannes, and you can leave Cannes with a hangover and no distribution deal.

The panelists talked about how difficult it can be to get a yes from a distributor, who may prefer to give you a ‘soft pass’, which means they’re not saying no, but they’re not saying yes. They’re waiting to see how the film goes on the festival circuit.

Clay Epstein described a film which got into a small festival, Telluride, which is held in the mountains, and has a secret program which isn’t released until the first day. Some buyers who had given the film a soft pass were corralled into a screening, they saw the audience response and bought the film. “It doesn’t happen all the time, but I fondly remember that moment.”

On the other hand, some festivals like Toronto can give buyers a false impression, since Toronto audiences love movies, and that doesn’t mean that a mainstream audience will agree.

Craig said it’s hard to manufacture a bidding war these days, in part because the distributors all know each other and swap information with each other. If one passes, the others will know immediately. So if there’s a good offer on the table, you have to think seriously about taking it, before it gets withdrawn.

The session demonstrated the complexity of this arena for outsiders; Bec mentioned how she watched Harvey Weinstein spending three and a half hours at a party, ‘something he never does,’ and Harvey and others bailing up the director and producer of a film they wanted. “It was really fun and we sold it for a lot of money,” she volunteered.

On the other hand, you may only get one reaction to a film and it’s a soft offer. So what do you do? You wait, and wait, and if it’s the right distributor, they may take months to commit but eventually they probably will.

Craig said that pay or play offers don’t exist now as the business won’t support that model. Today, you start with a great piece of material in a screenplay, and then you attach a director and cast. “These days there are fewer studio pictures getting made, and actors want to work, so it’s becoming a little easier.”

Clay Epstein suggested that the Chinese mainstream audience was not attuned to success at film festivals, like the US mainstream audience. “The bigger films that go to a film festival are using it as a launching pad, they’ve already got a distribution deal in place.”

Bec Smith said as an Australian she is sympathetic to Aussie projects, and mentioned how she fielded a phone call about The Sapphires, and was able to chip in that Wayne Blair is amazing, Jessica Mauboy is amazing, and so on. “People internationally don’t understand the Australian production system,” said Bec. “So you need to provide as much info as you can about how the film can be made and why people should get involved, beyond the screenplay.”

Emanuel also cautioned against entering a film at a festival before it’s ready. “You only get one chance, and it has to be as good as you can make it,” he told us. “If you show a distributor a rough cut and they pass, you’ve just killed your movie.”

He added that he feels theatrical distribution for independent films will become the exception rather than the rule. “I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing if it helps get more eyeballs onto your content.” He cited the example of Behind the Candelabra (2013), which was released on HBO, and received great creative freedom as a result. “We have to change the way people view content, and see that kind of release as a positive, not a negative,” he said.

MARK POOLE

THE FUTURE OF TELEVISION – SPAA 2013

This session was a follow-up to the previous one, but in this one Israeli Avi Armoza had the floor to himself, and was able to provide a unique perspective on television now and in the future.

The most amazing finding was that after a decade of mergers and conglomerations into huge corporations like Fremantle, Endemol and BBC Worldwide, the main players have acknowledged a stagnation taking place.

Essentially, they have noticed that all the big successful format shows on TV were created more than a decade ago, or before the big wheels took over.

According to Avi, this is because the bigger you are, the more risk averse you become, as huge businesses are run by ferocious finance officers, anxious to please their demanding boards.

Hence the endless turn of current events where broadcasters and big companies are desperate for the next big original idea. But the conundrum is, if you pitch them an  original idea, they won’t go for it because you can’t point to its previous success.

That’s why the few players who are willing to take a punt, like Netflix with its breakthrough House of Cards television drama, or the Danish ER with Borgen and The Killing, are cleaning up big time.

It is highly possible that the rest of us will be doomed to watching and producing endless versions of increasingly fatigued formats like The Voice, The Block and MasterChef, until we go completely insane, take on the collective personas of berserk banshees and rip the television repeaters off the nearby hills in sheer frustration. Historians are almost certain that an event just like this is what caused the extinction of the dinosaur.

Mr Armosa built a convincing case that Israel is risk accepting, as Israelis face the daily possibility of being annihilated by their neighbouring foes, or even their nearby friends. Avi explained that Israel’s television industry is relatively young, and follows the inspiration of its IT industry in going global at every opportunity. That could be why Israel has been so successful at selling formats to the US. Their production budgets are also relatively tiny, and that is why they came with formats like In Treatment, which is basically two people sitting in armchairs for half an hour. Avi also showed us clips from a drama which takes place exclusively within a police station, The Naked Truth. “You have to focus on the storytelling,” he told us.

Armosa suggested that the next generation of content is yet to arrive, and our challenge is to figure out what will be next. “We are in the midst of a technological revolution that affects all aspects of our lives, including television, and it’s changing the business models.

“The next big hit is yet to come,” Avi said. “The Catch 22 is that they’re desperate for creativity, but they also need control. It’s the same with broadcasters. They cry out loud, bring us the next big thing, but they’re not willing to take a risk.”

For Avi, this means opportunity for new players to arrive, take a risk and achieve success, and become the new mainstream. Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and House of Cards have broken the traditional television drama mould, and now we need a similar process for format TV. “We need the next generation of content, and we need to be able to fail.”

Armosa suggests that the new content must cross borders – cultural borders, cross-platform borders and genres. He provided a case example of a new prime time entertainment show called I Can Do That. The budget was raised via venture capital, as it’s a massive investment that could succeed or fail. But at the last MIPCOM it sold to more than 15 territories. “We’re in the business of not knowing,” he concluded. “It’s a venture capital type of business. In order to get the next big hit, you need to invest in ten of them, and maybe nine will fail but one will succeed.”

MARK POOLE

BUILDING UNIVERSES FOR GLOBAL AUDIENCES

IN CONVERSATION WITH MAN OF ACTION STUDIOS’ CREATORS OF BEN 10: BUILDING UNIVERSES FOR GLOBAL AUDIENCES

The Man of Action team consist of four writers, and in front of us were three of them, Steven T. Seagle, Joe Kelly and Duncan Rouleau. They write and produce everything from comic books to games to stage productions, film and television, including the hit show Ben 10.

This session was introduced by Donna Andrews, from Sticky Pictures, and it showcased three of the four partners who have created the Man of Action team, who

Apparently the team got together to protect themselves from being crunched by television production companies, who may deal much more savagely with individuals than they do with companies.

Early on they created Ben 10, an ongoing success story that was created for Cartoon Network. When they heard they wanted a new show, the four Men of Action locked themselves in a room for a week and came up with not one, not two but 20 ideas for cartoon shows. And not just longlines but mini-bibles. When it came time to pitch the ideas, they decided to limit themselves to 60 seconds, whereupon they would move on to the next one. Ben 10 was number six. Sam from Cartoon Network said ‘that’s the one!’ and that was that.

Once the series was commissioned, it took two years to develop, and the network kept pushing them to achieve the best possible result.

Steven T Seagle pointed out that a key element of developing the show as to keep in mind that it was designed for a kid audience. “Comic books are for 40 plus white guys,” he told us. “Kids are different, and we had to put our ‘kid’ hat on and think of the superpowers that they might want that would make their day a little easier.”

The series Ben 10 is now a franchise which has brought in more than $3 billion in merchandise. And as they say “If you’re a parent and had to buy something for your children, we apologise. And thank you.”

In developing Ben 10, the Men of Action said they always went back to what inspired them and they found exciting. “Ben’s character flaws and mistakes were very important,” they felt. “We had to fight to keep them quite a bit, as in the testing bubble there was pressure on us to make Ben avoid mistakes. We had to fight tooth and nail to keep his flaws.”

The series has gone to four seasons now, and each one is different. “We don’t repeat ourselves,” they told us, so for the second series they made Ben ten years older.

Ben 10 had been optioned to be made into a feature film by Joel Silver for Universal. And the Men of Action are going into live action shows as well.

Steven – our company is just the four of us. We want to keep it that way. We don’t want any more men. Our slogan is the four of us make up a single man.

They work with 14 other writers that they supervise when they have more work on the drawing board than they can handle. “We have an interesting hybrid process in the writing,” said Steven. “We do outlines, and we co-write with our head writer. Many of them are women. We work with writers from the comic industry, we work with brand new writers. We are looking for new writers all the time.”

The team help newcomers to the process, as they realise that writers are often brought in and they don’t know the world their functioning in, and they’re given a lot of notes they can’t really understand.

Duncan added that it’s also important to bring in writers who don’t normally do animation, as it brings in a fresh voice.  “It’s a great place to bring in new talent introduce them to the world and give them some knowledge. We have been able to place writers as story editors in other productions after they worked with us.”

He said that the challenge now is to integrate all the different platforms together that stories are told in today.

The team said that although very successful, they have found that they don’t require a building to house the team. They all have large offices in their homes, and they meet in one of these if they have to get together as a team. Most of the time they converse via Skype and the internet. They have a person working for them whose job it is to co-ordinate them all, working out what tasks need to be done and by whom, and providing a list.

Steven – “Hollywood has no idea how to work with a writing group. We don’t mind that at all. We have a lot of mystery. We have an opt-in system. But it’s all under Man of Action.”

He added that Hollywood is used to working with a single writer and providing input on how they would have done it differently – but different isn’t always better.

Joe said “We never burn out a project real quick. Fans especially smell that from a mile away. It may look nice but it’s not the way to do it.  I like doing comedy too, but my comedy seems to be raw and inappropriate.”

Steven – “We do a lot of partnerships. We are a crew of adept storytellers and writers. We have one or two co-productions going. It’s just finding the right fit to get the project out the door and into the world.” He added that this trip Down Under was the first time the four Man of Action people had travelled internationally in 13 years, they have been so busy.

Interestingly, the panel said that each Man of Action sees the world quite differently, and while they are able to come to a fast consensus, if left to their own devices each would write very differently.

Duncan – “It’s really about trying to make quality. If you do quality, money will follow. That’s not always the case, specifically in Hollywood.”

The four sometimes work on individual projects but they fall under the Man of Action banner. They’re all cheerleaders for each other and get excited by what each other are doing. “We have the best safety net,” said Steven. “It’s great for when you’re halfway through something and you aren’t sure what to do.”

Joe added that although they are all character driven, each one approaches character differently, and often they begin with the story. Steven said he often starts with the end, where they want to go, and work backwards from that.

“Also theme,” said Duncan. “What is this story trying to say? You find the appropriate characters and then you suss out the story that way. Reinforcing that theme. That’s where the four of us really come into play.”

They all keep copious notes because they believe they have to be willing to build build build, tear down, rebuild. You have to keep lots of notes in order to remember your ideas along the way.

“Sometimes you figure out the theme of the main character, the basic flaw, and you build the other characters around that.  Then you have other characters going the opposite way.”

The Man of Action team have at least one weekly meeting, which can last an entire day. “We have a trafficker who creates a list of everything that has to be done. That made a huge difference about 5 years ago. You are given a list of the 12 things you have to do today, and one of them may be you have to talk to Joe Kelly about something.”

The final word came from Duncan. “In any kind of relationships you need constant conversation, constant talk,” he said.

MARK POOLE