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

THE ART OF THE PITCH

We hear more and more about pitching these days in Australia as we incorporate this aspect of American culture without somehow having absorbed the American ability to pitch. At least, most of us haven’t. Rick Kalowski is one Australian who is clearly better at pitching than most, but that didn’t stop one television network executive from giving this feedback to Rick’s pitch of ‘At Home With Julia’: This is not a show, it will never be a show, please stop wasting your time and move on.” The show was subsequently produced by the ABC TV, where Rick currently works as Head of Comedy.

Pretty much all of the panel have worked together on one project or another. Nicole Minchin, Amanda Brotchie and Adam Zwar represent High Wire Films, Debbie Lee currently works for Matchbox Pictures but was previously commissioning editor at the ABC, and before that SBS, and Jennifer Collins is currently Head of Entertainment at ABC, but is shortly to head off to become Head of Fiction at Screentime.

There were some gems in this session, such as Rick’s recollection of a VHS tape from Chris Lilley showcasing his character Mr G. At the time Chris couldn’t get work as an actor and felt he was failing as a stand-up, and had decided his best bet was to create his own show.

And to cut to the chase, Rick exhorted budding comedy writers to send him a pitch before getting a producer attached, if they don’t already have one. He told the audience at this workshop that his section of the ABC reads all submissions, and if they think one has possibilities, they will be in contact.

Of course, he also said that in order to pitch successfully you have to have done your homework. You need to know what’s already on air, and what has been successful in the same genre as your project. Rick said he’d received countless pitches at SPA, and he was surprised at the number of times people hadn’t been aware of similar shows already on air on the ABC, or famous sitcoms that have been made in New Zealand for years.

Brevity is a virtue, where pitches are concerned. Especially paper pitches, which ar apparently usually far too long. At the end of the session Rick went into detail on the five page pitch. One page for the concept, and no longer. One page for all the characters, and no longer. One page for a sense of story progression and the episodes. One page for two or three examples of what happens, the narrative arc. And one page on tone and style, and a paragraph on the program making team.

Brevity is good for verbal pitches too. Keep it to one or two lines, no more, and don’t overcomplicate things. Remember, it’s hard for the listener to absorb a verbal pitch, and all you’re trying to do is to hook them to want more. “Be positive and take your time,” Nicole Minchin advised. “Keep it simple.” Jennifer Collins: “What is it offering the network?” Debbie Lee: “Distill it into two lines, make eye contact, express your passion for the idea.”

However, Adam Zwar, co-creator of Wilfred, Lowdown and Agony Uncles, told the audience he’d heard of people getting the green light from a half page pitch, but it had never happened to him. Quite the contrary, with Wilfred they had an award-winning Tropfest short, and a pilot, and still they had to write all 13 episodes to convince the network to go ahead. “In Australia, from my experience you have to do a hell of a lot of work,” said Adam. “You have to know the characters inside out, the tone of the show, so that you can answer any question that’s put to you in a pitch session.”

Adam had a great tip he’d learnt from someone else, which is that if you’re pitching a comedy, make sure you mention the word ‘hilarious’.

Rick said he’s starting to see more pitches using Powerpoint, which can provide more of a sense of the feel of the show, with embedded stills and maybe video. Although several people, including Rick, said they didn’t want to be made to watch a clip from the project during a pitch meeting, as he would feel under pressure to be positive rather than feeling free to respond naturally to it.

Adam reminded people that you should rehearse your pitch, tell it to yourself in the mirror, tell your friends and watch where their eyes glaze over. Preparation is all.

As a group, the panel canvassed why Australia doesn’t do studio sitcoms – the last one was probably Hey Dad, or The Newlyweds, or Mother and Son. They all love studio comedy, and as Rick pointed out the ABC has a strong tradition of studio audience shows in factual, so why couldn’t they do comedy? And while Rick isn’t a fan of either, he noted that The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men were the two most profitable shows in the world.

MARK POOLE

ABC TV TALKS TO SPA

The ABC TV session was spearheaded by new Director of Television Richard Finlayson, who talked about the network’s priorities and challenges.

While he felt that “not a lot is broken at the moment,” with a positive culture at the ABC with people who are the leaders in their field, there is an understanding that they need to embrace the future. “We can’t do the same things we have.”

With half their top 100 shows being made locally, one challenge is to continue the production of such programs.

The second challenge Richard identified is the rush to on demand and personalised viewing. “Viewers don’t care if they are paying for content, or if it’s free,” he said. Last year there were 20 million views on iView, and the other networks are catching up.

Thirdly, younger people are dropping off the viewing charts, although the trend could be flattening out.

To address these challenges, the ABC has come up with a series of strategic priorities.

The first is to put audiences first.

“We need to adopt a user experience view of the world,” he said. “Iview gives us data on how people are using our content.”

The second is the need for high quality, high impact content.

The ABC wants to be seen as a destination for the Arts. Finlayson spun the fact that Foxtel has stolen the march on first run BBC drama from the ABC in a positive way, stating that it will free up resources to provide high impact content. “The audience will turn to the ABC for coverage of big events,” he explained. He also announced that they are relaunching a new version of iView for the Android platform in December 2013. He said they would also be releasing a major show exclusively on iview, so that it will be available for binge viewing.

The third priority was to promote the ABC brand, and communicate with clarity.

The fourth is to harness our creative culture. They are going for a cross-cultural approach, to utilise our diversity. “We also want to work with independent producers who think really big.”

The fifth priority was to improve flexibility and agility.

“The independent sector is vital to our success,” said Finlayson. “We need local ideas that resonate globally.”

He said that he had met with the Danes who have found such impressive success with their dramas (The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen). “They saw a need for change, and they found that the more local they got, the more globally successful they became.”

Chris Oliver-Taylor, who steered the session, asked some curly questions, which he was able to do as the current MD of Matchbox, and who previously worked at the ABC. He asked about the challenge of Netflix, and if was true that the ABC’s budgets have suffered a cut.

Finlayson agreed that there have been cuts, but they haven’t been material, more like 1 to 2% of overall budgets. “When I arrived I was greeted with a big spreadsheet which said you have less money. So we’ve had to trim across each of our budgets, but we have to be able to back our strategic priorities. Drama and kids programming are still absolutely our priorities.”

Another priority is to re-energise ABC Commercial, and to back Robert Patterson, who is the new director. “I’m asking my team and producers to work with ABC commercial to give them a go and put them back into the game.”

Asked where he will take the channel next, Brendan Dahill, the Controller of ABC1 replied that it’s about serving Australians the broadest, widest service across all genres. “It has been great to be number 3 in the ratings,” he added, “and that has grown our audiences, but it’s not about ratings.”

Brendan admitted that Serangoon Road hasn’t found an audience, and indeed it was the only drama he had to shift slots this year. “It’s disappointing but we’re not a commercial broadcaster, and it was a risk to work with international partners,” Brendan said. “We’ve learnt so much in the process.” He explained that their partner HBO Asia wanted more action, and the ABC wanted more character based stories, so that was an issue.

Chris asked what sorts of programming he wants to be pitched, and Brendan said it’s always about the ‘cool idea.’ “We have a fantastic slate of drama for 2014 that will work here and internationally,” he said. “We should be confident about telling our stories around the world.”

Next, Stuart Menzies talked about ABC2, which he said is getting great growth with interesting ‘noisy’ programs that are captivating audiences.

“We get competition from everywhere,” said Stuart. “The thing that we rest on is our Australian content. The shows that work are the shows that we commission. Our own commissions should work best.”

ABC2 will commission 100 hours this year, and hopefully more next. “It’s hard to make a whole network on 100 hours but it’s what defines us.”

Stuart mentioned that they had discovered a lot of their audience finds the channel via surfing, particularly around 9.30 pm when the main channels ‘go to sleep.’ They deliver ‘rock solid public service content, with tabloid titles.’

Barbara Uecker, Acting Controller of ABC Children’s Television, maintains strong focus on audiences and quality as the secret of their success. “It’s about risk, reliability and reputation. We can take more risk than commercial channels.”

ABC Children’s has Dance Academy and the new Nowhere Boys from Matchbox – fantastic content that sells around the world, she said. Asked what they are looking for, she added that they were open to all kinds of pitches, but they have a focus on animation. “Please get in touch with us and pitch your ideas. We will love to get together and work with you.”

On documentaries, Brendan Dahill maintained that the ABC commissions as many singles as they ever have, but they also make more factual content and more series, so it looks like there are fewer singles. “The issue is its really hard to navigate an audience to singles,” he said. “Trying to make any one hour single in the schedule is really difficult. But we will be rigorous about why we are doing the things we do.”

Menzies said they commissioned the sorts of ideas ‘that keep you awake at night.’ “Unless it keeps you awake at night worrying, you probably shouldn’t be commissioning it.” He added that if you are trying to attract a younger audience, the ideas should be dangerous. He likes to see the fundamental idea pitched succinctly, rather than a 30 page document.

MARK POOLE

AGENTS – YOU GOTTA LOVE ‘EM! – SPAA 2013

This session was about the power and influence of the agent in advancing a producer’s project, and along the way it gave the audience goosebumps about how exciting lives seem to be in the big league of LA.

Speakers were:

Richard Klubeck, Partner – United Talent Agency

Bec Smith, Agent, United Talent Agency

Ian Collie, Producer and Partner, Essential Media and Entertainment

Mark Morrissey, Founder and Managing Director, Mark Morrissey and Associates

The session was well moderated by Annabelle Sheehan, Senior Executive, Development and Production Services, Media Venture Partners, and a former agent at RGM.

Annabelle began with a suggestion that producers must recognise the power of talent, and agents must accept the significant driving force that is a producer.

The session covered connecting, or linking to the project, negotiating, or what is best practice, how to collaborate and achieve both the red carpet of film festivals and repeat business, and whether agents represent producers, and how does that work?

Mark Morrissey is an Australian agent who spends a lot of time in LA, having trekked over there regularly for over 18 years. He said that he always starts with the script, and reads between 6 and 10 per week. “I still enjoy the process of reading a great script,” he said. He reads them if it has attached producers or directors he knows, or if he can be introduced to them.

That was a theme of this session and others – that Hollywood operates by linking people to others through shared contacts. Several times, the comment was made that you can get through to anyone you need to, but you have to approach them via someone you know who also knows your target. You can’t approach them cold. “You can approach me through people I trust like casting agencies, or directors I admire,” said Morrissey.

“I start with a great script and build around that.”

“I’ve got excited about smaller projects like The Rover which has just finished shooting in WA. It doesn’t have to be a big project. It was the quality of the package that was presented. I got a clear idea of the director’s vision and the level of the actors they wanted on board. The director had some wonderful success here in Australia with Animal Kingdom,” he explained.

Annabelle – What’s the situation in the US? What gets you excited?

Richard – “In LA there is so much volume, so many scripts, projects, from so many sources, so for us the biggest challenge is sorting through all that volume. If it’s coming through the studio there’s a straightforward process. For material coming outside it’s trickier. You’re looking for something good or special.”

For projects coming from Australia, it’s about who the filmmaker is, and whether they have done well in the film festival circuit. “Every actor is looking for projects outside the studio system,” he said.

Richard added that the truth is there are scripts that simply find their way to the top. “We look at the blacklist for projects that rise on their own to the top, or get through via word of mouth.”

Bec Smith is an Australian now based in LA. For her, if you’re an Australian trying to attract a certain member of cast, the best thing is to have a sense of the artist you’re trying to approach. You should do your research, and try to be introduced to their agent by someone who already has a relationship with them. She said that while there are some people who never jump onto a type of project they haven’t worked on before, most directors  don’t want to be pigeonholed and want to explore different genres.

Producer Ian Collee from Essential Media said that the success of getting Rake remade in the US came down to having a good package and the quality of the scripts. “The scripts that Peter Duncan and Andrew Knight wrote for Rake were fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to play Dogfucker?” Also having Richard Roxburgh as one of the producers gave the some cache, and he was able to get on the phone if need be.

Asked about the number of big stars playing cameo roles in the series, Collee said that some of the roles only needed one or two days max, so it wasn’t so hard to get someone like Cate Blanchett, who had worked with Richard Roxburgh in theatre a lot. “By then we were in the third season.”

However, getting a high profile Australian actor to commit to a role can be tricky as they will have other, more high profile projects waiting in the wings, and so sometimes you can’t get a format commitment, in case schedules change. Sometimes, you have to move on, said Collee.

For Richard, it’s incredibly important to understand what agents are doing. Agents like the producers who understand what agents are doing. “Every series director has two three five projects they are juggling. Every actor has two or three projects they are doing in a year. The problem for an agent is that if they suggest a project to a client that doesn’t come to pass, they are at risk of being fired. “So we want to know if the project is really going to happen. It’s vital that we do not overcommit, so that we make ourselves and our actors vulnerable. If a producer understands that, they can work with us and develop the trust, and we can commit to those producers and get the movie made.”

Annabelle commented that some producers and even funding bodies don’t get the word ‘attachment’.

Mark Morrissey agreed. “It’s a difficult process. We’re about wanting our clients to work. A working client is a happy client. You need to co-ordinate opportunities for our clients. We try to make it clear that until the contract is signed and all the ducks are lined up, it is only then that the actor can commit to it. Before everything is in place you can’t commit.”

OfOf course one of the conundrums is that if the client happens to be an A+ actor, his or her commitment may make the project happen.

The panel agreed that they appreciate preparation and research. Mark said one director approached him and he came along with a vision board of exactly how he planned to shoot it.

Richard said that if a book that a movie is going to be based on is already out there, then the producer should do the work and put in the reviews, and a statement on why Wes Anderson may wish to direct it.

Moving onto negotiating, Annabelle wanted to know how Ian Collee managed television finances with a marquee cast, like the Jack Irish series, which starred Guy Pearce.

Ian told the audience that before the project was locked off he approached the agent (Shanahans). “We had a brand to sell in Peter Temple. There’s a great Aussie Rules and Guy used to play for Geelong juniors. He’s a Melbourne boy and likes to be back.”

Ian added that once Guy was attached, they had to negotiate his fee, but once that was done they were able to raise more money in the market, as they had something to sell, namely Guy Pearce doing TV.

Annabelle – How do negotiations break down? Cut to the chase!

Mark Morrissey’s definition of negotiations breaking down is when he estimation of the value of his client doesn’t equate with theirs.

Bec Smith agreed. “Sometimes it just comes down to economics. In Australia everyone knows each other, and sometimes the producer just goes around you and goes directly to the client. They don’t understand that the agent isn’t trying to obstruct the deal.”

Richard blames the lawyers. “Lawyers make deals break down more than the agents do,” he offered. But he said that sometimes people aren’t clear up from about how the deal will play out. “Sometime there’s a devious approach.”

“We try up front to be clear about it – is it a money job, or is it a cut rate job, and if so how deep a rate cut are we talking about?”

Everyone has their price. Apparently.

Other considerations are, how big do they think the movie is, who else is in it, and how much of the back end is available.

Annabelle – are producers resistant to finding the back end?

Richard – Producers love to move fees into the back end. We know the projects where that is going to happen. If it’s a 10 million movie and the writer is a 2 million writer, he’s not going to get to 2 million up front.

The panel discussed the trend where actors ask for a producer or co-producer credit. While some wanted to discourage that trend, Richard spoke in defence of it, as sometimes it’s justified. As well, he said that sometimes the director wants a producer credit, because they then have more chance at the Academy Awards. “If you’re a director, it’s incredibly tough to get a nomination for Best Director, but if you’re a producer as well, you’re eligible for Best Film.”

Richard added that sometimes an actor gets involved very early on, and they are taking a risk, so they should get a producer or co-producer credit. Bec said that the actor may be the lead actor who attracted a number of other actors to the project, and giving them a producer credit may be a way of acknowledging that.

“Attracting an actor to an unfinanced project is a big deal,” said Richard. “It’s emotional, because the actor may develop an attachment to the director, and then if they can’t do it because the schedule changes, it can get messy and the agent may get blamed.”

In concluding the session, Bec said that there is a lot of ‘white noise’ in the industry in the States, and an agency can help you cut through that to what is real. “Also the US is so much a culture of advocacy, so it helps to have someone who can introduce you or put you together with someone they think you should be working with.”

Mark Morrissey said that producers sometimes falls into the trap of believing that the relationship is over once the deal is signed. “If there’s ever an issue with one of my actors, I’m the one to call,” he said. “If there’s a problem on set, I don’t want any standoffs or issues for my client. I want it to be as good as it can be for our client.”

Richard said that most people try to sell a script to a big studio if they think it has a chance there. If you can’t sell to a studio, or don’t want to, then it’s a different process, and that’s where packaging comes into play. Packaging can work if the screenplay is a very good one, or if it’s a genre that sells, like The Sixth Sense or The Others.

“I think it comes down to whether the director can convince the actor to do the project.”

Annabelle had a final suggestion for Australian producers who can’t get the green light from a local distributor. “You can get them to tell you which cast members they would need to approve the project,” she suggested. “Then you take their list and work down it via their agents. Once you get the cast that’s been preapproved, you can go back to the distributor and say ‘we’ve got your cast.’

MARK POOLE