The Business of Development

Published in Screen Hub 5 July 2013.

This week the Australian Writers’ Guild hosted a lively session on script development, with speakers from both Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

It was a timely opportunity to hear from three people central to development decisions, namely Jenni Tosi, CEO of Film Victoria, Veronica Gleeson, Senior Development Executive of Feature and Professional Development at Screen Australia, and the new person on the block, Jo Dillon who has just taken up her post as Development Executive at Screen Australia, based in Melbourne.

The session was pointed at times, if not outright heated, and each participant spoke from the heart about what moved them in a screenplay, which was fascinating to hear. However it also reflected the development limbo we’re in at present.

Film Victoria’s Development Manager, Charlie Carman, wasn’t on the podium but at the back of the hall, presumably as she is leaving. Her replacement is yet to be announced, but another recent Film Vic appointment, Ross Hutchens, the new Head of Screen Industry Programs, also waved to the gathering from the rear.

More astounding, Veronica Gleeson reported that a new CEO to replace Ruth Harley had apparently been found, only the staff don’t know who it is. They are waiting for Federal Cabinet to approve the appointment, apparently. On top of that, well known and respected Head of Production Ross Mathews has announced he’s leaving, as has the equally respected Head of Development Martha Coleman. So when you add in the prospect of a change of government in a couple of months, the agency seems as stable as a tent in a gale.

Given the looming Federal election, perhaps it was a timely reminder that Australia’s screen agencies are at the mercy of their political rulers, a point reinforced by Tosi. She reminded the audience that Film Victoria must work within the parameters set by the Liberal State Government, and as such has to deliver ongoing efficiencies and shed staff as they have recently done, from 52 to 37.

The room was packed to the gunwhales with writers, who as Gary Files suggested, ‘we just want to write.’ Yet the vast majority would not be eligible for funding from either agency, as they haven’t recently written a number of produced features or secured a contract with a producer with an appropriate track record. This created the impression that the development game is increasingly illusory, where people talk endlessly about progressing your script, or someone else’s, but nothing much actually seems to happen. There are workshops, pitch sessions, and script labs galore, but it can seem like very little in terms of actual money is flowing to writers, so they can devote some precious time to actually writing.

Tosi said it was a real conundrum for Film Victoria. “Do you spread a lot of money very thin, or do you support a smaller number to a more substantial amount?” Increasingly, Film Victoria’s development funds have gone to the latter category, and in the past twelve months virtually the only development rounds they’ve offered have been for ‘market ready’ features that have the full production team in place, as well as a distributor. Which should perhaps be termed ‘marketing’ instead of ‘development.’

Perhaps this is why one of the biggest film successes to come out of Victoria in recent years, Clayton Jacobson’s Kenny, received no development funding at all, since none was requested. Clayton has famously said that in making the film he gave the funding bodies as much thought as he gave Sweden.

Tosi echoed that thought by declaring that producers had to have a number of options to fund their films, and if Plan A is to score government subsidy for their film, then Plan B might have to be to gain money outside the subsidy system. Indeed, according to Tosi, the financing model for feature films has collapsed, whereas the television model is better understood, and she urged writers to consider writing television instead of features.

Several writers in the audience took issue with fact that it’s virtually impossible these days to get development funding without a producer attached to the project. However when one writer complained that meant they had to do a deal with a producer that transferred ownership in the project from the writer to the producer, Charlie Carman piped up from the back stalls to say that the writer can enter into a joint venture agreement with the producer so that both retain ownership.

Veronica Gleeson explained the Screen Australia ‘party line’ that projects need producers on board to get funding as previously an extraordinary number of screenplays were developed that never got made. “You need someone who can finance a project and put the money together,” she explained. “It’s difficult as hell.”

Jo Dillon said that Screen Australia is looking for small budget films that could screen in A list festivals and also do well at the box office. She cited Animal Kingdom as such a film, one that is a genre film with something to say.

Veronica Gleeson added that overseas buyers were looking for ‘elevated genre’ films with budgets under $2 million, or budgets of $8 to $10 million with a marketable cast. However she cautioned against trying to second guess what Screen Australia may or may not want to fund, suggesting it’s preferable to simply go in and talk to them about your project. She stated that their criteria are public under five headings – essentially the creative ambition of the project, how the project plans to deliver it, how well the creative team meshes together, how well the script delivers and the track record of the key players. However, they are also on the lookout for projects they react to ‘at the gut level’ and find extraordinary.

Jenni Tosi added: ‘We are all in this together with you, we are not against you. We are all trying to negotiate an incredibly difficult environment, full of idiosyncratic people. Sometimes it’s about funding talent, and we may back a team even if we aren’t sure if the project has a market. It’s dangerous to try and put things in boxes, as it’s not that simple.’

In answering the question ‘what makes a script ‘pop’ for you,’ Veronica mentioned clarity as opposed to obviousness. ‘There are basic mechanics to a feature film and it’s a joy to read a script that delivers those,” she said. ‘Trying to do too much won’t work, and trying to hide problems rarely works. A clear and direct communication does it for me.’

Jo Dillon agreed that a screenplay that is simply told on the surface but had genuine depth works for her. ‘When it makes you sit there and read it, which is kind of a cold thing to do,’ she added. ‘If you can read it from end to end and not want to go off and make a cup of tea, that usually means that there is a coherence to the narrative.’

She also said she likes to discover a character she’s never seen before, and she enjoys a scene which makes her laugh out loud, that has audacity.

Jenni agreed that if you get to page 15 and you’re not surprised or excited then something isn’t working. “I’m open to any idea,’ she said. “But if it doesn’t surprise you, move you, resonate with you, then it’s probably not the best screenplay in the pile.’

Adding that if a script really works it stays with you, she cited reading Animal Kingdom. “You were immersed in this horrible world, but you felt empathy for the main character.”

In concluding remarks, Veronica Gleeson said that at Screen Australia they are aware of the difficulties of distribution for feature films, but they are not going to stop making them because of that. ‘Feature films are important to our culture and representing ourselves on screen. Making features will remain a challenge for years to come.’

Jo Dillon remarked that she used to work in newspapers, and like them, feature films are being challenged but will continue on. She recognised that there is something about features that is recognised by governments as significant culturally, and that’s why they will continue. She quoted Nick Cave (writer of Lawless, 2012 and The Proposition, 2005) as saying that if you want people to get out of their homes and sit in a cinema and listen to you, then you’d better have something to fucking say.

The evening concluded with a rousing vote of thanks to Charlie Carman for the work she had done in six years as Manager of Script Development at Film Victoria. She will be missed.

Written by Mark Poole for Screen Hub

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