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.

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