As we lurch towards a brave new Australian film industry, the Melbourne International Film Festival launched a bevy of new initiatives this week – including Books at MIFF, the Production Fund and 37 South in 2007.

Opening Night was the same but subtly different. Richard Moore is the new Festival Director, following on in the footsteps of Tait Brady, Sandra Straulig and James Hewison. Opening Night hosted two documentaries of sorts, a short film which worked well, and Sicko, the latest Michael Moore epic about America’s failing health system.

At the Opening Night party under the Regent Theatre, I heard from cateres Mary and Steve about an event the following morning, Books at MIFF. I considered trying to gatecrash the breakfast, only to discover that I’d actually received an invitation, and in a fit of organization, even RSVPed.

So my name tag awaited the next day in the foyer of the Forum, the home of MIFF during the festival. I was immeditately presented with a book which contained a summary of seventy-six of Australia’s most adaptable recently published books.

One thing that leapt out at me was the way Australian publishers were describing their books in order to gain a film sale. On each page was a heading ‘why this book should made into a film’ and the descriptions were often ‘it’s set in Australia’ or ‘its very visual’ or ‘it could be made on a small budget.’

Curious. Whenever I’m assessing an Australian work of prose for its chances of working on the silver screen, I’m looking for elements like great story, great characters, interesting theme, and something to say.

I took my head out of the book to grab some orange juice and chat with the likes of David Parker, Andrew Wiseman and  Claire Jaeger. The buzz about the producer rebate was positive, if guarded.

And then the publishers took to the podium to pitch their wares. One pitchee stood out – Michael Heyward from Text. He spoke from the heart, rather than reading from the page, and got me excited about both the projects he was offering.

Then there was a session with Steve Jacobs and Anna-Maria Monticelli who are in post production on Disgrace, adapted from the novel by J M Coetzee, and Michael Heyward and Robert Connolly, who worked together on Romulus My Father. They talked about the challenges of adapting works to the screen. “You have to make choices right away,” said Jacobs. “You can’t fit everything into a film.”

Connolly talked about the importance of working with the author of the novel with Romulus My Father, knowing that the publicity for the film would initially be driven by stories about Raimond Gaita, a well-known local writer.

We have all briefly thought about optioning a brilliant novel as the basis for a feature film – well, I certainly have – and Robert Connolly and John Maynard are perhaps the leading Australian exponents at this craft, with The Boys, adapted from the stage play, and then Three Dollars and now Romulus My Father all being critically as well as commercially successful. Perhaps we should ask them to draw up a blueprint that the rest of us could follow.

Because now, with more dollars floating around our industry, hopefully, through the Producer Rebate, the search for viable Australian properties is perhaps more urgent. Certainly if producers follow the Hollywood model of building viable businesses, then they will seek out Australian works that are capable of being adapted to the screen. And presumably any Hollywood dollars seeking to enter our local production industry will be doing the same.

A caution is that the publishers seemed to be hoping for fat cheques to be written by producers for their author’s work. Fat chance, in this industry, even with the rebate. Local producers don’t have the kind of money that Hollywood can pay for book rights, and never will.

And anyhow a novel will only work for the big screen if it’s sold tons of books, built a loyal local audience, got great characters and an amazing story, and if it’s about something that will be relevant in 2009, when the film is finally released.

So Books at MIFF was a highly relevant event for the present climes. At its first outing, the event seemed a little tentative and in need of development and refinement. But it was a first outing, and well done to Claire Dobbin, Richard Moore and Film Victoria for launching it. As one participant told me later, it will be better next year, when publishers and producers find ways of gaining common understanding about what each other needs. But I wonder if we can wait a year to get it right?

Mark Poole

This article first appeared in Screen Hub.


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