For the sixth year, Books at MIFF was held yesterday as the initial event of the 37 degree South Market. A day after Screen Australia had extolled the virtues of Australians as major league storytellers and cited such successes as Snowtown, Red Dog, and The Sapphires as creating an international atmosphere where overseas financiers are actively seeking Australian works, a veritable who’s who of producers from around Australia flocked to the dark recesses of the Forum theatre just before nine a.m to sign up for the sessions. Several from interstate were overheard bitching about the 7 degree temperature outside.

Presumably, these producers had donned their huge overcoats in order to sniff out a sensational but available property that they could slap into the next “The Slap” or develop into the next “Red Dog.” For as MIFF Chair Claire Dobbin astutely observed in introducing the morning, around half a typical Aussie producer’s slate is made up of adaptations these days.

Books at MIFF is an alliance of Film Victoria, Screen Australia, the Melbourne International Film Festival and the MIFF 37 degrees South Market, and it’s an opportunity for producers to meet representatives from publishers and agents and discuss optioning one of their works. It’s also an opportunity for publishers and writers to showcase their work, and the morning’s business included a pitching session where seven projects were put before an audience of producers – only to be demolished one by one by industry journalist Sandy George. “Gee you’re mean,” one of the pitchers sighed. “I’m paid to be mean,” Sandy replied.

A key element of the morning is the booklet produced for the event which contains one page pitches from publishers on the works they hope will one day be adapted for the big or little screen. This year 66 books were profiled, ranging from fiction to non-fiction, children’s and adult, crime, historical drama, thriller, and even fantasy and sci-fi, and war.

This year was the second in which the central preoccupation was television. A panel looked at the metamorphosis of the series of novels Conspiracy 365 by Gabrielle Lord into a 12 part television series for the Movie Network, as well as the Jack Irish franchise penned by Peter Temple, which is kicking off with the Bad Debts telemovie on the ABC, and also premiering in MIFF.

The opening panel session featured the people behind the successful 12 part television series Conspiracy 365, spearheaded by producer Linda Klejus and writer of the novels Gabrielle Lord, and the team behind Jack Irish – Bad Debts, which included writer Andrew Knight, Ann Beilby from Text Publishing and the ABC’s Carole Sklan. Industry journalist Sandy George probed the speakers with questions.

One of the fascinating things about Conspiracy 365 is that according to Linda Klejus the actual deal with Movie Network was done over the space of two hours. “I pitched the idea to them in their office and left at 4.30 pm,” she told us, “and at 6.30 pm I received an email which said ‘yes, we are in, let’s get the screenplays moving.’ But as with all overnight successes, this one was predicated upon years of work laying down the foundations, not least by author Gabrielle Lord, who is also a screenwriter in her own right.

Gabrielle said that she was invited to write the 13 part Conspiracy 365 series by Scholastic, who wanted to target the difficult audience of reading-averse young people, particularly boys. “They wanted a crime series that would interest young people between 8 and 15, and I set up a massive story that would sustain a series,” said Lord.

Although Klejus attested to having to fend off offers from other producers for the rights to the series, she had had lunch with Lord years earlier, before the series was even written. “I’d written a 90 page treatment describing the story arc and Linda just loved it and wanted to do it from the beginning,” said Gabrielle. “Mind you there were lots of obstacles along the way.”

Asked how they pulled it off, Gabrielle added that she knew how dogged and tenacious Linda was, and she knew immediately that she was the right person for the job.

Linda explained that initially she was engaged in discussions with Movie Extra about a comedy project, and mentioned Conspiracy 365 to an executive who had two teenage boys who were obsessed with the series, so she didn’t even have to pitch it really. Fortuitously, the Movie Network wanted to relaunch the Family Channel in 2012, and saw this as the ideal project to kick it off, so very quickly they were off and running. “They were looking for a series as they have to spend 10% of their budget on Australian drama,” she explained. The other thing that was significant was that they were able to set aside a chunk of money from the outset for multiplatform content, which was essential with a release strategy where one episode is screened per month over a 12 month period. “There has to be somewhere online for the audience to go to stay engaged.”

As far as adapting the series for the screen is concerned, Klejus explained that it was fairly straightforward, as the network wanted a cliffhanger at the end of each episode that was resolved at the beginning of the next, and that was the format of the books. However there were budgetary issues, as it is easier to write about a raging storm at sea and helicopter rescues than it is to film them.

Sandy George then turned the conversation to the Jack Irish franchise. Anne Beilby from Text Publishing explained that Peter Temple has written eight novels that they have published, and he has retained the screen rights to them. She added that some novelists prefer to do it that way, but others get them to negotiate the screen rights for their projects with prospective producers.

Producer Ian Collie has acquired the rights to the Jack Irish series, and brought Andrew Knight on board to write the screenplay, and also executive produce. As Andrew explained, he first met Peter at a writer’s festival 123 years ago. “I sat down and read his books and was bowled over by how good they were,” he explained. “I read The Broken Shore and thought it was one of the best novels I’ve ever read.”

Knight had been working with Ian Collie on the highly successful Rake series for the ABC, and Collie asked Andrew if he’d be interested in working on the Jack Irish novels. “I’d never done adaptations before,’ added Andrew, “and I thought that will be great, I won’t have to worry about character or plot.”

Knight reported that he was also buoyed by the memory of hearing Alfred Hitchcock saying about his feature ‘The Birds,’ based on a novel, that he had read the novel on a train 15 years before making the film, and never went back to it.

He explained that Guy Pearce came on board the project and he didn’t resemble the main character so they reshaped it around him, and he’s such a great actor he made it work.

“Peter isn’t the easiest person to talk to sometimes,” Knight recalled. He wanted to be faithful to Temple’s work, but knew there would be some ‘sabotage’ along the way. The first novel was written in 1992, and the characters barracked for Fitzroy Football Club, which in 2012 no longer exists. In bringing the book up to the present day, Andrew decided to change the club supported, so Andrew sent Peter a note suggesting he was going to change the club from Fitzroy to Richmond. He received an email back right away. “Fuck off. Project off.” Knight hastily replied ‘I was just asking.’

“I made a mental note that it probably wasn’t worth asking questions like that.” Knight realised that if he continued down that path, he would end up trying to please the author when what he should be trying to do was please an audience.

Andrew declared that one of the things he loves about Temple’s writing is the wealth of interesting Australian characters who are largely peripheral to the plot. “They are normally the first things to excise in an adaptation, but I wanted to keep them.”

Asked why the ABC was interested in an adaptation of Peter Temple’s books, the ABC’s Head of Fiction Carole Sklan explained that the national broadcaster is interested in celebrating the work of Australia’s major novelists. “Crime drama has a huge following and lends itself to storytelling for the screen,” she added, “with its twists of plot, its sense of jeopardy and its wonderfully appealing characters such as Jack Irish, who is a dry wit, a damaged man who is colourful, corrupt and ruthless.”

The session concluded with a discussion about how producers go about gaining the rights to a book. Anne Beilby told the audience that they are approached on average once a week by Australian producers with an enquiry about whether rights are available for a particular book, and they are also regularly approached by international producers. However it emerged that the money offered may not be the final element of a successful pitch, as the publishers and authors are just as interested in who the producers are, what they have done before and what their vision is for realising the project.

Gabrielle Lord was asked what her advice would be to writers being approached by producers, and she replied that for her it was a tricky area as you can’t know in advance who will be the right person. “I would suggest meeting them and gauging their integrity. I tend to rely on my agent, who is very protective of me – in fact so protective that sometimes I have to fight against her.”

Linda Klejus said that aren’t any rules in this area. Money offered is an element, but she often offers a small sum for the rights, as that money can’t be financed from a funding agency, and comes out of the producer’s own pocket, initially at least. She stresses that the real payday for an author is when the project is realised, when a fee of around 1% or 2% of the budget will be paid.

Anne added: “What is important to us is that you care about it, you’ve got a vision, you’re going to give it your all. We’ll give it 18 months and then let’s see where it’s at.”

Gabrielle commented that she was very pleased Hollywood didn’t gain the rights to Conspiracy 365, as she thinks they would very likely have increased the age of the male lead, but for her the whole point is that he is very young.

And Andrew mentioned that years ago his company Artist Services put up an offer of $5000 for the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, only to be told that the current offer on the table was for $1.2 million. But the film is yet to be made…


First published in Screen Hub in 2012.

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