For the fourth consecutive year MIFF offered Books at MIFF IN 2010, as part of its 37 South program. Books at MIFF aims to bring the publishing world and the screen sector closer together in understanding, which several speakers said during the morning session at the Forum is sorely needed to bridge the gulf between the two.

The key idea behind Books at MIFF is the notion that our publishing industry is thriving and local authors enjoy the sort of regular success and sizeable audiences that continue to elude our feature filmmakers. Why is that so, several speakers mused.

The morning session began with the launch of a paper written by Matthew Hancock as part of the Masters of Arts program at the AFTRS Centre for Screen Business in collaboration with Screen Australia. The paper is being distributed with the catchy title of Occasional Paper #2, Mitigating Risk: The Case for More Adaptations in the Australian Film Industry. In summary the paper makes the case for why the Australian film industry should do more adaptations than at present.

Matthew who now works at Screen Australia talked to the paper, explaining how he’d conducted research on the past film output between 1999 and 2008. He found that adaptations are more likely to return money at the box office than original films, and also that they offer less risk than original films as an investment. I’ll look at the paper in more detail later, but he pointed out that around 70% of Hollywood’s film output was adaptation and the UK’s is around 50%, while our rate in Australia languishes at 30%.

Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence in our source material. Robyn Kershaw and Michael Heyward alluded to the situation in the 1970s when a university lecturer in Adelaide famously decided to put on a course on Australian literature, then said that since there was no Australian literature, he would begin with D.H.Lawrence’s Kangaroo. Similarly when Australian film was reborn in the same time period, the initial features such as Wake In Fright, Walkabout, and Sunday Too Far Away were directed by overseas filmmakers, as supposedly we had no local ones.

In 2010 of course Australian literature is a success story, and several speakers mentioned the robustness of Australian publishing at present. “Our industry has grown from strength to strength,” said Text Publishing’s Heyward. “We’ve bought back the farm, and our local authors are expected to be bestsellers, such as Christos Tsiolkas with The Slap. Our audience is hungry four what we can provide them, and we provide books to a world class level.”

So the burning question is why the Australian film industry isn’t engaging with local audiences in the same way.

It’s clear from this session that success with Australian film enhances success in Australian books, especially were adaptations are concerned.

Heyward pointed to the expertise located within the publishing sector. “Every day we’re reading stories, talking about character, editing stories, talking about audiences with international publishers.”

The panel, ably hosted by industry commentator Sandy George, talked in various ways about how successful films could be made out of successful books, but filmmaker Robert Connolly struck a different note when he urged producers to leave creative elbow room for the writer and director of an adaptation. “Sometimes the best books to adapt are the least successful, because the screenwriter doesn’t feel obliged to replicate the success of the novel,” he suggested.

Towards the conclusion of the session talent manager Stacey Testro talked about Australian director Shane Betts who has been embraced by Hollywood despite his relatively lightweight track record. He convinced producers with his vision, his detailed approach and sheer enthusiasm for his current project, beating more experienced US directors to the punch.

Testro also said that what held Australia back more than anything in her opinion was our secrecy. In the US, she said, people are willing to be upfront about what they’re doing, but here nobody will be specific about their projects, for fear of being stolen underneath them. For Stacey, this has the effect of paralysing our industry.

During the panel discussion it was obvious that publishers are ready and willing to work with producers and filmmakers to turn books into films. Margie Seale from Random House for example cited the success of local authors in the children’s and young adult areas, but noted a dearth of children’s films being made. “It seems to me a lot of work could be done in this area,” she said. “Publishers have a lot invested in the book if it’s going to be made into a film, and there’s no question that films sell books.”

A number of case examples were quoted, such as the book Atonement where the film resulted in a doubling of book sales. “Publishers are very happy to partner with producers during the promotion process,” said Margie, “and we’d love to work with producers more closely.”

Pippa Masson from Curtis Brown agreed, adding that there was a lack of understanding on both sides about what producers, agents and publishers did. “It’s all about relationships,” she said, “and we need much stronger relationships in this area.”

The panel discussed what authors looked for in a production team, and there was general agreement that the filmmaker’s track record was important, as well as their creative intentions in translating the work to the screen.

Producer Robyn Kershaw brought up the question of how much was sought for the option to adapt a book, saying that she’s had to drop the project on more than one occasion when the publisher held out for an extremely high option fee. The AFTRS study discovered that the usual option fee was between $500 and $3000 per year. Kershaw, whose feature films (Looking for Alibrandi and Bran Nue Dae) were both adaptations, also pointed out that producers need five year options as this is the realistic amount of time it will take to develop a film. And of course Robyn should be listened to, as both her films have done great things at the box office – Alibrandi took an incredible $11.8 million in 2000 and Bran Nue Dae upwards of $7 million and counting this year.

Martha Coleman described her experiences working as Head of Development for Icon Entertainment International in the UK, where as mentioned above far more adaptations are made than is the case in Australia. For me it’s fantastic to shine a torch on an area that’s underutilized here, she said. “We had someone working three days a week networking with publishers and getting across forthcoming manuscripts, and she’d bring us two or three novels every week for us to consider. I knew exactly what novels and books were available out there,” said Martha. “I think we need to become more organized and systematic in our relationships with agents and the publishing community.”

Robert Connolly on the other hand pointed out that his approach was far from systematic as small companies like his don’t have the resources to do it. Another veteran of adaptations with The Boys, Three Dollars, Romulus My Father and Balibo to his credit, Connolly reminded the audience, and the panel, of Peter Weir’s request to his agent to send him broken scripts, ones with strong but unrefined ideas. “I think that it’s a mistake to assume that if a book is a huge hit that it will make a huge film,” said Robert. “Maybe as filmmakers we need broken ideas to work on. It’s incredibly difficult to make a great film out of a great literary work, as its best form was clearly the novel, and all the film can do is to become an interpretation of a great work.”

Stacey Testro, CEO of Stacey Testro International, talked about how she works in the United States as well as Australia because it’s a bigger market, and she was looking for opportunities for her clients in order for them to grow, as well as for her own business. “The way the industry works in the US on a day to day basis is just so different,” she said. “I can get on the phone and have a conversation with almost anyone, and there is information swapping all the time. We put deals together with agents and we update our grid of information about what’s happening on a daily basis. I think it would be fantastic if the industry here could swap information in a similar way, and it would lead to open communication and the way we operate.”

“We’ve got to stop being so secretive.”

Michael Heyward from Text Publishing explained how his company operates in relation to rights. “The issue of price for options is an interesting one,” he observed. “You don’t want to give the rights away for nothing. You are locking it up for five to ten years, and you don’t want to lose on it. I want to get rid of people who lock up the rights for not a lot of money in case they might want it one day.”

Michael described what he looked for in a prospective producer. “We’re looking for the passion to make the film, an understanding that it’s a film not the book, we want the author to be able to be involved, and we want the filmmaker to have a vision of the film. We want the production company to have the capacity and the intent to do something with the rights, to make the film.”

Towards the end there was an interesting discussion about what would happen if a new filmmaker approached publishers, and in effect the consensus was that passion and vision would triumph over track record in the end. Martha Coleman mentioned that Screen Australia has a fast track option for assessments if you need to talk to a publisher that’s worth checking out.

Michael Heyward said that he had collaborated with Robert Connolly on Romulus My Father very successfully. “By joining forces we got huge publicity, a front page story in the Melbourne Age. And the reason why a lot of people went to see the film was because they knew the author Raimond Gaita was involved.”

The rest of the morning was taken up with public pitches, where this year the format was altered so that producers made a two minute pitch on behalf of publishers, with their occasional input, and Sandy George threw out challenging questions about the project. It was a highly entertaining session and I’m sure whetted the interest of producers in the audience, who were then able to follow up the publishers in closed meetings around the tables at the Forum.

It was interesting that the session’s organisers had decided to let producers instead of publishers make the pitch, presumably because producers are more likely to know what makes a book translatable to the screen – which usually means strong story, at least two engaging characters, conflict and a story that can be told visually. Perhaps the way the projects to be pitched had altered also, as this year there were three or four that I felt could actually make it onto the big screen, whereas in past years I’ve often felt that none of the books were actually suitable for adaptation – usually because they only had one major character, or the pitch described a setting but not a story.


This article was first published in Screen Hub.

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