WIFT Victoria and the nitty-gritty on gender and diversity

by Mark Poole (first published in Screen Hub pm  Friday 9 September, 2016 )

This week Women in Film and Television Victoria took stock of diversity and gender matters with a panel which made the barriers and frustrations all too real.
WIFT Victoria and the nitty-gritty on gender and diversity

On the panel was Emma Freeman, a familiar name but not such a familiar face. Freeman has gone from being the first woman to win Tropfest with a short film to directing more than 60 hours of television drama including Love My Way, Offspring, all episodes of Glitch and the recent Secret City.

She is currently in preproduction on a feature film, The Circus, to be produced by Leanne Tonkes, the second member of the panel, whose first feature was My Mistress in 2014. The third member of the panel, chaired by Lisa French of RMIT University, was researcher Amanda Coles who provided an overview of the ecology of gender and diversity issues in film and television with research she has conducted in Canada.

Freeman has been working consistently as a director since 2002. However she recently realised she’d had an idea for a feature film in development for that entire time but failed to gain traction on the project. Meanwhile she has seen her male colleagues manage to make two or three features.

One problem for Emma Freeman, as a working director, is to have a life outside her work. She works 15 hour days, 6 days a week when employed on a show, and on her day off she wants to do ‘normal things’ like anyone else.

She first met Leanne Tonkes by accident.  Tonkes had just lost a director to the UK, and had been told about Freeman’s talent by the Victorian College of the Arts. Then she heard Freeman interviewed on the radio after winning Tropfest. ‘So I called the radio station and asked them to pass on a message for Emma to call me,’ Leanne recalled. They began to work together on television commercials, and discovered a shared liking for certain types of stories.

Although Tonkes acknowledged that financing first time feature directors is tough in the current climate, she expected that Freeman’s credits on series and the telemovie Hawke would ease the way. ‘She’s won heaps of awards and clearly knows what she is doing as a director,’  said Leanne. With an all female team, including writer Alice Bell, the increasing sensitivity to gender equality seems to be helping.

The duo are seeking support for their feature project The Circus. It grew out of stories told by Emma’s mother about growing up in a remote part of South Australia and sneaking off at night to visit the circus when it was in town. It’s a period piece which makes the piece financially challenging, but Tonkes commented that bigger budget films should not be viable for male directors only.

According to researcher Amanda Coles, the film and television industries are risk averse since the chances of any project failing are high, so the traditionally white male gatekeepers attempt to minimise the risk by hiring men to key positions of director, producer, writer and cinematographer. Yet Coles pointed out that this risk management strategy is deeply flawed, since films created by women are more successful than those by men, despite being low budget. ‘There is absolutely no business case in support of minimizing risk by employing men,’ said Coles. ‘Despite smaller budgets, films made by women have higher returns.’

Tonkes added that at the end of the day a producer should be able to present a package that can include women in all areas, not just a token one or two women. Women should be able to be cinematographers, composers and directors as well as makeup artists and costume designers. ‘There are so many areas where women are overlooked,’ she said.  ‘You are not getting the best out of the industry because  we’re not finding the people whose light would shine, given the opportunities.’

Chair Lisa French asked if the panel felt that women have a different perspective on storytelling, and Emma agreed. ‘Yeah, I think there is a female gaze,’ she stated. ‘A male director would direct a project differently to a female, and what you want is a balance of the male and female gaze.’ As an audience member she wants to see women on screen that reflect her point of view, and she rarely sees them on the big screen, but it is better in television. ‘I directed all the episodes of Glitch and Secret City. With both of those projects I know that if a male director had made them they would be different.’

Freeman said she’s been extremely fortunate to be able to work with some stellar women producers such as Louise Fox, Penny Chapman, Joanne Werner and Imogen Banks, who understand the need to create opportunities for strong female characters. On the recently aired Secret City, the books upon which the series was based featured a 60 year old male protagonist named Harry, and producer Penny Chapman urged the writers (Matt Campbell and Belinda Chayko) to change Harry to Harriet (a role played brilliantly by Anna Torv). Emma said that it made a huge difference to the sensibility of the series.

‘Women definitely need more opportunities,’ Freeman added. ‘When I go on set I’m often in a sea of men. They are beautiful people, and extraordinarily talented at what they do, but it’s an odd feeling to discover I’m one of the few women there.’

Asked if she forms networks of other female directors to share experiences, Freeman said that she has a friendship with Daina Reid and Kate Dennis. ‘There’s a lot of chattering amongst ourselves,’ she said. However they are all incredibly busy working, and Kate is presently based in LA.

Freeman checked out the LA scene a while ago but was put off by a meeting with a powerful female agent, whose first question was ‘So, what do you want to do, have a baby?’ Emma recalled that she’d been mortified at the assumptions underlying the query. ‘So I didn’t go with that agent,’ she said with a laugh.

Leanne Tonkes noted that the recent Screen Australia initiatives Brilliant Stories and Brilliant Careers have created opportunities for female creatives, although Screen NSW has gone even further, aiming to distribute funds 50:50 to men and women by 2020. Furthermore, Amanda Coles reminded us that Screen NSW has stated that they won’t fund television projects where the key creatives are all male, nor film festivals where judging panels are all male. Leanne added that Film Victoria has a Women in Leadership Development Initiative, of which she is a recipient, and Film Victoria have also introduced a Women in Games Fellowship to help address the gender imbalances within this industry as well.

‘Screen Australia will match fund up to $300,000 for distributors investing in projects which have women in key creative roles,’ said Tonkes. ‘So for bigger budget productions a distributor may take a risk where they know the project meets the Screen Australia gender guidelines, where previously they wouldn’t.’ Lisa added that producer Sue Maslin has been reported as saying that the distributor Universal were the only ones that understood The Dressmaker project and its potential for attracting female audiences – and the film went on to gross $20 million at the Australian box office last year.

Debra Allanson, producer on the Board of Film Victoria was in the audience, and she suggested that the old distribution models were no longer sustainable, and if the current crop of gatekeepers are white and male, that will change as models are shifting massively. ‘There will be new gates and the old gatekeepers will go,’ she said. ‘It will provide a more equitable landscape.’

As Amanda Coles reminded us, diversity and recognition of talent regardless of gender and race benefit us all.

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.

iBook Production: how to enter new terrain

Lisa French and Screen Hub correspondent Mark Poole have turned their history of the AFI into an iBook just in time for the third AACTA Awards. He explains the process. 

“Shining a Light: 50 Years of the AFI” is a book first published in 2009 by ATOM. Since then, the AFI has morphed into AACTA, wrestled with its sponsorship issues and rebadged the awards. So we were delighted to be able to upgrade the book, and release it on Apple’s iTunes store just in time for the 3rd AACTA Awards.

The sheer accessibility is amazing. We have a defined audience focused on the combat of the awards, and for a pretty modest $5.99 they can read it on their iPhone, iPad, or Android device.

We are familiar with traditional publishing, and digital film production, but we could see that combining the two would be a challenging learning curve. This is some of what we learnt.

So why make an iBook?

Shining a Light was the ideal candidate for the digital realm, because it would bring the book alive with snippets of the interviews the authors have done with many of Australia’s iconic filmmakers they talked to for information about the book: people like John Flaus, Bob Weis, Denny Lawrence, Annette Blonksi and many others.

Putting the book onto the Apple store allows people to access it whenever they need information about Australia’s makers of film and television content. Because the AFI is such an integral part of the screen sector, the book is far more than a narrow account of the institution. Spanning 54 years, from 1958 to the present, It maps the progression of our industry, particularly since the revival in 1970 to today, and the interviews accumulate to an important oral record of our film history.

Barry Jones, speechwriter for Prime Minister Sir John Gorton, explains in the book how he and Phillip Adams sold the notion of supporting a film industry when Gorton unexpectedly became PM after Harold Holt went missing off Portsea. It was Gorton who began the revival with an initial capital investment of $1 million, in 1970. This enabled the AFI’s Experimental Film and Television Fund, the first film funding organisation, to support such iconic filmmakers as Bruce Beresford, Scott Hicks, Paul Cox, Yoram Gross and Peter Weir.

How is an iBook different?

The main thing is the accessibility to a global audience. These days everyone has a smartphone in their pockets, and many have other devices too such as iPads that are capable of downloading books in digital form. Even your 87-year old Dad can use an iPad and for many, the tablet is a more accessible way of reading books, in part because you don’t have to physically drag several weighty tomes around. As well it’s often easier to search an electronic version of a book than it is to sift through an index in the hope that what you’re seeking can be found there.

Ever since the AFI decided on a name change to the AFI/AACTA Awards, the authors knew they would have to update our history. This edition of Shining a Light includes a new chapter on the AFI’s initiative in establishing the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in 2011, and its implications. As well, this new edition has updated its database of AFI/AACTA award winners and nominees spanning from 1958 to 2012. And since every year a new set of AFI/AACTA Award winners and nominees come out, an iBook makes it possible to update the database, and purchasers will be told that they can download the latest version as soon as it becomes available.

How much does it cost to make?

For the adventurous and digitally astute, you can make an iBook yourself using appropriate software. For Shining a Light, the authors chose to pay others to do the encoding, design work and uploading necessary. Peter Tapp, publisher of ATOM, is familiar with the process and sponsorship was raised to engage the appropriate technical support staff to make it happen. The fact that the book was already in digital format via Adobe InDesign software was a help.

That contract was signed a while ago, and prices have changed. He pointed out that it was a large project, with many pages, a lot of clips, and additions to the existing text. The price range depends very much on the number of interactive elements such as galleries and music clips. At the moment it will range from $3500 to $7000, depending on scale, and what the client can afford.

How long does it take?

As with the price, the time the process takes depends on how complex is your material, how much needs to change and the additional extras you include. Shining a Light has more than 60 video clips from our interviewees. The process of selecting the clips from the hundreds of hours of material we had at our disposal took a while, and the clips had to be encoded to Apple’s specs so they would play back via iOS devices. We were determined to include them for their oral history value.

So what are the takeaways?

Firstly, if you’re embarking on a book project in the 21st century, you should futureproof it. If you are recording interviews as you go, consider videoing them, using high quality gear. It’s not rocket science, but you do need to know the basics. Being filmmakers, we used broadcast quality equipment and one or two lights to light the interview subjects, and broadcast quality audio equipment to record pristine sound.

We also made sure interviewees signed the appropriate releases.

Secondly, consider getting the advice of a publisher as early as possible. Think ahead. If you are amassing stills to augment your work, consider digitising them at high quality and in colour.

Thirdly, who is your audience? Are they iPad savvy, or technophobic? Ipads are pretty easy to use but some people resist technology – yes, some people still don’t possess a mobile phone, and there are probably more in that category than you realise.

Was it worth it?

You be the judge. It will only cost you $5.99, the price of a latte and a muffin, to find out!

Shining a Light: 50 Years of the AFI

Mark Poole

from Screen Hub

DISABILITY MEDIA LAUNCHED

Last Tuesday night, the 23rd October 2013, Disability Media was launched at RMIT in Melbourne. Or relaunched, to be precise. The organisation was rebadged as Grit Media some time back, but people were confused by the name, so they’ve returned to the original moniker.

Disability Media aims to bring together the film and television community with the world of disability in order to portray people with disabilities on our screens, so that they become commonplace and unremarkable. As President Greg Dee explained, the ultimate aim is to live in a society where disability goes unremarked, because every individual has complete access to everything whether they have a disability or not.

Disability Media encourages audiences to see disability as a natural part of life by bringing awareness of disability into people’s homes, through the production of realistic, compelling and engaging content.

Disability Media grew out of the television program No Limits, which has screened for more than a decade on Channel 31. Now in its thirteenth season, Greg Dee and CEO Sarah Barton were instrumental in launching this highly successful series, which will air in December.

Sarah Barton, a well-known filmmaker, pointed out that thriving in the screen industry is tough for everyone, and if you’re not at the top of your game you stand to be overlooked for someone faster, sharper or younger than you. But where does that put someone with a disability who has aspirations to work in the business?

“Unemployment among people with disabilities is nearly 50% in Australia,” said Sarah, and so most people with disabilities are unable to get a foothold within film and television.

“Ten years ago we began making television with people with disabilities and I can tell you that it is absolutely possible,” she told us. “From the beginning we had people with disabilities behind the scenes working as tape operators, editors, camera operators, floor managers and producers.”

She introduced patron Stella Young, who has graduated to ‘grown up ABC land,’ where she has a regular gig. Stella told the audience that she uses the Twittersphere to point out examples where people misrepresent disability, but she acknowledged that since disability is her world view, she can get used to the discrimination and not notice it as much as she should.

The launch took place at RMIT’s building at 150 Victoria Street, Carlton, courtesy of past Chair Paul Ritchard from the School of Media and Communication. Paul was thanked by numerous speakers at the group’s AGM prior to the launch for his support on behalf of RMIT.

After Stella Young played a clip based on material fron No Limits, she introduced film and television producer Ade Djajamihardja and Kate Stephens to the podium.

Ade Djajamihardja is someone who after a long and successful career in film and television, suffered a major stroke. “We call him our most committed Board Member,” Sarah explained, saying that Ade suffered his stroke only three days after joining the board.

Ade said that he had joined the industry at 19 as a floor manager for ABC News. He had a thriving career over 25 years, including work in Singapore and Malaysia. “After a very fortunate career, I was approached to join the board of Disability Media Australia and I felt it was a great cause,” said Ade. “I was looking forward to making a substantial contribution to the mission, to advance the rights, inclusion and increased visibility of people with disabilities in the media.”

Ade went on to tell the story of a young boy who watched TV like most children, but assumed that because he never saw anybody on the screen with a disability like he had, that he would not survive to become an adult. “Wow,” said Ade, “what an impact the media can have! With 20% of the population having some form of disability, they need to be represented.”

Ade now gets around in a wheelchair, and he has found that poses its own problems. His partner and now carer Kate explained that Ade had been keen to get back into the industry while still in the recovery stages, but it proved more challenging than he had expected.

Kate mentioned several examples: a government agency which has steps leading to the office from the street; an organisation which welcomed Ade to a meeting only to change the venue at the last minute to a room in a café up several flights of stairs; a recent Film Festival opening night where they were dispatched to the only toilet available through freezing rain across a muddy path; and an industry conference which accepted the registration fee on the basis that access would be available (confirmed in writing) and then told Kate and Ade that some events would not be accessible due to lack of wheelchair access.

Many in the screen industries pride themselves on an informed sensibility to issues like disability access, but it seems that at the end of the day actions speak louder than words, and the screen industry organisations just don’t get it, even if they think they do.

Kate said in her speech that while these barriers to entry were frustrating and humiliating, what was even more galling was the attitude of such organisations when these problems were pointed out. Far from apologising or even acknowledging such issues, these organisations were prone to deny the problem existed, and when preseed to blame Kate and Ade by implying they had been warned of problems with access when they in fact had not. What is worse, when Kate was able to prove her contention that access had been confirmed via an email exchange, the organisation concerned was unrepentant.

Everyone within the film and television industry is aware that industry events are sometimes organised in a hurry and with inadequate funding and staff, and the people at Disability Media know that their colleagues have their hearts in the right place. But it’s difficult to understand the mindset of such organisations when they seem incapable of providing suitable access (which is actually a legal requirement), and then having failed to do so, would rather blame the victim than admit error. It’s like with friends like these, who needs enemies?

“I do hope that in the future the staff at such organisations consider how they would like to be treated if they ever suffer a stroke or an accident where they require a wheelchair,” said Kate. “These experiences were hurtful, disrespectful and discriminatory.” She added that after being hospitalised for months, people can be depressed and almost suicidal, and this kind of discrimination when they are trying to enter the community again can be enough to send them ‘over the edge.’

Perhaps, if Disability Media succeeds in putting images of people with disabilities out there on our screens, then people may eventually understand the difficulties people in wheelchairs and other special requirements face, every day. Even people in screen sector organisations. And when media organisations allow people with disabilities to enter their workplaces, those people will be able to make a contribution to production too, in front of and behind the cameras. Let’s hope it happens – soon!

Mark Poole

BEAU WILLIMON, SHOWRUNNER, HOUSE OF CARDS

For me, the final session at Screen Forever, the 2013 SPA Conference, was the best. It was inspirational as well as fascinating.

Beau Willimon, showrunner for the Netflix series House of Cards, spoke to The Age’s television writer Debi Enker about the creation of the show. Debi began the session by explaining that the new series was the first to be commissioned by the online delivery organisation, heralding a new chapter for the television industry. When it was released, all episodes were released simultaneously, allowing audiences to view them one by one or binge the entire season if they chose. And many did.

Beau began by posing five thoughts, saying that he said he hoped the audience would disagree with them all.

One. I don’t think there is any distinction any more between film and television.

Two. Viewers have absolutely no interest in brand.

Three. Data is not a predictor. Data can only shed light on what has been, not what will work in the future.

Four. The entertainment business rewards risk-takers. Suffocate creativity and you suffocate your product.

Fifth. As cinema was the definitive art form of the 20th century, the definitive art form of the 21st century will be video games. Video games are where the future is.

Debi – You’ve described your arrangement with Netflix as a group of people with no experience in television.

Beau – None of us knew what the fuck we were doing. Neither David Fincher nor I had worked in television before. We didn’t think of it as making a TV show at all. For me, it was more of a novel. We didn’t have a single development executive. Not one. Netflix said to us ‘we will get the story you want to tell out to the world.’

Debi – How did you get to Netflix?

Beau – David Fincher approached me to write it for the production company MRC (Media Rights Capital). I don’t know what MRC’s deal was with the BBC, who did the original series written by Andrew Davies.

“We sat down with the usual suspects,” said Beau. “On a Sunday all three of those networks came to us. We said thanks for coming, we don’t want to do a pilot, we want to be commissioned for a whole series. I’d put a year of my life into that script.”

“The very next day we sat down with Netflix. I wasn’t sure what they wanted. We said the same thing, we wanted a season up front. They said ‘we’re in the content business and we would need two seasons.’ We said ‘okay, we’ll get back to you.’”

“So with Netflix, we had creative freedom and two seasons guaranteed. That blew the competition out of the water.”

“When you haven’t been shaped by the status quo, you are kind of figuring it out as you go. When I’m doing something, I want to have no idea what to do, how I’m going to tell the story. As my dad told me: ‘a job you know how to do isn’t worth doing.’”

Debi – Knowing you had two seasons up front, what sort of freedoms did it give you?

Beau – Knowing we had 26 hours, I knew I didn’t have to fight for survival the way a lot of shows do, creating cliff-hangers to entice audiences to come back next week. At the end of Season One there was not a question about whether there would be a Season Two. So that doubles the real estate canvas you can paint on.

Debi – At what point did Kevin Spacey come on board?

Beau – Kevin came on board after I’d done several drafts of episode one. When David and I spoke to the networks we only had the script of one episode. I had ideas about the progression of the series, and I gave them some ideas on where we might end up. They wanted to have some notion of where the first season might take us.

I worked on the first episode for almost a year, going through several drafts. David started having conversations with Kevin, who he knew well as they’d worked together on Se7en. He also knows Robin Wright from way back when. David and I both felt that if we didn’t get those two stars, if they said no we just wouldn’t do it. Without them you were just limping in. So we put the script in their hands, and thank god they said yes.

Debi – Did they have any input into the writing?

Beaut – Absolutely, and they still do. That the difference between television and film, you have a constant and evolving dialogue.

As the showrunner, I’m on the set from the first rehearsals to the final shot. We have 140 shooting days a year. Kevin and Robin are both incredibly incisive when it comes to script, and willing to push themselves. I talk to them about throwing out a story and introducing new ones. We will also change things at the last moment on set, if we feel something can be improved. I’ll watch a few takes and say what if we do this? Right until we do the last setup of a scene.

I saw that Pierre Rousseau had an amazing interaction with Kevin Spacey on the set, so I built up his role and changed a lot of scripts to accommodate that. I had a staff of writers to help me.

I don’t mind changing things at the last minute. I don’t agree with this idea that the script is a Rosetta stone and completely unmalleable, because with that approach you are completely shutting out the input of the director and the actors. I’m meticulous, going through 6 drafts of every script. But refusing to allow any changes means you are saying you’ve achieved perfection. I think a script is a blueprint for behaviour. People don’t watch something because of the script. I think that a great story should function on mute. You should understand everything that is going on with the sound down. The script is the strategy for achieving this great behaviour. You have to have a great script as a jumping off point. You are all simply there to try and capture magic.

Debi commented on the opening of the show, where Francis Underwood does something rather brutal while dressed in a tuxedo.

Beau – That’s one way to start a show! It’s based on the English show written by Andrew Davies. Right up front, David Fincher said he had no interest in doing an adaptation of the British show. A lot has changed in 20 years in both television and in politics, and we wanted to have our own tone, our own stories and our characters.

Originally, I started the show with Kevin going through a New Year’s Eve party, and it felt a little tepid. I wanted it to not feel like an introduction, but more like a punch in the face.

I wanted it to be a movie star entrance. Underwood was in a party so he’s in a tux. That’s good. And you can have the double doors open and Kevin comes out and that’s good, that’s a movie star entrance. So why does he come out, I thought? Maybe it’s a car accident. OK but maybe it’s a dog. Why don’t I have him kneel down and put this dog out of his misery. He speaks to camera and he kills another life-form and it’s his world view of being able to be ruthless.

Beau explained to the audience how in television, as in film, you can kill as many humans as you want, but if you kill a dog, the audience goes insane. “We discussed it and we weren’t cavalier. Anyone who was repulsed by this, they probably weren’t made for this show,” they decided. “We felt like it was a sort of litmus test for who was going to connect with it. If we had been in a network, we would have been told by someone that we couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t even have been a conversation. A focus group would have told you, you just can’t do it.”

It was a great beginning because then you see Underwood wash his hands and go into the party.

Debi – You’ve described him as some kind of optimist. He’s driven by ambition.

Beau – In terms of Francis being an optimistic, I firmly believe that. I am seeing it from his point of view. I don’t have an agenda. In his view, ideology is a form of cowardice. Your moral code proscribes your behaviour and leaves you no choice.

“If people say I’m not going to bend on my moral code, it’s a form of paralysis. A great example of that is the recent shutdown in the US. What was the result? People suffered and died. That definitely happened. That was the result of people who refused to bend from their morality.”

“Do the ends justify the means? Francis would say absolutely. The truth is, all heads of states, all Presidents are murderers. We entrust our leaders to kill on our behalf. They decide where the troops go. If we elect a leader who doesn’t, they’re incompetent. That’s not a pretty thought, but it’s a reality.”

“In America we want our leaders to be effective, but also to be saints. They can’t be both. And that’s why we are always disappointed with them.”

Beau added that Abraham Lincoln was a moral president but he did things that were illegal, that were unconstitutional, because he had to. “We forgive him as we understand that he did what he had to do.”

Producer/writer Susan Bower asked about the production schedule for House of Cards.

Beau – “We shoot 6 pages a day, shooting two episodes at a time. We complete one episode in 10 days and shoot for 20, so a director can spend 20 days working with us, which allows a director to settle in with the cast.”

Beau mentioned that Steven Soderburgh, who famously announced his imminent retirement recently, is doing a show called The Nick about a hospital in New York at the turn of the century. Soderburgh is apparently shooting all ten episodes simultaneously, and he is directing and also director of photography, hand holding the entire thing.

“We have very strict rules for our DP. It comes from Fincher’s ideas on filmmaking. No pans, no steadicam, no long lenses. You’ll never see bright red in our show, because vibrant colour is comedy and black and white is drama. In case you didn’t know.”

A discussion ensured about whether this was true, and Pedro Almodovar’s vibrant colour palette was mentioned, even in his dramas. But for Willimon the director’s work is best as comedy.

Q – how does the writer and director work together?

Beau – It’s very much a collaboration between a lot of people.

Beau talked about working with David Fincher. He was warned initially that he would have more interaction with Fincher than he could possibly want.

“We share a lot of similar approaches,” Beau said. “He has this vast mind. He is a savant. He went to the RED factory and showed them how to build a RED camera. He is one of the great minds on editing. If you see him with a DP, he will tell them where all the lights should go, and names each one.”

“He does a lot of takes but I think that’s a strategy to get actors not to act.”

I’ve never gotten better notes on a script. He’s a great guy, deeply collaborative. Even now when he’s shooting Gone Girl (2014) he’s looking at every edit of House of Cards.”

Note – a quote on directing from David Fincher on IMDB: “People will say, ‘There are a million ways to shoot a scene’, but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.”

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000399/bio?ref_=nm_dyk_qt_sm#quotes

When asked what constitutes great notes, Beau retorted that the questioner was looking for a schema or a formula, and they can’t get that. “You need a brilliant person to give great notes,” he said. “I don’t say that to be an arsehole, I think it’s true. We want the best outcome possible. David wants to achieve clarity of story, sophistication in terms of character development and originality.”

“Fincher has years of experience and a sense of honesty that few people have. It’s very hard to find people who give great notes. A lot of times people who are giving notes are doing so to justify their own paycheck.”

“Sometimes the best thing a producer can do is to get out of the way. Sometimes a great producer knows when to get in the way, when someone’s ego is getting in the way, or it’s just the fact that you can’t bat a thousand all the time. Producers like Scott Rubin know about story.”

Willimon said that sometimes David Fincher will highlight a couple of lines and say ‘better.’ “But I know what he means. Other people might give that note and I would have no idea what they mean.”

Beau said that they stole the piece to camera style outright from the BBC version. “It’s sort of like Richard the Third, the Shakespeare play. Kevin Spacey calls him ‘Dick the Shit.’ Because he lets you in on it, it builds conspiracy from the audience.”

Willimon suggested that the 13 by one hour format of the show is driven by the need for international sales. It has to be in one hour chunks. However he feels that this comes from a bygone era, and he’d love to have episodes of different lengths, or dispense with episodes altogether and have one continuous 12 hour stream. “I’m serious,” he added.

Like being the President, there’s no way of preparing for the job of showrunner, said Willimon. “You have to wear a ton of hats. Collaborate with a lot of people. Editing it. Thinking of the design of sets. It’s what a film director would do times 7.” He said he worked 100 hour weeks for nine months of the year. “It’s a form of insanity, like making 7 feature films in one year. You get to make a feature film every 20 days. Plus, I get to work with the best people in the business.” However he said that he has never been able to grow a beard, so he’s hoping that as he goes grey he’ll eventually look older than 15 years.

Finally, Willimon told the audience that the only award he’s ever won was the AACTA Award in 2011 for Ides of March. He showed us a photo of it sitting on a table in a diner in LA after the ceremony. “I turned up to this full-on event with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. So thank you Australia.”

Mark Poole

 

 

THE FUTURE OF TELEVISION – SPAA 2013

This session was a follow-up to the previous one, but in this one Israeli Avi Armoza had the floor to himself, and was able to provide a unique perspective on television now and in the future.

The most amazing finding was that after a decade of mergers and conglomerations into huge corporations like Fremantle, Endemol and BBC Worldwide, the main players have acknowledged a stagnation taking place.

Essentially, they have noticed that all the big successful format shows on TV were created more than a decade ago, or before the big wheels took over.

According to Avi, this is because the bigger you are, the more risk averse you become, as huge businesses are run by ferocious finance officers, anxious to please their demanding boards.

Hence the endless turn of current events where broadcasters and big companies are desperate for the next big original idea. But the conundrum is, if you pitch them an  original idea, they won’t go for it because you can’t point to its previous success.

That’s why the few players who are willing to take a punt, like Netflix with its breakthrough House of Cards television drama, or the Danish ER with Borgen and The Killing, are cleaning up big time.

It is highly possible that the rest of us will be doomed to watching and producing endless versions of increasingly fatigued formats like The Voice, The Block and MasterChef, until we go completely insane, take on the collective personas of berserk banshees and rip the television repeaters off the nearby hills in sheer frustration. Historians are almost certain that an event just like this is what caused the extinction of the dinosaur.

Mr Armosa built a convincing case that Israel is risk accepting, as Israelis face the daily possibility of being annihilated by their neighbouring foes, or even their nearby friends. Avi explained that Israel’s television industry is relatively young, and follows the inspiration of its IT industry in going global at every opportunity. That could be why Israel has been so successful at selling formats to the US. Their production budgets are also relatively tiny, and that is why they came with formats like In Treatment, which is basically two people sitting in armchairs for half an hour. Avi also showed us clips from a drama which takes place exclusively within a police station, The Naked Truth. “You have to focus on the storytelling,” he told us.

Armosa suggested that the next generation of content is yet to arrive, and our challenge is to figure out what will be next. “We are in the midst of a technological revolution that affects all aspects of our lives, including television, and it’s changing the business models.

“The next big hit is yet to come,” Avi said. “The Catch 22 is that they’re desperate for creativity, but they also need control. It’s the same with broadcasters. They cry out loud, bring us the next big thing, but they’re not willing to take a risk.”

For Avi, this means opportunity for new players to arrive, take a risk and achieve success, and become the new mainstream. Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and House of Cards have broken the traditional television drama mould, and now we need a similar process for format TV. “We need the next generation of content, and we need to be able to fail.”

Armosa suggests that the new content must cross borders – cultural borders, cross-platform borders and genres. He provided a case example of a new prime time entertainment show called I Can Do That. The budget was raised via venture capital, as it’s a massive investment that could succeed or fail. But at the last MIPCOM it sold to more than 15 territories. “We’re in the business of not knowing,” he concluded. “It’s a venture capital type of business. In order to get the next big hit, you need to invest in ten of them, and maybe nine will fail but one will succeed.”

MARK POOLE

BUILDING UNIVERSES FOR GLOBAL AUDIENCES

IN CONVERSATION WITH MAN OF ACTION STUDIOS’ CREATORS OF BEN 10: BUILDING UNIVERSES FOR GLOBAL AUDIENCES

The Man of Action team consist of four writers, and in front of us were three of them, Steven T. Seagle, Joe Kelly and Duncan Rouleau. They write and produce everything from comic books to games to stage productions, film and television, including the hit show Ben 10.

This session was introduced by Donna Andrews, from Sticky Pictures, and it showcased three of the four partners who have created the Man of Action team, who

Apparently the team got together to protect themselves from being crunched by television production companies, who may deal much more savagely with individuals than they do with companies.

Early on they created Ben 10, an ongoing success story that was created for Cartoon Network. When they heard they wanted a new show, the four Men of Action locked themselves in a room for a week and came up with not one, not two but 20 ideas for cartoon shows. And not just longlines but mini-bibles. When it came time to pitch the ideas, they decided to limit themselves to 60 seconds, whereupon they would move on to the next one. Ben 10 was number six. Sam from Cartoon Network said ‘that’s the one!’ and that was that.

Once the series was commissioned, it took two years to develop, and the network kept pushing them to achieve the best possible result.

Steven T Seagle pointed out that a key element of developing the show as to keep in mind that it was designed for a kid audience. “Comic books are for 40 plus white guys,” he told us. “Kids are different, and we had to put our ‘kid’ hat on and think of the superpowers that they might want that would make their day a little easier.”

The series Ben 10 is now a franchise which has brought in more than $3 billion in merchandise. And as they say “If you’re a parent and had to buy something for your children, we apologise. And thank you.”

In developing Ben 10, the Men of Action said they always went back to what inspired them and they found exciting. “Ben’s character flaws and mistakes were very important,” they felt. “We had to fight to keep them quite a bit, as in the testing bubble there was pressure on us to make Ben avoid mistakes. We had to fight tooth and nail to keep his flaws.”

The series has gone to four seasons now, and each one is different. “We don’t repeat ourselves,” they told us, so for the second series they made Ben ten years older.

Ben 10 had been optioned to be made into a feature film by Joel Silver for Universal. And the Men of Action are going into live action shows as well.

Steven – our company is just the four of us. We want to keep it that way. We don’t want any more men. Our slogan is the four of us make up a single man.

They work with 14 other writers that they supervise when they have more work on the drawing board than they can handle. “We have an interesting hybrid process in the writing,” said Steven. “We do outlines, and we co-write with our head writer. Many of them are women. We work with writers from the comic industry, we work with brand new writers. We are looking for new writers all the time.”

The team help newcomers to the process, as they realise that writers are often brought in and they don’t know the world their functioning in, and they’re given a lot of notes they can’t really understand.

Duncan added that it’s also important to bring in writers who don’t normally do animation, as it brings in a fresh voice.  “It’s a great place to bring in new talent introduce them to the world and give them some knowledge. We have been able to place writers as story editors in other productions after they worked with us.”

He said that the challenge now is to integrate all the different platforms together that stories are told in today.

The team said that although very successful, they have found that they don’t require a building to house the team. They all have large offices in their homes, and they meet in one of these if they have to get together as a team. Most of the time they converse via Skype and the internet. They have a person working for them whose job it is to co-ordinate them all, working out what tasks need to be done and by whom, and providing a list.

Steven – “Hollywood has no idea how to work with a writing group. We don’t mind that at all. We have a lot of mystery. We have an opt-in system. But it’s all under Man of Action.”

He added that Hollywood is used to working with a single writer and providing input on how they would have done it differently – but different isn’t always better.

Joe said “We never burn out a project real quick. Fans especially smell that from a mile away. It may look nice but it’s not the way to do it.  I like doing comedy too, but my comedy seems to be raw and inappropriate.”

Steven – “We do a lot of partnerships. We are a crew of adept storytellers and writers. We have one or two co-productions going. It’s just finding the right fit to get the project out the door and into the world.” He added that this trip Down Under was the first time the four Man of Action people had travelled internationally in 13 years, they have been so busy.

Interestingly, the panel said that each Man of Action sees the world quite differently, and while they are able to come to a fast consensus, if left to their own devices each would write very differently.

Duncan – “It’s really about trying to make quality. If you do quality, money will follow. That’s not always the case, specifically in Hollywood.”

The four sometimes work on individual projects but they fall under the Man of Action banner. They’re all cheerleaders for each other and get excited by what each other are doing. “We have the best safety net,” said Steven. “It’s great for when you’re halfway through something and you aren’t sure what to do.”

Joe added that although they are all character driven, each one approaches character differently, and often they begin with the story. Steven said he often starts with the end, where they want to go, and work backwards from that.

“Also theme,” said Duncan. “What is this story trying to say? You find the appropriate characters and then you suss out the story that way. Reinforcing that theme. That’s where the four of us really come into play.”

They all keep copious notes because they believe they have to be willing to build build build, tear down, rebuild. You have to keep lots of notes in order to remember your ideas along the way.

“Sometimes you figure out the theme of the main character, the basic flaw, and you build the other characters around that.  Then you have other characters going the opposite way.”

The Man of Action team have at least one weekly meeting, which can last an entire day. “We have a trafficker who creates a list of everything that has to be done. That made a huge difference about 5 years ago. You are given a list of the 12 things you have to do today, and one of them may be you have to talk to Joe Kelly about something.”

The final word came from Duncan. “In any kind of relationships you need constant conversation, constant talk,” he said.

MARK POOLE

THE ART OF THE PITCH

We hear more and more about pitching these days in Australia as we incorporate this aspect of American culture without somehow having absorbed the American ability to pitch. At least, most of us haven’t. Rick Kalowski is one Australian who is clearly better at pitching than most, but that didn’t stop one television network executive from giving this feedback to Rick’s pitch of ‘At Home With Julia’: This is not a show, it will never be a show, please stop wasting your time and move on.” The show was subsequently produced by the ABC TV, where Rick currently works as Head of Comedy.

Pretty much all of the panel have worked together on one project or another. Nicole Minchin, Amanda Brotchie and Adam Zwar represent High Wire Films, Debbie Lee currently works for Matchbox Pictures but was previously commissioning editor at the ABC, and before that SBS, and Jennifer Collins is currently Head of Entertainment at ABC, but is shortly to head off to become Head of Fiction at Screentime.

There were some gems in this session, such as Rick’s recollection of a VHS tape from Chris Lilley showcasing his character Mr G. At the time Chris couldn’t get work as an actor and felt he was failing as a stand-up, and had decided his best bet was to create his own show.

And to cut to the chase, Rick exhorted budding comedy writers to send him a pitch before getting a producer attached, if they don’t already have one. He told the audience at this workshop that his section of the ABC reads all submissions, and if they think one has possibilities, they will be in contact.

Of course, he also said that in order to pitch successfully you have to have done your homework. You need to know what’s already on air, and what has been successful in the same genre as your project. Rick said he’d received countless pitches at SPA, and he was surprised at the number of times people hadn’t been aware of similar shows already on air on the ABC, or famous sitcoms that have been made in New Zealand for years.

Brevity is a virtue, where pitches are concerned. Especially paper pitches, which ar apparently usually far too long. At the end of the session Rick went into detail on the five page pitch. One page for the concept, and no longer. One page for all the characters, and no longer. One page for a sense of story progression and the episodes. One page for two or three examples of what happens, the narrative arc. And one page on tone and style, and a paragraph on the program making team.

Brevity is good for verbal pitches too. Keep it to one or two lines, no more, and don’t overcomplicate things. Remember, it’s hard for the listener to absorb a verbal pitch, and all you’re trying to do is to hook them to want more. “Be positive and take your time,” Nicole Minchin advised. “Keep it simple.” Jennifer Collins: “What is it offering the network?” Debbie Lee: “Distill it into two lines, make eye contact, express your passion for the idea.”

However, Adam Zwar, co-creator of Wilfred, Lowdown and Agony Uncles, told the audience he’d heard of people getting the green light from a half page pitch, but it had never happened to him. Quite the contrary, with Wilfred they had an award-winning Tropfest short, and a pilot, and still they had to write all 13 episodes to convince the network to go ahead. “In Australia, from my experience you have to do a hell of a lot of work,” said Adam. “You have to know the characters inside out, the tone of the show, so that you can answer any question that’s put to you in a pitch session.”

Adam had a great tip he’d learnt from someone else, which is that if you’re pitching a comedy, make sure you mention the word ‘hilarious’.

Rick said he’s starting to see more pitches using Powerpoint, which can provide more of a sense of the feel of the show, with embedded stills and maybe video. Although several people, including Rick, said they didn’t want to be made to watch a clip from the project during a pitch meeting, as he would feel under pressure to be positive rather than feeling free to respond naturally to it.

Adam reminded people that you should rehearse your pitch, tell it to yourself in the mirror, tell your friends and watch where their eyes glaze over. Preparation is all.

As a group, the panel canvassed why Australia doesn’t do studio sitcoms – the last one was probably Hey Dad, or The Newlyweds, or Mother and Son. They all love studio comedy, and as Rick pointed out the ABC has a strong tradition of studio audience shows in factual, so why couldn’t they do comedy? And while Rick isn’t a fan of either, he noted that The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men were the two most profitable shows in the world.

MARK POOLE

ABC TV TALKS TO SPA

The ABC TV session was spearheaded by new Director of Television Richard Finlayson, who talked about the network’s priorities and challenges.

While he felt that “not a lot is broken at the moment,” with a positive culture at the ABC with people who are the leaders in their field, there is an understanding that they need to embrace the future. “We can’t do the same things we have.”

With half their top 100 shows being made locally, one challenge is to continue the production of such programs.

The second challenge Richard identified is the rush to on demand and personalised viewing. “Viewers don’t care if they are paying for content, or if it’s free,” he said. Last year there were 20 million views on iView, and the other networks are catching up.

Thirdly, younger people are dropping off the viewing charts, although the trend could be flattening out.

To address these challenges, the ABC has come up with a series of strategic priorities.

The first is to put audiences first.

“We need to adopt a user experience view of the world,” he said. “Iview gives us data on how people are using our content.”

The second is the need for high quality, high impact content.

The ABC wants to be seen as a destination for the Arts. Finlayson spun the fact that Foxtel has stolen the march on first run BBC drama from the ABC in a positive way, stating that it will free up resources to provide high impact content. “The audience will turn to the ABC for coverage of big events,” he explained. He also announced that they are relaunching a new version of iView for the Android platform in December 2013. He said they would also be releasing a major show exclusively on iview, so that it will be available for binge viewing.

The third priority was to promote the ABC brand, and communicate with clarity.

The fourth is to harness our creative culture. They are going for a cross-cultural approach, to utilise our diversity. “We also want to work with independent producers who think really big.”

The fifth priority was to improve flexibility and agility.

“The independent sector is vital to our success,” said Finlayson. “We need local ideas that resonate globally.”

He said that he had met with the Danes who have found such impressive success with their dramas (The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen). “They saw a need for change, and they found that the more local they got, the more globally successful they became.”

Chris Oliver-Taylor, who steered the session, asked some curly questions, which he was able to do as the current MD of Matchbox, and who previously worked at the ABC. He asked about the challenge of Netflix, and if was true that the ABC’s budgets have suffered a cut.

Finlayson agreed that there have been cuts, but they haven’t been material, more like 1 to 2% of overall budgets. “When I arrived I was greeted with a big spreadsheet which said you have less money. So we’ve had to trim across each of our budgets, but we have to be able to back our strategic priorities. Drama and kids programming are still absolutely our priorities.”

Another priority is to re-energise ABC Commercial, and to back Robert Patterson, who is the new director. “I’m asking my team and producers to work with ABC commercial to give them a go and put them back into the game.”

Asked where he will take the channel next, Brendan Dahill, the Controller of ABC1 replied that it’s about serving Australians the broadest, widest service across all genres. “It has been great to be number 3 in the ratings,” he added, “and that has grown our audiences, but it’s not about ratings.”

Brendan admitted that Serangoon Road hasn’t found an audience, and indeed it was the only drama he had to shift slots this year. “It’s disappointing but we’re not a commercial broadcaster, and it was a risk to work with international partners,” Brendan said. “We’ve learnt so much in the process.” He explained that their partner HBO Asia wanted more action, and the ABC wanted more character based stories, so that was an issue.

Chris asked what sorts of programming he wants to be pitched, and Brendan said it’s always about the ‘cool idea.’ “We have a fantastic slate of drama for 2014 that will work here and internationally,” he said. “We should be confident about telling our stories around the world.”

Next, Stuart Menzies talked about ABC2, which he said is getting great growth with interesting ‘noisy’ programs that are captivating audiences.

“We get competition from everywhere,” said Stuart. “The thing that we rest on is our Australian content. The shows that work are the shows that we commission. Our own commissions should work best.”

ABC2 will commission 100 hours this year, and hopefully more next. “It’s hard to make a whole network on 100 hours but it’s what defines us.”

Stuart mentioned that they had discovered a lot of their audience finds the channel via surfing, particularly around 9.30 pm when the main channels ‘go to sleep.’ They deliver ‘rock solid public service content, with tabloid titles.’

Barbara Uecker, Acting Controller of ABC Children’s Television, maintains strong focus on audiences and quality as the secret of their success. “It’s about risk, reliability and reputation. We can take more risk than commercial channels.”

ABC Children’s has Dance Academy and the new Nowhere Boys from Matchbox – fantastic content that sells around the world, she said. Asked what they are looking for, she added that they were open to all kinds of pitches, but they have a focus on animation. “Please get in touch with us and pitch your ideas. We will love to get together and work with you.”

On documentaries, Brendan Dahill maintained that the ABC commissions as many singles as they ever have, but they also make more factual content and more series, so it looks like there are fewer singles. “The issue is its really hard to navigate an audience to singles,” he said. “Trying to make any one hour single in the schedule is really difficult. But we will be rigorous about why we are doing the things we do.”

Menzies said they commissioned the sorts of ideas ‘that keep you awake at night.’ “Unless it keeps you awake at night worrying, you probably shouldn’t be commissioning it.” He added that if you are trying to attract a younger audience, the ideas should be dangerous. He likes to see the fundamental idea pitched succinctly, rather than a 30 page document.

MARK POOLE

AGENTS – YOU GOTTA LOVE ‘EM! – SPAA 2013

This session was about the power and influence of the agent in advancing a producer’s project, and along the way it gave the audience goosebumps about how exciting lives seem to be in the big league of LA.

Speakers were:

Richard Klubeck, Partner – United Talent Agency

Bec Smith, Agent, United Talent Agency

Ian Collie, Producer and Partner, Essential Media and Entertainment

Mark Morrissey, Founder and Managing Director, Mark Morrissey and Associates

The session was well moderated by Annabelle Sheehan, Senior Executive, Development and Production Services, Media Venture Partners, and a former agent at RGM.

Annabelle began with a suggestion that producers must recognise the power of talent, and agents must accept the significant driving force that is a producer.

The session covered connecting, or linking to the project, negotiating, or what is best practice, how to collaborate and achieve both the red carpet of film festivals and repeat business, and whether agents represent producers, and how does that work?

Mark Morrissey is an Australian agent who spends a lot of time in LA, having trekked over there regularly for over 18 years. He said that he always starts with the script, and reads between 6 and 10 per week. “I still enjoy the process of reading a great script,” he said. He reads them if it has attached producers or directors he knows, or if he can be introduced to them.

That was a theme of this session and others – that Hollywood operates by linking people to others through shared contacts. Several times, the comment was made that you can get through to anyone you need to, but you have to approach them via someone you know who also knows your target. You can’t approach them cold. “You can approach me through people I trust like casting agencies, or directors I admire,” said Morrissey.

“I start with a great script and build around that.”

“I’ve got excited about smaller projects like The Rover which has just finished shooting in WA. It doesn’t have to be a big project. It was the quality of the package that was presented. I got a clear idea of the director’s vision and the level of the actors they wanted on board. The director had some wonderful success here in Australia with Animal Kingdom,” he explained.

Annabelle – What’s the situation in the US? What gets you excited?

Richard – “In LA there is so much volume, so many scripts, projects, from so many sources, so for us the biggest challenge is sorting through all that volume. If it’s coming through the studio there’s a straightforward process. For material coming outside it’s trickier. You’re looking for something good or special.”

For projects coming from Australia, it’s about who the filmmaker is, and whether they have done well in the film festival circuit. “Every actor is looking for projects outside the studio system,” he said.

Richard added that the truth is there are scripts that simply find their way to the top. “We look at the blacklist for projects that rise on their own to the top, or get through via word of mouth.”

Bec Smith is an Australian now based in LA. For her, if you’re an Australian trying to attract a certain member of cast, the best thing is to have a sense of the artist you’re trying to approach. You should do your research, and try to be introduced to their agent by someone who already has a relationship with them. She said that while there are some people who never jump onto a type of project they haven’t worked on before, most directors  don’t want to be pigeonholed and want to explore different genres.

Producer Ian Collee from Essential Media said that the success of getting Rake remade in the US came down to having a good package and the quality of the scripts. “The scripts that Peter Duncan and Andrew Knight wrote for Rake were fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to play Dogfucker?” Also having Richard Roxburgh as one of the producers gave the some cache, and he was able to get on the phone if need be.

Asked about the number of big stars playing cameo roles in the series, Collee said that some of the roles only needed one or two days max, so it wasn’t so hard to get someone like Cate Blanchett, who had worked with Richard Roxburgh in theatre a lot. “By then we were in the third season.”

However, getting a high profile Australian actor to commit to a role can be tricky as they will have other, more high profile projects waiting in the wings, and so sometimes you can’t get a format commitment, in case schedules change. Sometimes, you have to move on, said Collee.

For Richard, it’s incredibly important to understand what agents are doing. Agents like the producers who understand what agents are doing. “Every series director has two three five projects they are juggling. Every actor has two or three projects they are doing in a year. The problem for an agent is that if they suggest a project to a client that doesn’t come to pass, they are at risk of being fired. “So we want to know if the project is really going to happen. It’s vital that we do not overcommit, so that we make ourselves and our actors vulnerable. If a producer understands that, they can work with us and develop the trust, and we can commit to those producers and get the movie made.”

Annabelle commented that some producers and even funding bodies don’t get the word ‘attachment’.

Mark Morrissey agreed. “It’s a difficult process. We’re about wanting our clients to work. A working client is a happy client. You need to co-ordinate opportunities for our clients. We try to make it clear that until the contract is signed and all the ducks are lined up, it is only then that the actor can commit to it. Before everything is in place you can’t commit.”

OfOf course one of the conundrums is that if the client happens to be an A+ actor, his or her commitment may make the project happen.

The panel agreed that they appreciate preparation and research. Mark said one director approached him and he came along with a vision board of exactly how he planned to shoot it.

Richard said that if a book that a movie is going to be based on is already out there, then the producer should do the work and put in the reviews, and a statement on why Wes Anderson may wish to direct it.

Moving onto negotiating, Annabelle wanted to know how Ian Collee managed television finances with a marquee cast, like the Jack Irish series, which starred Guy Pearce.

Ian told the audience that before the project was locked off he approached the agent (Shanahans). “We had a brand to sell in Peter Temple. There’s a great Aussie Rules and Guy used to play for Geelong juniors. He’s a Melbourne boy and likes to be back.”

Ian added that once Guy was attached, they had to negotiate his fee, but once that was done they were able to raise more money in the market, as they had something to sell, namely Guy Pearce doing TV.

Annabelle – How do negotiations break down? Cut to the chase!

Mark Morrissey’s definition of negotiations breaking down is when he estimation of the value of his client doesn’t equate with theirs.

Bec Smith agreed. “Sometimes it just comes down to economics. In Australia everyone knows each other, and sometimes the producer just goes around you and goes directly to the client. They don’t understand that the agent isn’t trying to obstruct the deal.”

Richard blames the lawyers. “Lawyers make deals break down more than the agents do,” he offered. But he said that sometimes people aren’t clear up from about how the deal will play out. “Sometime there’s a devious approach.”

“We try up front to be clear about it – is it a money job, or is it a cut rate job, and if so how deep a rate cut are we talking about?”

Everyone has their price. Apparently.

Other considerations are, how big do they think the movie is, who else is in it, and how much of the back end is available.

Annabelle – are producers resistant to finding the back end?

Richard – Producers love to move fees into the back end. We know the projects where that is going to happen. If it’s a 10 million movie and the writer is a 2 million writer, he’s not going to get to 2 million up front.

The panel discussed the trend where actors ask for a producer or co-producer credit. While some wanted to discourage that trend, Richard spoke in defence of it, as sometimes it’s justified. As well, he said that sometimes the director wants a producer credit, because they then have more chance at the Academy Awards. “If you’re a director, it’s incredibly tough to get a nomination for Best Director, but if you’re a producer as well, you’re eligible for Best Film.”

Richard added that sometimes an actor gets involved very early on, and they are taking a risk, so they should get a producer or co-producer credit. Bec said that the actor may be the lead actor who attracted a number of other actors to the project, and giving them a producer credit may be a way of acknowledging that.

“Attracting an actor to an unfinanced project is a big deal,” said Richard. “It’s emotional, because the actor may develop an attachment to the director, and then if they can’t do it because the schedule changes, it can get messy and the agent may get blamed.”

In concluding the session, Bec said that there is a lot of ‘white noise’ in the industry in the States, and an agency can help you cut through that to what is real. “Also the US is so much a culture of advocacy, so it helps to have someone who can introduce you or put you together with someone they think you should be working with.”

Mark Morrissey said that producers sometimes falls into the trap of believing that the relationship is over once the deal is signed. “If there’s ever an issue with one of my actors, I’m the one to call,” he said. “If there’s a problem on set, I don’t want any standoffs or issues for my client. I want it to be as good as it can be for our client.”

Richard said that most people try to sell a script to a big studio if they think it has a chance there. If you can’t sell to a studio, or don’t want to, then it’s a different process, and that’s where packaging comes into play. Packaging can work if the screenplay is a very good one, or if it’s a genre that sells, like The Sixth Sense or The Others.

“I think it comes down to whether the director can convince the actor to do the project.”

Annabelle had a final suggestion for Australian producers who can’t get the green light from a local distributor. “You can get them to tell you which cast members they would need to approve the project,” she suggested. “Then you take their list and work down it via their agents. Once you get the cast that’s been preapproved, you can go back to the distributor and say ‘we’ve got your cast.’

MARK POOLE