Thursday, October 30, 2014

Filmmaking team with 120 years of experience ineligible to apply for script development funds!

The Hon. Troy Grant, MP
Minister for the Arts
52 Martin Place
Sydney, NSW 2000

Dear Minister

Can you please address a problem relating to Screen NSW guidelines. In brief:

I have been producing and directing films (both documentary and drama) for 43 years and yet am not eligible to apply for Early Stage Development funds from Screen NSW.

Even if I team up with a script editor with 40 years experience I am still not eligible to apply. Add a producer with 40 years experience to the team - who has not produced a feature film in 10 years - and I am still unable to apply.

So, a filmmaking team with, between them, 120 years of experience, is not eligible to apply for funds to develop a germinal idea from synopsis/treatment stage through to a first draft.

This is nonsense.

My attempts to enter into a dialogue with Screen NSW about this matter have failed utterly. Maureen Barron does not believe that she needs to justify such guidelines to either myself or to the Australian Writers Guild.

My experience is merely symptomatic of a significant problem. It is absurd that Screen NSW should formulate policies and guidelines such as the one that excludes me in a vacuum. And it is inappropriate that it should do so without proper consultation with filmmakers who are affected by their policies and the organizations that represent them – in this case, the Australian Writer’s Guild.

Whilst Screen NSW's exclusionary policy clearly has an adverse effect on me and other experienced screenwriters it is, I believe, the younger and inexperienced screenwriters that will be most affected. And in a deleterious way from a creative point of view. Why should young screenwriters, at the conceptual stage in the development of a screenplay, be saddled with a producer whose field of expertise is not screenwriting? Or saddled with a director who, though s/he may have had a film open on five screens in the past decade, has demonstrated a lack of talent by producing or directing a film that audiences stayed away from in droves? To insist that a screenwriter team up with a producer at treatment/synopsis stage is akin to insisting that an architect, submitting his or her first rough plans, team up with a builder - well before there is any guarantee that that the building will be built.

Given that most screenplays do not become films why hang an albatross around screenwriters' necks in the form of an unwanted producer. And an unneeded producer. A producer may be brilliant at putting together deals, at understanding tax laws, at drawing up schedules and budgets and so on but that does not mean that s/he necessarily has any skill at all when it comes to the development of a high quality screenplay. In my experience there are very few producers who understand the craft of screenwriting. Yes, they may be able to recognize a good screenplay when they read one but this does not necessarily mean that they can be of much value shepherding an idea through treatment/synopsis to first, second third and fourth drafts.

Just as an architect has no need for a builder until his or her plans are well developed, not does a screenwriter require a producer until his or her screenplay is developed to the point where it looks as though it has a very good chance of going into production. And at this point, given how few truly great screenplays there are floating around, the screenwriter is then in a position to choose the producer and director he or she thinks is most appropriate for the project.

An experienced script editor or script consultant, on the other hand, can be invaluable to a screenwriter during these development stages – from synopsis/treatment through to a draft that captures the attention of producers.

In accordance with the current guidelines, there are half a dozen experienced senior script editors/screenwriters who would not qualify to be my script editor/script adviser  - even of they had written a screenplay that had been produced as a feature film in the past decade.

This is absurd.

Please ask Maureen Barron to consult with filmmakers before formulating policy and guidelines. Such consultation should not happen merely with organizations such as the Australian Writers Guild or the Australian Directors Guild or SPAA but with the whole film and TV community. There needs to be an open forum in which the pros and cons of different policy and guideline options are discussed, debated. The current handing down of policies and guidelines without consultation, and then acting at though they are biblical commandments writ in stone, is out of sync with the realities inherent in the way in which germinal ideas are developed into screenplay.

My most recent attempt to enter into a dialogue with Maureen Barron is to be found at:

best wishes

James Ricketson

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Playing ping pong with Maureen Barron

Communicating with Maureen Barron is akin to a long rally in a game of ping pong where the ball keeps getting hit across the net without either opponent scoring a point. The point of this exercise, from a bureaucratic point of view, is to wear the opponent down in hopes that he or she will eventually give up in frustration.

An alternative approach, and one much favoured by bureaucrats is to eventually respond with: “This matter has been adequately canvassed and we have not intention of communicating with you further.” Or words to that effect.

I have not got to that point with Maureen, but I suspect that it is not far off!

Dear James, thank you for your further letter.

As I said in my earlier letter, your views in relation to the Early Stage Development program guidelines, along with those of other practitioners, will be taken into account when the program and its guidelines are next reviewed.  

Please be assured that this is the case and that we understand the point you have made about the eligibility thresholds in the current guidelines and will carefully consider what you have said.

Kind regards,

The assurance, from a bureaucrat, that s/he will ‘carefully consider’ something does not inspire confidence!

My response:

Dear Maureen

Why can you not answer the questions I have asked you? 

A guideline that makes it impossible for a filmmaking team with 120 years of collective filmmaking experience to apply for Early Stage Development funds is clearly, obviously, nonsensical. You know it to be nonsensical - which is why,I am sure, you refuse to answer any questions regarding the logic that informs such a guildeline. How could you, with a straight face, defend such nonsense?

Who on earth formulated these guidelines? And why?

More importantly, why do you not, as Chief Executive, simply change them. Now. Next week - after, hopefully, consulting with the Australian Writer's Guild and the Australian Directors Guild, many of whose members have been rendered ineligible to apply for funds.

When will Screen NSW's guidelines next be reviewed? Next week? Next month? At some indeterminate time in the distant future?

As for my question regarding the eligibility of a non-Australian producer to be part of the tam to develop ANGKOR, please answer the question. Yes or no.

The same applies for my question regarding SHIPS IN THE NIGHT. Why can you not answer my questions? Are you accountable to the film community you are there to serve or do you reserve to yourself the right to formulate whatever policy you like with no regard for how it impacts on working filmmakers?

Maureen, in your communications with me it is clear that you do not set a very high priority on the precepts of of transparency and accountability. This in itself should be of concern to the film and TV community.

My letter of yesterday to Graeme Mason, is pertinent to the question of guidelines and the impact these have (good or bad) on the minds of filmic entertainments that are developed and produced in Australia. It is to be found at:

At present both Screen NSW and Screen Australia are working in accordance with development and production models that are not working. Clearly not working. Audiences stay away from Australian films in droves. Stop pointing the finger of blame everywhere other than at yourselves. You, Maureen, are the problem. You and Mark and Kate and all those who formulate policies that bear no relationship at all to the realities of filmmaking that we are all confronted by.

Ditch your exclusionary guidelines now. They serve no positive purpose but do have a significant negative impact - as my own experience now should be abundantly apparent to you. Consult in a meaningful way with warm-blooded filmmakers, seek out their ideas regarding polcy and stop creating it in a vacuum.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

for Graeme Mason re new production and distribution realities

Graeme Mason
Chief Executive
Screen Australia
Level 7, 45 Jones St
Ultimo 2007   

28th July 2014                                                                                     

Dear Graeme

I have received no response to my letters of 11th June, 18th July or 24th July.
It seems from your lack even of an acknowledgement of their receipt, that you are determined to continue with the fatwa put in place by Ruth Harley.

C’est la vie!

I will go through the process of complaining to the Ombudsman, yet again, asking reasons for my lifetime ban, but that is not the purpose of this letter.

I read the following, online:

'Graeme Mason, Screen Australia’s chief executive, recalls that when he worked in film distribution, lower budget Australian films could add screens and season lengths as reputation built among audiences. “Word-of-mouth just does not happen now,” says Mason. “If you haven’t worked over the first weekend, you’re pulled.”
'Ticket prices have also swayed audience cinema tastes towards blockbusters, argues Mason. “The expectation they will go to see an intimate drama at $17 or $20 is now a challenge. If you’re real busy and you come home, you might want to watch a great drama – but do you also want to pack up, go out, take your date and pay for parking?”
'Supply is key. Cinemas and distributors are now “gun shy” of Australian films, becoming more conservative with programming choices, says film producer Brian Rosen, formerly chief of the Film Finance Corporation. All the way to the ticket booth, marketing machines guide which movie opens your wallet or purse....'

What you are referring to has been discussed online for a long time now and, of course, you are right.

The latest discussion about this topic is to be found online at:

Lynden Barber is often the initiator of such discussions and if you are not a ‘friend’ of his on Facebook, perhaps you should be. You will find that there is lots of lively discussion taking place about how Screen Australia and the state funding bodies could position themselves to take advantage of the new production and broadcast landscape we are confronted by.

The question is:

“How will Screen Australia respond to the challenges confronting us all as ‘filmmakers’ wishing both to tell distinctively Australian stories that are accessible (and saleable) to an international market?”

The production of low budget feature films has been a passion of mine for 35 years now. I have appended a copy of an article I wrote in 1978 entitled “Towards a Poor Cinema.”

Unfortunately, filmmaking of the kind that I have been advocating since then has,
until the advent of the remarkable new generations of digital cameras, ben difficult for both budgetary and technical reasons. Now, high quality images can be captured pretty well anywhere in the world, at any time of day, under most conditions, without even the necessity of additional lighting.

Just last night I did a test on the streets of Phnom Penh with a Sony RX 100 (small enough to fit in a pocket, flip-out screen) and found that the images would be quite acceptable for the gritty thriller series I am currently writing entitled ANGKOR. With the use of radio microphones it will be possible to shoot multi-cam on the street of Phnom Penh with no-one even being aware that filming is taking place.
And no doubt, in the next 12 months, there will be yet another new digital camera on the market that is even better than the RX100.

From a technical point of view, all that is required now to shoot a low budget feature film is a camera that can fit in your pocket and some cleverly concealed radio mikes. And, of course, a good screenplay. Whether a film costs $100 million or $100 a good screenplay is required but even here the rules of the game have changed dramatically in this new age of social media, You Tube and….GAME OF THRONES.

No longer is there any requirement that there be an overarching narrative of the kind that has informed drama since Greek tragedy. An engrossing filmic entertainment today does not require a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. As the enormous success of GAME OF THENONES makes clear, what is required is a story in which a lot of things happen. In the case of THRONES, these ‘lot of things’ happen on a grand scale, with superlative costuming, sets and so on. Throw in a beheading or two, some attractive ladies taking their clothes off, at least one betrayal and battle each episode, and you have your audience hooked.

My point:

Pretty well all of the rules of filmmaking have been rendered irrelevant. Only one remains:

Induce in your audience a ‘wow’ response.

If audience members, regardless of the screen on which they experience their digital entertainment, respond with ‘wow’, they will forward the link to their friends, who will forward it to their friends and so on. Word of mouth will, again (if it has not already) become the primary means whereby audiences hear about great movies, great TV series, great shorts etc.

I believe that the way forward for Screen Australia is not to tinker with its guidelines but to throw them out the window and start from scratch, building from the ground up. Starting with the new broadcast realities we are all confronted by, take each guideline, policy, and ask this question of it:

“Is this policy, this guideline, in sync with the production and broadcast realities of 2015?”

If the answer is no, replace it with a guideline or policy initiative that is.

I have made one suggestion, to be found at:

Given that filmmakers – young, old and in between – are already working with and adjusting to these new realities and will have exciting ideas to contribute, they should be invited to participate in the process whereby Screen Australia formulates new policies and guidelines.

best wishes

James Ricketson

and the Australian Film Industry
James Ricketson

Filmmaking is an expensive business. A major problem facing all feature filmmakers in Australia is how to recoup the money invested in one film and make sufficient profit to produce the next. It would be foolish to presume that the Government funding will continue indefinitely and there can be no doubt that the industry, as it is presently structured, would die if funding were to cease.

On safeguard against the possible demise of an over-inflated industry would be the development of a POOR CINEMA, one in which filmmakers work to low budgets with small crews, small casts, low shooting ratios and short shooting schedules, concentrating on content rather than technical excellence.

I use the term POOR CINEMA cautiously: like all labels it should be viewed with suspicion. It refers not only to films made on $50,000 to $200,000 budgets but also to an attitude or approach to filmmaking that is concerned with the content of films and not merely with the economics of film production and distribution.

It is my contention that the encouragement of a POOR CINEMA would:

(1) Make the Australian Film Industry more economically viable.
(2) Give rise to a greater diversity in the films being produced.
(3) Develop more discerning and sophisticated audiences
(4) Develop the art (and not merely the industry) of film in Australia.

Working to low budgets has one distinctive advantage for filmmakers, in that it allows them freedom from artistic constraints that come with bigger budgets, enabling them to take risks without fear of making mistakes or of failing at the box office.

Every film faces the risk of box-office failure, especially those in which new ground is being explored. Attempts can be made to avoid the possibility by treading safe and well-trodden paths, doing what has already been done, copying and adhering to formulas. And I believe that most feature films being made in Australia fall into this category. Hence the Hollywood style product that is flooding the market.

It is not my intention to denigrate these films but to point out that because the film industry is a big business films HAVE to make money at the box office and hence become products geared to a known and predicted market. This films-as-a-marketable-product orientation is more often than not an albatross around the filmmaker’s neck: it limits the types of films produced and the way in which they are made.

We cannot, of course, ignore the economic realities of film production. But given the amount of money being poured into the industry by the Australian Film Commission and the new State Film Corporations, it is distressing that so few adventurous, innovative and outrageous films are being made.

With the exception of the Experimental and Creative Development branches of the Australian Film Commission, we are not using our resources to explore the medium’s possibilities. This results from alack of nerve in filmmakers and an over-cautiousness and conservatism on the part of the various funding bodies, all of which could be modified by a movement towards a POOR CINEMA.

Film audiences have diverse tastes. At one end of the spectrum is a large audience that wants to be thrilled, held in suspense, made to laugh, cry, be entertained: to have their attention diverted from their everyday lives. I have no argument with these films, except that most of them have as their basis a very superficial conception of the range of possible human emotions and experiences: they rely on clichés and formulas that belie life’s complexities. A steady diet of such films in cinemas and on TV is probably as damaging to psychic health as a steady diet of junk food is to bodily health.

At the other end of the spectrum there are films made by Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Hertzog, Peter Watkins, Eric Rohmer and many others that explore aspects of human experiences on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. These films appeal to minority audiences and are rarely huge box-office successes.

As with other art forms the primary reason for their creation is only marginally related to their commercial value. They are made for audiences who believe that the unexamined life is not worth living and should not, cannot, be evaluated in terms of box-office receipts alone. Films of this kind are not being made in Australia. I am not referring to ‘art’ or ‘elitist’ films but to those that deal with NOW – with what it means or feels like to be alive in Australia.

Many films have been (and are being) made based on stories taken from our history but few that deal with the 70’s, that examine the structure and fabric of Australian society, that explore unionism, unemployment, migrants, media monopolies, cultural isolation, latent (nod not so latent) fascism – the list is endless – and the way in which these affect Australian society and the individuals who make it up.

Audiences prefer to see films about the past – it is safe, in has happened and it cannot be changed. The present is dangerous because any film that deals with it must, if only by implication, raise questions about issues of a social and personal nature. The present is too close to home. We are so fed illusions by film and television that actuality takes on the appearance of illusion and vice versa.

Yet film is a social medium – one that has the capacity not only to entertain but also to stimulate and generate social awareness; to be part of society’s analysis and growth.

In a country with a population as small as Australia’s, films such as these could only be made on low budgets, with the filmmakers recognizing the limited and diverse audiences they would appeal to. Until the gap between experimental and extremely low budget films (funded by the Experimental and Creative Development funds) and big budget Hollywood films (partly funded by the AFC) is filled, it is unlikely that a POOR CINEMA will come into existence.

It is important to develop a more discerning, sophisticated and diverse audience that will want to see the sort of innovative and relevant films normally screened only at Film Festivals or briefly at art cinemas. The fact that such films are rarely distributed here is not a reflection on the quality of  the films but on the size and degree of sophistication of Australian audiences. Were such films made here (and some are) they would likewise appeal to minority audiences and would be economically viable only if made to relatively low budgets.

The double bill of Gill Armstrong’s SNGER AND THE DANCER and Stephen Wallace’s LOVE LETTERS FROM TERALBA ROAD, among others, has demonstrated that there is an audience for quality low budget ‘non-commercial’ films. Distribution for these films (and hopefully others that will follow) remains a problem, but not an insoluble one. Four or five years ago it was almost impossible to distribute an Australian film within Australia, yet now it is relatively easy. The same could be true for the lower budget films that make up the POOR CINEMA.

James Ricketson