Monthly Archives: February 2009

Dr. Ruth Harley Speaks

And It Isn’t Encouraging In The Least Bit

This came in from Screenhub via somebody who is willing to let it out. It should be let out, really, given that it contains some important bits of information, and not everybody was able to go. It’s a report by one David Tiley.

Ruth Harley, CEO of Screen Australia, promised her first concerted public speech to the Screenwriter’s Conference, and made her affinity for challenging, feisty films very clear. Yes this is a business, but the joy is in the culture.

She began by retelling her experience of the Australian International Documentary Conference, and the informal discussion with Stephen Hewlett in a similar time slot.

She displayed a lucid grasp of the sector’s issues, which is probably clearer than most working producers. What is the real cost of consciously appealing to as wide an audience as possible? Is this a downhill ride to trash? Have documentary makers hitched their wagon too closely to powerful network forces? Does the market know what is good for it? Are producers really trapped and only falling into line?

The fact that she isolates these issues is important, because it speaks to a more sophisticated way of looking at the relationship between production and television, the role of the mass audience, and the dangers of surrendering to the needs of business.

She acknowledged the problems faced by the film sector, and that industries around the world are dealing with the same collapsing audiences, and what she suggests could be a plague of mediocre films. At the same time, she firmly said that the issues are real. While the sweeping changes in the sector come from the creation of a single Federal agency, and the rise of the Producer Offset, they are also designed to face that fundamental, unpalatable problem – Australian audiences don’t like Australian films.

So far, so good, but I might quibble a little bit. At least there’s a square recognition that there is no domestic demand. It’s good that they are facing up to that reality.

Much of the speech was about reasons for optimism, as she was at pains to say that she is committed to the job because our sector has so many strengths, with rich resources and a history of success.

She is determined not to accept the reframing of performance as a disaster. She cited the example of Australia, which has taken $36m and climbing, disdained by the critics but it is “a spectacular success”. She is inspired too by Ten Canoes, which she said “spoke to the audience and made Australians want to go to the cinema. It was bold and imaginative, beautifully crafted, with a strong sense of authorship and creative determination. They give us reason for hope, and contain lessons for policy and industry together.”

That’s where I start to get worried. The industry is in an abysmal mess. It’s nothing short of a disaster if the films other than the massively marketed ‘Australia’ have 0.9% of the box office. It’s also disingenuous to see ‘Australia’ as an entirely Australian film, given how much 20th Century Fox had a role to play.

She claimed that Hollywood had descended into a marketing driven philosophy, which replaced quality with hype. “You can market anything, this thinking said, movies don’t have to be that good, just good enough to be marketed. Those days are now gone, if they really existed – audiences are now smart, well-informed and picky.”

She declared that quality is back, with a special place for the niche films from the independent community. She takes obvious pleasure in the recent crop of independent films through the Adelaide Film Festival, which she says is really good at investment decisions. The Combination, from David Fields, is “really, really interesting.” She cited Disgrace, from Anna maria Monticelli, set in South Africa, which allowed her to say that Australian films should not be limited by location and subject. To this she added My Year Without Sex, and Sampson and Delilah…she celebrates a slew of difficult art house films, made with passion, on a shoestring.

Grrr. I don’t think quality was ever ‘out’. Quality is one thing that’s never ‘out’ – It’s that it’s hard to do quality without skill and it’s hard to get skill without doing and we just don’t do enough to have the skills to do the quality any more. Not by a long margin. Given how badly the Australian cinema has been going, I hardly think we’re worthy of any kind of comparison to Hollywood, good or bad. In turn we’re not in a position to critique whether they really have descended into hype over quality.

Look, if ‘The Dark Knight’ really is trash, then I can do with a lot more of that trash.

Talking about Hollywood in these terms is a little like saying the Pittsburgh Pirates and are not as good a side as they were in the 1970s. It’s true, but the Pirates would still whip the pants off a Single-A squad, and that’s exactly what our industry is in this day and age. This on-going critique of Hollywood as peddlers of over-hyped expensive trash has got to stop before we look at why our industry is in such a dismal state.

As for the slew of difficult Art House movies… somebody GET ME A GUN! *Ugh*. It’s like the Balmain Wimmin’s Auxiliary Politically Correct Basket-Weaving Coalition is running this thing,  just as it ran AFTRS and ran everything else into the ground. When are we ever going to grow out of this hyper-narrow aesthetic-bound self-limitation? When?!

She acknowledged Robert Connelly’s argument that audiences are not measured by cinema seats, but by the long journey to television and DVD, though the film’s impact is enhanced by the excitement of a good release.

Discussing television, she points again to the evident quality of the best work. Underbelly is commercially and culturally compelling, while Packed to the Rafters speaks to the experience of contemporary family life. Cable, abroad and in Australia, is creating quality television away from the crushing force of demands for mass audiences. As audiences are watching television which has once more grown a brain, there is still no place for complacency.

Harley ended with a message of inclusion. Screen Australia has moved to support highly experienced creators as well as the less experienced, and is building the ladder to create that experience. It recognises the value of past experience and has drawn on research and history to create the current approach.

Now it is time, she seems to be saying, to work with the present. For the agency, that is about evolving further, and continuing a dialogue with the production community.

Currently, the strength of Australian production is in television. This might be part of a worldwide trend in as much as more and more writers are required for television, but also the budgets are lower and the expectation per episode is much lower than the equivalent screen time for a feature production. That’s neither here nor there. If the success of ‘Underbelly’ points towards anything, it strongly suggests Australians are starved for genre content based in Australia, but with the titillation of it having been based on true stories. In a sense it’s ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino’. in Oz.

The fact that it’s good is not arbitrary. It stems from a genuine desire to package up these stories in genre fiction garb. To discuss the series without mentioning it seems… uh… how shall I say this? Willfully hostile to genre pics and shows.

So what does this add up to? She is clearly film literate, a genuine lover of challenging films. She is not driven by commercial concerns, but speaks to culture, with stable production companies as the platform. She is a culture rather than a finance wonk.

If only that were such a wonderful thing. We don’t need a film literate genuine lover of challenging films. We need a film literate lover of blockbuster films. As Will Smith joked at the recent Oscars, he’s a fan of Action movies because they have lots of speed, excitement, action, special effects and FANS. Given the dire straits the industry is in at this point, we need to have somebody who’s willing to move things a little closer towards the commercial side.

But it gets worse from here:

It is fair to say that the community has been concerned over the last year that Screen Australia would end up arrogant and rigid, driven by its own bureaucratic needs, an angry disappointed parent driven by contempt for creativity, risk taking and self-faith.

It is pretty evident now that the new leadership does not share these values. Harley seems able to listen, accepts the need for organic growth, sees the enterprise as shared between partners. She put herself on display and the signs are encouraging.

Look, it’s very easy to look like you’re listening. Or to look like you care, or you share the concerns of creatives. Believe me, it’s very easy. Everybody (and anybody) can blow smoke up your ass on any given day, and you’d be none the wiser until your project gets green-lit. If the fear is that the Screen Australia would end up as rigid and driven by its own bureaucratic needs, then get prepared for some more.

There’s nothing in this schema that suggests that things have moved on since the FFC’s arrogantly incompetent days. Let’s face it, we know they’ve hired back some of the same clowns who drove that vehicle into the ditch.

Again, isn’t it the definition of stupidity to be trying the same thing, the same way and expecting a different result? I mean, didn’t Brian Rosen make these noises throughout his tenure?

From that point, she was in the hands of the audience. Guild veterans asked a series of questions which remind us there are many issues which remain seriously unresolved.

Mac Gudgeon opened with a statement. “In the last few years, we think we have identified the problem. In the development process, it is very difficult for writers to make a living. There are maybe a dozen feature film writers who make a living out of it. .. this industry needs writers to get fairer and more equitable amounts of money, and respect for their work…

… I have looked at the terms of trade. Nothing has convinced me anything is going to change.”

It wasn’t framed as a question, and Harley moved on past it. But she was brought back again, as the audience returned to the topic.

“I did want to say,” she replied, “that I don’t think it is completely buggered and won’t work. I do think the system can work. I do think there is an opportunity for writers to flower in this system, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I don’t share his [Gudgeon’s] pessimism that the new arrangements won’t work – I think they will.”

Frankly, it exasperates me no end that it gets couched in terms of optimism/pessimism. If the Titanic hit the the iceberg and these people were on hand, I think they would still try and couch it in terms of optimism/pessimism. I want more realism about what the industry can do and can be. When you think about, Mac Gudgeon’s questions are entirely realistic and not pessimism. Why can’t they respond with equal frankness?

The questions flew quick and fast. How will the performance of producers be evaluated in the new devolved development regime? Screen Australia will tend to select companies with expertise in the development process and will look at how this is expressed. She agrees that “this is a significant risk”.

What about the unhealthy dependence on the writer-director? Can it be broken down? She objected to “breaking down”, and defended both approaches. (After all, the films she cited earlier are all auteur projects).

Why do producers need to have less of a track record than writers at the top level? She pointed out that writer only development has had “zero results” over the last five years. So the system now depends on writer + producer together. But, ‘we have modified the credits downwards and will keep looking at these things.”

Jan Sardi acknowledged that the team is fundamental. But questioned whether rights have to be surrendered to producers, turning writers into employees who can be dumped off projects. The Guild is working to proactively create an agreement that both Screen Australia and SPAA will accept as fair and reasonable, so the creative roles are respected.

Harley agreed with his analysis of the problem, but admitted she has no recipe for a solution. The system has to be team based, but there are some situations in which writers should be employees (she is thinking of television) and some where they should not. She acknowledged strongly that a factory approach can work in Hollywood, but does not in Australia and New Zealand.

I wish they wouldn’t talk about these abstractions as if they have meaningful merit. Teams or non-teams. The advent of the writer-director in Australian cinema is not the result of nurturing writer-directors only, but a chronic shortage of cash which compels directors to develop their own scripts – because they can’t find a producer who can afford to pay a writer to develop a script. The advent of the Writer-Producer in Australia is similarly built on the necessity of creatives to wear more than one hat in order to get a project closer to production. If the industry was mature enough and awash with funds, then I think it’s valid to argue that wearing 2 creative hats is too much.

Heck, when I did ‘Key Psycho’, I was my own Executive Producer as well as Writer, Director, Editor, Composer, Sound Editor, and Sound Mixer. I’m not saying ‘wow I’m a talented guy,’ I’m saying, I had no friggin’ cash – but it got made, No Thanks to the FUNDING BODIES!!!

She claims that the agency will have a role in managing development, but not necessarily in running it. But she does think that accountability is important and “we don’t totally absolve ourselves of responsibility in that equation.”

So Jacqueline Woodman, who runs the Guild, pushed for a decisive moment. Why can’t the writers agreement be part of the terms of trade?

And Harley agreed. “I’m happy to do that,” she said.

Got that? Accountability!I mean, isn’t that the easiest thing to say without actually being accountable? Why is it that bureacrats talk about acountability and do things that just don’t have any? Christ almighty, let’s all watch this new mob flush the next decade down the toilet until it totally kills the industry, and then there will be a new review and a new organ and they’ll hire the same people who will say the same things and it will all go to pot again and another ten years will go by…

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