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Everyone Is Special (in OZ).

Apart from the odd tweet, I have been relatively quiet lately. Quietly brooding, listening and watching.

But that little odd tweet now strikes back, in a 1,000 word blog post.

And a call to writers to wake up and denounce the TV preachers.

I know, I should be solving the technical issues that have been marring this blog rather than sitting here, ranting about the Australian film mess.  But hey, I’m inspired. And mad. Mad as hell!

When I started blogging four years ago, I was unhappy with what I saw around me in the Australian film industry.

Little did I know.

Four years later, I’ve become wiser and quieter. The situation is far more complex than I initially painted it.

It is much, much worse, too.

TELEVISION KILLED THE MOVIE STAR

Here’s that tweet in question:

Three weeks later, after a few realisations, the depth of the statement hit me with a sledgehammer. It is all coming together now.  The national film school AFTRS has announced an online feature film writing course, of which the presenter was “Script Producer with Neighbours from 2001 to 2007, he oversaw 1,500 episode scripts for the iconic soap, and has also written for Home & Away.” Let me clarify again that this is not a ‘screenwriting course’ but a ‘feature film’ writing course.

In a publication by the same school, an experienced producer explains which skills Australian producers should have in order to build sustainable businesses.

It is not mentioned at any point that feature story skills might help along the way in determining whether a project is worth investing in. What use are highly sophisticated financial models if the film is not going to be watched in the first place because films are developed the wrong way? Producers have gradually become used to ever decreasing returns, so they factor this into their modelling, which is in turn supported by the agencies. Hence they perpetuate  an industry of small, forever failing films.

Rather than obsess over the numbers, I would highly recommend wannabe producers read this article by John Truby about “10 Things A Producer Must Know About Story”. It was passed to me by someone at Australia’s most successful film distribution company. (No, not the one that was sold for $35m.)

MYTH IS A LIE

That same AFTRS publication, Lumina, also contains a brilliant article by Dr. Karen Pearlman, from which an excerpt was published here at the Story Department. It approaches the issue from an other angle: Australians are unable to detach from their own little stories and rise to a higher level to create true myths. It reminded me of the anecdote Joseph Campbell told about the radio DJ who didn’t understand the notion of myth. Myth goes well beyond our little Australian characters with their little problems… no matter how ‘beautiful’ they are.

It is not impossible to create highly successful low budget films following the traditional Hero’s Journey model. My best friends Chris, Jean-Claude and Pat in my home country of Belgium have been doing exactly this for many years, churning out one successful film after the other. Low budget, local stories, big hits. And that in a territory with a population only the size of Sydney. Some have had great critical praise, including wins at the Cannes Film Festival.

It is not impossible to create highly successful low budget films
following the traditional Hero’s Journey model.

All are written following the worldwide proven conventions of storytelling for the BIG screen. Last year during my trip to the Middle East, I analysed Frozen River with my students. There, too, is a fabulous low budget indie that ticks all the boxes of archetypal characters and structure.

In Australia, however, we continue to be different. And teachers at major schools make sure students are groomed to dislike what they call ‘Hollywood story structure’. I find it baffling that I get alumni from those rather expensive schools in my one-day courses who admit they were never properly taught the basics. I would suggest a refund, guys! On the other hand I find it cringe-worthy to see how many times Stephen Cleary is flying into this country to repeat his mantra. Well I guess we’re lucky he’s not charging McKee’s rates.

Trust me, there is NO DANGER of Australian films
being overly structured any time soon.

On the positive side, last year Screen Australia made a cautious effort to support the local “development of development” by flying over the Script Factory. Still, they were bending over backwards not to say the word “Hollywood” and they even openly denounced the Hero’s Journey. Guys, trust me, there is NO DANGER of Australian films being overly structured any time soon.

Earlier this year I was hired by a producer to work with the writer on a second draft of a feature screenplay. Great, fresh concept but the execution read like a television script. Too many points of view, no clear protagonist, the usual issues. The writer became increasingly uneasy during the session. Finally he admitted that most of my concerns were about things he had changed after notes by a previous script editor. He had to go back to his initial story structure. You’ve guessed it: the first draft had been assessed by a TV editor.

IT’S THE HERO, STUPID!

One highly successful teacher travels around Australia hammering about how “It is the characters, stupid!” Australian writers can create characters. That is not the problem. The real problem is that they create old school TV characters. They’re all kind of the same, there are hardly any strong protagonists in Australian cinema. Strong protagonists in successful feature films follow the broad sweeping symphonic motion of the 3-Act Structure. Rarely have I seen this in Australian film over the past 10 years. The last thing this country needs is yet another wonderfully isolated, ultra dramatic SCENE. We can do television, we do it rather well. What this country needs is an understanding of story arcs, of the big picture, whether on the Inner or Outer journey level. We master neither.

What this country needs is an understanding
of story arcs, of the big picture.

I have another hypothesis but this is only based on my own frustration. I cannot prove it without throwing the statement in the open for feedback from others.

Knight Horse and SwordThere may well have been valid stories with strong protagonists (as the client with his second draft above) but once they go into the system of development with government support – as they all do – the TV editors come in. Correction: they are FORCED in. The writer often can’t choose.  Ignorants call it over-development.  Believe me, no script in this country is over-developed. They’re just mis-developed.  Here’s what happens: a script is selected for government funding. The writer gets notes: “characters need further development”. The next thing you know, the writer is elaborating each and every character until they all have the same level of detail in the script. So now they’re all heroes. “And when everyone is special…” Right.

The next thing you know,
the writer is elaborating each and every character
until they all have the same level of detail.

Two years ago I was working on an animated feature screenplay. The writer and I had a terrific time and this was rewarded with a selection in a federal funding program. I was ‘stante pede’ kicked out – despite the fact that the writer and I had been a successful team on other projects – and an American editor was hired, whose credits were exclusively in TV. $12,000 later the script was offered for reading to a big local production company. It was shredded to pieces. Virtually none of the suggestions by that American editor survived the next draft.  (After that experience, the writer came back to me. The story is now very different and the writer is much happier.)

So yes, I stand by my statement:

The Australian Film Industry has been completely f***ed over by people who have been conditioned by the rules of 0ld school television drama: Teachers, Government Agents and Script Editors.

The irony: the culprits aren’t even aware of it because they don’t know any better.  And whether I like it or not, I’m afraid nothing is going to change any time soon.

The solution? You tell me.

The comments are open!

Karel

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 51

  1. I disagree.. I think they DO know better!

    You’re dealing with entrenched positions of power, positions that are being threatened with a truly democratic tool, digital film making!

    With digital tools anyone, and I mean ANYONE can go make a film, no excuses anymore. Is it free, no. Is it cheaper than film/processing, absolutely. Does it free you up from mainstream entrenched power brokers? Hell yeah.. and that’s what these folks fear the most. They know you’re right, they also know the mortgage is due every month and are terrified they’ll lose their job. Not only that, they would have to adapt or die.

    I suspect a lot of these people you talk of would fail miserably if pushed to draft up a decent hero’s journey script and they probably know it. So they use an enormous amount of real creativity fending off the inevitable wave of modern film making tools, techniques and forms of distribution.

    I’d say it’s up to the film makers to get off their bums and go make what they want. Bypass the existing structures and find alternative means to get their work out.

    Anyway, who cares about the Oz film industry, let it die it puss ridden death then burn it’s pathetic corpse!

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      Author

      You’re right.

      Some of these people have been circulating within the system for many many years. Well entrenched. But…

      “mainstream entrenched power brokers”?

      I don’t even think they’re mainstream. They’re trying to create a universe of their own.

      1. I was about to write a post yesterday on “Why Australian screenwriters think Australian audiences aren’t like world audiences” but this covers much the same turf.

        It upsets me that Chris Vogler was conned by local writers that Australia is a herophobic culture. On what evidence? Which hugely popular American film has not been hugely popular here? Australian audiences want what all audiences want. To be taken on an emotionally satisfying journey.

        You can rest assured that AFTRS will be turning out students well schooled in the Hero’s Journey and the importance of concept. I’ve just joined the school to run the Grad Certificate in Screenwriting program and I am a huge Campbell/Vogler devotee.

        1. Post
          Author

          Great news to see you (t)here!
          I mean, at The Story Dept and at AFTRS.

          Perhaps the question should be: why do screenwriters choose to appeal to their peers rather than to an audience?

          Here’s a hypothesis:

          1) They meet their peers more often face-to-face, so it’s a matter of self-esteem.

          2) They’re lazy. To write for an audience you have to go beyond your own story and learn a thing or two.

          See who has the courage to write THAT post first! ;)

          I like your blog, Allen.

          Please keep coming back!

          K

  2. *stands and applauds* Well said, Sir and spot on the money!

    I would suspect there is a handful, if that, of feature film script editors worth their salt in this country. One way to start to change things is to NOT accept the “mandated” editor if the person falls into the category you discuss and cannot make you and the project better.

    Writers have to be more aggressive about controlling their creative collaborations and not being dictated to. That won’t be easy but it’s a mindset more than anything.

    1. Post
      Author

      “One way to start to change things is to NOT accept the “mandated” editor”

      Totally agreed.

      Writers need to shape their own careers, decide who they trust and understand the reasons why they’re trustworthy.

      For a long time I was quite impressed with the impartiality of the system, until I understood exactly how these people exercise their power.

  3. I disagree. I think television is keeping it real! No one watches Australian movies but they do watch our TV because they operate more like a business and have to maintain a certain standard. They actually take notice of things like genre and structure, unlike feature films. And often writers in television go through a much more collaborative process, and are given much more say in their script than in feature films.

    I do agree about the characters and problems with screen plays’ protagonist, but I think that’s a symptom of the world’s preoccupation with minimalist indie movies so that every film we see now has an understaed, boring and fake quirky protagonist. The result is plenty of ‘scenes’ as you say, but nothing that really means anything or moves you. I can’t remember the last time i watched a movie made me really feel something. Maybe ‘Milk’ was the last one.

    1. Post
      Author

      My tirade was not against Australian TV.

      Although I don’t watch Neighbours, Home & Away and similar shows, I do believe they cater very well for their market. You are absolutely right in saying it operates more like a business. That aspect we lack sadly in feature film development and production.

  4. Nadia, they watch Australian TV because they don’t have to plonk down $16 a ticket for it! Excellent article Karel, will ponder and return with some more thoughts…

  5. Couldn’t have put it better myself, and that includes the first two comments as well. But I’m going to post something anyway because I want to vent.

    If you look at the recent examples of people who make the trip overseas and end up making it as directors and writers it’s because their inspiration has usually been popular Hollywood fare. No 90 page second act where nothing happens, no blurred lines between Act 1 and Act 2 or 3, no payoff.
    These are the well-known afflictions of the Aussie flick. Yet the guys that leave our shores are the ones who are truly on the money knowing that trying to make anything here is a waste of their time, aware that even a young intern at a US studio who has to read ten scripts a day has a better understanding of structure.

    Why wait for someone who gets a yearly wage to tell you what’s wrong with your script, either way he/she is getting paid so chances are they don’t care what advice they dish out. To be honest aside from our good man Karel above there isn’t much you can trust in this country in terms of sound script advice. It was bred on mediocrity and has been pushing it under the guise of the alphabet soup of funding bodies. Different name, same people same lack of talent and know how. Why?

    Because these are the people who are trying to tell cinema with our 22 million people and 200 year history that we know better, we are special, that our story about the lesbian couple who adopt an aboriginal child is unique, that it’s so unique it’s going to reach the world. News Flash! Nobody gives a shit because nothing happens! But guess what we’ll make crap like that again and again. We are truly scared of the answer, we know what it is — We have no idea what we’re doing when it comes to writing. We may rag on Crocodile Dundee but it doesn’t take a David Mamet to realize that story worked due to its strict adherence to three act structure.

    I’m glad we are in this position if we as an industry have to stay here for the next five years so be it, we deserve it for being so arrogant, there are rules and a structure to writing screenplays, we don’t know them and for that we are now paying the price in having the wider filmmaking world ignore us. Give everyone the same three act script writing book, tell them that they are the damn rules and watch how a nation will transform its image into something both commercial and unique that actually makes money!

    What’s more incredible is that a lot of filmmakers in this country feel that they are owed some sort of government assistance through the funding bodies. As the comment above stated there are other ways, people are just bloody lazy. They wait six months for the deadline to approach, another three for the decision to be made and then another four for the grant to come through, IF they are chosen. That’s over a year of waiting not to mention they actually haven’t started writing or re drafting the damn script yet because they are still waiting on the notes. You could do all that in four months, earning the same money working a factory job and then paying an independent script assessor who’s livelihood actually depends on doing a good job and word of mouth. How do I know because I did it and now have a US producer interested, a decent one who doesn’t make crap.
    All whilst my other filmmaking fraternity wait for some grant, knowing it’s the first and possibly only step to receiving further funding because it shows your willingness to jump though the hoops for them. Guess what we don’t need them! Never have, because stuff gets made everyday without their help!

    I for one gave up on this industry long ago when I found every piece I wrote and submitted to every funding body was rejected. Having then changed the dialogue to American and sent the same screenplays to US script competitions those said scripts would make the finals.

    And all I did was pay the requisite 30 bucks at Borders and got my structure out of a damn book. It doesn’t matter which one they’re all the same because structure hasn’t changed in one hundred bloody years!

    LIke everyone else I’m nobody special I just don’t like being told by a funding body whether I’m worthy of a shot or not. by someone who hasn’t even taken theirs.

    Please excuse any typos, I’m typing this rant as furiously as I can,

    If this is too much of a rant I’ll totally understand it not being posted.

    Peace!

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks so much for your reply A.C., great to hear from you after a long time!

      Don’t apologize for the rant. That’s what this blog is for!

      As some of the other readers have said: it’s up to us to create change and I know that you are doing exactly that, with your continued integrity, professionalism and hard work.

      I felt truly honored and privileged you chose me after you worked with respected editors in Australia and in the US.

      Rock on!

  6. There are some very valid points here, but as the whole funding ‘industry’ has been in flux over the past year – with Enterprise funding etc – we should probably wait to see the results before tearing any more hair out. A big problem has been that established producers have been able to keep raising $3 million to fund films that take $50,000 at the box office, yet with negligible financial risk themselves: it’s all government money.

    As far as script-editing and other ‘Hollywood’ expertise goes, we’re in a bootstrap situation: we have too few commercially successful writers/editors/producers to guide the next generation of writers through story development.

    Anyway, having completed the new Grad Diploma in screenwriting last year at AFTRS, I can say that the following statement doesn’t apply to AFTRS:

    “And teachers at most major schools make sure students are groomed to dislike what they call ‘Hollywood story structure’.”

    The teachers are ABSOLUTELY committed to classical story structure. Genre is not a dirty word. That said, you should have read Vogler/McKee/Snyder and have watched a few Michael Hauge DVDs before you sign up for any course, and use the course for networking, workshopping, analysis and pitching practice instead.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you JE, it’s good to hear AFTRS are committed to classical structure.

      But I disagree when you say “we should probably wait to see the results”.

      It really doesn’t matter what the results are: it’s OK and quite understandable that even a majority of films fail.

      It is not OK that they are developed with the wrong mindset in the first place. The complete disregard for any audience (even encourage by some reviewer) is unforgivable and has nothing to do with an industry in flux.

      But I guess we’ve had that discussion here before. (LOL)

  7. At McKee’s seminar in Sydney last year he said he doesn’t understand why we are so down on our films in Australia because every year the world expects one or two good Australian films to come out, and we deliver one or two good films every year.
    For an industry our size should we expect more than that? Maybe just that people actually go to see them…

    1. Post
      Author

      Nadia,

      As I said above, the outcome almost doesn’t matter.

      If the attitude is wrong, there is no chance for improvement.

      And ‘one or two good films’ is not happening.

      One of those European friends of mine is a movie journalist in Belgium, a country with a relatively healthy exhibition situation and a high release volume, including obscure indies from all over the world.

      I asked him what Australian movies he had seen (and he sees EVERYTHING that’s being released). The answer: one movie. AUSTRALIA.

      That was in a year when we had over 30 movies produced.

  8. I should say from the outset that I’m a screenwriting graduate from last year’s AFTRS class. That course is built around 3-act structure and hero’s journey and I learnt alot from it. Thinking back about it now, I had only seen a handful of Australian films as a kid. I grew up on Scorsese, Carpenter, Lean, Hitchcock. That was my film school.

    At times I have been decried for being too American because I focus on specific genres: sci-fi, thriller, horror, western etc. That’s because it’s just what I know. I was even once told that thriller movies are obsolete and that’s what television is for… you can’t help feel depressed about it.

    This industry is a club and you’re either in it or you’re not. And if you’re not, the only way to get in is to appeal to the sensibilities of those calling the shots. At the moment ‘genre’ is the buzzword but this has been reactionary. They’re trying to shift from intimate personal drama to genre as a patch to get people into the seats. But I say, a thriller has to be THRILLING, a rom-com has to have ROMANCE and be FUNNY and a horror must be SCARY. Instead we are getting personal dramas in the guise of genre. I say this because when I watch a movie, I want to feel as if it’s doing its hardest to throw everything it can at its characters and knows what it is. Mix genres, but make sure you know the ins and outs of the genres and storytelling before you try to resculpt them.

    Ultimately, although there are exceptions, I find quite alot of Australian films are trying too hard to be ‘worthy’ and aren’t trying hard enough to be engaging.

    And to those holding the keys clutching onto their positions of power: you will not be remembered. Your days are numbered.

    1. Here here! I so agree. A perfect example is 500 Days of Summer. It was such a lame attempt to dress up a rom com as something more, but in the end it was neither funny nor romantic and no where near dramatic enough to be something more.

      I really admire the film makers who are brave enough to recognise a genre for what it is and what it is not and be ok with that. Perhaps the point is that this is happening to the Hollywood industry too, not only Australia. And people are generally watching less movies everywhere too. Perhaps we are not that are not that special in Australia after all.

      1. I agree with you re 500 Days of Summer. That was infuriatingly dull – the writer’s agenda seemed to be purely to purge and subject as all to their relationship disaster rather than to be entertaining or engaging.

        I don’t agree, however, that people are generally watching less movies everywhere – you only need to check box office takings around the world to see that that simply isn’t the case.

        1. Post
          Author

          So if we all agree on 500 Days (and so do I), who went to see that film? And why? (LOL)

          In any case, the problem is that tons of Australian film funding applications refer to small indies like these as role models – but then expect to receive the highest level of funding available in this country.

  9. I just lived in Australia for five years, and I don’t want to be insulting, but I wasn’t that impressed with the TV shows either. Neighbors, Home and Away, McCloud’s Daughters? Seriously? Ouch.

    1. Good on you! I agree wholeheartedly! And I disagree with Karel when he says that we do television rather well. We make crap TV shows.

      Karel, please name some Aussie TV shows/programs you think are good.

      1. Post
        Author
  10. It’s a very complex problem. That’s the first lie you’ll hear.

    It’s all about the scripts. Engaging, clever, marketable scripts across all genres.

    Do you realise with a good knowledge of how the system works you can get 100 grand to write a script that will probably never get made? I call bullshit. They should reverse the funding method and make it easy for some nerd with no knowledge of “the way things work” to send a script in by email. Stop developing scripts, make yourself accessible and pay for the best completed scripts, then cradle that precious egg until it becomes a movie.

    We have the best crews, actors, cgi artists, cinematographers, directors, craft services, technicians, locations and makeup people.

    So why do your tax dollars keep going to art?

    If you take care of the business, the art will take care of itself.

    1. Post
      Author

      “with a good knowledge of how the system works you can get 100 grand”

      Our industry is not alone in this, but you’re right: 80-90% of the money goes to those who play the system well.

      It has nothing, nothing at all, to do with market potential.

      If you’re good at writing government tenders, you’re good at scoring the money.

  11. This is exactly the problem Karel.

    Australian film students are so caught up in being unique and different that they never learn the most basic fundamentals of telling a story.

    Making films is a business first, form of art second. You can’t make the art if you have no money or a rich benefactor.

    We need to make stories people will pay to watch.

    1. Of course you can make art without money or a rich benefactor – it’s just a lot harder and the end result may not be as pretty.

  12. Yeah I agree. Like the other writer here, I’ve submitted scripts that haven’t got funding here ( one of the funds they were picking 5 scripts out of 30 entrants) and the exact same script made a top 10 out of over 1500 entrants in a Hollywood competitions… Most peopleI’ve met here who are “in this industry” have no idea about story… I go to LA often and I always run into australian writers there… the ones who are any good don’t bother with writing australian films… I even have an australian producer jump on board for a project i have in development overseas, first thing she does is give me notes on the script (which has already been polished so many times, I’m confident it needs no work on it) and her note is “Make the character more unlikable at the start”…. fucking hell… seriously? I spent over 10k with script consultants overseas, developing it…michael hauge was one of them, and I can tell you now they’d laugh at such a stupid fucking note… especially considering that most of them tried draft by draft to convince me to make the MC more likeable…

    It’s good because the option expired two weeks later and they just took for granted that I’d renew… so I bid my time and wrote back to them telling them how fucking stupid the notes are, how it’s an insult to me, and speaks of the producers professionalim and I told the director I never wish to take notes from an australian producer or for them to even share their bullshit thoughts with me about any scripts because quite frankly I’m yet to meet one that has any fucking idea…

    seriously it’s not that fucking hard…. the next wave of this industry (if u can call it that) will only come when people who actually know how to write screenplays here in australia pick up a camera and shoot it themselves… which kinda sucks because I never wanted to be a director but, im so annoyed at the rubbish that’s being produced here I’m left with little other option…

    someone with some weight/name needs to stand up and speak out about how much of a farse the goverment funded body (whatever the fuck they call themselves these days is) it’s the biggest joke i’ve ever come across… what they need to do is shut it down completley or maybe just hire some people who actually know a thing or two about cinema… it’s such a joke… the people who work at the AFC or whatever it is these days should hang there heads in shame…

    Oh… and I went to UNI – one of the biggest ones in aus… and I was studying film… in my first week i went to a screenwriting lecture… the lecturer had written one (that’s right ONE) feature length script (not to mention un-produced) and a couple of shorts.. and he was teaching the class!!!! I was only 20 at the time and I had written 15 features and had optioned one… needless to say i walked out and never went back to that uni… the whole situation here is a joke… neone thinking abotu going to film school? forget it… just go to the writers store and drop a couple of grand on some books and dvd’s and take a year off to write and you’ll know more than most people in the aus “industry”……

    Although I’ve never used any of Karel’s services he seems to know what’s really going on in this industry and what the problem is… wish there was more people like him out there…

    1. Post
      Author

      LOL!

      Nice piece.

      That said, I am a teacher who hasn’t written a single successful screenplay.

      But I have thoroughly studied and analysed tons of movies and consistently focus on HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL films. On top of that, I have experience as a producer and a film buyer. Not many teachers can offer that combination, particularly in this country.

      I’m quite happy there aren’t too many like me out there. (LOL)

  13. Hi Karel, Re: your statement: “The national film school AFTRS has announced an online feature film writing course, of which the presenter was “Script Producer with Neighbours from 2001 to 2007, he oversaw 1,500 episode scripts for the iconic soap, and has also written for Home & Away.” Let me clarify again that this is not a ’screenwriting course’ but a ‘feature film’ writing course.”

    Hilarious, if it wasn’t so serious. Karel, I couldn’t agree more. In 2000 I graduated with a Film & TV Production Degree from Queensland University of Technology. I found the course largely a total waste of time, from the serious screenwriter’s point of view. Great course for technicians, people who want to produce commercials etc.

    During the course, we were asked to write a short film. I wrote a humorous one, in which I had a person telling the story, as it progressed, from her personal experience as being a member of the family, watching the familial events unfold. The lecturer failed me, saying that was not a method one could ever employ in film. “You can’t have a person standing on the sideline, telling the story!” she ranted. I appealed, had several other lecturers read my film script, and got my pass, but just. They all agreed it was a NO NO but grudingly let me pass the subject, as they said they could see I had talent, nonetheless. Rules, rules rules, they wagged their fingers. Rules must be obeyed.

    Well, guess what? The Castle came out shortly after, employing exactly the same method, and the rest is history. So, from that experience, I learned to trust my instincts and my creative urges. Never give in to the powers that be, who think they can tell the creative screenwriter his or her business.

    I guess we all, as creative writers for the big screen, or TV, must just keep on trusting those instincts. Sure the film industry is dying in the aa……… but we have no alternative but to keep beating on the door of producers with quality work, even if it doesn’t meet with their expectations, even if it is not going to break box office. Many great films were duds at the box office. The constant haranguing about saleability and emphasis on commercialism, ought not to dissuade us from our mission: to produce quality stories, whether they be for the big screen or for television.

    There is very little I can stand to watch on TV. So many holes in the storyline, and viewers have got used to getting half the story, and making up the rest. Kind of like those stories the kids write, where they contribute their own ending, except in this case, viewers contribute the missing gaps all along the way. Inconsistencies in the storyline must be ignored by the practised schizophrenic viewer.

    A vast dumbing down of our audiences has occurred. As long as the public is content to allow producers who may or may not be good storytellers, to fill their screens, (and in the case of film, actually pay them to continue in this vein), then we will continue to get low quality, if high budget films. A producer with full pockets may have a whale of a time indulging him or herself making big budget nightmares, but let’s face it, they are getting away with it, and the public, particularly the press, are helping them to do it. They flock around in droves, genuflecting, starry-eyed and gushing at their feet.

    I guess it comes down to the fact that we all must just keep on keeping on, as creative writers, doing the right thing, and hoping to hell there is someone with money out there, who cares more about film than the fast buck, and who believes in us enough to take our stories to the people. Who knows, maybe they will even get lucky and fill their pockets into the bargain! Personally, I believe that if a story is good enough, someone with principle eventually will see its worth, and pick it up. Meanwhile, we have to just put up with the crap getting to the screen, while good scripts get eaten by silverfish in dusty drawers and closets.

    By the way, all you lovely people reading this: I have just published two children’s books in poem form, so here’s the link for you to cut and paste. Hopefully some of you have kids or grandkids who need not only entertaining, but educating.

    http://stores.lulu.com/pamelavalemont

    Cheers, and go well, Pamela Valemont

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  14. Thank you Karel for your honesty and insighful post – I must admit while studying at TAFE Film School, I did come to some of these conclusions myself. That was a pretty depressing realization for someone just starting out in this field. Does this mean all aspiring writers/producers must travel to the US/UK?

    For someone wanting to produce documentaries, I would assume there is even lesser scope to get funding and maybe as suggested by Wayne, we just have to get out there and make what we want. I don’t have a problem with that, however, what about viewing audiences, distribution etc? how do we get a whole lot of people to see our work? Will all our efforts just sit on our hard drives and YouTube?

    Any advice/suggestions for an industry ‘very newbie’? Thanks

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      “Will all our efforts just sit on our hard drives and YouTube?”

      This is not necessarily a bad thing, Michelle.

      I believe that’s where most business will be generated in years to come.

      Yes, directly from YouTube and your hard drive (or your hosting Co’s)

  15. The problem with the Australian film industry is not that simple. Yes there is a problem with having soapie producers and writers teaching feature film (and drama series) writing – they teach the skills they are most familiar with. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have something valid to offer their classes. As to structure – yes it is important as is the character’s arc (which is why they tend to employ soapie writers to teach it, as both are fore-grounded strongly in the soapie writing.) What everyone forgets is that a lot of American formulaic (heavily structured) 3 act film scripts with the almost OTT heroes journey are really very bad.
    The notion that character is vital is not new and it is accurate. Just ask the Stoneking. It goes to what the character says and does (and don’t say and do), how they react, what others say to them and about them and how they react to them. It is their personal arc, their functional role with the mechanism of the story: which characters they co-operate with and are foil to etc. What their actantial role is within the script. What their back-story is (as well as their expectations and anticipations) and how it is brought out within the script as well as how it affects their behaviour. Character is about the gap – the spaces between the lines – the space between the characters – how the characters are linked, why they are linked and how they affect each other.
    Structure is about the sequencing of events. Character and Structure work together to create a story that is watchable and engaging.
    When structure monopolises the writer’s mind we find the stories ultimately resemble fairy-floss – they lack substance (all sound and fury signifying nothing- to quote Shakespeare.) However when the two work in harmony we find truly original works which engage us in a fluid manner and leave us wanting to know more about the characters and what will happen to them. The stories become thought provoking and have resonances which last.
    Amidst this discussion we should not forget there is another function of the script- it is a blueprint for performance which the creatives use to bring the work to life. If they don’t have enough to work off to create character they invent their own – yes this can be good and yes it can be very, very bad. I am often reminded that a Steven Segal movie is stereotypical to the point of absurd predictability and is Method acting taking to extreme – he really does only play himself – an all-American Sheriff, so everything he is in is fundamentally the same. It is all well and good to remind people that that his work sells – so does popcorn, bubble gum, fairy floss and opium (for the masses.) Not everyone wants to watch the same trite material with different names, places and faces.
    Most people will watch what they have been conditioned or educated to watch (American popular culture has had a monopoly on the kind of material which is designed to make us ‘feel like we’re winning when we’re losing again’) as well as what it is considered cool to watch – that which the distribution companies promote if not overly promote and tell us it is cool in one way or another. Australian films sometimes surprise us: Priscilla, The Truth about Cats and Dogs, etc. They are only heavily promoted if they have major stars in them (in the case of the former) and remember the later had minimal promotion and a limited run. Work such as Secret Men’s business which is an excellent example of how characters create a story are buried amidst the mass of one time only on tv movies never to be seen again because they are not promoted.
    The problem is Australia doesn’t have a broad focused experimental film community with access to the distribution and publicity of the American imports nor do first timers have equal access to the resources to develop scripts into films based on the merits of the particular script so our talents go to waste or abroad (which for a home grown industry is the same thing.) Nor does it produce a unique product. We try to clone American movies as they have a ready market or we in our vanity search for a piece of art or even worse, a single representational image which doesn’t take into account the true complexity and nature of modern Australia (with more women than men and a very high multi-cultural base and a lot of first generation Australian’s which are neither traditionally Australian nor fully part of their parent community either.)
    The real questions we should be asking is who decides what scripts are to be funded? What is the criteria? What is the politics of the decision? Why don’t we have a more influential Indie film industry? How can more writers access the industry (without having to pay exorbitant fees)? And how can the funding system create parity between new and named writers on the basis of script merit rather than name alone (remember Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote a novel years after becoming successful and submitted it under a false name only to have it rejected as not being good enough to print and promote. She then resubmitted it under her only name without other alteration and it was deemed noteworthy – see the problem? – It was her name that sold not the material or its structure.)
    The problem is not which teacher knows best – as all can add to the skills base of the student (and we are all students of human nature if nothing else), it is how to create access and parity and a realisation there is not one overriding right style but many each capable of reflecting something unique if we insist upon it.

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      “When structure monopolises the writer’s mind we find the stories ultimately resemble fairy-floss.”

      That, Frances, has not happened in Australia in recorded history.

  16. Karel, I see your frustration at TV short form writers teaching long form story. But I think the problem of feature scripts not being fabulous, lies in many of the other regions the replies to your blog have outlined.

    I’m an industry outsider.

    I’ve never been to film school (I applied – they wouldn’t let me in), but I have written and directed many short films, and won several awards with one of them. I have script edited a funded Australian feature film, co-produced a French international documentary on Modern faces of Aboriginal Australia shown on prime time French television, and have written and directed two low budget feature films, producing one of them.

    And none of the films I’ve made has had government funding.

    I have studied writing for twenty-five years, for the last twelve months under the tutelage of the internationally award winning playwright, Tim Daly, whose play Kafka Dances launched the career of Cate Blanchette, and I have absorbed McKee, Hauge, and Truby, Campbell, Aristotle and Stoneking.

    These essential teachers have put enough educational material out there to make the learning of screenplay writing very accessible, and I’m sure there are Australian writers out there who are very familiar with their work writing excellent screenplays.

    It seems to me that though good scripts may be written, they are unlikely to make it through the bureaucratic hoops.

    As an indie writer/director I am familiar with every aspect of making a movie to a tight budget, from writing, directing and producing, to editing and marketing. And through working with the late Richard Franklin on his last film and seeing the incredible difficulties he faced funding that, I have observed at close hand how the bureaucratic club operates its closed loop.

    The funding bodies are a dead hand with a bleak house style and a nepotistic rewards structure. And no one has ever told me why they are necessary.

    Why not simply encourage film production through the tax office as was initially done with 10BA? The producer rorts under that system could easily have been circumvented by tax office oversight, but instead a heavy handed bureaucratic empire was built that has since lost increasingly large amounts of money every year spending a huge amount on administration that could have otherwise gone to making films. Even the socialist French have a tax oriented subsidy model and not a film bureaucracy, and their industry thrives.

    If we want a vibrant film industry here, I’m afraid government agencies would have to go. But that is unlikely here, as there are too many vested interests at work.

    So I’ve giving up going cap in hand to bureaucrats, and I’ve given up thinking I could make money from movies. But I’m not going to go out into the cornfield and shoot myself. I will continue on in microbudget land to make the stories I am passionate to make, with tiny budgets, and a lot of goodwill from actors and crew who believe the practice of their art transcends all difficulties.

    So come on you indie filmmakers out there – tell me another story.

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      “The funding bodies are a dead hand with a bleak house style and a nepotistic rewards structure. And no one has ever told me why they are necessary.”

      Didn’t we all have a good laugh when a few years back the AFC paid for Christine Vachon to come over. Next we see the following quote printed across all the trade publications:

      “Take film subsidies away […] for five years […]. What you’d get is a cinema you can’t even dream of, because people would be forced to be that inventive.”

      The problem is that private investors feel more comfortable if the risk is shared with the government.

      And hardly any widely released Australian films are made without their support.

      On the other hand, there are some truly wonderful people at the agencies, too.

      Unfortunately it only takes one person to undo the hard work of many others. And this is what has been happening over and over again.

  17. I’ve been out of the loop for a while, with my head down in couple of scripts and talking with industry mavericks around the world about different ways of doing business.

    So glad I decided to start reading at this topic. Encouraging.

    *stands on her soapbox and applauds* Loudly!

    Since I agree with the point the lead post makes, and echo a number of the comments, I might just broaden the perspective somewhat.

    Karel knows my opinion about the film industry bureaucracy in this country – Its playing things safe no longer serves the people it was set up for. The comments here alone, confirm that.

    The energy swirling through this discussion is heartwarming. The wisdom of the crown is undeniable. Even if it is tending towards deconstruction of the given as opposed to focusing on devising and creating the new.

    Which leads me to my favourite quote by Buckminster Fuller, an author, philosopher, futurist and visionary:

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    Since 1988, when I attended the film school, the Australian film industry has been churning in the spot and not getting anywhere fast.

    I’ve had a screenplay knocked about by the FTO for over a year, because it was “too unique”! Oh brother! Give me a break. Is that not what true commercial art is about: unexpected and exciting? God forbid, unique. Some time later, that same script was picked up in the US, made, and did very well, thank you. Couple of others I optioned in Europe. Didn’t get made, but still. Here I could barely get a meeting with a Project Manager because, “I had no prior ‘on air’ credits”…(?)

    Either the people with the power to support Australian screenwriters do not have the skills to differentiate between potential and rubbish or, they think that replicating the past is playing it safe – “must take care of mortgage” mentality.

    Anyone who thinks that change will, or even needs to happen within the bureaucracy, is setting him/herself up for one hell of a disappointment. It will not happen. The only way to change something as big and staid and narrow-minded as a government department, by whatever new name it goes by today, is to affect the change from without it.

    Lets build it. Bureaucracy will follow. They’ll have no other choice. They exist for us, not the other way around.

    My point is, we get what we focus on, positively or negatively. Not only does what we focus on need to change, but also the decision makers need to change, as well as how we do things. The reason being: The playing field has changed immensely.

    I’m convinced that getting caught up in deliberating how we should NOT be doing things is a waste of time and energy. We need a new model. Not a rehashed, renamed bureaucratic model, but a new model altogether. The Internet has opened it’s doors to so may untapped possibilities and is sitting there, waiting.

    The home screens are growing larger and the media technology is moving exponentially faster as I type this. The TV and the Internet screens are all but merged. Webs of likeminded individuals span the globe.

    Michelle, there is no reason why indi film/doco makers cannot market their own work by using the Internet. And I’m not talking about YouTube per se, although I’m neither dismissing it.

    The hot topic in Cannes workshops last year was ‘breaking away from old distribution and marketing models’. I must have been to five or more, mind you, none in the American tent (make of that what you will). A number of speakers were people who are already doing just that, very successfully. Maybe their films will not break the box office like ‘Avatar’ did, but their cost-to-profit ratios might just be another story, particularly when we consider the ‘long tail’ effect that social networking inherently espouses. Not that the ‘box office’ is the reason we make films.

    Yes, the 3D ‘movement’ is again making theatres appealing. But for how long? Is it simply a panacea for those filmmakers unable to detach themselves from old paradigms, unable to cope with change? Is it a knee-jerk reaction to the inevitable? Or simply, an interim measure?

    Either way, using the Social Networking phenomenon – the wisdom and the power of the crowd – to make, promote and distribute films, is the way of the future.

    An article I came across today (although it appeared in the UK Guardian last year) illustrates just one opportunity – http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/jul/08/digital-cinema This blog is an example of another.

    And there are many more examples, from micro finance models via swarms of angels, through co-operative studio production, to using the net for viral marketing.

    An interesting point that comes to mind is United Artists original business model – it was set up in 1919 as a co-operative by its five founding members. A group of people united in their vision, wanting to do things their own way.

    Seems the circle has come all the way around.

    I’ll step off my soapbox with a note for contemplation:

    “During the Reagan administration, the House Science and Technology Subcommittee released a report containing a chapter on the “physics of consciousness”. The report stated that psi research deserved Congress’ attention because “general recognition of the degree of INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF MINDS could have far-reaching social and political implications for this nation and the world.”

    Wake up people! The future of filmmaking business is in your hands.

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      Lilyana,

      I think I’m going to engage you as a guest contributor. :)

      Thank you for a great comment, worthy of it’s own headline! (now, what would that be??)

  18. Hi Karel, I think this a great subject for debate but I see it differently.

    It seems to me that the idea of Government funding has led you astray.

    There is nothing stopping anyone from making a Hollywood style film in Australia and like Hollywood it must be made without government funding.

    Just because we have a film fund, doesn’t mean you have to use it.

    And like they say in all those screenwriting seminars; if the story is good enough and if you have a good producer then investors can be found.

    Government funding is a handout, it is a decoy if you really want to make commercially viable films.

    What true Hollywood film would expect the Government to treat them like the disadvantaged ?

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      Mark,

      I have had my moments when I agreed with you. Then I’ve had my moments when I would WANT to agree with you.

      Unfortunately the reality is far more complex.

      See my comment above: investors are so scared, they want to see the government share the risk.

    2. Good points Mark, although the government fund is not ‘supposed’ to be a handout but a hand-up for those not established sufficiently to be accepted by our investors on face-value.

      Most investors in Oz look to historical ‘proof’ for commercial potential, or at the very least, they seek to mitigate the risk, as Karel notes, by spreading it.

      A motivation not necessarily shared with all US investors.

      My last two trips to the US were a recognisance mission, and so worth it. An interesting fact: For an emerging writer to get funded in Hollywood it is often a matter of literally being in the right place at the right time and having the gift of the gab to sell your idea on the spot (note, I say ‘idea’, not screenplay, not even concept for that matter).

      Filmmaking is an expensive art form, so the package needs to be attractive to potential investors. But ‘attractive’ can spell a number of different motivations.

      What filmmakers in Oz don’t seem to realise is that not all Hollywood investors are simply interested in commercially viable films. Films are made that barely see the light of day. Yet their writers keep getting funded by the same investors over and over(?) Mind you, nothing to do with philanthropic sentiments either.

      While overseas, I was invited to se two films written by a writer with no writing education or experience. In one, a support actor was an Oscar nominee. Well, I could barely make myself sit through them: story and production values were rock bottom. None the less, I persevered since I was invited by the distributor to the after-party and could not pass up the opportunity to find out from the executive producers how they came across the scripts, how they assessed them and why they decided to fund them.

      Both of the scripts in question were written in record time, one of them, wait for it… in 3 weeks!(?) Because, the investors ‘needed’ them. Anyone with a bit of imagination can speculate why.

      Point being, whatever the investors’ motivations, options available to us are not mutually exclusive and yet we discuss them as if they were. All options must be equally considered and ALL that work, utilised to get the momentum going. For our own stories, for the industry in Oz.

      Once made, the work speaks for itself, and if created to be engaging, the next one will have exponentially more options open to it and it’s team.

      As far as Jeffrey’s question below about the rat’s nest, I think Susie makes some relevant points, as do all contributors.

      All we now need is to piece the suggestions into a cohesive, broader context. Create a bit of a mind-map…

  19. I think to blame the teachers, gov’t agents, and script editors is too easy – it’s pointing the finger, when ultimately we should be pointing that finger at ourselves. We are responsible for our own ‘education’ and to seek out ways to improve our craft. Although, obviously, that can be a difficult thing to do when people trust in educational institutions to provide this education for them but the education system (private or gov’t backed) simply isn’t cutting it.

    So where do you go when you feel you can’t trust any of the courses that are out there, or simply can’t afford them? How do you self educate?

    There are many things we can do for ourselves by ourselves. Analyse the films you have enjoyed – why did you enjoy them? Do the films you prefer and the kind you want to write make money? If not, your path will become a more difficult one to travel; if your chosen style/genre hasn’t got a good track record at the box office, how can you expect people to give you millions of dollars to make them? Accept that this is a business that you have entered. You can combine indie with box office success as long as you consider audience expectations. Unless you really do only want to write for yourself, you have an audience and their expectations to consider. Work out what those expectations are – they change for different genres. Ask your friends what they’ve thought about films and why. If they were disappointed, why? If they thought the film was good, bad, boring – ask why. Google, read blogs, take your own scripts to people who’s opinions you trust, read the popular books on screenwriting – if you don’t know what they are, google for them! Network. Don’t rely too much on other people and their opinions, unless they have a proven track record in feature film – coz films are very different to TV! Read books and interviews on/by your favourite screenwriters – learn from their mistakes.

    And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just make sure you go back and correct them – the answer may not come straight away, but one things’ for sure: the problem(s) in your script won’t go away by ignoring it!

    Finger pointing, tall poppy syndrome, preference for the underdog, false expectations to get things right the first time, confusing TV models and writing for being able to successfully and easily cross platform to film, not aiming high enough, self-doubt, and no real decent support system (either in the government, finance or education sectors) – brush all of those reasons aside, ignore them all, they merely serve as distractions from your writing, reasons to whinge and procrastinate. Everything you need is already inside. Because whether a script is good enough to cut it all starts and ends with you – the writer. It ain’t easy, but would we want to do it if it were?

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      Great answer.

      I agree with you. The solution lies with us. No-one else is going to fix the situation for us. We need to educate ourselves and learn to work outside – or alongside the system, if it is indeed terminally ill.

      If we’re part of it, we’ll run the risk of dying with it.

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  20. Well,
    I was never taught writing when I was in Film School in Sydney… but when I learnt it in New York, I realised that traditional structure is the way to go.

    People just need to shut up and start making films here.
    But I guess it just depends if the film makers know what they’re doing… and if they’re getting bad advise from people, then that’s just crap.

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      “People just need to shut up and start making films here.”

      That’s actually happened quite often in OZ.

      Ironically I think Australia’s wonderful ‘can do’ attitude has fired back in the world of filmmaking.

      Too many films have been made “because they could” and without enough thought going into the development and marketing.

  21. Brilliant article. Thanks for shining a light on the rat’s nest. Now what’s the solution?

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  22. I agree Australia needs to get right back to basics – not just for scriptwriting techniques – but for storytelling also.

    A few observations from a new scriptwriter…

    1. Most discussions/forums/training about scriptwriting soon ‘drift’ to talk about markets, blockbusters, Hollywood, commercial successes and failures and money. This is disillusioning to new writers because we’re not permitted to allow our creativity to ‘breathe’ during crucial stages of the scriptwriting process.

    2. New scriptwriters are often not connected to the industry and therefore must ‘scavenge’ for information. The industry in Australia is “closed” and littered with conflicting myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings about film industry standards and expectations in Australia and overseas. People with life experience, careers outside film & TV and the drive to write in their own time should never be treated like “pests” by industry sectors (government or private).

    3. A more expansive and all-encompassing approach to the craft of telling a story with moving pictures – within all aspects of the industry – will be of great benefit especially in years to come.

    4. Isolation is a huge enemy – a suffocator of creative momentum. Scriptwriters need to find ways to connect with each other, significantly and regularly.

    5. There is screenwriting “gold” at community levels in this country, but with no long-term, strategic and penetrating strategies at corporate/commercial levels to find the shiny stuff it will remain buried.

    6. Storytelling is a lifelong learning process and all scriptwriters should be examining and exploring the (sometimes ancient) rules. Thanks to Christopher Vogler from ‘The Writers Journey’… “A story can break all the ‘rules’ and yet still touch universal human emotions” [page 232].

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      Thank you Susie. You’ve made some very pertinent points.

      I like the idea of “Back to basics” and have effectively reshaped some of my workshops to do just that.

      As to how we should deal with rules, I’m with Mystery Man. Loved his article On Breaking Structure.

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