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.
There 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.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.