‘Taut thriller’: Assange movie highlights teen struggle

IT IS a story full of complexity and trauma, and largely unknown to a wider audience who view its subject as merely a publisher of classified military intelligence. Yet the teenage years of Julian Assange – now the subject of a gripping film – will again stir vigorous debate.
Underground, the latest political thriller from writer-director Robert Connolly – which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday night – homes in on Assange’s troubled upbringing, in an effort to make sense of his present predicament. The embattled WikiLeaks founder, currently holed up behind the walls of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, remains fearful of being extradited to the US for publishing the leaks.
“I knew a lot about the current situation, but had very little knowledge of that period in history,” says Connolly, whose previous political thrillers include Balibo and The Bank (which also both screened in Toronto). “It was something of a revelation to me.”

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Variety reviews ‘Underground: The Julian Assange Story’, at the Toronto Film Festival

Straightforward and effective, “Underground” is a made-for-TV biopic about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s formative years as a teenage hacker in Australia. Helmer-scribe Robert Connolly (“The Bank,” “Balibo”), an Oz filmmaker with a genuine and consistent social conscience, does an excellent job of dramatizing Assange’s unconventional background and his coming of age during a time of political activism and technological innovation, albeit taking artistic license with incidents, characters and timelines. Guaranteed to be one of the smallscreen events of the year when it preems on Network Ten Down Under, this timely, strongly thesped drama reps quality material for fests and broadcast outlets worldwide.

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Don’t Call Her Muriel – Toni Collette

Toni Collette reunites with Muriel’s Wedding director P J Hogan to make Mental.
From working-class Sydney to Sunset Boulevard is quite a journey, but Toni Collette has made it look easy. Amanda Hooton meets the instinctive actor and hands-on mother who has taken the “t” out of can’t.

You can tell Toni Collette is a celebrity because of her hair. It’s blonde (art, not nature) and thick, and it has an excellent kink in it, swinging over her forehead and brushing her cheekbone. Even when celebrities shave their heads – as Collette has done on more than one occasion – you just know the great hair is there, waiting to spring forth again upon an astonished world.

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Who Killed the Documentary?: Screen Australia replies

An Open Letter to the Documentary Sector,

We note Dr Trevor Graham’s concerns in his article ‘Docos Slaughtered for Ratings Success’ and we appreciate his very thoughtful analysis of the current state of play and the subsequent debate around broadcaster licensing priorities.

In recent years there has been an increase in hours of documentary series and a subsequent decrease in one-off documentaries commissioned by the public broadcasters. Nevertheless, Screen Australia continues to have a demonstrated commitment to one-off documentaries. We recognise the important contribution of these films to a diverse and healthy documentary sector.

Currently we support one-off documentaries through a variety of programs and we are also engaged with the issues Trevor raises in a number of ways:

• Over the past three years we have consistently developed many more one-off documentaries than series. Approximately 65% of our development projects in 2011/12 were one-offs.

• Over the last three years the number of one-off documentaries to which we have contributed production investment has been steady at approximately 45 projects per year.

• Our Signature Program which supports one off documentaries with a strong authorial voice and does not require a broadcast presale in order to receive our support is unique. Last year it was increased from $700,000 to $1.4 million. We have split the funds into two rounds per year in response to feedback from filmmakers.

• Screen Australia recently announced a new intensive workshop to inspire Australian filmmakers to create feature documentaries – the Think Big Documentary Lab. The workshop will be led by Simon Chinn Academy Award®–winning producer of Man on Wire, Project Nim and Searching for Sugar Man. He will be supported by Australian filmmakers Gillian Armstrong, Matt Bate and Tony Krawitz.

• Developing new digital platforms and pathways for innovative documentaries through the NDP and more recently our Multiplatform Production Fund has been a particular focus. For example the award winning Big Stories Small Towns (IDFA, SXSW), Goa Hippy Tribe (IDFA, SXSW).

• Screen Australia continues the strong tradition of support for new and emerging Australian documentary filmmakers through the joint ABC-Screen Australia Initiative of one-off documentaries, Opening Shot. This Initiative advances the careers of a new generation of documentary filmmakers.

We want to engage with a wide audience where possible and we encourage filmmakers to access many types of distribution, broadcasting and on-line delivery. We work closely with both public broadcasters as well as subscription channels and acknowledge there is broadcaster demand for factual content which includes series. That said, our funding mix will continue reflect our commitment to a diverse documentary culture.

Yours sincerely

Fiona Cameron
Chief Operating Officer

12 September 2012

Documentary: Trevor Graham on Who Killed Documentary?

At this year’s Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), in Adelaide, Screen Australia`s CEO, Ruth Harley, described me as a “veteran documentary filmmaker”. If 30 years in the business and 30+ films under my belt makes me a veteran then so be it. I also have a few ‘war’ medals to wear in the way of various national and international film and television awards. Thanks Ruth for your nod to my years in the industry, much appreciated. But this veteran, like many of my esteemed colleagues, is on his last war-weary legs. After all these years in the business of film and TV it hasn`t become any easier – for veterans and new recruits alike. In fact the current climate for producing documentary in Australia, and abroad, is the worst I’ve seen it.

Let’s not have any illusions though. Australian documentary makers have always had it tough – I knew that when I co-produced and co-directed my first film, Red Matildas, in the early 1980s. But once upon a time there were some rewards. Our documentary work was lauded and considered amongst the best in the world. We were recognised at international festivals, won awards and we gained recognition, at home too, critical reviews, TV broadcasts and sometimes via the cinema. Once upon a time, we produced documentaries about compelling contemporary social issues and matters of import to our national life. We made films about the work of socially motivated eye surgeons, like Fred Hollows (For All the World to See 1993) or other international heroes, like the struggles of East Timor’s former President Jose Ramos Horta (The Diplomat 2000) and in my own instance a film about our home grown Native Title champion, Eddie Koiki Mabo (Mabo Life of an Island Man 1997).

“Australia used to be at the forefront”, proclaimed Bob Connolly at the annual AIDC talkfest this year. Connolly’s another veteran of the documentary trenches – one of the filmmakers behind publicly acclaimed and award winning works like, Rats in the Ranks (1996) and Mrs Carey’s Concert (2010). Connolly went on loudly and emotionally about the current state of documentary, now controlled almost exclusively by our public broadcasters. They are, he said, “transforming our industry, concerned with artistry and high endeavour, into a sausage factory, turning out, with some very honourable exceptions, what can only be described as fodder. In other words, we as an industry are busily engaged in eliminating the concept of art. That’s what I was brought up to believe was the end point of all this , concerned with creative excellence.”

So what’s happened? Who’s the assassin? Who killed the documentary ‘goose’ and our long tradition of socially engaged storytelling? Well the short answer is our two publicly owned broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, along with the current administration at Screen Australia, the Federal government’s screen funding agency.

Currently, the near universal funding mechanism for documentary requires a presale commitment from a national broadcaster, which is then backed up and enhanced with investment from Screen Australia, whose brief it is to support, underpin and advance Australian screen culture. Broadcasters purchase a license to broadcast a documentary they commission, for approximately 25% to 50% of its total cost and the remainder of the budget is often supported by a patchwork of funders, Screen Australia, state funding agencies like Screen NSW, and by what is known as the Producer Offset, a reimbursement of 20% of budget to television producers, paid by the Australian Tax Office, on completion of the project.

But despite the average contribution of either SBS or the ABC being only a quarter, to half the budget, they want and have all the power–the power to green light a project, along with increasingly high levels of editorial and creative control. If you need some proof of who is responsible for killing the golden goose, knock on the door of either of our public broadcasters and their documentary commissioning editor teams. Try presenting them with today’s equivalent, social issue stories, like those of Eddie Koiki Mabo, Jose Ramos Horta, or Fred Hollows. Try convincing them to buy a story on one of the most divisive social/environmental issues of our times–climate change. You’d be laughed at, shown the door.

But it’s not as simple as that either. Public broadcasters are now desperate for ratings; it’s a competitive market out there, gaining the attention of the national television audience in a multi platform environment. And now, our public broadcasters want to compete with commercial broadcasters as audiences fragment with the on-line offerings provided by the internet. And here’s the rub; to compete more successfully our public broadcasters want series, not stand alone documentaries.

For 30 years I have made my name, reputation and livelihood from producing and directing ‘one off’ documentaries. The ‘one off doco’ is akin to the authored novel. A single story, hard hitting, that tells a complete narrative unto itself. There’s NO next week, NO next episode, NO weekly instalment like, Downtown Abbey. It’s a single hit–one crack at an audience. And it used to be regular, weekly TV fare, on both SBS and the ABC. It’s how I, and most of my colleagues, made our reputations and living. From 2005 to 2007, SBS TV prided itself with Australian seasons of locally made stories in a strand it specially created called, Storyline Australia. The ABC too would regularly run ‘one off’ documentaries about us Australians–stories from all over the continent and made by many producers.

These ‘one offs’ are what made our doco makers famous around the world–the works of David Bradbury, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, Dennis O’Rourke and even the documentary oeuvre of acclaimed drama director Gillian Armstrong.

But the ‘factual television series’ is now all the vogue and the figures speak for themselves. In 2009, 50% of documentaries commissioned by the ABC were single documentaries and the other half series. By 2012, series accounted for 70% of the ABC’s commissioning, with less than 14 hours of one offs. And it’s even more diabolical at SBS. In 2007, SBS’s Storyline Australia, broadcast a staggering 26 hours of one off documentaries, just in that one strand. And then there were other single programs and series in other weekly strands. For up to 26 weeks of the year SBS audiences could tune into locally made stories, reflecting the great cultural diversity of Australia.

Among them gems like, Esben Storm’s, The Bridge at Midnight Trembles (nominated for a Logie), 2 Mums and a Dad and Vote Yes for Aborigines. Some rated well. Some didn’t. But that wasn’t the point. Storyline Australia was there on the TV schedule, week in week out, for audiences that appreciated the locally made, ‘one off’ documentary. This staggering output, that must now be considered ‘a golden age’, has now been reduced in 2012 to a shameful five hours of ‘one off’ documentary programs.

One has to ask, where is the ‘public’ in public broadcasting when it comes to the last four to five years of SBS programming? What did, James May’s Toy Storie or Top Gear Australia have to do the with the SBS charter to provide services that, “inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia`s multicultural society”? From SBS recently, outside of a couple of worthwhile series like, Go Back to Where You Came From, there has been scant commitment to local Australian documentary stories.

So what are Australian audiences missing out on? Why is it important and why should we care? Why am I whingeing and what do ‘one off’ stories provide that series don’t? Am I just bitching about change I don’t like? It is summed up with one all important word, DIVERSITY.

A top notch Australian ‘one off’ documentary will engage, entertain, inform and educate audiences, and even trigger water cooler discussions next day. They are an important arm of our ‘civic culture’. They bring Australian life, hopes, dreams, losses, heroes, and ordinary folk to our screens–and are part of our national ‘family album’. And they help put the ‘public’ into ‘public broadcasting’, by holding up a mirror to our life as a nation. But the move to factual series radically cuts across these values of diversity. Not only do we now have fewer stories from fewer producers, but the breadth and depth of stories and storytelling is vastly reduced. The one series’ scenario plays out over many episodes, where-as previously there may have been many different stories.

This undermines the democratic nature, of many voices, many styles, and sadly also leaves one questioning the current values of public broadcasting in Australia. By way of example try proposing to the ABC stories about the many problems facing rural Australia, like declining farm incomes, the steady population drift to the big cities. Or, who will take over the family farm? The answer will be, “We’ve done that mate! Country Town Rescue”. Yes they have done it and it was a fine series of eight half hour programs. But what it also did was, replace the resources of a potential four one hour programs, four different stories from four different rural or regional communities across Australia.

Instead, the township of Trundle, in Country Town Rescue, is meant to be emblematic of all regional and rural Australian communities, and so the ABC puts all its eggs into the one ‘series’ basket. But does Trundle really represent the length and breadth of regional and rural Australia and all the significant issues they face? Surely not. But it has to if all the financial resources for regional stories have been used in that one series. And, it’s easy to see who the loser is – the very people the broadcaster is trying to entice, the audience.

The predominance of the factual series on the ABC also affects the diversity of storytelling styles, as much as it does the content. Take for instance the recent history series, Australia on Trial, presented by Michael Cathcart, which recreated three historic trials that were meant to throw light on Australia’s colonial development. An enormous amount of public money from both the ABC and Screen Australia were devoted to this three hour series, with its lavish courtroom recreations.

But this series format, narrowed down the three historic trials, to the perspective of one, single viewpoint, that of historian Michael Cathcart. Whether you agree with Cathcart’s view of the trials and our history or not, isn’t my point. Rather, that his is the only viewpoint, on offer in the 3 hour series–as though our national story can be filtered for us, the national audience, through the viewpoint of Cathcart alone, one single, male, white historian. There was no-one else across the three hours of television. No other viewpoint; as though our history is uncontested. Cathcart’s history is official. It’s on the ABC. It’s co-funded by Screen Australia. It’s almost Stalinism.

It’s insidious in other ways too. This concentration of the ‘national story’ the ‘national photo album’ into too few producer hands has long term editorial and business implications. Both the ABC and SBS continue to commission programs from independent companies, but they are increasingly the ‘big’ companies, those capable of producing longer series and format television. Not “The individual”. The freelancer, or the maverick as some would no doubt describe them. The “bedroom filmmakers” is how Connolly described doco makers at AIDC. The danger is that the bigger production companies, usually Melbourne or Sydney centric, with their larger overheads, need to play it safe with their relationship to public broadcasters. They will only present ideas they know the broadcasters will like and see as relevant to their quest for ratings, and in the case of SBS, its commercial advertising agenda. It’s like shrinking the national creative gene pool–for genetically modified factual television.

And commissioning editors from both broadcasters increasingly micro manage the creative processes. It can include writing and supplying their preferred narration, and as Bob Connolly commented, “It has become normal, in some large production houses, to actually exclude the director from the editing room, once the film is shot.”

Less diversity of production companies affects editors and directors of photography too, because the pool of work is simply more concentrated in series production. Six ‘one off’ producers might use six different post production businesses to complete their single program. The producer of a six hour series does a great deal with ONE post house. So the gene pool of industry business shrinks too.

There is strong anecdotal evidence that the drive to factual series production above the ‘one off’ documentary is being driven not so much by programmers at our national broadcasters, but by their marketing departments. They get more bang for their marketing buck with a series that lasts four to six weeks, than what the resources or time they would need promoting the equivalent hours for individual programs. If this is true, then it’s another example of ‘spin doctoring’ our national narrative. Or, a case of the tail wagging the dog.

The Federal Government’s screen funding agency, Screen Australia, has a lot to answer for in my view. It has allowed this scenario to grow and grow and handed over all power to the broadcasters about what projects they invest in. As holders of the public’s ‘film investment purse’ they need a stronger voice in promoting the ‘art of documentary’ to advance and nurture our screen industries and the talents that underpin it. There also needs to be some checks and balances on the rating aspirations within our public broadcasters. Being relevant to a national audience isn’t just about numbers. It’s about debate, it’s about engagement, it’s about ideas, and seeking out a multitude of stories, from every nook and cranny, the unusual, the unknown, the exotic, the madcap. This requires editorial imagination, vision, courage, confidence and leadership.

It’s time Screen Australia and our public broadcasters stepped up to the plate and reclaimed their responsibility to promote a diversity of views through factual stories, and to nurture those who do it for them, the Australian documentary makers of our time.
by: Trevor Graham

Screen Hub
Monday 10 September, 2012

Trevor Graham
Trevor Graham is the writer and director of, Make Hummus Not War, which had its World Premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August. It was produced without television presales and funded via Screen Australia’s Signature Program, the Premier Fund of MIFF, Screen NSW, the Telematics Trust and Fine Cut Films. The film has a theatrical release in Melbourne commencing 15th of September. Graham is the former Co-Chair of the Australian International Documentary Conference and a former commissioning editor at SBS TV.

Worst Box Office slump in a decade

Worst Box Office slump in a decade as Hollywood loses golden touch

Analysts blame a surfeit of sequels and remakes

Hollywood has suffered its worst weekend at the American box office since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, with analysts blaming a surfeit of sequels and remakes for deterring audiences.

Initial estimates suggested the entire gross takings for cinemas in North America would be around $US65 million ($A62.8 million) last weekend, down 20 per cent from the same period a year ago.

In September 2001, takings on one weekend fell to just $US59.7 million ($A57.7 million).
The results were so bad that the best-performing movie in America, measured in terms of revenue per screen, was Raiders of the Lost Ark, first released in 1981. It was shown on re-release on 267 screens last weekend and took in $US1.7 million ($A1.6 million), at an average $US6460 ($A6244) per screen.

No single film grossed more than $US10 million over the weekend. The nearest was The Possession, a horror story with no big stars, that took just $US9.5 million ($A9.18 million).
The Words, which stars Bradley Cooper, was savaged by critics and disappointed at the box office.

Other major releases also disappointed. The Words, starring Bradley Cooper, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading men, was savaged by critics as “boring” and “turgid”, while The Cold Light of Day, an action film starring the British actor Henry Cavill, Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver, also flopped badly after costing $US20 million ($A19.3 million) to make. It was described by The New York Times as a “catastrophe worth noting only for the presence of its name cast.” The Labour Day weekend, which has just passed, is traditionally slow for cinemas, but this year attendances sank to levels which shocked studio executives.

It capped a disappointing season for Hollywood, which had expected its biggest ever summer. In a still troubled economy, executives were reluctant to take risks on original concepts and relied heavily on a series of big-budget action films and superhero sequels.
The result was the lowest summer movie attendance in 20 years. The number of tickets sold fell to 532 million, down 4 per cent from summer 2011.

Two films that were successful – The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, a Batman film – accounted for almost a quarter of the entire box office return in North America. Before the summer even began, the Disney studio had been forced to incur a $US200 million ($A193 million) writedown over its science-fiction flop, John Carter, in March.

Paul Dergarabedian, a box office analyst at Hollywood.com, said: “It is pretty scary when the top movie comes in at only $9.5 million. On paper, the summer of 2012 looked like a clear record-breaker. But the audience is what makes and breaks the summer, and they didn’t come out in the numbers we expected for a lot of these films.”

Factors contributing to the slump included the Olympics on TV. The mass shooting in which 12 people were killed at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado in July also put people off. But neither factor was believed to have had a major impact on attendance.

Nick Allen, Los Angeles – Telegraph – September 11, 2012

Feature Films from the Spierig Brothers, Rolf De Heer and Greg Mclean greenlit

Screen Australia today announced $5.5 million investment in three new feature
projects triggering over $17 million in production.

Predestination is a new film noir, science fiction, crime thriller from writer/director
brothers Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers) about the life of a temporal agent
who has to recruit his younger self to pursue the one criminal who has for a lifetime
eluded him. Produced by Paddy McDonald and Tim McGahan, the film is based on
the short story by revered sci-fi author Robert A Heinlein.

Veteran Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country has also been
approved for investment. Rolf de Heer will once again collaborate with one of
Australia’s greatest actors David Gulpilil (The Tracker). Produced by Nils Erik
Nielsen and Peter Djigirr, the film is an uplifting tragi-comic portrait of one man’s
struggle to define himself as an Aboriginal in modern Australia.

Screen Australia also confirmed its commitment to the horror feature Wolf Creek 2
from director Greg McLean. The film is written by McLean and Aaron Sterns and
produced by Helen Leake, Greg McLean and Steve Topic.

“These three diverse feature projects supported by Screen Australia today come from
some of the most exciting filmmaking teams in Australia,” said Screen Australia’s
Chief Executive Ruth Harley.

“Predestination is a strong script which will be executed by a proven and talented
team passionate about the sci-fi genre.

“Charlie’s Country continues a tradition of Rolf de Heer’s previous films The Tracker
and Ten Canoes which combines cultural significance with commercial and critical
potential.

“The long-awaited return of the mad killer Mick Taylor in the sequel to Wolf Creek
comes from an experienced team which can take advantage of the significant pre-
existing market awareness both in Australia and overseas,” concluded Dr Harley.

CHARLIE’S COUNTRY

Vertigo Productions Pty Ltd
Producers Nils Erik Nielsen, Peter Djigirr
Writer/Director Rolf de Heer
International Sales Fandango Portobello
Australian Distributor Hopscotch
Cast David Gulpilil
Synopsis Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil collaborate to create a tragi-comic
portrait of Charlie’s struggle to understand how he should define himself as an
Aboriginal in modern Australia.

PREDESTINATION

Wolfhound Pictures/Blacklab Entertainment
Producers Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan
Writer/Directors Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
International Sales Arclight Films
Australian Distributor Pinnacle Films
Synopsis Chronicles the life of a temporal agent who on his final assignment must
recruit his younger self, while pursuing the one criminal that has eluded him
throughout time.

WOLF CREEK 2

Emu Creek Pictures Pty Ltd
Producer/Writer/Director Greg McLean
Producers Helen Leake, Steve Topic
Writer Aaron Sterns
International Sales Arclight Films
Australian Distributor Roadshow Films
Synopsis The outback once again becomes a place of mind-bending horror, action
and suspense as another unwitting backpacker becomes prey for crazed, serial-killing
pig-shooter, Mick Taylor.

Screen Australia: Thursday 6 September 2012

Aaddendum:

He terrified audiences with his depraved take on Ivan Milat-style serial killer Mick
Taylor back in 2005. Now, after one false start and a funding fall-out, Aussie actor
John Jarratt is finally set to reprise the role that helped make Wolf Creek one of
Australia’s most successful horror flicks, reports the Daily Telegraph. So far, Jarratt
is the only actor cast in the sequel and the actor told Confidential yesterday he is
ready to transform back into his blood-thirsty alter ego, saying the script penned by
writer director Greg McLean is “just as scary” as the original. “It’s the sort of stuff
horror buffs really want,” said Jarratt, who had recently wrapped a small part in
Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained.

Jenni Tosi’s keynote speech, Open Channel Generation Next

Thanks Jennie, and good morning all.

This event is being held on the traditional lands of the people of the Kulin nation, and I wish to acknowledge them as Traditional Owners.

I would also like to pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be here today.

Thanks to everyone for being here today. Film Victoria is delighted to support Open Channel to deliver this event and we congratulate Jennie Hughes and Catherine Nebauer for assembling such a stellar group of speakers who will share their insights today and tomorrow.

Thanks also to all of the panellists and moderators who’ve given up their time to help make this event such a success. This gesture – of giving back to our industry – is worthy of acknowledgement. We all benefit when people share their experience and knowledge, and it’s vital to strengthening our industry.

Over the next two days the aim is to illuminate for you, our next generation of content creators, the many considerations that come into play when developing and producing narrative content for television.

There’s a reason this conference is about Drama and Comedy for Television. Television is the format that presents the greatest opportunities for you as practitioners to develop and hone your craft skills.  Whilst many of you may harbour a desire, to one day reach the holy grail of making a feature film that finds box office and critical success, as a career choice this is a long and tough road – and one that has become even more challenging in recent years.

Post GFC, traditional financing sources have collapsed, distribution methods and windows have changed, piracy is eroding revenue streams, and the cost of production, particularly in Australia,  has increased – partly driven by demand for cast names to be attached and the need for big marketing dollars to help a feature film find attention in a crowded market. All have contributed to a very different landscape.

However I think most significant of all, is how much harder it now is to seduce audiences from the comfort of their homes into the cinema.  And why is this? Partly because going to the movies is no longer the cheap entertainment choice it once was. The cost of the ticket, the popcorn and coke, parking, maybe a bite to eat afterwards – it’s easily a $50-$100 exercise for two people, and imagine the cost if you’re taking a family of four!

So a feature film has to offer big value and a big experience for people, especially if you want them to tell their friends about it. And of course that’s assuming they’ve chosen to go see a movie over the raft of other leisure and entertainment choices on offer on any given night or weekend.

Getting back to creating the film in the first place, as I said it’s a long and tough road. The average script is in development for 5 – 7 years, and it spends another 2-3 years being financed and produced before it’s ready for release. That’s 10 years a filmmaker has aged, waiting for their feature to be realised and their desire to be fulfilled.

I recently read an interview with Tony Gilroy, the Director of Michael Clayton, Duplicity and the Bourne Legacy. Since 1992 he has written a mere 16 produced screenplays including Michael Clayton, Duplicity and all 4 scripts for The Bourne Franchise Films.

He was quoted as saying, “I thought, Oh I know exactly what my life will be: I’ll write for dough, I’ll write to pay the rent, and every couple of years I’ll go and make Crimes and Misdemeanours.  It’ll be a really cool and interesting life; but that just disappeared out from under me and for everybody else.  It doesn’t exist anymore. The middle has gone and you can see right where it went.”

In saying “the middle has gone” he was referring to the market for smart, medium budget films for adults. This once-strong niche aspect of the feature film market that worked so well in the English-speaking US, UK and Australian markets, and in Europe, has all but evaporated.  Dominating the landscape now are big budget, high action studio films with big marketing budgets to match.

But what I found most interesting was what he said next. To quote: “American television right now is probably the best entertainment that’s ever been on the planet. It’s f..king extraordinary.  I mean it’s really exciting and that’s where the business has gone.”

And I can only concur with this view.

Great TV viewing has become the audience preference and why not!  For one, it’s convenient – you can watch it at home on a big screen TV, a computer, an ipad, an iphone, an xbox, you can watch it on the train, on holidays, in the toilet, anywhere you please.  You can watch it small chunks or you can binge over a weekend.

But there’s more going on than just convenience.  TV drama offers the audience a return experience.  As a viewer you get to know the characters, identify with them, love them, hate them, but most importantly you can come back for more, see what they do next, episode after episode, season after season. There’s no waiting for 2 years, like for a movie sequel. For about $30 – assuming you pay for it and don’t Bit Torrent – you can get a 6 – 12 hour experience, which you can turn on and off to suit yourself. Now that’s value!

Add a strong idea, a fresh approach and some great cast and you’re really packing a punch for the audience. If it’s good they’ll tell their friends, if it’s great they’ll be back for Seasons, 2, 3, 4 and beyond. For the TV audience, the ‘hooked factor’ is a big one. It’s not hard to understand why the change in the feature film landscape has been so dramatic.

And what’s really exciting is that TV drama keeps getting better and better. The craft of storytelling and screenwriting has become more sophisticated and clever, with complex characters and plots. If you think back to 1999 when The Sopranos and The West Wing first graced our screens, it was the quality of these shows that got people watching and talking. As a result, those series ran for 6 and 7 seasons respectively. Even today these shows are on many people’s must-see, catch-up lists.

What then followed was Six Feet Under in 2001, along with some classy procedural dramas like CSI & NCIS. 2004 gave us Deadwood and Entourage. Then in 2006 and 2007 Dexter savaged us and Mad Men seduced us. Brothers and Sisters gave us sibling rivalry and Glen Close Damaged us.

2008 put us in the world of Vampires with True Blood and my favourite 21st century new odd couple, Walt & Jessie, cooking up a storm with chrystal meth in Breaking Bad. There were cops and drug pushers you could barely understand in The Wire and Laura Linney dealing with the Big C. Meanwhile, from the UK we’ve had The Lakes, The Sins, State of Play, House of Cards, Rome, Spooks and The Office. Denmark has chipped in with The Killing and The Eagle.

Audiences are spoilt for choice. With so many shows with calibre actors, great writing, high production values and lots of surprises, it’s no wonder we can’t find our way out the front door to the cinema.

Most of the shows I’ve mentioned have been driven by US subscription TV channels who understand their audience very well. They know that to keep their subscriber base growing they have to distinguish themselves, and they do this by offering dramas that are unique, that take risks and break the mould.

In Australia we’ve been the beneficiaries of this trend, with a huge selection of programs to watch. But importantly, the success of these shows has encouraged our own Free To Air and Subscription television networks to reinvest in locally produced drama.

In 2008, audiences flocked to Packed to the Rafters  and Underbelly- it was these shows which seemed to reignite Broadcaster confidence.  Underbelly, is now about to head into its sixth series,and has also spawned 3 telemovies. We’ve had four series of Rush, three series of Tangle & East West 101, the beautifully realised Cloudstreet and much-lauded The Slap.

Conspiracy 365 – 12 one-hour episodes of family TV is screening monthly across 2012, a bold and successful programming approach. Along with three series of Dance Academy, and Slide these shows have struck a chord with younger audiences; while Offspring has filled a gap for females aged15-40, with seasons 4 and 5 on their way. New off the block is Puberty Blues and House Husbands, Mr & Mrs Murder coming later this year, and a raft of telemovies including Mysteries of the Handsome Cab, Deadly Remedies, Cliffy and Underground, a story which charts the dramatic years of Julian Assange’s early life here in Melbourne and has been selected to screen at the Toronto Film Festival.

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War has screened over two weekends to audiences above 2 million, a great outcome. And congrats to Lachy Hulme for his terrific performance by the way. Many of these dramas have strong comedic elements too. And then of course there are the pure comedies: Shows like Laid, Lowdown, Wilfred, Twentysomething and Summer Heights High.

There are many other Australian shows I haven’t mentioned that are equally worthy. And I’m really pleased that many of the shows I have named were created or produced here in Victoria, which is a testament to the talent and creativity that emanates from this state.

So hopefully you’re starting to get the picture and agree that Television is indeed an exciting medium to be working in. For me it’s clearly the dominating format and it’s hard to see this changing too much in the next 3 – 5 years. The technology on which we view it will continue to improve, when we see it and how much we’re prepared to pay for it might change, but I suspect the demand for great TV content will continue to grow.

In Australia much of this growth will be driven by the ABC who, thanks to a much needed boost in funding, are back to producing 70 hours of drama per year and aiming for more. And we’re all hoping the Federal Government will be supportive of an increase to SBS’s triennial funding in next year’s budget, which will provide further demand and increased diversity. Our Subscription TV event, held in July, confirmed that the many channels operating under and alongside Foxtel want to increase their drama output and are looking for strong ideas to service their market share.  And should the recommendations from the convergence review be adopted, particularly an increase in the producer offset to 40% for premium television drama and an increase in Australian content quotas for both Free to Air and Subscription TV, the need and desire for more content will further increase.

All this should be exciting for you, our next gen practitioners. Why? Because it means plenty of opportunity and demand for new stories to find their way to the screen, and you could be the creator, the producer, the writer or director of one of these shows.

Even more importantly – as storytellers, television is the medium that allows you to really hone your craft skills.  The number of hours television demands to feed its very hungry appetite means that whether you’re a writer, a producer or a director, if your skills are good enough, you’ll end up employed for many more hours, across a greater diversity of genres and styles, and this will help you become much better in your area of expertise. 10 years of regular work across television is much more likely to help you become a master craftsman in high demand, than producing one feature film across that same time period.

I know, the challenge for many of you is finding out what and who you need to know to get a gig in this medium. And that’s what these two days are all about. Some of the best and brightest in our industry are going to share information that will set you on the path to success.

Of course there are other things you’ll need to reach your goal, and a colleague suggested I share with you my top ten tips based on my own 30 years in the industry, much of which was spent working on television drama and comedy. So here goes:

My first big tip: Persevere. Don’t let the knock-backs throw you off course, because trust me, there’ll be a few of them!  Desperate to get a foot in the door, the first job I applied for in this industry, was quite complex– it involved putting the film cans from the ‘Sunday Night Movie’ into boxes, taping them up, and labelling them for despatch by road from Channel 9 to Win TV in Ballarat – a really difficult job for an 18 y o you’ll agree, with a lofty title of despatch clerk!. Following my interview I was told they were very impressed with my application, and I was their number 2 choice. Why not number 1? Well they’d never had a girl do that job before. Clearly it was a big risk! Maybe guys had neater writing or were better with packing tape. Go figure!

I didn’t get the job, but I didn’t dwell on it for too long. I continued to look for other jobs, even though the “we like you but you’ve got no experience’ statement was a common theme. I’m sure many of you are familiar with it too – so how can you get experience when no-one will give you a job?

Which leads me to Tip Number 2: There’s always a way around any problem.  For me it was fluking my way into the then new Media Studies course at RMIT, which I figured would at least get me using cameras and editing equipment. It was a good strategy on my part, because oddly enough it did lead to me working on corporate videos, some short films and a really low budget feature film all for free, and through which I got some very basic experience. It was this experience, plus my perseverance, that saw me knocking on the doors of Crawford Productions, then the biggest TV drama production house in the country, who were producing 4 drama series at any one time.  It didn’t matter that they offered to put me in the typing pool, and that being the only girl at high school who didn’t want to be a secretary, I’d never learnt to type. More perseverance and problem solving skills – A quick trip to Dandenong market for a 2nd hand typewriter and a ‘how to type’ book, plus 2 days banging the keys, plus another phone call to the personnel officer, with a passionate request to spend some days on the set of The Sullivans observing in my own time. Eventually Crawfords trained me as a script supervisor and gave me a paying job.  Luck and timing also played a part.

Tip Number 3: Be prepared to work for nothing and do any related job you can. Runner, props, lackey, caterer, take whatever you can get and do it well. This will get you rungs on the board, and along the way you’ll gather experience and some handy contacts for the future. Sooner or later it will lead to something, and you’ll end up with the gig you’re aiming for.

Tip Number 4: Be entrepreneurial. If you can’t find someone who’ll give you a go, create an opportunity for yourself. The technology is so easy to access. Grab your friends and family to help you, raise your funds, shoot on weekends and nights. Whatever it takes!  It’s all experience and I’ve always found being proactive is more productive than being reactive.

Tip Number 5: Play to your strengths and value collaboration. There are very few of us who can excel at writing producing and directing. And even if you are one of those rare geniuses, these are big jobs. Be the best at the one you love the most, and find some like minded bodies to share the rest of the load. It’s much more fun and likely to be a better product because you embraced the chance to collaborate.

Tip Number 6: Use any opportunity to hone your skills, whatever your craft. Whether it’s on training and corporate videos, commercials, music videos, docos, drama, short form, long form, for broadcast or online – in essence these are all forms of storytelling. Every project is a new experience with its own challenges, and each time you create something – no matter the form – you will learn from the process and improve your skills and sensibilities.

Tip Number 7: Television is all about story. You need to hook the audience in and keep them there, you need great proactive characters driving strong plots. Keep working on your idea until it’s well crafted, make it the best it can be, whether you’re the creator or collaborator. It needs the ‘wow factor’ or it won’t cut through the hundreds of other ideas out there. It has to be fresh, but it can be and usually is a highly original take on an old idea. After all they do say there are really only seven stories to be told.

Tip Number 8: Develop and use your sense of humour. It works well in stories and getting you out of tricky situations, whether on the page or in life. Humour is one of the best tools bestowed on humans beings, so use it to your advantage.

Tip Number 9: Don’t try to generate all your story ideas based on your own personal experiences. Look around you for sources of inspiration. Dramatic and funny stories are everywhere – in newspapers and books, on the tram, on the street, overheard conversations, when your friends tell you about something that happened to them. You’ll find inspiration in real life, juxtaposing the ordinary with the extraordinary, which is where your imagination comes in!

Finally Number 10: Be patient. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to get that first paying job in your preferred discipline.  You’ll likely just get annoyed, frustrated, maybe even disheartened. Accept upfront that it might take between 3 – 5 years, even longer, and that so much will depend on luck and timing. A lot of it is out of your control. But things do come to those who wait, and sometimes when you least expect it.  I should also add here, that equally sometimes you need to recognise when it’s time to let go, or try a new approach or idea, particularly if it’s a passion project that’s getting no traction.

In the meantime, enjoy every day as it comes, seize every opportunity you can and remember why you love this crazy industry in the first place.

And you can start on this journey now, by enjoying and absorbing what you discover here over the next two days.  I hope you all leave this event feeling inspired, confident and determined, and I am really looking forward to seeing the stories you, our next generation of storytellers, will bring to our screens.

Thanks and have a fantastic conference.

06.09.2012

New ABC TV drama The Strange Calls

The Strange Calls is a six-part TV drama series written and directed by
Queenslander Daley Pearson and produced by Tracey Robertson and co-produced by
Leigh McGrath for Hoodlum and the ABC.

Bumbling city cop Toby Banks (Toby Truslove) is demoted to night duty in the sleepy
beachside village of Coolum. Working out of a run-down caravan on the outskirts of
town, he meets Gregor (Barry Crocker), town cleaner, board game collector and
paranormal authority. They team up to investigate The Strange Calls – bizarre late-
night phone calls that expose the paranormal mysteries haunting the sleepy town. A
place where men turn into chickens, mermaids fall in love with locals and cats return
from the grave.

We shot The Strange Calls using a single ARRI ALEXA camera from Cameraquip.
Primarily just two lens were used – the light weight Optimo Zooms 15-40mm and
28-76mm. Our camera package and crew were kept as small as practical. The large
bulk of the shooting was serviced by two grips (Sean Aston and Damien Kwockson)
and two electrics (Glen Jones and Chris Walsingham). The lean camera crew was
headed up by 1st AC Matt Floyd assisted by Luke Jeffery and Dan Shelton. There
were a few times when a larger crew was required (night exteriors) but generally it
was a pretty lean streamlined team.

Second unit footage was shot by Ben Zaugg and Luke Jeffery and consisted mainly of
atmospheric time lapse establishers of mount Coolum and CU insert shots. This
footage, shot with a Canon 5D, cut seamlessly with the main unit ALEXA footage.
The schedule was tight – a four-week shoot to capture the 6 x 30min episodes. A very
steep learning curve for our young, keen and talented first time director Daley
Pearson.

It certainly helped that all the key camera crew, grips and electrics had worked
together on numerous productions before. Daley did a wonderful job keeping us all
enthused and excited about the project. This enthusiasm was infectious. It certainly
helped that the script was very funny and the cast were a delight to work with.

I would describe the visual style of The Strange Calls as traditional or classic
filmmaking. We drew heavily on the 80s era masterpieces such as The X-Files, Twin
Peaks and Northern Exposure.

There was no hand-held shooting. The camera generally remained mounted on a
dolly, slider or tripod. With simple elegant coverage being the order of the day. We
stayed well clear of the now conventional modern Australian style of quick jump-
cutting with multiple cameras and long lens. For Daley and myself, the overriding
mantra was to capture the wonderful comic performances of our cast and to tell their

stories in a simple and straight forward manner. The camera and lighting style was
very understated and naturalistic. Yet The Strange Calls retains a strong sense of
style through the careful choice of lens, camera placement and movement, colour,
depth of field and source lighting.

We used lots of wide shots and at the same time minimised the use of singles and
close ups. Scenes often played out as looser two-shots. The wider lens allowed
Coolum to feature strongly as an additional character in the story. I tried to avoid any
excessively long or wide lens. Generally staying in the 25mm – 75mm range, with the
32mm being the most commonly used focal length. CUs were always shot by moving
the camera closer and using a 50mm lens. This gave The Strange Calls a feature film
sensibility, not the usual TV practice of simply zooming in from the same camera
position. It did however restrict us to an average of 30 set ups per day. Quite a
challenge.

The bulk of The Strange Calls takes place in two sets designed and built by
production designer Matt Putland in a disused fish co-op in Sandgate. Various streets
and houses around Brisbane’s northern bayside suburbs filled in for Coolum. Coolum
itself mainly provided the seaside vistas and the ominous mystical presence of Mount
Coolum itself.

Matt built two matching caravan interiors, one in the studio and one in an exterior
caravan set. This allowed us to make the most of the natural shoot-off through the
caravan windows. The dual sets also allowed the cast to enter and exit the caravan in
shot, instead of having to cut between exterior and interior sets as in traditional TV
productions. He also built a police station interior in the co-op’s disused offices.

The sets were lit naturalistically with built in practical lamps and sunshine directed
through the strategically placed windows and sky lights. The caravan was always a
place of warmth and refuge. Very homely. The tones were kept golden and warm.
This also help give the film a sense of gentle nostalgia. I returned to my favorite
soft/FX filters from the early-90s to help smooth out the actor’s skin and again aid
our slightly understated nostalgic feel.

Night exteriors were pure ET – moonlit forests complete with ominous smoke. Glen’s
workhorse light source was a set of LED panels. Great for subtle fill light. Easy to
conceal and dim-able with adjustable colour temperature control. A great addition to
the modern lighting package. In general we made as much use as possible of the

ALEXA’s incredible sensitivity and dynamic range and tried to use as much natural
and available light as practical. Often the only artificial light was a LED panel to add
some fill light in the actor’s eyes and small HMI or tungsten sources placed in the
deep background.

I’ve found over the last few long form dramas I’ve shot with the ALEXA that it reacts
very well to the use of smoke. We used smoke quite extensively in The Strange
Calls which aided the slightly retro look of film and placed it squarely within our
visual reference point of classics such as ET and Close Encounters. Powerful grading
tools like Cutting Edge’s Baselight are superb at evening out mismatched smoke
levels (inevitable when using smoke at night).

The final grade was done by Justin McDonald at Cutting Edge. I like to achieve as
much as possible in-camera and don’t tend to change much in the colour correction.
The process is very much one of balancing up shots within the scenes and allow the
edit to run as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. I use the colour temperature
controls in-camera to warm and cool scenes and correct the excessive green or
magenta bias in the images common with most digital cameras. The grade then
becomes mainly an exercise in contrast control and detail enhancement.

I generally like to give the colourist a few days on their own to set the black levels
(contrast) and high lights before I make an appearance. This process allows me to be
a little more creative with fresh eyes and a cinematographer’s perspective. The grade
is a very important time for me creatively and I always insist on being present.

So far, of the 15 features films and TV shows I’ve shot, I’ve never missed a grade. I
also use the grade as an opportunity to fine tune compositions and reframe shots.
Justine and I also made extensive use of subtle vignettes to draw the viewer’s eye to
what we considered important at that stage of the story. I’m looking forward to the
introduction of ARRI’s new ALEXA PLUS 4:3 camera with its extra area at the top
and bottom of frame to play with, and extra detail of the ARRI RAW format. I also
hope it sees a return to more wide screen anamorphic productions.

The Strange Calls is a tightly-crafted comedy with a strong visual nod to the classics
of the 80s. A little Close Encounters and a lot of The X-Files. It was an absolute
pleasure to photograph.

By Robert Humphreys ACS – Australian Cinematographers Society

Trailer:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPmGKiGMTTo

Links:

www.cinematographer.org.au
http://thestrangecalls.abc.net.au
www.facebook.com/TheStrangeCallsTV
www.hoodlum.com.au

The ABC and Australia’s new media landscape

By the Hon James Spigelman AC QC, Chairman of the ABC – Address to Ripe@2012
Conference

THE digital revolution has undermined the business model of much traditional
media. Its effects are exemplified in recent dramatic announcements by Australia’s
two largest print media groups.

Broadcasters and pay-TV also face an uncertain future.

In such a context, we are now seeing more frequent expressions of anxiety about
public broadcasters competing with commercial interests. There is nothing new
about this. Public broadcasters have always had an adverse impact on such interests.

In 1933, when the ABC began an independent news service, the chief executive of one
of our major media groups was so concerned with the impact such a service could
have on his company’s print and commercial radio operations he called for a
reduction in the ABC’s revenue. That was Keith Murdoch, Rupert’s father. Some
things change very little over the decades.

It is perfectly understandable that commercial broadcasters and, in a converged
world, other media, should suggest the ABC refrain from providing services that are,
or might be, provided on a commercial basis. The first thing to say about such
arguments is that there has never been a time when the ABC was simply a market-
failure broadcaster, obliged to fill gaps in the commercial offering.

The ABC’s obligations are, and have always been, defined positively, not negatively.
Under current legislation, the ABC is directed to provide “comprehensive
broadcasting services” and to accept a “responsibility … to provide a balance between
broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialised broadcasting programs”.
Unquestionably, a public broadcaster must program for minority audiences in a way
that commercial free-to-air broadcasters would never do.

Perhaps no better example exists than the ABC’s coverage of the Paralympics, with
which, it appears, advertisers would prefer to avoid any association – despite the
triumph of the human spirit that is continually on display.

However, the ABC must offer services to the community as a whole. One of the ABC’s
key roles is to ensure that all Australians have access to quality media services,
perhaps particularly reliable news and information about international, national,
regional and local matters.

We are seeing only the beginning of the impact of technological change on media.
New business models are being tried. While there are some confident assertions
about the prospects for these models, the truth is that no one knows where this is
going.

In such a context, the capacity of public broadcasters to ensure all Australians receive
a quality service with a breadth of content on all major platforms has become more
important than ever.

There is no public debate in Australia that seriously questions the continuation of
the ABC’s traditional services. There is, however, some limited commentary about its
expansion into online and mobile platform delivery. Computers, smartphones and
tablets are now so ubiquitous that delivery of a program, or cognate material, to such
devices is a form of broadcasting, in the natural meaning of the term. These
platforms are so available that they are becoming the same as traditional radio or
television sets.

Any suggestion that such delivery should be restricted because it is new is as dubious
as an argument would have been that radio programs should not be delivered to
transistor radios because they did not exist when radio broadcasting began.

That is not to say that the ABC’s determination to interact with its audiences in the
manner they prefer does not have adverse commercial consequences on existing or
potential service providers. It has always had such effects: whether use of public
funds constitutes competition that could be regarded as unfair is a matter on which
people can differ.

However, broadcasting encompasses delivery of programs to all platforms capable of
receiving them. This is how the ABC’s audiences see it and the ABC continues each
day to meet that public expectation.

One issue that has arisen in the present Australian debate is whether the public
broadcasters should be subject to exactly the same regime as that applicable to
commercial broadcasters. This has never been the case. Our entire 80-year history
has been based on ensuring that the ABC cannot be subject to pressure from its sole
shareholder.

One of the key recommendations of the Convergence Review is the establishment of
a new industry-led regulator to oversee journalistic standards on all platforms. The
review recommends that the ABC and SBS would not be subject to this new
regulator. This recommendation rejects the proposal of the prior report of the
Finkelstein inquiry for a statutory regulator. It was disappointing that this prior
inquiry, on which the Convergence Review was asked to report, had recommended
the ABC should be subject to the media standards regulator which that inquiry
proposed. This is particularly so because, when the earlier inquiry had sought the
assistance of the ABC, it expressly stated in writing that it was not investigating the
standards or behaviour of the ABC.

The rejection by the Convergence Review of the earlier proposal is consistent with a
similar rejection by the Australian Law Reform Commission. Any appeal to a so-
called “level playing field” with respect to media regulation, by subjecting the ABC to
the same regulation as is applicable to commercial broadcasters, is fundamentally
misconceived. The government response to these two reports is still awaited.

Sydney, September 5, 2012 – http://about.abc.net.au/speeches

Full text of the speech here:
http://about.abc.net.au/speeches/the-abc-and-australias-new-media-landscape