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.