SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER
March 1, 2007
This article was written by me around seven years ago in response to (now head of television at the ABC) Kim Dalton’s preliminary report into the patchy state of Australian screenwriting. It was at the time lauded as an inciteful breakthrough into the problem. I begged to differ.
I tried publishing it in the two available magazines at the time: Inside Film and the now defunct Cinema Papers.
The editor of the latter told me that as it was an opinion piece and as I was nobody it didn’t rate, so forget it. The editor at IF told me that I was misinformed. Neither bothered to comment on the veracity of the case I was trying to make. I could be thought self-interested and cynical but as both publications drew public money I reckon there was a fair amount of don’t rock the boat behind the refusals. It didn’t matter. I didn’t get expect to get the piece published for that very reason. It was at the time my swan song to writing.
Anyway I recently dug it up and considering not much has changed I thought it worthwhile publishing as was. Apologies for anything out of date.
The film industry’s in crisis, or was. Five years since Pricilla, Queen of the Desert made a big splash in world waters the perception’s been that a string of youth-orientated ‘dark’ feature films have cost a lot and earned a virtual zilch. The ‘solution’, as always, comes in government-initiated bureaucratic action: an investigation into the crisis. Earlier this year the partial finding were given to the National Screenwriters conference: orally by AFC CEO Kim Dalton.
Development Practice in Australian Film Industry brims with charts, comparative percentages and allocated funding breakdowns. Its history, Dalton explains, starts with a report requested of the AFC by the Federal government in response to the film and television industry crisis. This report, presented to the minister in October last year, predictably denied a crisis, but indicated some ‘fundamental issues’. One such issue was script development. Hence eleven months down the track the newly appointed AFC CEO delivers a paper which is part of a ‘large scale investigation on development practice’ that is still incomplete.
Meantime the crisis in the Australian industry is over because we’ve abandoned the dark and gloomy phase and returned to the safer territory of ‘quirky’ comedy. Result: the industry is back in the black with several hits in 2000. All whilst the large scale investigation into industry practice continues, not yet delivered to the minister.
Although Dalton’s Development Practice paper has useful things to say there is a lot of padding and ill-drawn conclusion that say more. Firstly it is part of a still to be complete process responding to a crisis that’s past. Secondly the main thrust of argument is that Australian development practice is ‘inconsistent with world best practice’ yet its decision about what such practice constitutes is arbitrary and blunt. And third while it does articulate certain definite problems and implied solutions, it also makes a lot of assumptions based on premature conclusions and fails to get to the real heart of the problem: lack of quality writing.
To address these three criticisms in more detail
The length of time taken to respond to the crisis is typical of public sector practice. The public sector suffers from what I term the irony of accountability. This means that the public sector is rife with elongated processes and structures designed to ensure that public money is well spent. Ironically it is these processes and structures that gum up the works and cost far more than if the activity had been carried out in the private sector. With the protocols of public service to contend with, organizations like the AFC cannot respond immediately to industry ‘crises’ the way they would in the private sector.
As Dalton writes, the Australian industry is not run by large corporations, but by small production companies that can’t ‘fund film development profitably’. This necessitates public sector involvement and presents the problem that if development is in the hands of the public sector, that is: if the first step to writing a script is to apply for a government grant, then development might be slowed down by the same factors that slow activity in the rest of the public sector down.
The paper never considers the involvement of the public sector as a factor in development. It states that one reason for the fractured development process is the draft by draft assessment delay. That is development investment is subsequent to approval of a previous draft before investment in the subsequent draft can occur. The delay period is unspecified. But the paper does say that whilst writers are subject to a ‘three month delivery timetable’ the average development period is 4.8 years! If writers are required to redraft a feature script in twelve weeks why does the process take half a decade?
Elsewhere in the paper we read that the average development budget on a FFC feature film is $141 439 of which $79 234 was the writers fee! Given that development means paying someone to write a screenplay who gets the $62 205 left over?
Let’s leave these rhetorical questions to the conclusion and move on.
Development Practice is a paper that bases its authority largely on comparison between the domestic film industry and ‘world best practice’. Well what is world best practice? Hollywood and Europe of course!
As the paper acknowledges, the major US studios are the most ‘powerful and successful film businesses in the world’ so we must grant that they are strong contenders for world best practice. But why Europe? Or to put it better where is Asia? The US has the most successful film industry but India comes second as the only other entirely self-funded film business in the world. What about Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China? Each of these industries has placed gems on the world stage these ten years past so why is France world best practice and Hong Kong not? And of all countries Canada probably resembles us most culturally and industrially, but there is no mention of it?
In addition to the rather arbitrary manner in which world best practice has been elected there is also the blunt tools with which Development Practice decides to dissect them. For example on page three we are told:
“in Hollywood, project selection begins with a decision by key people to work together, followed by a choice of a strong idea for the project.”
Evidence from the annals of Hollywood anecdotes reveal that there are many ways in which a film can get realized.
Reservoir Dogs for example started as a project Quentin Tarantino was going to shoot self-funded on the fee he received for True Romance. Dumb and Dumber started with a script written by two outsiders who’d read Syd Field’s classic how-to text. Raging Bull started with Robert De Niro’s interest in boxer Jake La Motta. Star Wars started with George Lucas watching B picture sci-fi during the fifties. Movies made in Hollywood have various origination paths and there is no evidence that one generic method of arriving at a project is superior to another. Blunt statements like the one above assist no-one.
Then we get:
..in Europe there has been a deliberate policy emphasis on teams working solidly on drafts until a project is as good as it is likely to get..
Exactly what does that mean? What does it tell us about the way European screenplays are written which could be of use? In ‘examining’ US and European screenwriting methods the paper makes blanket generalizations summarizing a vast and diverse array of practice into practically meaningless short paragraphs and never generating any evidence that links this or that method with success.
The two major conclusions drawn of comparison with US and European methods of development are these: one is that the percentage of applications we choose to fund are comparatively much higher and the second is we too-much favour the writer/director. The former is the major contribution of the paper and illustrates better than any other thing the comparative inefficiency of public sector development. In order to decide that funding 23.5% of applications is too high requires a report on industry crisis, a paper delivered to a screenwriter’s conference a year later and a ‘large scale investigation’ not yet completed. How many years must pass before a decision that could be made now will be made?
The other point is the predominance of the writer/director in Australian filmmaking. The report states that in Australia the writer and director are the same person 68% of the time, whereas in Hollywood this happens only 27% of the time.
Close examination of these statistics reveal these to be exaggerated conclusions. ‘In Hollywood’ means studio pictures. That is movies developed in-house by major US studios. ‘Studio’ is a misleading term that really means corporate subsidiaries that were studios in the days of the studio system. Most ‘Hollywood’ films are developed by smaller concerns somewhere in the huge latticework of various organizations worldwide that constitute ‘Hollywood’. According to the broader statistics in table four: the writer/director actually accounts for 54% of US films.
The comparison with Europe is similarly biased. For some reason in comparing films made by writer/directors with films made with separated roles the paper only indicates the UK where writer/directors account for 49% of movies made. The percentage would be, I’d wager, higher if figures for the other five countries considered elsewhere in the paper were also included here.
Somehow the writer/director issue is supposed to be a major factor in the relative quality of films made. But no evidence is presented demonstrating the relevance of this issue. There is an implied assumption that, if we encouraged role separation, Australian films would be more successful. US studios separate the roles, the US is successful therefore separation of roles leads to success. This is Ionesco’s comic syllogism: a cat has legs, Socrates had legs therefore Socrates was a cat.
A cursory examination of the last two years dispels the prejudice that writer/director films are commercially less viable. Consider Titanic, script and direction by James Cameron. Or The Blair Witch Project, history’s most profitable film, made by two men who did everything but act.
The paper concludes that:
we are taking too long to develop projects … allowing too many people to develop too many projects [so that] limited resources are being spread too thinly” and our “funding programs are favouring a combination of the auteur, the new and inexperienced while … asking them too choose from an unsustainably large producer community.
These fifty-four words are the essential argument of the twelve page address by Mr. Dalton. There are three basic points: too much project development is bad, too many producers are bad and inexperienced auteurs are bad.
The first point is a basic business observation that an adequate system would rectify with a simple memo not a large scale investigation and three or four papers presented to various conferences across the space of two or three years.
The problem of inexperienced auteurs presents two separate issues. According to the paper few first feature writers get two screenplays produced. Fewer still make it to three. Those that do, move on to others. The paper never examines cases of where one-time screenwriters fail to get another produced. Perchance was the first bad enough so why make two?
The auteur notion is supercilious. Writing and directing does not an auteur make. True many filmmakers considered auteurs do write and direct. But many don’t, Hitchcock for example. If Dalton is arguing that the powers that be shouldn’t regard a first time writer/director as an embryonic genius well that’s just common sense. But stating dogmatically that the writer of a script should not direct is as bad as saying that they should.
The unsustainably large producer community is neither here nor there. The paper says that statistics reveal 132 feature film production companies exist in this country but the trade directories state there are more. So what? Anyone can register a business and get some cards printed calling themselves ‘a film producer’. It doesn’t mean anything. Such activity entitles nobody to any money anywhere. If people insist on entering a crowded marketplace what are you going to do? Pass a law? Anyway, one hundred thirty-two production companies or one hundred thirty-two thousand production companies. It makes no difference to the quality of writing.
This is the real problem with the Australian film industry: the lack of quality writing. The one issue the paper makes very little attempt to address. Bad screenplays. One of the reasons that our most successful output is comedy is that comedy has a certain inherent quality control attached to it. It’s either funny or it ain’t. One cannot develop sociological/film theory based arguments to legitimize a comedy that isn’t funny. If it isn’t funny it doesn’t work. When we stray from comedy we get into trouble.
With writing, funding allocation is a lesser issue. Unlike just about all activities behind camera writing requires very little capital investment. To be a director, a producer, a production designer, a composer etc, one needs resources that might prove beyond the means of private individuals. An adequate word-processor and printer isn’t beyond the means of most people. The capital isn’t paramount, but the idea and the skills to bring it to fruition are. That is what’s missing. And it’s a problem that will never be solved by restructuring the subsidy system.
There are three things that can be done to improve the standard of Australian scripts.
The first it to reform the film industry’s public sector infrastructure so that its officers can make quick decisions and take risks like their counterparts in America, with the attendant penalties. That is make it more like showbusiness and less like policy development. Kill the committee.
The second is to replace esoteric theory with hard skills in universities. If first year film students were required to write a good film noir scene as opposed to an essay on Barthes’ view of film noir we’d have more good films and less boring conversations.
The third is to pay better. The paper states that writers get around $70 000 for four to five years work. McDonald’s pays better. And if you’re a really talented writer you can earn far more in advertising or in America.
There are many reasons that the United States has produced the world’s most successful films. Many of these have to do with industrial strangleholds on global distribution networks etc. But before it reached world dominance, America’s showbusiness culture had stringent standards best illustrated by Oscar Wilde’s anecdote about a wild-west saloon in the 1880s. He was amused that above the piano there was a sign, said: please don’t shoot the piano player he is doing his best.
Filmmaking is showbusiness. Hard, hard, hard! It’s not nice to shoot piano players but if you do, the rest play better.