Monday, July 30, 2012

The “rules” of developing story

Since Line by Line began, I think what I have found most refreshing are our speakers’ consistent approach to story: there is no right way to do it. But (and isn’t there always a “but”?) just because there are not rule does not mean that are no principles that could be applied.

This was one of the many tips shared generously with Line by Line by Charlie Carman, Manager of Script Development at Film Victoria.

The fact that this was the best attended Line by Line session we’ve ever had stands testament to the desire of emerging Aussie screenwriters to know exactly how Film Victoria fits into the development and production of their screenplays.

What do funding bodies in Australia do?

For our overseas readers, Film Victoria is the government agency that distributes government funding to local films, TV and digital media in Victoria. Each Australian State has its own funding body in addition to the Federal Government film funding agency.

Australian films rarely make money. I am not going to use this blog to air my feelings as to why this may be the case, but it is a fact. In stark contrast to the US or Indian film industries, we generally do not have the population or the box office returns that encourages private investment in films. Therefore, the generation of Australian film and television content is often the result of government support.

A challenge of the Australian government funding system is - due to  dealing with taxpayer money – access to these funds is restricted through strict eligibility criteria. Sadly, there is a difference between how public money can be administered (here and in other countries with public funding like the UK and Canada) and private investment, which can afford to have no rules and regulations attached to it.

One distinction Charlie made clear had never occurred to me before. She said that Film Victoria’s primary mandate is to distribute funds to support Victoria’s existing, established film industry. Not to train aspiring or emerging filmmakers. That role is funded by the government through educational institutions, such as AFTRS and locally Open Channel, and by supporting bigger film production companies who can then provide internships and other training opportunities.

As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I had felt for a long time that Australian funding agencies were not providing people in my position (namely, uncredited) with many opportunities. I now understand that their core role is support the already existing industry, and the best way to do that is to distribute funds to people for whom this is their career and have a proven track record.

While this was a slightly bitter pill to swallow, Charlie did note that Film Victoria have been able to support the New Feature Writer’s program again (and the workshop designed to assist emerging screenwriters), but are sadly now the only agency in the country to do so.

What should we be writing?

But all is not lost! Charlie gave plenty of great advice to both “established” and “non-established” writers, particularly from a developer’s perspective.

One bright side to having a government-funded model is that all types of films can get funding, as making money is not necessarily the primary objective. Apparently, Americans find it hilarious that we can simply fill out a whole lot of forms and be given money for a movie (although you and I both know there is a lot more to those forms than just the filling-out). Charlie stated clearly that Film Victoria do not have genre quotas to fill (although comedy is the most successful genre in Australia), and that Film Victoria is happy to support a good arthouse festival-friendly film as much as what you can find in the local multiplex.

What she was looking for (and what we need to write) are scripts that are good at what they do, and preferably excellent. A great idea, well executed. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, as long as it understands the audience’s expectations for horror/rom com/drama/whatever might be and delivers on those whilst also bringing something original to the mix. Sounds easy maybe, but very hard in practice.

Charlie also recommended looking at your script as an actor would. Having actors attached is so important to attracting investors (both public and private), and actors look at screenplays in a similar way to the way screenwriters do. Where is the conflict? What are the motivations? What are the self-realisations of the character? Does your script have 3 great scenes for a character and (just as importantly) no bad ones?

In light of a post-GFC era and shrinking funding for development, she did recommend the micro-budget, DIY approach as a practical way for writers to help the chances of their script actually being made and breaking into the industry. Either that or…

Writing for TV

In contrast to the Australian film industry, our local TV content is not only increasing but it is also starting to take risks. Development and production turnaround for TV is dramatically less than for film.

During Charlie’s time at Film Victoria, they approached the Australian broadcasters (as the gatekeepers to television funding – you need a broadcaster on board to get made) and asked them what they wanted from writers. The feedback was that they were being approached with ideas that were too developed. They were too set in stone, too far down the development track. There was not enough room for the broadcasters to have their input, to create a team, to massage an idea into a demographic or programming slot.

The moral of the story being: if you have a TV pitch, get it to the broadcasters sooner rather than later!

Writing in general: feedback and development

Given her background in publishing, Charlie happily accepted that screenwriting is almost unique in the amount of re-writing and collaboration that is required to reach a finished product. Part of that process is development.

Charlie was happy to report that the face of the Australian development industry is changing. Previously, writers, directors and producers would put a developer hats on. This did not always lead to strong outcomes as developers need their own set of skills to lead a writer to the best possible result.

In terms of feedback (an essential element of development) Charlie personally favoured a more interrogative approach rather than a prescriptive one. Ask the right questions, so as to lead the writer to where they need to get (rather than tell them what you believe to be the right approach).  For example, where you believe there is a passive protagonist you can ask “Can you think of three scenes where the protagonist drives the story?” rather than simply blurt out “You have a passive protagonist”.

But she clearly did not discount the prescriptive approach entirely. If you only ever ask questions without challenging, people can avoid getting pinned down or put on the spot that they need to address.

Developers are blessed with objectivity which the writer can never have. Charlie found it reassuring that writer/developers cannot apply their development skills to their own work. Most scripts require development and require feedback to achieve their potential. Commissioning readers reports are a cheap and invaluable way of obtaining that objective viewpoint, as is collaborating in communities such as Line by Line.

A last word

Finally, Charlie left me with the simple truth that screenwriting is a craft. It needs to be practised. Write a short story every day for a month. Get off the internet. Don’t hide in research. 


Chas Fisher 
The Line by Line Team:
Matt Downey
Khrob Edmonds
Chas Fisher
Fiona Leally
Marie Maroun

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