Saturday, October 27, 2012


No matter what anyone says, you sometimes have to make sacrifices to pay the rent and keep food on your table.

This is especially true if you also have mouths to feed.

Filmmakers are no different, especially in Australia.

You may want to make nothing but idiosyncratic art films, but if it means you starve to death, you may have to make different choices.

The balancing act is avoiding making ALL of your choices purely on what will garner you a fee or increase your film's budget level. That can be soul destroying.

It is one of the reasons why I try and limit my attendance at industry events. There are always too many people there who have been forced to make too many choices against their creative desires.

It changes them. Their perspective becomes far too pragmatic, and it seriously saps your enthusiasm to be around them.

With that in mind, I recently attended a forum on how to put together an international film co-production (i.e. a film where it is officially considered the product of two or more countries). It was put on by the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA).

The workshop itself was actually very informative. It highlighted how complex these international co-productions are, given they are governed by international treaties.

One speaker in particular was a successful active producer who was very energetic about the opportunities international co-productions presented. He was very inspiring.

And then there was the excessive pragmatist. He spoke after the inspiring producer guy.

When asked why a filmmaker should consider utilising an international co-production, he said "to get more money into your budget".

No cultural aspects. No audience engagement.

Just money.

Interestingly, I had some insight on this topic from my experience at the Shanghai International Film Festival this year.

You see, everyone wants to get into China. Australian film producers, American film producers, European film producers and even other Asian film producers. The worst kept secret in the world is that China is evolving a HUGE middle class.

Middle class means you have disposable income above your basic necessities. What do people spend a large proportion of their disposable income on?


The Americans are the most assertive in this space. They even remade the Disney film 'High School Musical', with Chinese teenagers for a Chinese audience.

The only problem? The film tanked. No-one went to see it.

And herein lies the problem.

Films are supposed to find an audience. If you make a film and add a 'token cultural element', hoping that the local audience will adopt it as their own, you are setting yourself up for a catastrophic failure.

This was the overwhelming message from the discussion panels on international co-productions in Shanghai.

Audiences are so experienced with film and media now, that you can't hand them any old garbage and tell them it will 'speak to them'. It won't pass their radar.

It has to be organically theirs, with elements of their culture and/or experience woven into the very fabric of the story.

In a way, however, this is one of the big risks, but also big opportunities with an international co-production. To tell an interesting story, with a unique blended cultural perspective, that therefore garners support from the audiences of the co-production countries and becomes a critical and financial success.

Tough to do, certainly, but doesn't that tell you it could be great if you pull it off?

And so, back in the present day, I wanted to give the excessive pragmatist a chance to redeem himself. Surely, I thought, he couldn't have been serious when he said it was just about getting a bigger budget, so that he could charge a Producer fee and eke out a living? Surely, I thought, it is about storytelling?

So I asked: given the negative experience of the Chinese High School Musical, with their 'cookie cutter' approach to story and incorporating culture into the film, had he incorporated the idea of international co-productions as a way of better engaging with these diverse audiences and organically developing stories that speak to different cultures into his process for creating an international co-production?

This is it, I thought. A chance for him to say that he was being overly practical. A chance for him to say that, as well as a larger budget, that he really does want to use these co-production mechanisms to tell stories that genuinely engage with audiences, from different cultural perspectives, all over the world. A true cross-cultural storyteller.    

His answer?

"In a word, no."

As a producer he was not interested in exploring cultural aspects, but needed to make a living so his kids don't eat catfood.

That is not me taking creative license. That is what he said, verbatim.

And I realised, he has turned filmmaking into his day job.

For him, it was about putting food on the table first, with a passion for storytelling second.

Why? What had caused him to imbalance his perspective too far towards money?

I don't know.

Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge him for that choice. I even understand it on some level. He has kids after all.

But, my god, there are far easier and more lucrative ways to make a living.

If you aren't in this because of a passion for telling stories, and finding an audience who responds to them, then what's the point?

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