Tuesday, February 23, 2016


The annual pilgrimage of Australian screen producers known as 'Screen Forever' has come and gone. If you weren't there, I'm certain you are devastated beyond measure.

But fret no longer.

I have returned from Melbourne, with a bundle of interesting morsels for you. Believe it or not, a mass gathering of the people who make your film and television a reality can birth a range of ideas worth mentioning. Possibly even some actual children in nine months too. There was a lot of heavy drinking, after all.

So, without further delay, some takeaways:

- Screen Forever was a week of ideas and relationship building for some, and 'Spring Break/Schoolies' for others. Both perspectives are totally acceptable, even normal for industry conferences, but it's important to know who you're with later at the bar, or things can get out of hand.

- there was an extremely positive push by the broadcasters (ABC, SBS, Ten, Seven, Foxtel, Stan) to speak about their unquenchable desire for content, and explain the ways in which they can be approached with proposals. Opportunity abounds for creators, which is terrific news.

- I did, however, observe a moment where the TV networks encouragement to engage producers backfired. Golden rule: don't try and pitch a TV show idea to a network executive who is using the urinal. I've now seen someone learn the hard way that TV decision makers are rarely open to creative discussions while holding their genitalia.

- all of the Australian government screen agencies were in attendance, both the Feds and each States', hovering like a Tinder date waiting to hear what you really think of them. Interestingly, when prompted, a representative of the Federal screen agency, Screen Australia, described Australian film/TV makers as pioneers and creatives with a bold and necessary vision...then later mentioned that there is much less Screen Australia money for bold and necessary screen stories. Perhaps a system could be established where you can spend a 'pioneering spirit' like cash?

- the conference was a chance for old-world media thinking and new-world thinking to come together...and it didn't go well. Russel Howcroft, Executive General Manager of Network Ten, and Dana Brunetti, Producer and President of Trigger Street Productions (think 'House of Cards' and 'The Social Network'), clashed openly during a panel discussion over audience behaviour. For Howcroft, the audience must understand that television is paid for by advertisers, and therefore needs to "respect" the commercials by watching them. For Brunetti, the idea of "respecting" advertising is (INSERT EXPLETIVE HERE), and his belief is that new technology has flipped the power to the audience. The end result, Brunetti says, is that advertisers are the ones that have to evolve their model for content makers and the audience, not the other way around. Provocative.

- even at Crown Casino, it's difficult to source an alcoholic beverage after midnight on a weekday. But somehow the TV executives found a way. They're like the David Copperfield of late night drinking.

- the word 'genius' is thrown around far too liberally during panel discussions at a Screen Producers conference. If one of those content creators goes on to cure antibiotics-resistant bacterium on a world scale, I'll rescind this observation. I highly doubt it.

- on that note, I could broadly categorise the attendees into two distinct camps. All the delegates were there to broaden their minds and make new connections, on some level, but it also became clear that in attendance were: (a) relaxed and open individuals, keen to take the experience as it comes; or (b) people who took themselves WAY too seriously. It was not my place to remind anyone that they were not performing open heart surgery while at a Screen Producers Conference (i.e. no lives were at stake) so I didn't. My word, how difficult those people are to interact with though. And mark me, friends, the quality assured method to scare off anyone who might work with you on a creative project, is to be a humorless git.

- the most commonly provided answer, to the very broad question of 'how do you decide to commission a TV show?', is "make it a good story". Not very helpful, but true none-the-less.

- even a two-time Oscar nominee, with a successful track record in television and filmmaking, has to hustle to get his screen projects financed and made. You can either be depressed by that or realise it's about doing the work.

- like it or not, good fortune plays a big part in success. Whether it's meeting a future business partner on a plane, stumbling into a release strategy for a film that ends up garnering millions, or having Kevin Spacey on your Rolodex to open stubborn doors for you. Either embrace the fact that you sometimes have to be more lucky than clever, or understand that you will need a therapist someday.

Overall, what you need to know most about Screen Forever, is that the old William Goldman saying is as true now as it was in 1983:

“Nobody knows anything...... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”

The gathering of screen producers makes this one great lesson abundantly clear. Everyone is pushing that boulder up hill. No-one really knows if a story will fall on deaf ears or not.

At one panel session, I heard that an ultra successful web series was made as a low-budget lark, while the creators were waiting on their existing web series to take off. Millions of views later, the lark is now their primary project.

At another session, when asked about how a recent Australian film had been so successful in cinemas, the panel simply gazed into the middle distance and mouthed vague answers. Finally, the speakers admitted they had no idea why the film had met such a resounding audience response, but wasn't it great?

Successes and failures. Old-world and new world ideas. Developing technologies and resilient mainstays. Established producers and the emerging breed nipping at their heels.

It's a soup.

Much like the murk that tiny creatures emerged from, surviving pressure and attrition to evolve into humans. There's electricity in this primordial mix.

That's Screen Forever.

A community of people mingling, sharing, and clashing. Struggling to thrive, without bringing down the herd.

No definitive answers, only more questions. Stories to be created and jettisoned into the world.

And from that alchemy...magic.

For the audience.

But for us, the makers, too.

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