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Part 1: Excellence is the key criteria

Screen Australia part funds up to 20 features annually. The key criteria is excellence but there are other matters in play.

Sally Caplan doesn’t hesitate when asked what an application for feature film production funding has to have to be successful: “Many considerations are applied but the overarching requirement, normally, is that the film has to have excellence."

So what constitutes excellence? Her definition is “a well-crafted script and a capable talented team likely to deliver the best possible version of the film, which will entertain and challenge, educate, provoke, move and/or amuse its intended audience”. She adds that projects have to be budgeted appropriately.

The word “excellence” isn’t mentioned in the feature film production guidelines – online they are here. That said, Caplan’s definition of excellence and more is encompassed in the section that lays out the assessment criteria. A great script, a director with vision, viability and a strong distribution strategy are among the matters mentioned.

As well as examining the guidelines, which are subject to flexibility for features with production budgets less than $1.5 million, it is also essential to contact an investment manager before applications are submitted.

But back to excellence ….

THE MARKET MAY DETERMINE EXCELLENCE

To Caplan, the quality of a script particularly underpins excellence. Ask her about common script problems and she lists the absence of a compelling story, too little emotional connection, plot holes or an overreliance on visual effects.

Sometimes funding is promised only if further work is done on a script. Sometimes projects are declined but the creative team is offered development money to work together on other ideas.

“It does no one any favours to embark on a project that is half-baked.”

Except perhaps for those with very low budgets, all films have to have the rest of the finance in place and local distributors and international sales agents attached. A particularly positive reaction from the market may be the determinant of excellence rather than the opinion of staff or external assessors, which explains why Screen Australia sometimes invests in films with scripts that Caplan regards as “good but not great”.

“If we are not convinced a film can turn out to be excellent but it has strong market support, it would be extremely arrogant for us to say ‘only we know what excellence is and we won’t provide finance’.”

Market support might include a significant advance from a local distributor against that distributor’s expectations of Australian and New Zealand revenues, an advance from an international sales agent and/or significant international presales.

Renewal via new talent is a necessity and Hounds of Love director Ben Young is an example.

EIGHT OTHER KEY CONSIDERATIONS ARE APPLIED

The level of demand for funding and cuts to appropriation recently prompted Caplan to again think very seriously about how projects should be weighed up against each other once it’s been decided that they meet the guidelines and are excellent.

“To be successful, in addition to being excellent, an application has to satisfy at least one of eight considerations. The more that apply, the harder it is for us to say ‘no’,” she says.

In no particular order, they are:

  • CULTURAL MERIT: “This is part of our remit under the Act,” says Caplan. (The Act says – among many other things – that, in performing its functions, Screen Australia is, as far as practicable, to place an emphasis “on programs with a high level of artistic and cultural merit”.) “It means a film has to represent Australia. It doesn’t mean putting kangaroos and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in every film or that a film has to look Australian generally – it is tax payers’ money but it is not our place to tell people exactly what their films should look like.” She uses Ladies in Black, adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black, and the remake of Storm Boy as examples of recently funded films that meet the cultural remit. She also notes that the agency sometimes invests in films that may not look Australian because the market demands it or the filmmaker deserves support or the decision will help create a sustainable business through the development of Australian intellectual property. An example is Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, and due to be released by STUDIOCANAL Australia on 22 February 2018. As an aside she mentions a recent research report Screen Currency that found (page 28) that more than 60% of international tourists recalled seeing an Australian film or piece of television prior to visiting and, of this 60%, 85% said this made them more likely to visit Australia.
  • REGIONALISM: It is desirable that the film slate, in a geographical sense, represents many parts of Australia, not just New South Wales and Victoria, where the bulk of filmmakers reside. That said, Screen Australia can only respond to applications that come to it, says Caplan, who is also conscious that filmmaking drives economic activity, which is important to the state screen agencies that regularly partner with Screen Australia. “Regionalism was a component of our decision to back Cargo (shot in South Australia), Go Karts (Western Australia) and Top End Wedding (the Northern Territory). They are all potentially great films, just like that recent one Lion (Tasmania), which has won the odd award! There were other factors behind all these decisions too of course.”
  • COMMERCIAL/MARKET DRIVEN: “Big top quality commercial films can be good for our brand politically and financially,” says Caplan. “Potential recoupment is not the cornerstone of what we do but it is increasingly important because of the budget cuts.” Caplan questions the logic of Screen Australia being in a film costing more than $20 million, however, unless it is very likely to make the agency money or really would not get made without Screen Australia. “In each of the last three financial years we’ve got back between $5.3 million and $6.5 million from our investments in film, television and documentary and that’s enough for an additional, say, three films and two series. I expect to recoup 6-8% of our investments. When I was at the UK Film Council the recoupment target was 50%. The King’s Speech was about the only film that achieved that and we were unpopular with producers because recoupment was not always pro rata pari passu. (For an explanation of this phrase see the glossary in Screen Australia’s terms of trade.) I wouldn’t advocate for anything close to 50% but we may have to get a bit tougher.”
  • INNOVATION AND RISK: “There is always a level of risk involved in filmmaking – especially in the case of first-time directors – and we encourage teams to try and do something different, out there or extreme. Freshness and originality can get talent noticed.”
  • FEMALE BALANCING: “It has been very well publicised that Screen Australia is addressing gender inequality in front of and behind the camera through its Gender Matters initiative,” says Caplan. “Gender Matters flooded the pipeline and I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing but it takes a long time to change people’s thinking about female protagonists, directors and writers and bring about significant change, especially when it comes to developing features, which takes time.” Unconscious bias is still clearly at play, she adds: “I’ve been in creative meetings where I’ve remarked that all the characters in the script are white middle class men, then I’ve identified a certain character and asked if it was possible to consider casting a woman in that role, only to be told by the creative team that it’s not possible because that character runs a company … Only when I repeat the question has the team registered the implications of what they’ve said.”
  • DIVERSITY: “Diversity might refer to ethnic diversity, disability or LGBTQI, in front of or behind the camera,” says Caplan. (Screen Australia recently reported on the level of diversity within Australian television drama.) As well as wanting the slate to reflect Australia’s diversity and be made up of different kinds of films, she also likes to work with a diverse range of companies: “There’s a degree of confidence when there’s a track record but we are also interested in building careers – and a $500,000 grant can be very important for the sustainability of producers doing smaller projects.”
  • TALENT DEVELOPMENT/CAREER BUILDING: Caplan often refers to films that act as “talent escalators”. What she generally means by this term are debut features driven by directors who appear to have what it takes to build a long, fruitful career in film. They might have made several acclaimed shorts or television programs or directed theatre. The market is often reluctant to take a financial risk on these filmmakers in advance and limits are applied on how much Screen Australia is prepared to offer. “Renewal via the introduction of new talent is required to keep any film industry exciting and healthy. Ben Young is perhaps the best recent example of this. Screen Australia backed Ben’s confronting first feature Hounds of Love because we believed he had the talent to make a great film and get noticed. This has certainly proven to be the case.” (He has since directed the sci-fi family drama Extinction in Serbia.)
  • ESTABLISHED TALENT: “It’s a balancing act. We want to keep supporting new talent and second and third-time directors who have some traction in the marketplace. We also want to keep supporting established talent, but not at the expense of new people.”

“It would be extremely arrogant for us to say ‘only we know what excellence is and we won’t provide finance’.”

The eight considerations above demonstrate that Screen Australia’s motivation for funding a feature can be quite different to its commercial co-financing partners.

“WE’RE INTERESTED IN ELEVATED GENRE”

“We’re interested in elevated genre but not genre that is clearly better suited to the ancillary markets,” says Caplan, when asked about a perception that never seems to go away, which is that Screen Australia does not support genre filmmaking.

She used a recent investment as an example: "In The Blood is a very clever take on the vampire genre and has a script that’s a real page turner. The director is Victoria Cocks, so it’s a woman directing action, which we were also keen to support.”

She also cites two zombie movies, Wyrmwood (see part 2) and Cargo, directed by first timers Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling. Of the latter she says: “At its core it’s a zombie movie but it also has Indigenous themes and is a heart-warming story about parenthood. Netflix bought the world on this film.”

Making content for Australian audiences is important and genre doesn’t necessarily work well in the local market, she adds. While that doesn’t skew the decisions made on individual films, she wouldn’t want the majority of the slate to be genre films hardly seen in their own backyard.

“There is a big market for genre overseas and certain sales companies specialize in pumping genre films into the home entertainment market. A sale to an individual territory might not be worth much but if there are a lot of sales they can add up to significant revenue.”

Genre films often serve as excellent talent escalators.

Screen Australia is interested in elevated genre and Cargo is an example.

THE CEO HAS THE AUTHORITY TO APPROVE UP TO $1 MILLION

Caplan is the ringmaster of the production – and development – funding decisions that many people are involved in making. Each feature application is examined by her and at least two other assessors: the internal investment manager ushering a caseload of projects through the system and an external assessor, who is usually a writer, director or script editor.

Caplan, her team and the external assessors decide what to recommend for funding and at what level. She can authorise up to $200,000 and the CEO has the final say on which projects get up to $1 million.

“Projects go to the board – with a recommendation – if the ask is more than $1 million. The board doesn’t usually disagree with the recommendations.

“Being the one with the overview, I’m in the best position to compare and rank the projects but this is not about my taste or what I want to see. The other assessors and I don’t always agree, but we usually do; if we don’t I always make this known to Graeme (CEO Graeme Mason). He usually then reads the application and script. He’ll do the same if there is something controversial about a project.”

On every project the creatives are expected to meet with the assessors, something Caplan regards as invaluable.

Is picking winners a crapshoot? She says one of the things that makes working in film so exciting is that, sometimes, you see neither the “turkeys” nor the big successes coming.

“With experience you get better at choosing but you can always be surprised.”

This writer sat in as an observer on an assessment meeting held just before recommendations were made to the CEO. Sixteen people were present and each application was considered individually, starting with a summary presented by one of the assessors. The discussion was thorough and headed off in many directions.

Much time was spent on scripts: whether they were based on an existing property; the degree of clarity; the amount of nuance; issues around predictability; the appeal of the characters; the level of heart; the story arc; and so on. If it was the last chance for a particular project to be submitted because of previous applications this was mentioned. Several times the progress made on casting was brought up and financial deals were unpacked. Doubts were expressed that one film could meet the creative team’s aspirations on the budget available; the inexperience of the key creators was concerning on another. More than once someone talked about how engaged and inspiring the creatives were when they met with the agency.

The presence of similar films in the marketplace, the level of theatrical appeal, the nature of those most likely to want to see the film and the strength of the distributor often got a look in. Several times this question was posed: why should the film get funding from Screen Australia? Once or twice those present were reminded it would almost certainly get another form of taxpayer funding, namely the Producer Offset, if it went ahead. Twice someone declared a conflict of interest and left the room. Only on one film was there very little discussion: “This is a very easy ‘no’; let’s move on,” said Caplan.