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TAKING UP THE CHALLENGE: FRESH IDEAS FOR AUSTRALIAN FILMMAKING

Filmmakers should articulate their purpose as a verb that describes what they want to do to audiences when developing their films, and make an onscreen draft to test them; these are two suggestions from Dr Karen Pearlman, Head of Screen Studies at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School in this provocative essay that takes up the challenge posed by filmmaker Robert Connolly.

In Issue 3 of LUMINA*, (May 2010) producer/director Robert Connolly posed a challenge to LUMINA readers to find better ways of measuring the success of Australian feature films. He argued that there are considerations, other than gross box office, which might be worth taking account of before we praise or damn the products and performance of the Australian film industry. 

One of these factors is ‘artistic vibrancy’. This essay takes up the challenge of looking at how we might measure artistic vibrancy, proposing processes that will allow us to measure success, and making specific suggestions for measuring sooner. 

Here’s the key challenge I am taking up: 

"the number of stars"

“In assessing artistic excellence or quality surely there has to be more to it than the number of stars Margaret or David give a film.” 

Yes, there are. But first there is one I suggest we don’t use. In Connolly’s article, the following quote was set in bold: “I’ve always seen the Australian Film Industry as the organic food section in the supermarket, we don’t have that much shelf space, but we’re clearly better for you. Better for you – like medicine? This is not exactly how Connolly meant it, and in fact the quote offers a useful insight in the context of his opening argument. But out of context, it points, in my view, to an important trap to be avoided for movies. ‘Good for you’ is a slippery slope, one that the arts have tumbled down and crashed at the bottom of many times. 

Although it provides a justification for government to put money into the arts, it tends to place the arts in a ghetto, rather than integrating them into a vibrant culture. ‘Good for you’ unfortunately doesn’t resonate culturally with opening your mind, or stimulating ideas, inciting passions or excitement, or challenging prevailing thinking. Instead, it sounds like a duty, like going to church or school. 

As a justification of purpose of a cultural product ‘good for you’ paradoxically (because we would all actually like something that is good for us), strikes a wrong note in contemporary culture. 

"what should we use for measuring success?"

So what should we use for measuring success? I would suggest that in order to answer that question, we have to go back to source. As Connolly says “Get to the heart of why we make a film in the first place”, and try to articulate some things that can be measured about the purpose of movies. Then we need to look at the creative process. Funding and production structures implicitly set up ways of measuring and maybe they could do this better, or more vibrantly, so as to provide a way of testing ideas for their potential for success before it is too late. I will propose two ideas for measuring sooner: statements of purpose and onscreen drafts. 

In the end, each of these propositions leads me toward a final exhortation: courage. Courage to set our criteria and then trust our own judgment. If we wish to ‘measure’ the success of our finished movies in artistic or creative terms then we need to stop looking over our shoulders to see if we’re doing it right. Instead, we can state our purpose, make onscreen drafts, theorise and, in so doing, build our own sphere of influence to measure our success. 

1. Shifting Purpose from Artist to End User 

Making films in Australia is not a very good way to make money - at least not for the filmmakers or investors. Making money can be helpful in some ways in measuring success and it may be a good thing to do but it is not necessarily the primary purpose of our film industry.

Knowing that the purpose of a government supported screen industry can’t really be to make money, we fall back, instead, on a platitude to justify our existence: ‘to tell our own stories’. This is problematic for a number of reasons, some of which I discussed in my essay published in issue two of LUMINA, Make Our Myths, but here are two reasons I didn’t mention in that essay: 

• It sets the bar too low, and 

• It allows purpose to rest with the creator rather than the end user. 

"sets the bar too low"

‘To tell our own stories’ sets the bar too low simply because there is nothing in the idea of telling our own stories that says they have to be good stories. Does ‘tell our own stories’ mean: tell any story as long as Australians, in Australia, tell it? Does it mean ‘speaking in an Australian accent’? If so, the storytelling of any first generation immigrant, including myself, doesn’t qualify. There is nothing in that stated purpose to say: tell good stories, stirring stories, entertaining stories, enlightening, exciting or affirming stories. 

The other issue ‘telling our own stories’ creates is that it implicitly allows the purpose of storytelling to rest with the teller, not the listener. To tell is a verb, the action it requires is complete once ‘telling’ is done. The focus, therefore, is put on telling and the teller, the speaker, the artist.

This may seem insignificant, but in fact it belies the very idea on which our creative work is based, and to shift it is much more radical than a simple change of wording would seem to imply. The notion that the purpose of art rests with the artist, the ‘teller’, expressing him/herself is a Romantic notion. 

"neither universal nor grounded in the deep history of our culture"

It is neither universal nor grounded in the deep history of our culture. In fact, it is directly in conflict with the classical Aristotelian principles of story organisation that many screen storytellers say should guide their construction of story. This conflict, between classical rules and individual or even national expression of self, is an unarticulated battle, going on beneath the surface, without acknowledgement of its battle lines or their implications for defining the purpose of our screen industry. 

Rather than falling back on a cultural platitude to justify a production’s existence, what if all funded productions articulated their purpose as a verb that describes what they want to do to audiences, and then employ known craft skills to achieve that purpose. 

If a team states, for example, their purpose as being: to entertain, then their production needs spectacle, action, possibly humour and definitely pace and rhythm. If it doesn’t have these, it won’t entertain. If members of our highly skilled industry know it is their job to produce these, then they have a better chance of doing so.

A production whose purpose is to enlighten needs metaphor – it has to be bigger than just the ordinary real if we are to see something differently. It needs pattern (aka structure) that is familiar enough to take us along with it, but fulfilled in a way that is fresh, that shows something in a new light. It needs to be about more than just the people, places and problems within it, by making those things metaphorical for the bigger ideas affecting humanity, the world and the challenges of life. 

"to engage the mind through innovation"

A production that states its purpose as to engage the mind through innovation in form needs an innovative approach to story structure, image or sound. Producing something with this intent requires a very strong knowledge and understanding of the ways in which story and storytelling have worked in the history of cinema thus far, so that images, sounds and structures can be re-configured meaningfully. 

If the stated purpose of a production is to stir, then the story needs some connection to the real - our emotion is stirred by empathy with something or someone we recognise as someone like ourselves (mimesis). It also needs hardship and triumph – release or catharsis has to be earned by overcoming hardship and working through obstacles for our emotions to be stirred. 

An often unstated artistic purpose of many successful movies is to affirm ideals. 20th century art movements, and their theory and criticism, have in some ways made ‘affirmation of ideals’ a passé notion by associating it with the bourgeoisie rather than the avant garde and criticising the ideals many movies affirm. However, a movie with nothing to say, no underlying philosophical premise, nothing it believes in or ‘ideals to affirm’ can be a pretty shallow experience. In order to affirm ideals of any kind, filmmakers need to know what they believe in, what they stand up for, what they have to say. 

Entertain, enlighten, engage, stir and affirm are not mutually exclusive (and, of course there are probably many more purposes or ‘actions’ films can have). If these or other purposes are articulated, their achievement can be measured. We can say more than ‘it just works’ or ‘it just doesn’t work’. We can point to its intent and measure its success against its intent. We can describe what we know to be the factors a film or project needs to have to be entertaining, enlightening, engaging, stirring or affirming and ask ‘are these present’? Further, we can feel the films acting on us. We can be entertained, stirred or affirmed and we will know it. 

"Stating purpose is an important aspect"

Stating purpose is an important aspect of finding new ways to measure success as it creates a measurable that is clearly aligned with the film itself rather than with a standard that is less relevant to that film. If a good Australian movie doesn’t achieve box office success on the scale of a ‘bad’ American one but does achieve its stated purpose, then we can be clear that it is a success. 

2. Making Onscreen Drafts 

For another and even more radical way of building ‘measuring success’ into process, I propose that we set up a system whereby we can begin to measure success early in the process, before a movie is in production. The proposal is for a funding system that creates onscreen drafts – sketches, if you will - of our movies, and measures their success in the medium in which they will ultimately be realised, rather than as a theory on paper. 

Here’s how it would work: 

Screen Australia would set aside a fund of $500,000 through which it can fund ten filmmakers a year to make a $50,000 ‘sketch’ of their feature film. The sketch is shot with a skeleton crew as an onscreen proof of concept. They cut together the work that has so far only been on paper, to see how well it holds up on screen.

"does it entertain, enlighten, stir or excite?"

As a screen story does it entertain, enlighten, stir or excite? If not, where does it fall apart? They revise and shoot again. It is possible to use a digital camera and laptop as a sketchpad. No masterpiece of visual art is created without first making sketches. Great orchestral scores start out as ideas sketched on one piano. Why wouldn’t we, now that we have the tools to do so, sketch cinema? Cinema is an art of performance, dynamics, images and sounds, not of words on paper. 

A draft of a screenplay does not have to be finished to be sketched – sketching onscreen can actually be a part of re-writing and refining the script. In this way, the ‘sketch fund’ encourages risk taking, allows for testing wild or unusual ideas, approaches, methods, and media. 

At the end of the year, Screen Australia has ten feature film sketches for a $500,000 investment. One or two of these sketches w ill be so good that they warrant re-making with full production. Another two or so will be good enough that they warrant post-production funding for grading, music, sound, vfx and possibly some extended pickups. The other six have been worthwhile investments: they have developed the skills and talent of people who may go on to produce even better ideas. 

The onscreen drafts idea is a variation on a system that is in place in Israel – one of the world’s most successful non-American cinemas. Katriel Schory, Executive of the Israeli Film Fund, spoke at Screen Australia in September 2010, about a system operating in Israel whereby ten teams a year get $50,000 to make their feature films. They get 300 applications a year for this ‘open door’ fund and they usually get a couple of good films out of it. Dr Ruth Harley, Executive of Screen Australia, noted in that conversation that our industry is not structured in such a way as to make such low budget filmmaking possible. Our unions, crafts people, and distributors don’t function in that way.

"be possible to sustain the high level of craft skills and production values"

However, if we were to make $50,000 sketches, like script drafts but on-screen, rather than finished products, then it would be possible to sustain the high level of craft skills and production values our industry can achieve. In fact, to put them to even better and more robust use by applying them only to films which have already demonstrated that they are worth making. Further, we would be able to put the inexpensive digital technology, which is so powerfully shaking up traditional production methods, to good use. ‘Low-end’ gear could become a tool to help us make high-end productions better.

There was one other inspiration for this proposal for onscreen drafts, which is our current historical moment. It has been a truism of the industry for at least 20 years that the most important element of a movie is story. While I make no attack whatsoever on the importance of story, I would just like to pause briefly to note that this truism has not always been absolutely true. From roughly 1910 to the late 1950s movies were, in America, a producer’s medium. The vast majority of films were made by studios and the most important factors were stars and genre. If the producer knew his stars and his genres then he (invariably he, never she) would know, in rough terms anyway, his story. It would unfold in a certain way, affirm certain things, have set pieces to entertain, and the absence of these things would mean the film wouldn’t be made. 

As Matthew Campora describes in his essay: Financial Crisis, Depression and Other Uplifting Moments in the History of Cinema in this issue of LUMINA, a change to the structure of the industry in 1948, threw the studio driven system into crisis and made room for something else: a director driven system. The influence of the French New Wave films and theories had a tremendous impact on what got made and why. In the book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind, very entertainingly chronicles how the first graduates of American film schools were concerned with story (which they also learned the theory of) but their primary concern was their directorial vision for screen storytelling. The revolution was in mise-en-scène, images, sound, performance, realism, message, iconography, meaning, cultural challenge – these took precedence over ‘story’. The writers were not the engines of storytelling, rather the directors were the auteurs. Further, given the changes in culture and distribution modes available to them, these movies – Blow-up (Antonioni, 1966), Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967), The Godfather (Coppola, 1972), Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), and so on, made money. 

"‘how to’ make a successful story"

About the time Hollywood shifted away from auteur driven movies, screenwriting manuals began to be published which declared the primacy of story and prescribe, step by step, ‘how to’ make a successful story. Since then we have found ourselves working within the notion that story is the most important factor in filmmaking, not mise en scene, director’s vision, genre, or stars. 

But as Matt Campora’s article points out so elegantly, change is a constant in our industry, and times are once again, or still, changing. The idea for onscreen drafts addresses the possibility that the factors which have each had dominance in the last 100 years – genres, storytelling and stories – might now all come together to be worked in as part of the drafting process. Making onscreen drafts may be a way to acknowledge that great movies are a product of all three. 

Making onscreen drafts adds to our arsenal of methods for measuring success by creating the possibility of measuring early, while it can still be useful to the production to know how it is working. It minimises the risks involved in creating something fresh and original by encouraging risk to happen in a draft stage, which is an inexpensive stage and a stage where, if something doesn’t work, it can be tried again differently. If we measure artistic success at draft stage, then we will be making the process of measuring success directly useful to filmmakers, at a time in their process where they can still do something about it.

*This is an edited extract of an article published in LUMINA No 6, published by the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

Published July 14, 2011

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Dr Karen Pearlman







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