Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Good Read - MEDIA: Let's get with the program

My former guerrilla film production colleague, Timothy Ly recently posted this article on my facebook. Tim has been an old friend of mine and we had a great ball making the "no-budget" action flick "Maximum Choppage: Round 2" back in 2008.

Since then, we made a few things here and there, including ABC commissioned mini-interstitial "Downtown Rumble" and now...(*crickets*) well....you get what I mean.

Apparently, kung fu kick ass action wasn't ABCs cup of tea despite their message board forum inundated with the hopes of a second mini series

But I guess, I shouldn't be complaining. My film mentor Craig Anderson says the industry can be like a bit of rocky road. One minute on doing a show and the next your on the dole, so if you are not in the mainstream they you got to get savvy

I'm currently working on his next bubbly project "Team 11" - a story about a bunch of netball wanna-a-be winners who are a little more than "rough" in this women's sport.  Its great to see how Craig and his team all work, they are all cruisy but passionate at the same time. Actors and newbie filmmakers get their opportunity to help determine the stories and lots of develop occurs before the shoot date.

Anyhow, I moving away from my point, which is this article written by Tony Moore, a senior lecturer from Monash University. I haven't met the man, but can say that he has a fair share of the industry to know what he's talking about. Plus, I can immediately connect to the article and have even did my bit to spread the word, highlight bits and paraphrase it so it make sense to me.

Let's get with the program
Tony Moore From: The Australian September 17, 2011 12:00AM
From the ABC drama Crownies Source: Supplied
THE ABC has produced some remarkable gems for Australian television. Who can forget Richard Roxburgh's portrayal of cardigan-clad corruption in Blue Murder, laughing as a squealing solicitor is conveyed to the bottom of Sydney Harbour manacled to an Early Kooka stove?

Yet in recent years the ABC and its private co-production partners have failed to live up to their potential as the powerhouses of Australian fictional storytelling, especially compared with HBO, Channel 4, even the BBC.

Instead of the brain and aesthetic-stretching pleasures of The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome or The Wire, which bring to television the complexities of a novel, ABC drama churns out an old, formulaic legal series where unconvincing characters shout plot development and lame sexual repartee across open-plan offices.

For every critical and popular hit such as the Cleo biopic Paper Giants, we get too many Crownies, underwhelming and naive series that fail to live up to the bombast of their promos.
Crownies shares a colour-by-numbers house style with the bucolic, white-bread melodramas East of Everything, Bed of Roses and Valentine's Day and the miners v greenies Dirt Game. An issue is workshopped and whiteboarded, then various characters and plot lines are riveted together to produce a politically correct morality tale.

Instead of the ethical quicksands of The Sopranos, the knowing wit of The West Wing or the parodying pop culture history of Doctor Who, ABC drama prefers Fireflies, where jump-suited action-men and women walk around the bush talking bullet points. But modern TV drama needs to play with notions of truth, ambiguity of character and the medium of TV itself.

In the 2009 federal budget, the ABC was given an extra $70 million by the Rudd government for the worthy national goal of boosting Australian drama production. Two years later the taxpayer is entitled to ask: "What are we getting for our investment?"

However, the stodgy state of ABC drama has less to do with funding than the aesthetic and intellectual conservatism of production houses, a failure to engage with storytellers in the wider creative community and an obsession by commissioners with a narrow range of genres.

Spending too much money may indeed be part of the problem. The ABC drama department and its preferred commercial production houses are locked into expensive budgets and pedestrian, out-of-date scriptwriting and a bland late 20th-century style that made a miniseries on East Timor look like Police Rescue.

Good drama need not be expensive, and often it is the low-budget guerilla independents that produce the interesting, innovative work. Where many big-budget bonanzas play it safe, it is the ABC's lower-budget comic-dramas -- for example Kath & Kim, Double the Fist and Summer Heights High -- that take risks, experiment with script and aesthetics, and win passionate audiences and critical praise.

Chris Lilley's three genre-bending cult hits were nurtured not by the ABC drama department but by laterally thinking arts and entertainment. Furthermore, they were produced by smaller, artist-controlled independent companies rather than the bigger drama production houses, which can afford to take risks with ideas and the medium and tend to shoot documentary-style. But what they save on production values they make up in script value.

The ABC must move out of the narrow pool of specialist TV drama writers and try novelists, historians and other types of writers on scripts as they do in Britain. The ABC should give novelists such as Christos Tsiolkas, Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, David Malouf, Frank Moorhouse, Tom Keneally and Peter Carey the opportunity to write drama scripts. Britain has been very good at tapping working-class, ethnic and provincial storytellers for its television and cinema: think Jimmy McGovern's The Street, Shameless, Dennis Potter's work, all the way back to When the Boat Comes In. The ABC needs to find young writers and directors from a variety of backgrounds, beyond the inner cities and elite academies such as the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, more in touch with the polyglot rustbelts and the new housing estates of the city fringe. Non-Anglos still appear on ABC TV shows as well-meaning tokens, loudly justified by an ethnic plot development or issue, rather than as a natural part of the Australian mix.

Anglo-Celtic, inner-urban program-makers present ethnic difference and hybridisation of cultures in the backblocks as an unusual disruption to the Anglo-Aussie mainstream rather than what it is: the major narrative of contemporary Australia.

The ABC remains good at exhibiting working-class individuals and communities as subjects with problems to be diagnosed or eccentricities to be celebrated, but always they are presented as "the other" to an assumed middle-class audience.

The Paul Fenech Pizza franchise on SBS and the films of David Caesar show a different approach, where creative program-makers have emerged from these communities with different, often confronting, aesthetics from the perspective of middle-class tastes.

In Hollywood and at the BBC they look to published literature for more nuanced storytelling, and the ABC is to be congratulated for adapting Tsiolkas's The Slap. This builds on a fine ABC tradition of looking to our novelists for inspiration, spanning Ride on Stranger to Bodysurfersand My Place. These could be followed by Australian literature of more recent decades, such as Kate Grenville's The Secret River, Frank Moorhouse's Dark Palace saga, Shane Maloney's crime novels or Anita Heiss's Koori chick-lit.

Why don't ABC drama commissioners look to the wealth of 1 1/2 centuries of classic Australian novels and plays? Cue The Term of His Natural Life, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Illywacker or The Doubleman. What of dramatising narrative nonfiction such as Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man, Inga Clendinnen's Dancing with Strangers or Keneally's The Great Shame?

We need more historical drama in the tradition of Captain James Cook and Curtin. Australian history and literature of the 19th century are mines of great stories and characters. No one minds a bit of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen on a Sunday night, but what about novelists Marcus Clarke, Henry Lawson, Christina Stead and Miles Franklin? In the 1970s and 80s the ABC treated us to drama series based on Frank Hardy's Power without Glory, Ethel Turner's Seven Little Australians and Eleanor Dark's The Timeless Land, to name but a few.

As noted by the Australian Society of Authors, today new generations of Australians will discover the British literary canon on their ABC while our own literary tradition is ignored. This represents a return to the cultural cringe that threatens our children's cultural birthright and future dreaming.

ABC drama needs to be freed from the shackles of British realism and try science fiction, fantasy, horror and the gothic popular with teenagers, young adults and working-class audiences. The recent documentary Not Quite Hollywood (rejected by the ABC and happily screened on SBS), showcased an explosion in Australian action, horror, sci-fi and ocker movies distinguished by visceral thrills and spills that enjoyed commercial and often critical success in the 70s and 80s.

These genres need not be the exclusive preserve of the Americans and British. Australia has a rich tradition of colonial gothic chillers and pulp fiction of the 20th century climaxing in Tsiolkas's disturbing journey into the heart of darkness, Dead Europe.

Much criticism has been directed at the ABC's reliance on outsourcing to independent producers, but the problem is not contracting in talent and ideas from the wider creative community but the reluctance of ABC's to spread its patronage more widely.

I have admiration for the work of in-house ABC program-makers and the independents and believe it's an artificial divide. Many independent producers are ex-ABC staff who reckon they get a better deal this way. It is often the case that, free from managerial interference and compromise, contracted production teams led by cultural entrepreneurs such as Gina Riley and Jane Turner, Lilley or Zapruder's Other Films' Andrew Denton are able to break more aesthetic rules, cut red tape and negotiate more creative autonomy.

However, this outsourcing is far from transparent and the ABC needs to spread its coin beyond the incumbents. Outsourcing needs to be governed by legislated rules and benchmarks and be scrutinised by federal parliament. It matters less whether programs are made in-house or out than that this public commissioning is equitable and those taking the money are accountable and deliver value for taxpayers' dollars.

Mark Scott has recognised the creative logjam at ABC drama. "We've taken relatively few creative risks," Scott admitted after the 2009 budget windfall, but now with more money "people can expect us to take more risks". Audiences should expect drama that is "edgier and more confronting" within "an array of offerings that are high quality and distinctive". The ambition to take risks is to be applauded but will be more likely to succeed if the ABC seriously examines the institutional and cultural reasons for ABC drama's conservatism.

This is an edited extract from a recent submission to the Senate's standing inquiry into recent ABC programming decisions.

Tony Moore is director of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. He was a program-maker at the ABC from 1988 to 1997 and was a member of the ABC National Advisory Council.

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