Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Feature Films and the Digital Divide

There appears to have been a sudden explosion of activity in my hometown. Everyone is running around making feature films. “Yay!” you might exclaim given that until recently Perth was better known for children’s television series and documentaries. The local funding agency’s West CoastVisions initiative has gone some way to changing that with films such as Last Train To Freo, Wasted on the Young, Blame and the upcoming These Final Hours. There has also been an influx of bigger productions such as Drift, the Cloudstreet mini-series (based on local writer Tim Winton’s novel) and, currently in production, The Deserter.

However, I am talking about the micro/no budget variety which has been made more attainable by digital technology. This has given filmmakers the ability to shoot longer form narratives cheaply and quickly. The problem though appears to be this:

The quality of the screenplay

I read one such script recently that to me was a rough first draft. I was bemused to discover it was the shooting script. Knowing some of the people involved I hope they salvage something from it. But it has train wreck written all over it.


It may be technically “easier” to make a film but is sure as hell ain’t easier to write one.

I know anything I write will generally be pulled apart by key collaborators, especially the director, before it goes through the funding process grindstone. If you’re fortunate enough to receive development funding then it’s onto drafts with script editors and more notes and feedback as the script evolves and gets better. In other words it is submitted to expert scrutiny. Sure, we can have a discussion about over-development or bad notes but the point is, the script is prodded and tested.

Who scrutinises these no budget feature scripts especially when a lot are by first time writer-directors? It feels to me like people are in such a rush to “make something” that the script is almost an afterthought. For these types of projects I would have thought it should be everything. What’s the point of spending your own money and that of family and friends on something that no-one will see or, if they do, could cruel your career right from the get go?

Then again, most of these seem to be on deferred payments and/or rely on the goodwill of actors and crew to work for free. Yet I see the same people going to that well time after time, requesting talent and crew on social media with only the promise of catering and “something for your show reel” as reward. Never mind the amount of actors I hear complaining that they never receive a copy of the film. 

When does someone transition from this approach to being a professional filmmaker?

When it's done right - Zak Hilditch's The Actress.
The only no budget films of note I have seen from Perth are The Actress and The Toll with an honourable mention to A Day at the Oasis. The first two are from Zak Hilditch who I am delighted to say has received government funding and financing for the aforementioned These Final Hours. The Actress, famously made for only $700, was well written and acted showing that Zak could tell a long form narrative. I’m looking forward to see what he can do with a proper budget. That script has also been through the Screen Australia’s Springboard initiative so I expect it will be in excellent shape. He is the exception to the rule. 

Part of me is jealous of all these people with their no/micro budget films who can tout the fact they have a feature film credit… but then I remember that’s not what motivates me. It’s to tell good stories. To me that means working hard to get scripts into shape to attract the type of financing and professional expertise that will do them justice. 

None of my key collaborators are interested in making no budget features. They are all developing projects through more 'traditional' routes. As a result there seems to be a clear divide here - those who compete for funding and private investment and those who prefer the "do it yourself" approach. 

I admire the latter's enthusiasm but can I suggest they spend as much energy on the script as they do on the "beg, borrow, stealing" to get their film made. After all, no budget, low budget, mega budget, if the script is broken you're going to have an uphill battle making a good film...


  1. I incorrectly attributed Drift as being based on a Tim Winton novel. I was thinking, of course, of Dirt Music. I have amended the text and apologise for any confusion.

  2. When the alternative is between make a film - even a bad one - and making nothing I feel making something is always the wisest choice. There's always something to learn as part of the film-making process, plus it's fun. Who cares whether they're good or not? This is the age of UGC, where one badly-written SFX laden short can bring Hollywood moguls knocking.

    And I have to say holding up the traditional funding route as the ideal is fraught with peril. They really don't have a great record for making quality films that a global audience wants to watch.

    I say let film-makers make films no matter how they can. Good, bad, indifferent. It's nobody's business how they spend their own hard-earned time and money.

  3. I respectfully disagree:

    Actors and crew are exploited in many instances to make these sorts of films.

    No one should ever knowingly set out to make a bad film.

    Learn from shorts. Don't use features as a plaything when so many other people are involved.

    I care. More quality. Less rubbish.

  4. Nobody deliberately sets out to make a bad film, they just don't know any better. To learn how to make a feature you need to make a feature. That's why Robert Rodriguez raised $6000 by undergoing medical experiments to make El Mariachi. He hoped to sell it for $12k to the Mexican video market. Enough so he could make 2 sequels, all three films that would teach him how to make a feature film. Instead, El Mariachi, shot him and his producer wife to superstardom. Now, that's an extreme case but everything we do in the entertainment industry is powered by dreams and the belief that could be us.

    And what qualifies as a bad film? Is Superdingo a bad film? I would say yes, but a million viewers disagree. And part 2, which I believe is worse, generated 200k hits in 2 days. I refer to the quote attributed to Goldman: Nobody knows nothing.

    I say, if you have the drive and social skills to put together any feature film then go for it. Better to live the dream than to die wondering.

  5. Drive, social skills... and a respect for script and storytelling. Don't go off half-cocked with something that resembles a script just to shoot something. Spend the time and energy, skill and yes, respect, to get the script into a decent shape.