AFTRS rolls out its new advanced diploma in script editing and development

Martin Brown.

In 2017, AFTRS is offering an advanced diploma in script editing and development. AFTRS Open’s Director of Award Courses Martin Brown speaks to Harry Windsor about the new course.

I spoke to Neil Peplow a few months ago and he mentioned that you'd been hearing that the ability to assess scripts was in short supply. Who were you hearing that from?

Neil did an industry survey a little while ago. One of the findings from the survey was that, in terms of how the business operates, there are a lot of people who have a stake in making judgements about what a good, commercial script is that's going to get traction creatively and financially. We were talking to one of the well-known production companies last Friday and script coverage was number one on the list of things that they thought a new, prospective employee should have as a skill set. I used to be in that position myself. You get a big stack of scripts there and you don't have time to read them all, so it's quite common that you're engaging people either within your company or outside to do script coverage. So, it's really coming from that response that we got from the sector around the skills that they felt they were missing in their organisations. 

What companies have you been hearing this from?

Distributors and production companies and funding bodies, because they all have an interest in trying to find good material. A production company is only as a good as their slate. I know from when I used to have my own shingle: you'd get a lot of scripts and almost all of them aren't very good. Trying to find those scripts that actually grab your attention and you feel very strongly about [is important]. And it’s a long journey from finding a script to getting it in production, so you've got to be sure, at the beginning, that it's something that's going to work for the company. And not only identifying projects but giving notes. It is quite a sophisticated skill to be able to read a screenplay and give a point of view that's helpful for a writer. 

Do you envisage most graduates of this course being freelancers or working in development in-house for, say, a Fremantle?

That's a good question. I don't know to be honest. It's almost a cliche that that's the way it's done in the Agency system in the States. You submit a script and it will go out to somebody who gets paid $50 or $100 to read it and if they like it, then it goes up a level and another person reads it and it filters up to the executives. I think we're starting to get a little bit more established around the professionalism of that skill set [here]. We all have opinions about it but it's a matter of giving people the tools that are going to be useful to provide a pathway forward for the screenplay. 

Who’s teaching the course?

Who's teaching it is an open question at the moment. We are looking at finding ways where students who are in our other writing courses – we have an Advanced Diploma in Writing Feature Films, Advanced Diploma in Writing for Television, Graduate Certificate in Screenwriting, as well as the Masters program – can pair them up [with coverage students]. 

How long does the course go for?

An Advanced Diploma like this is two semesters. So that's 32 weeks – 16 weeks and 16 weeks – and it amounts to one day a week. Some of our courses are a Saturday day and some two evenings a week. It’s primarily online. We have video conferences and then there are three weekend workshops on campus. Even people who are interstate don't seem to mind flying in. Airfares are fairly cheap and so we have three weekend workshops coming in where they can actually be in the room with the writer whose work they are discussing. But you can take the course from anywhere. The courses I mentioned – Ad Dip Screenwriting TV and Ad Dip Screenwriting Feature Films – most of those students are not in Sydney. They're doing the course online and then they fly in for some weekends during the year.

Are you hoping to set up placements?

I don't know that we'll have a formal internship program. The way we would achieve that outcome would be to bring people in from those production companies and distributors and funding bodies to talk about what they're looking for. Because I think that there are different frameworks there – you know, a distribution frame is different to a funding frame is different to a production frame. So we'd want to make sure that students have a sense of what they're looking for in terms of a project to support. 

There doesn’t seem to be a huge number of spec scripts flying around in Oz. 

When I was doing coverage for Screen Tasmania, Screen Australia and Screen NSW, I've got to say: it is such a funny thing and I think it's worldwide – as many as nine out of ten scrips are just not good. Many people's first screenplay is generally their own story written down and not all of those stories are interesting. Which is a shame. So the business needs that filtration system to allow the very good ones to progress.