AWG: There is no such thing as a free lunch

Jacqueline Elaine.

Two weeks ago IF published an article, ‘CJZ addresses drama budgets, shortage of writers and original concepts’, in which CJZ claimed that high production and development costs and the lack of Australian writing talent were making it more and more difficult to create Australian drama.

“There are work practices which make it impossible to make drama at the price it should be made at,” CJZ managing director Nick Murray told IF.

CEO Matt Campbell went on to say that “it is the greatest struggle to find writers in this country at the moment as they get sucked up into the US and UK . . . Everyone is after the same people. We are having to look far and wide for writers.”

The Australian Writers’ Guild rejects these notions. While we acknowledge that there are challenges specific to creating high-quality drama, CJZ fails to identify the real ones.

There are widespread work practices which make it difficult to make drama of the quality that can, and should, be made in Australia. Gatekeepers who are risk averse, and focused on cost-cutting, micro-management and tightening their grip over the development process are at the top of the list. Australian producers need to support writers and give them the respect and creative freedom needed to deliver great work.

When the lowest common denominator is seen as less risky than taking a chance on a bold new idea, and a race to production fees is favoured over time and money spent in development, creativity is stifled, and quality is compromised. It is the impact of these decisions, rather than the amount of lunch money spent, that we should be focusing on.

CJZ claims there’s a talent drain to the US and UK, but Campbell doesn’t actually have to go far to find precisely what they claim they are looking for: the Guild’s own Pathways Showcase is a curated peer-reviewed platform for fresh ideas and talent, with over 100 unproduced projects from Australian writers on show. And Pathways Prime showcases Australia’s most experienced and acclaimed writing talent, writers with hundreds of hours of successful TV drama already produced.

There’s no short supply of writers who have a great deal of experience, but whose original ideas are not being picked up due to the cautionary practices mentioned above and an unwillingness by some in the industry to invest in development, or in anyone who didn’t just get picked up by an international producer.

The fact that some highly experienced Australian writers are eager to take on international opportunities is not because they are desperate to work offshore. Sometimes it’s the opposite. However, the opportunity to have your ideas, your work and your ability respected creatively, rewarded financially, and most important of all supported by an intelligent investment of time and money in the creative process – this is what drives quality writers. In practical terms, this means investing money and giving creative control.

It means support and enthusiasm, and relationships with broadcasters. It means taking on less experienced writers and supporting them. It means paying experienced writers something that reflects the value they create for producers and broadcasters.

It is internationally accepted that the centre of gravity in quality TV drama is with writers. As Chris Albrecht, former president of HBO, said of creating ground-breaking globally successful shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire: “You don’t try to figure out what the audience is going to watch. You try not to interfere in the creative process too much. And you put a little money against it. After a while, we proved that you could have both creative opportunity and big success, i.e, money.”

There is no shortage of original ideas and top-class writers in Australia. Only a shortage of willingness to develop them and their ideas properly. Cautious and cynical production and programming are increasingly the order of the day.

Australian producers who support, trust and invest in the development process of quality writers can easily attract quality writers.

Jacqueline Elaine is CEO of the Australian Writers’ Guild, the professional association for Australian screen and stage writers principally in film, television, theatre, radio and digital media, which has protected and promoted their creative and professional interests for more than 50 years.

Matt Campbell replies: “CJZ has spent millions of dollars over the years developing drama and we are proud of our track record for fostering new talent, using fresh Australian writers in our writers rooms and development phase. I think the article misses the point we were trying to make.

“At no point did we suggest writers were over paid, nor did we imply there aren’t writers out there. What we are saying is that platforms, be those streamers or traditional broadcaster, are very reluctant to put their millions of dollars at what they would call ‘risk’ in the hands of less experienced Australian writers.

“That is hard cold fact. For us drama projects begin and end with the quality of the scripts.”

  1. There is no shortages of opinions about what the “Industry” in Australia needs or should be doing. Not a lot of gratitude that there is an Industry at all. It is mostly funded by tax dollars. I’m truly grateful.

  2. Great article.. and I agree with the brain drain, but here I am… a multi award-winning screenwriter who is also producing our first feature film that is half way through principal photography, novelist who outsold Game of Thrones 3 times online… I’m all over social media, film industry events, many I have created from scratch, and run AFIN International Film Festival, which is also my brainchild.

    I’ve met with Screen Queensland, and got nowhere with them, no support, etc. My feature film is listed with Screen Australia, but yet… I’m not being approached by anyone in Australia regarding my writing or achievements, except for Channel 7, who I have a great relationship with.

    I’ve been approached multiple times from people in Los Angeles and met with people there.

    I’m working on new feature film scripts, and have a slate full of original ideas and short film concepts.

    So, I do wonder… who is searching for these Australian writers? And where are they exactly looking far and wide?

  3. Australia really is exporting talent that it takes completely for granted, don’t call it a “drain” call it what it is. Your inability to foster development and take the risks that bring big ideas to life, this country will have the reputation of having small minds and small balls behind the wheel – as a VCA graduate screenwriter… fuck criteria that says it must remain Australian canon and include some outback scenery, how about “if it’s a good script and it knows its genre we’ll trust the writer”. Bunch of airheads man I swear. Land down under will be down under in every box office report ever until they make GENRE centric films

  4. These companies who rely heavily on the traditional broadcasting system are inviting the sort of compromises that take risk away from story. The subscriber platforms have alot more allowances for risk. Its these risks that incentivize the streaming platforms to want to want to invest in Australian content (rather than simply rely on legislation and content quotas) – I say to all the talented writers who are here and overlooked – keep writing – try something relatively simple to produce and get out to the streaming world…

  5. There is no ‘shortage of Australian writing talent’, theres a disconnect between the writers and producers. The hardest thng about being a writer is fnding someone who is willing to read your work. Places dont accept unsolicited scripts, we don’t have a lot in the way of Australian script writing comps or pipelines so no wonder we push our stuff overseas. Every single comedian I know either has a feature or a sitcom script with literally nowhere to take it because our TV networks won’t invest in you unless have already heard of you. I know 10 Australian writers/comedians living in LA because the industry here is so hard to get into.

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