John Nicoll on the cargo-cult of screenwriting in Australia

The Black Balloon, which featured an AFI-winning script by writer Jimmy Jack, is a rare example of Australian film in which a script was developed by a non-writer/director

In today’s Australian Financial Review (a paywalled site, so there’s no link I can show you), John Nicoll has an excellent dissection of the script-mania that sees to be gripping Australian screen funding bodies.

Nicolls makes the point that:

the big funding agencies have themselves elevated scripts to god-like status with the creation of super script workshops, where a handful of carefully selected are put through intensive work-shops.

I’m going to reproduce some of Nicoll’s article at length over the fold, because I think its such a worthwhile exploration of this issue. What emerges is yet another false idol in the ongoing cargo-cult mentality of Australin screen policy (a problem I’ve analysed with my colleague Alex Burns in a forthcoming academic paper for Media International Australia) .

Some years ago I managed a film funding agecny in a small Australian state. Our role was to invest in film and television development and production, which otherwise would not occur because of Australia’s twisted film financing strctures. A substantial amount of our time was taken up with script development.

For the uninitiated, script development is a process where state and federal funding agencies progressively fund drafts of a feature script. Typically, this process takes years. Five years is not uncommon to go from a first draft to a final draft, although the script – unlike the novel – is never really final


In my seven years at the agency I read hundreds of feature film scripts. Out of those we funded possibly a dozen, maybe 15 at best. In all that timeand despite all those writers – struggling away tired at night after working all day in normal jobs, at home with young babies, fitting it in between advertsiing agency freelance work, even managing a pub – there were just three scripts that were standouts. One was from a gifted – but unknown – local writer. The other two were from Sydney writers, well established and successful. None of those scripts ever made it into production.

Nicoll goes on to question “the elevation of the script to god-like status”, pointing out that of the top 10 Australian films at the box office, “it is debatable whether there are any really great scripts among them.”

Nicoll contrasts the cult of the script with success of high-concept films:

High Concept is … “the factor that makes a film able to be talked about excitedly at everystage of its development. High concept is the quality that enables a film to be optimistically imagined before it is seen. Such a film is part of the modern experience of the world and audiences want to see it, regardless  of the quality of the script.

Nicolls also makes the very valid point that “one way to make better films is to make more films.” He points out that Australia only produces around 35-40 films a year, compared to America’s 500. “Plenty of them are abominable. We just don’t see them”. I’m not sure about that line … but you get his general drift.

Nicolls concludes that “the script is no god … in the end, the script is simply another player in the glorious cacophony that is cinema.”


One thought on “John Nicoll on the cargo-cult of screenwriting in Australia

  1. Pingback: 26th August 2010: Cargo-Cult Screenwriting | Alex Burns

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