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Small screen BIG PICTURE huge future
As a title for a screen conference, Through the Looking Glass is fairly prophetic considering the myriad possibilities and uncertainties looming on the broadcasting horizon.
The Lewis Carroll theme set the scene for the fifth annual small screen BIG PICTURE television conference held at the historic Esplanade Hotel, Fremantle, Western Australia, in March this year.
Buzz words such as 'convergence', 'consolidation', and 'content' were the order of the day.
The program explored the latest developments in broadcasting, including High Definition Television and digital services and the key issues of creating content, collaborating and financing across a range of genres.
Hosted by Western Australia's film agency ScreenWest, the conference brought together a multitude of national and international guest speakers who presented their perspectives on the challenges facing content creators in the digital age.
Discussion focussed on the multiplicity of display platforms available for content creators, and how their creative and business structures will respond to the new and emerging environment.
In a session on government reviews, panellists, including the Australian Film Finance Corporation, commented on major industry issues such as commercial television license fees, the Australian Content Standard and the regulation of pay TV.
An impressive presentation by the Senior Development Producer, BBC Broadcast Interactive TV, Gary Hayes, highlighted the BBC's digital and online initiatives, and discussed the future of interactive television for the United Kingdom's national broadcaster.
This year the conference focused on Germany as a potential co-production partner. The German industry's top players presented an overview of their industry and discussed the potential for collaboration with local program makers. The session included Veith von Furstenberg, Executive Producer, Bavaria Film; Dr Winfried Bonk, Head of Television, Film and Entertainment at Westdeutche Runfunkwerbung (WDR); Olaf Grunert, Commissioning Editor for ZDF; and Rosmarie Schatter, Director Pro Vision, representing Filmstiftung Nordrhein Westfalen.
The session for documentary makers focused on understanding what commissioning editors look for in a documentary pitch and how best to sell a story in an increasingly competitive market.
Documentary makers also had an opportunity to demonstrate their skills in one of the conference's more entertaining sessions, The Big Pitch, for a development funding award of $24 000. This year six finalists presented their stories to a judging panel comprising SBS Independent's John Hughes and ZDF's commissioning editor Olaf Grunert. Pat Ferns, President and CEO of the Banff Television Festival, conducted proceedings. This year's winner, Alan Carter of Alley Cat Productions, won the prize for two projects, Dinosaur Dealers pitched with Andrew Ogilvie of Electric Pictures, and Dealing with the Devil.
An interesting session about children's drama featured guest speaker Piper Parry, Vice President, World Development Group, and Chief of Staff of Nickolodeon International. The session's main message was that good stories, and good characters are fundamental to the success of any program, whether it is developed for on-air or online formats.
The Professional Metamorphosis session, chaired by the Australian Film Television and Radio School's Head of Film and Television, Annabelle Sheehan, focused on the increasing merger between creative, technical and management personnel, and the challenges this presents to training and development providers and broadcasters.
One of highlights of this year's small screen BIG PICTURE television conference was the lively finale with Western Australian film and television producer Paul Barron firing questions at guest speaker Hal McElroy, arguably Australia's most successful television producer. Hal gave an engaging insight into the work behind the development of his successful television productions.
Hal spoke for almost an hour, and Artbeat has reproduced a small but revealing part of his speech where he talks about his aversion to watching his own programs, and the genesis of the Seven Network's award-winning Blue Heelers.
Asked why he hates watching his own shows, Hal answered:
Because by the time I finish making them I am just sick and tired of them. And I can only see the flaws. My list of criticisms of the show is way longer than any critic could come up with. I have brief moments of loving them, such as in the cutting room when we finally have got the cut right and when I see the final mix with the music. I love them then. But then it's all down hill and I run screaming from the room when they come on!
The idea of sitting at home watching my own show is just not something that I ever do. Every now and then I watch them when they go to air just to see how they fit and what commercials do to them, because that changes the context-that's important. It's not an easy experience for me. I don't enjoy it.
Also it's looking backwards, and I don't like to look backwards. That old saying 'you are only as good as your last movie' isn't true. You're as good as your next movie! And so it doesn't matter what I did before-it's what I'm about to work on with Di [my wife]; what we hope to do that's important; not what we do now, or have done.
Asked about the evolution of his shows, Hal said Blue Heelers was five to six years in development.
Initially Hal had been inspired by the 18-year-old son of a good friend who had entered the police force because he wanted to make the world a better place. The idea for a series initially called Boys in Blue was born. However his friend's son had left the police only a year later after a close mate (whom he had graduated with) had been shot by an escaped convict in inner-city Sydney, on a day Hal's young friend had been off sick. Hal was moved by this, and it provided further fuel for his series-in-progress. But then things changed again. As Hal tells it:
We were doing some further development on Boys in Blue with a bunch of young writers because we hadn't got it right. And we had a young copper in the room and he was telling us about his life.
He had been posted to Yass (in New South Wales) and he really loved it up there because the routine was so simple and straightforward-most often you knew the victim and sometimes you knew the culprit, and someone in charge would give them a clip behind the ear and say 'wash the police car' or 'sweep the yard' and 'don't ever do it again', rather then sending a juvenile to jail.
I loved it, and I said 'Hey this is great'. But all the writers said, 'No it's boring, we want that gritty, inner-city police stuff'. (We had Boys in Blue set up in Leichhardt is Sydney.) And I still remember the moment I was driving home up River Road and I thought , 'Then we can have two shows'. I said to this copper 'What are you called in the country? What is your nickname?' And he said they call highway patrol 'tyre biters' and coppers 'blue heelers'. And I thought 'That's the title!' So I rang [scriptwriter] Tony Morphett and said 'Let's do a show about young cops in the country. It's called Blue Heelers.'
It took us ten days, to be honest, to actually put it all together. And the other show, Boys in Blue, which we had been working on arrived and I said to the Network, 'Here it is but I don't like it, I want to do this new one, Blue Heelers'. And they agreed and said 'Let's do it'. So then we shot two pilots, A and B. And they were quite different. Tony wrote both of them. And in the end the Network committed to 13 episodes based on Pilot A which became the first episode, with Maggie's arrival in town.
We threw Pilot B away and learnt an important lesson from it, because in that episode we had been 'with' the criminals as they plotted the crime. And that was a mistake, because this was a police show and police have no knowledge of any conversation the criminals have amongst themselves (unless they've wired them). And so that was the lesson-we must never do a story where we are with the criminals. We can see them only briefly. In fact we finished up making a rule where we couldn't have a camera in a room unless there was a copper there as well. And that was a good rule and good discipline for us.
The other thing is, right from the first presentation to the Network, I wrote an introductory letter with the concept saying that our coppers would be our heroes, and we would see them make mistakes and we would see them learn and grow from it. The coppers were going to be the people we cared about! And that was my promise. And it became the ethos of the show.
And the rest, as they say, is history.