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Damn Lies & Statistics

Note: This feature article was a part of assignment 3 for HEJ606 Advanced Journalism at the University of Tasmania in Semester 2, 2010.

“I’m from Sydney, I moved down six years ago to focus on my film work, my writing and stuff.”

The first thing you notice is enthusiasm to be in the conversation; he’s almost throwing teeth across the table and feeding fingers to the budgerigar to get his story out there. That’s the indie film industry in a nutshell – it’s self motivated, self directed, self promoting. It’s self actualising from the ground up.

“Sydney is a big place that has lots of distractions and it’s a much more expensive place to live,” he says. “So I figured if I moved to Tasmania it might put me in a hard practical situation but it would force me to focus on what I wanted to focus on. And it’s working really well.”

The everyday world imagines Sydney-born Dan Weavell as an indie filmmaker, soundman, writer, director and producer. He relaxes at an upper-level window table of the Criterion Café in Hobart’s Central Business District enjoying the opportunity to discuss his passion – the Tasmanian indie film industry. Dan’s a thin guy, 31 years old, unfettered by creative ambition and intentionally understated – if he were a bottle of wine in the foyer of North Hobart’s State Cinema a critic might describe him as being ‘of a very good year without the hint of arrogance one would assume from that vintage’.

Dan wears a dated earthy-green tweed jacket with the sleeves rolled up two-parts to the elbow and drinks the mocha he ordered with delicate and expressive vein laden hands that attest life and filmmaking are all about hard work and sweating out the details. His sunglasses are pushed back like a torso-less rodeo wrangler and that impression is only heightened by the four or five sharp turrets of hair manufacturing themselves around the black plastic ear stems.

Dan Weavell looks every part the multi-talented and highly respected passionate filmmaker that the Tasmanian taxpayer has been investing in.

There is little doubt that nurturing a local film industry is an expensive journey and the local industry’s responsible government body, Screen Tasmania, has been defensive about public criticism. Two months ago, at the end of July, The Mercury ran a scathing article written by Damien Brown titled ‘Tassie’s film funding flop’. The premise of the article was that statistical figures, released under Freedom of Information legislation, show a disparate waste of public funds. The report, supplied to the Tasmanian Government by the Nous Group, an independent management consultancy based in Melbourne, was highly critical of Screen Tasmania’s grants process and recommended it be changed.

Those figures in isolation sound damning – Tasmania’s $4.3 million in grant funding over the last decade has only seen 6 per cent of funded projects go into production. This is against the national average of 10 per cent. The rate of Screen Tasmania funded projects that don’t go anywhere is a disconcerting 76 per cent.

However, “damn lies and statistics” inevitably misdirect public opinion when they gain currency in unskilled hands. Wielding statistics effectively, like wielding a wand that sprouts magic dust into the ether of tele-visual or cinematic reality, involves intense years of training beyond the less-than-comprehensive fare of newspaper reportage. Damien Brown isn’t at fault there, but he is at least at ignorance. He failed to provide the necessary context to make those quoted statistics meaningful. The kind of context that should caution there was really no Tasmanian film industry worth a knob until around five years ago.

In a quiet corner on the fourth floor of the ANZ Building, in Hobart’s Elizabeth Street Bus Mall, a quietly spoken, articulate and considered man in his forties takes a moment to sip from a glass of water. Evan Maloney, Screen Tasmania’s Development Manager, emits something of a European reserve. The physical trappings are of corporate management; the well-ironed light-coloured shirt and the well-barbered hair – somewhat counter-balanced in the local film industry against the more out-there shoot-from-the-hippocampus style of Dan Weavell. Yet the similarities between Evan and Dan shine through – Evan is a scriptwriter and so is Dan; Evan is a passionate lover of films and the film industries of the world; and so is Dan. Evan wants to build a thriving Tasmanian television and film industry. So does Dan. Their paths diverge only in the manner and direction through which they have chosen to express that passion and pursue their careers.

Evan Maloney has spent the last 13 years working as a scriptwriter and script developer in London, Portugal, Poland, Hungary and Russia. His career has been one of significant international success including feature film screenplays, theatre screenplays, a published first novel titled ‘Tofu Landing’ and current film and television projects under development in Australia and Poland. Evan puts words onto the conference table with the casual finesse of a professional Scrabble player, a wordsmith; again, in contrast to Dan’s melee of extrovert enthusiasm for shooting raw film in the Tassie paddock.

Evan puts some context to those statistics. “The industry [in Tasmania] is still in its elemental stages. There is no bread and butter film industry here… there’s probably two production companies that are full time employing workers and churning out product for the market. And then we’ve got a group of independent producers and independent filmmakers who produce and sell, or have films that are shown around the world in festivals, who are also struggling really to expand their careers.”

“We’re funding writers to develop their skills, to develop their craft”, he says. “Really, a lot of these [grants] are about developing younger and emerging practitioners so that somewhere along the line they start to work in a more professional capacity.”

His point; the Tasmanian indie film industry is being nurtured by the State Government from the ground up. And the relevance of that contextual tidbit is that even 6 per cent of funded projects making it to production, against a national average of 10 per cent, is a strong figure; not a weak one. This is the context that makes truth or lies out of statistical representation in any conversation. Because pure data without meaning is as empirically insignificant as smoking the best weed in town rolled in a well fingered page from a library copy of the first printing of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What the hell would that tell you about the wider context of drug addiction and contemporary culture?

In the same way, vacuously quoting 6 per cent and 76 per cent in a non-contextualised article about the complexities of creating a local film industry is a slack-arse attitude to journalism. Of course, that criticism is shared with the utmost respect for the obviously untrained statistical repertoire of the journalist in question. The industry may, or may not, bring many millions of future dollars into Tasmania; but, until we build an industry, infrastructure and talent pool – and that in itself is a complex issue that falls into a wider discussion of global film industries and the dynamics of media power – the value of taxpayer investment won’t be answered. Considering the comparable age and the funding provided to the wider Australian film industry, which has been nurtured over many decades of individual State and Federal funding programs, the figure of 6 per cent of Screen Tasmania funded projects making it into production is a solid one.

“The [immediate] benefits are often not so much in terms of concrete sales and what productions are going forward, but it’s about nurturing particularly the writing talent in the development stage. Nurturing those writers to a point where we can get that big money shot… a long-term series down here.”

“You really do need at least one… we obviously don’t have as much post production capacity [as the mainland States] but in terms of shooting and getting the industry developing at that grass roots level, a television series would be fantastic.”

Because one of the mandates of the publicly funded body, Screen Tasmania, is the development of a large local film industry – that’s the ultimate goal. It’s a goal that has economic complexities and social complexities and logistical complexities. You don’t just build an array of film industry infrastructure overnight and expect the world to open its coffers. That’s a skewed perspective you would only find in people ill-informed about how movies are made, funded and distributed.

“We just don’t have the wherewithal to build multimillion dollar studios without having first the actual productions down here,” Evan says. “If we’re trying to compete on that studio level with Warner Brothers in the Gold Coast or Fox in Sydney or Docklands in Melbourne, it’s a difficult ask.”

“The main asset Tasmania has in terms of a place for a long running series to be shot is the location, and it has to be locations that you don’t have on the mainland.”

On the economic side of that complexity is the need for a Tasmanian film industry to eventually turn a profit.

“You can’t create a film industry and not make money,” he says. “You need money firstly to create the industry and the industry needs the money to grow. It’s an economic question and not an artistic one.”

That means that if a filmmaker is asking for $5 million from investors for their project then the investors damn well need to see a good chance of gaining the return of their $5 million plus a risk premium plus their expected rate of return. That’s the same minimum rate-of-return criteria for any business investment whether you’re talking about shopping malls or Hollywood blockbusters. There aren’t hordes of super-rich philanthropists kicking around the world with a spare $5 million in change to fund unproven projects.

At the same time, the public needs to accept that in Screen Tasmania’s effort to nurture local talent there is an underlying tide that draws talent away as it’s created and developed – away to Docklands and Fox and further afield to Europe and Hollywood. This isn’t a mark of failure but of cyclically based success. The hope is that any given talent returns from those experiences with even greater skills and connections that plug directly back into the growing power supply of the local indie scene. Hobart, in particular, attracts a number of very well off film industry retirees and semi-retirees, influential national and international producers and directors, who are more than willing to mentor and advise emerging filmmakers like Dan Weavell.

“If you speak to anyone in Screen Tasmania,” says Evan, “everyone’s fairly optimistic that we’re very close to getting that [series]… And then, of course, everyone will go, ‘Oh isn’t it fantastic’.”

Dan Weavell isn’t the only indie filmmaker finding support and being nurtured through the grants system. The core of a local indie film sub-culture includes a close-knit group in Shaun Wilson, Viv Mason, Briony Kidd, Rebecca Thomson, Lucien Simon and Shaun Brown. They have each had success and recognition in their chosen facets of the industry. But that talented core rapidly expands outward, most working full or part-time to support their ambition and passion for filmmaking.

Industry support structures include Wide Angle Tasmania, funded by Screen Tasmania, which is in the process of producing the three winners of their third Raw Nerve short film program. This is the only initiative of its type available for filmmakers breaking into the industry. Wide Angle also offers mentoring through the Screen Advisory Service and provides equipment at mates rates and cheaper to its membership. While, at grass roots level, there are informal monthly meetings of The Secret Seven – a core writers’ group that pushes out their scripts for peer review – and an array of industry training initiatives that have incrementally lifted the skill-level of Tasmanian filmmakers from the gutter to the pavement and into the audaciously ambitious venue of the discerning theatre lobby.

In that wider context, Dan Weavell is working on a script for a possible new television series called Rendered Life that may represent that next tentative step towards Evan Maloney’s vision for the Tasmanian film industry.

Dan says, “I’ve got 10 grand in funding off the government. I’ve probably put five or six thousand away… what I’ve put in myself has cancelled out what I’ve paid myself out of the funding money, and the rest of the funding money has gone then to paying consultants who have all worked for a third of what they normally do because they like the idea.”

“I’ve got producers involved now,” he says. “The producers’ job is to try and get money invested in it and to get it made.”

The question for Damien Brown and the editorial team at The Mercury is whether they can see the value of adding context to their earth shattering statistical revelations of two months ago. To pardon the play on words, “The moment you know what you don’t know you move towards knowing what you don’t know… [it’s the] knowledge of the ignorant,” says Dan.

And that’s why you hear that phrase so often, “Damn lies and statistics”.

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Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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