“Colourblind Casting Prevails” (Joy’s interview with Tony Ayres in this month’s MEAA magazine)

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Q & A with Australian screenwriter / producer / director Tony Ayres

Tony Ayres (born 16 July 1961) is a Chinese-born Australian screenwriter, director in television and feature film. He is most notable for his films Walking on Water and The Home Song Stories, as well his work in television –The Slap and teen adventure series Nowhere Boys. He’s Executive producer on Maximum Choppage (a six part kung fu comedy series for the ABC starring Lawrence Leung) and The Family Law (six part comedy series for SBS based upon the memoirs of Chinese Australian journalist, Benjamin Law).

Tony Ayres

Q. When you were growing up who were your role models on Australian TV & Film?

Tony: When I was a kid, I actually avoided Australian film and TV.  There was nothing that I watched, except for getting the occasional guilty glimpse of “Number 96” or “The Box”.  Perhaps it was because I felt a typical Australian cultural cringe?  Or perhaps because there was no one on the screen who represented “me”?  Or some weird amalgam of both.  The shows I loved were mainly American TV shows.

Q. What made you want to break into Australian TV / Film?

Tony: I had always loved words and wanted to be a writer, but half way through my university degree, I realised that academia was killing my passion for literature.  I ended up changing to a visual arts degree at the Canberra School of Art.  If I had found a creative writing course, I probably would have done that.  Film and TV for me was never a driving  passion, more a logical deduction.  Words + plus pictures = screen.  It was only when I started getting into the area that I grew to love it.

Q. How did you get started in your career? 

Tony: After film schools (both VCA and AFTRS), I started work as a TV writer, and was fortunate enough to get work from the start.  Lucky, because I entered the industry relatively late (my late twenties).  Those were the days when SBS was starting to produce scripted drama, and there was a greater appetite for multicultural stories.  I wrote a number of TV plays for a number of anthology series- “Under the Skin”, “Six Pack” and “Naked-  Stories of Men”- which gave me a grounding in writing drama.  As well, I started directing documentaries and short dramas which gave me a taste for directing.  I feel like I was at the right time at the right  place because I was able to make an early career out of the marginal identity politics which I was personally grappling with-  being Chinese, being gay, being Chinese and gay.  I think that’s harder to do these days.

Q. Do you see a positive change to colour blind casting in Australian TV / Film and Theatre and do you incorporate this method of casting in your own productions? 

Tony: Honestly, whilst I think the rhetoric has evolved, in the scripted area  I don’t think that there has been a substantial change in terms of colour blind casting.  Every few years a non-Anglo actor will do a significant film or TV role and in the press junket raise the question of diversity as a public issue.  There will be a flurry of associated articles, and these days a bunch of “likes” on Facebook, but soon after the status quo will settle again.  The network mental “default” will still to be to white.  Non-white cultures will still be massively under-represented.  It will be just as hard for non-Anglo actors who attract attention through a breakout role to sustain their careers.  Diversity for the Australian entertainment industry is like “gay marriage” for Australian politics.  A lot of people believe in it, but few people are prepared to cross the floor to vote for it.

For there to be substantial change, I think that it’s about the people who are genuinely invested in the issue of diversity (ie people from diverse backgrounds themselves) becoming the decision makers, the commissioners, the network executives, the makers.   I guess I’d look at my own work as an example.  Diversity is important to me because I have personally felt the effect/damage of growing up Chinese in a white culture.   So, it’s one of the determinants of what I do.  My kids show, “Nowhere Boys” has a recurring role for a Chinese Australian actor (and the actors playing his family).  I’m currently executive producing “Maximum Choppage” (six part kung fu comedy series for the ABC starring Lawrence Leung) and  “The Family Law” (six part comedy series for SBS based upon the memoirs of Chinese Australian journalist, Benjamin Law).  And I’m also EP’ing a feature film, “Ali’s Wedding”, a Muslim romantic comedy.

Q. What changes do you want to see happen in the entertainment industry?

Tony: In terms of diversity, I’d like the Australian government funding bodies to take this issue seriously enough to create some kind of quota system in terms of representation.  The US and UK industries have both found relatively benign ways to legislate for diversity, and I don’t think it’s harmed their products or their share of the world market.

Finally what projects are you currently working on? 

Tony: Aside from the shows listed above, I’m also executive producing a new show for ABC Drama called “Glitch” which is the ABC’s first supernatural TV series, and EP’ing and co-writing the feature film version of “Nowhere Boys”.   There are some exciting new projects in early days as well, yet to be announced.  But a recurring theme of diversity can be traced through them all.

Q and A interview with Benjamin Law about diversity

Benjamin Law and Joy

Benjamin Law is a Sydney-based journalist, columnist and screenwriter, and has completed a PhD in television writing and cultural studies. He’s also member of M.E.A.A. as a freelance writer.

Benjamin is the author of two books—The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012)—and the co-author of the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) with his sister Michelle and illustrator Oslo Davis. Both of his books have been nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards.

Benjamin is also a frequent contributor to Good Weekend (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age).

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What made you want to write your story – The Family Law?
I’d been writing personal columns for frankie for a while, and I noticed the ones that made reference to my family – especially my mum – got a great response. Which isn’t surprising, really – my mum is pretty hilarious, unique and baffling, in the way that only mothers can be. And after I wrote longer pieces for an anthology called Growing Up Asian in Australia, my now-editor approached me, asking if I had a book up my sleeve. Part of what motivated me to write The Family Law was this idea of writing a book I wish I’d read as a teenager. One with a hilariously dysfunctional Chinese-Australian family.

 

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After writing your story, what steps did you take in order to get your story / screenplay seen by a network or producer?

I didn’t actually seek out screen options myself. I think my publisher would’ve had chats with production companies, and the book was also on people’s radars after a certain point. But when I heard Matchbox Pictures and Tony Ayres – whose work I’d admired for years before we even met  – were interested, I knew they were the ones for me.
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Your screenplay will obviously open doors for diversity…however will your screenplay also be open for “colourblind casting?” 

I’m only on the show as a writer, so I don’t get to call those shots.
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Can you reveal how many roles will be Asian? 
What I can say is that roughly 90% of the cast is explicitly written as Chinese-Australian, so we’ll need the majority of actors to have Asian faces. There are a handful of other roles which are specifically for Eurasian actors, and some roles are definitely white. As for the other roles, I reckon that can and should go to as many different actors as possible!

 

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When you were growing up in Australia, who were your role models on television and / or film and why? 

 
There weren’t a huge number of Asian faces on telly when I was growing up. My family and I used to point at the TV and scream in excitement if there was an Asian on TV: “THERE’S AN ASIAN ON THE TEEEE-VEEEEEEEE!” But there was definitely celebrity chef Elizabeth Chong, on Good Morning Australia, and Dr Cindy Pan on sex/life, and I remember seeing Clara Law’s beautiful feature Floating Life, which affected me a lot. But I’d usually look overseas for Asian representation on screen. I mean, I watched The Joy Luck Club A LOT. But it’s getting better nowadays, and reality TV has done heaps to reflect how diverse Australia actually is. You see a lot more Asian-Australians in local comedies and dramas, but not nearly enough.
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What are you looking forward to in the future on Australian television?
I’m really looking forward to Lawrence Leung’s kung-fu comedy Maximum Choppage on ABC2 next year.
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How to do Crowdfunding Successfully

Today’s Vivid Ideas event, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney) was about crowdfunding –How We’re funding Creative Work Now.

Sponsored by The Walkleys and Actors Equity / M.E.A.A.

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This was a great session for anyone trying to successfully build a crowdfunding campaign. There were four fantastic speakers who’ve built successful campaigns.

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DAN ILLIC (A RATIONAL FEAR)

Dan spoke of the importance of having a successful pitch to start off with. His goal was to make satirical comedy online and he needed 50k to do this. Dan firstly made a pitch video which he stresses has to be of decent quality. As your pitch video reflects the quality of your campaign and your end product. Dan also had unusual, eye-catching rewards :

$200+   ( You’ll be a V.I.P. and gain access to every live show)

$500+  (You’ll be a V.V.I.P. and have access to every show and a drink with a      member of his team)

$1000+ (You’ll receive a t-shirt with the words “I paid $1000 for this” printed on it)

$2000+ (We’ll do a show just for you!)

$5000+ (You’ll get to have coffee with him on his dinghy boat)

Getting key, influential people on board helped Dan’s campaign as he got Ed Coper (from GetUp) who helped him spread the word and he instantly got 12K overnight thanks to Ed.

TOM DAWKINS (StartSomeGood)

Tom’s StartSomeGood takes on any project that likes to make some good for the world. He said that crowdfunding isn’t new, in fact, crowdfunding helped build the Statue of Liberty in New York. Even though crowdfunding is easy money, you have to plan your campaign and most successful campaigns take approximately 90 days. (30 days in planning – leading up to your campaign, 30 days for campaigning and 30 days fulfilment followup). He stresses that your crowdfunding starts with your immediate community – friends, family, relatives, peers, (i.e. the yellow part of the circle) and it builds outwards, tribes – associates, work colleagues (i.e. the red part of the circle) then to crowds – social media connections, crowds etc (i.e. blue part of the circle).

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An important part of your campaign is your story. Ask yourself, who are you selling your story to? Know your audience. He gave us some interesting facts:

SUCCESS RATES OF OTHER CROWDFUNDING PLATFORMS

Kickstarter has approximately 44% success rate

Pozible has approximately 50% success rate

IndieGoGo has approximately 9% success rate

He stresses that crowdfunding isn’t about “crowds” and when you list your campaign on one of these crowdfunding platforms, you can’t expect them to be like the whitepages where you list your event and expect the site to do the work for you and your audience will magically appear. No, you must use it only as a tool. Use your event as a reward for reaching your goal. You will fail if you don’t have a good pitch or you don’t have a community to pitch to or you don’t have any great offers. You will know if you have a good campaign if people share it with others. For example they will share it on social media – like Facebook or Twitter etc. If people don’t share your campaign, then this is a good indication that your campaign or pitch is of poor quality because people aren’t spreading the word.

Motivations why we part with money:

* to get more money

* purchasing / shopping for an item

* positive social outcome

* express relationship – we want to support a friend / community.

Your campaign must successfully connect with people.

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NATHAN EARL (PLONK)

Nathan successfully aligns crowdfunding with brands. He successfully teamed up his web series The Plonk with Tourism (e.g. Tourism N.S.W.)  He made 22 episodes in 28 days. Each episode is 3-7 minutes. He spent 9-10 months speaking with marketing teams and companies. He was the one in power, making sure corporate companies were of a good fit to his show. He didn’t give out the desperate vibe of “please back my show.” Nathan was in control and he stressed the importance of brand integration and distribution of his web series. Once distribution is in place the first time, it will then be easier for him to make a second series.

DINO DIMITRIADIS (APOCALYPSE THEATRE COMPANY)

What is important for Dino is to build an arts community around theatre and to make sure artists (actors) are paid. His story pitch is – Artists need to be paid, artists should not work for free. Dino said the conversation needs to be bigger than the pitch. (I totally agree with Dino and his pitch for this was powerful, ETHICAL and convincing, as I always like to pay / reward / feed my actors). He says so often actors end up doing Co-op / profit-share which often works out to be nothing, some artists are lucky that their transport costs are covered. Artists need to be paid. Dino’s first campaign was 5K for 15 days. He exceeded his target because his conversation was about paying ethically. He blogged about this regularly to his audience and shared his story on Facebook. He said once his vision was endorsed by key people at M.E.A.A. (The Media, Entertainment, Arts, Alliance) the message then spread like wildfire. He made sure his story was also featured in magazines, pin up boards, posters etc.

This session was highly informative and useful. Like always I like sharing things I’ve learned. I hope you’ll find the above information useful to build your next crowdfunding campaign. Spread the joy!

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