Sean McMullen's
with Nick Stathopoulos

Not in Print But worth Millions

Australian SF as a multi-million dollar industry. At first glance this would seem to be the wildest of fancies, yet if one goes beyond SF books and magazines it soon becomes apparent that the local SF industry can easily gross seven figures annually, and sometimes go higher. SF straddles film, television, advertising, video clips, stage drama, radio, computer games, and even theatre restaurants have been known to make use of its themes and images. Non-print SF is a large and attractive niche that could be of interest to authors. So, do opportunities exist beyond print, and can we do anything original?

It is easy to snort with derision and say that all local media SF is unoriginal garbage, yet to most audiences it is the visible face of Australian SF. At the 1987 US National Convention in Phoenix the subject of Australian SF was raised nearly every time I met a new author in the SFWA hospitality suite (I spent a lot of time there, drawn partly by the free food and beer). Inevitably the US authors knew our SF by the films Road Warrior (Mad Max), The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic At Hanging Rock, and even Razorback in one case. Some knew Keith Taylor's Bard novels, but thought he was an American. Thus Australian SF was - to those Americans - all car warfare and/or surreal goings on in parched, flat landscapes. Whether or not you like the idea, this is probably our own mass market image too.

Film is a dominant part of Australian SF. There has been at least one SF or borderline genre film made in Australia every year since 1972, and in some years four or five were made. Most of these cost at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, and many cost millions. The Mad Max series was into Hollywood sized budgets by the time they got to #3, and even then the cost of filming is no guide to impact. Young Einstein had more spent on it by Warner Brothers in overseas promotion than its total original budget.

All of the above may be very impressive, yet as authors there is only one question of any importance: what's in it for us? Look back over the scripts for Australian film and TV productions and count how many were based on published works of Australian SF? You do not need many fingers. On The Beach (1959) by Nevil Shute, is the most famous, and Peter Brennan's very marginal Razorback predated the 1983 horrifyingly squalid, surrealist-rock-video-big-pig film, but the likes of these are exceptions. Most of what you find on the bookstands are novelisations of films. Thus writing for the screen seems to have its attractions, yet the market appears difficult to break into. Before we draw any sensible conclusions about this worrying fact, however, we need some historical background.

On The Beach (1959) was an overseas production of a locally written novel that was shot on location in Melbourne. Still, regardless of who paid and who acted, it was a success which picked up two Oscar nominations for that year. Was there anything else before that, or during the Sixties? If there was, I can't find it, but in the early 70's all that changed. Even dedicated viewers might scratch their heads over Shirley Thomson Versus The Aliens (1972), yet a couple of Peter Weir's early efforts, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and The Last Wave (1977) are well known and were widely acclaimed. Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max 2 (1981) scarcely need any introductions, and they put the image of Australian roads through dangerous emptiness in front of overseas audiences. Attack Of The Garbage People (1985), a rock 'n roll comedy, was notable for an entirely different reason: its executive producer was Steve Vizard.

The forty films that are either borderline or outright genre add up to a sizeable industry, yet it is an industry with a mass audience as its target. All the way through the story of Australian SF in non-print media one finds an interesting phenomenon: talented young directors and producers dabble with SF, often successfully, then move on to successes that are nothing to do with SF. What attracted them initially: the SF or its comedy potential? In Vizard's case it was probably the latter.

Australian SF in films has little in common with Australian literary SF because of the mass audience connection, and it does not need any common ground in order to be successful. However, it is a highly visible and public face of our SF and it will not go away no matter how we ignore or deride it. If much of it is simplistic, it often has compelling backdrops and themes: open roads on a sprawling, empty landscape, the bush as a living frontier or even wilderness as a refuge from technology and tyranny. If literary SF concentrated more on these themes, would it have a better chance of being made into screenplays? It is a possibility. Would that be desirable? That would depend on the quality of the product, of course.

SF for television per se, as opposed to SF films on television, has not been such a big industry in Australia as SF film, yet it has been around since the third year of TV in Australia. Mr Squiggle began its 30 year run in 1959, there was the adult(ish) series The Stranger in 1964, a Star Trek lookalike called Phoenix Five in 1969/70, and the promising but underfunded Andra in 1975. In 1976 an episode of Wollongong the Brave, "The Kev Kavanaugh Story", was very peculiar but definitely genre. Further into the Seventies, The Paul Hogan Show featured its own impressions of Star Wars and Star Trek, and fast forwarding into the Nineties the children's series Winners had a number of SF episodes, while the serial The Girl From Tomorrow (1990) picked up three AFI Award nominations. The BBC reportedly bought the sequel of the latter even before the final decision to proceed. Note that none of the above were based on published works.

If the adaptation of SF novels is uncommon, what about writing screenplays themselves? Writing for the screen is nothing like writing novels, because one is part of a team with a variety of needs and values. Big-time actors expect and demand a say in the way scripts relate to them. Further, if the author inserts a profound dialogue on the state of the world for scene 12, while the director wants a car chase to broaden the audience appeal, guess who will win? Worse, pictures in a reader's mind are free, whereas special effects on celluloid are very expensive: the cheapest way to avoid a budget blowout is a rewrite. Still, if you enjoy working in a team, do not have too much ego tied up with your writing, and are willing to work more as a scriptwriter than as a SF writer, then there are opportunities here. Some of them are even in commercials.

Some commercials - both TV and cinema - are undeniably SF. What is more, even though most commercials are less than a minute long, their budgets are often comparable to those of full length films. To compose a commercial one does not need to be especially original, yet one needs to catch the attention of a target audience and get a message across. To do this it is usually easier to use images from topical and popular films: Close Encounters . . . was the model for a BIG M milk commercial, and a lot of money was spent replicating the special effects. One could hardly have a shoddy imitation as a vehicle for the product, after all. Meaningful Eye Contact's near-future-dictator ad for Occidental Insurance owed a lot to Blade Runner and left a lot of people distinctly uneasy - and presumably in the mood to race out and buy insurance. What do these things cost? Somewhere in excess of $1.5 million is the unconfirmed estimate that I have for the Alex Proyas "acoustic angels" ad for radio station 2 Triple M FM.

While there is some scope for original SF in commercials, remember that anything original must give the production an edge in both catching attention and selling. There are plenty of competent scriptwriters around, yet someone with a gift for coming up with brilliant, topical SF packages that catch the eye and sell the product would be continually in demand. As with film and TV series, however, the emphasis is on teamwork rather than virtuoso writing.

An argument that is frequently raised is that no original story ever makes it to TV, it's always variations on old themes. Wrong, and let's resort to a few overseas examples to belabour the point. Tenn's "Time In Advance" (1956) is still one of my favourite SF stories, yet the BBC adaptation in the Out Of The Unknown series delighted me for very different reasons. Sturgeon's "Killdozer" (1952) gave me distinct chills when I first read it, but the film version put me to sleep. I thought Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (1931) was a so-so treatment of a good idea, yet I was bowled over by what Ellis St Joseph and Joseph Stefano did with the idea in the Outer Limits episode, "The Sixth Finger" (Yes, I know what St Joseph said about Shaw's "Back To Methuselah", but my point still stands). Original treatment of a story is something very different from mere originality, and the examples have a crucial lesson for authors: those stories were written for magazines, with no thought of eventual screen treatment. The original treatment for the screen was done by the producers and directors. One could say that authors should just concentrate on writing good SF and hope that someone competent will take up the film rights. One could also say that one has a better chance of creating original screen SF as a producer or director than as a writer.

A close relation of the SF television show is SF pop/rock music video. This medium can raise emotions, feelings, and even hormone levels, yet the themes are often the mere shred of a story. They are entertainment on SF themes, yet even if the themes are not original my arguments in the previous paragraph still apply. In a recent letter to me Nick Stathopoulos wrote the following on local efforts: "Meaningful Eye Contact, the company responsible for the feature Spirits Of The Air started as, and still is, predominantly a video-clip entity. Most clips have an avant-garde approach, incorporating many SF elements, i.e. Crowded House's "Better Be Home Soon". Director Alex Proyas has also made a number of SF film shorts; Strange Residues, Groping, and Debris being particularly noteworthy. Strange Residues continues to influence videos and commercials with its dramatic use of time-lapse photography." Once again note that Proyas was the director.

Currently most of the people that I know who are associated with film and television productions are artists such as Marilyn Pride, Lewis Morley and Nick Stathopoulos. This is a good confirmation of what I wrote earlier about productions being a team effort. The artwork is a clearly defined part of the production, so that artists probably have more realistic expectations about their roles. Many US productions are being partially shot in Australia at present, providing work for local specialists, such as modelers and artists. However in a recent letter Morley goes on to state that " . . . while this may employ Aussies in a time of depressed film demand, it does nothing to advance an Australian SF filmography." In short, while there are opportunities available through these overseas productions, they are limited, and do not provide much scope for locals to develop their reputations. Perhaps a good overall lesson is that screen productions are monsters that chew up people and talent because of their sheer size. Unless you are particularly fond of the medium and dedicated to it, it is best left alone.

If the screen is an uncomfortable environment for authors, there are other media to try. Radio has had a long association with our SF. Out Of The Silence by Earle Cox was broadcast in 1934, in the first decade of organised broadcasting in Australia. Other programs, mostly imported, followed, but there continued to be original local input. In 1947 Vol Molsworth's series for juvenile audiences, Stratosphere Patrol was first broadcast, and this was followed in the Fifties by Harvey Blanks' Captain Miracle. By the late Fifties a dedicated SF addict could tune into a dozen series per day, and while most scripts came from overseas, the productions were mostly local.

In the 1970's a robust component of comedy and satire developed, often based on the older series, and the first that I encountered was Chuck Chunder Of The Space Patrol in the mid Seventies. Its creators, Reilly and Sattler, went on to further fame and notoriety with The Naked Vicar Show. In the early Eighties Dr Poo wafted out of our loudspeakers. This was an early effort of Doug McLeod, who went on to become script editor of The Comedy Company. Note that this was all original and successful SF by people who went on to success in other areas.

Since then SF has lost no ground on Australian radio. Overseas shows, such as the Hitchhiker's Guide series, and a radio adaptation of Star Wars, have proved popular, sharing airtime with such local SF as It Came From Widgiemooltha, Damien Broderick's Striped Holes, and Lee Harding's Displaced Person. Last October we were treated to Alien Evangelist on Radio National, as Lord Quack Quack tried to sell nuclear powered washing machines to the sheep farmers of Dubbo.

Overall, radio has proved to be quite a viable vehicle for SF in Australia, and there is no shortage of adaptations of literary works. Productions for radio do not need costly special effects and difficult production schedules, and thus the imagination of the writer can be given more leeway. Radio reaches a wide audience, always an attractive prospect for a writer.

Live theatre often makes use of SF themes, and while much of this is confined to didactic material about environmental disaster and nuclear war, some quite good comedy has also been staged. I particularly liked the 1977 Adelaide production of There Were Giants In Those Days, featuring a pot bellied Superman, a gangling, beer drinking, unshaven Robin, and a Wonder Woman with an astonishingly generous figure. Space Demons, adapted from Gillian Rubenstein's book of the same name, was a big success and was a much larger production. First staged in Adelaide in 1989 and costing $250,000, it was then taken on a national tour. Finally, even though I was aware that Australian SF did appear on stage from time to time, I was surprised to see Melbourne's exceedingly literary La Mamma Theatre staging cyberpunk SF. Sam Sejavka's dynamic Advice From A Caterpillar ran in August and September 1990, and to packed houses and glowing reviews.

Writing for theatre is a little easier than writing for the screen, but the limitations are different. One is confined to the stage, it is impossible to go back for re-takes, and every night is a finely balanced flirtation with disaster, yet the production costs are lower, and there are a fair number of theatrical companies to submit manuscripts to. Once again, expect your original script to be workshopped out of all recognition by the cast, and expect to get a fairly small share of the limelight.

Involvement in the SF industry need not take the form of creative writing. After coming from a background of playing and singing in bands both Terry Dowling and myself became involved in SF shows as performers before we began to write. Terry was featured for two years on the Mr Squiggle show, thus capturing a fan following long before he was published. In 1973 I sang in the Victorian Opera Company's production of the French composer Poulenc's farce The Breasts Of Therese. Apart from singing I got to burst a rubber breast that Suzanne Steele pulled out of her cleavage, then went on to operate her (stage) husband's mechanical babymaking machine. A lot of fun, marginal SF, and I did get paid, but it was three months of two or more rehearsals per week for just five performances and eight bars of solo singing outside the dozen or so chorus items. Now that is a very small return on a very large amount of work, and I am sure that Terry felt similarly about Mr Squiggle. Even if you are good enough to be a performer it does not mean that you will like it - and both Terry and I moved on to SF writing.

To be a performer yet keep one's sanity one must be an actor first and a SF specialist whenever the chance arises. Being in anything to do with SF regardless of the content is a dead end. If the only current work in SF was a season at Tiki and John's theatre restaurant playing in Starship Crazy House, while a director offered you a season playing the lead in King Lear, which would you take? If I were still on stage, I'd take the Lear role without a second thought.

We now have some interesting conclusions. Although Australian SF in non-print media is a huge and often profitable industry, it is hard to get a piece of the action as an author, or even as an SF specialist. If you do manage to produce a successful show, you will probably follow the example of Reilley, Sattler and Steve Vizard and go on to specialise in, say, comedy, rather than comedy SF.

Australian SF is broadly based and much of it reaches mass markets, yet the easiest path into SF still seems to fiction in print. For those who already have an interest in acting or film production, there are opportunities in other media, but the scene is at least as hard and competitive as for writing. SF authors should think carefully before beating their heads against other media, and should accept that they are no pushover - even if they do produce SF and are worth millions.

Thanks also to Mark McKay, Lewis Morley, and Graham Stone for their help.

(This article was originally presented to a meeting of Melbourne's Nova Mob on 1st May 1991)

Originally appeared in Eidolon 5, July 1991.
Copyright © 1990 Sean McMullen. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.