Williams warns of film and TV mediocrity

28 August, 2014 by Don Groves

Kim Williams has accused some filmmakers of being obsessed with their own work and ignoring Australia’s rich screen history.

And he warns of the dangers of mediocrity and of a pervasive blandness among screen training institutions.


A former CEO of the Australian Film Commission and Fox Studios Australia and inaugural chairman of the Film Finance Corp., Williams airs his typically forthright views in his new book Rules of Engagement.

“Our body of work as a nation has been genuinely influential in reminding us of our stories and storytellers,” he observes. “Our work has seen Australians take to the world stage as never before. Yet we are on the precipice of an overwhelming destiny to be mediocre…There is a disconnectedness from ideas that produce compelling work.

“We have to commit to stamping the blandness out of our training institutions. Out damned spot! We must encourage artists to take risks, to be bold and dare to produce work that reflects a strong confident inner voice, informed always from a secure knowledge base.”

Elaborating on his comments on film schools, Williams tell IF, “They seem now to be more about vending and conferring degrees rather than being places which are havens of creativity dedicated to the supremacy of talent and nurturing real creativity which is distinctively different.

“That devotion to creativity and talent should be seen in developing an armoury of craft skills and real understanding from an immersion in the canon of great work in cinema and television history.

“I am a firm believer that great work emerges from a detailed familiarity with the great work of others – it creates a virtuous space where visual, aural and story memory becomes a rich resource on which to draw to drive fresh original work. It is a central element in how the creative process works.”

Williams' sentiments drew an immediate response from veteran producer Tony Buckley, who told IF, "Let's have 3,000 cheers for Kim Williams' views on film schools and their navel-gazing student filmmakers who don't go to the cinema and have never seen an Australian film and whose eyes totally glaze over if one dares mention the 'Audience.'

"If I had my way I would close all the film schools tomorrow and fund the industry in such a way so as the students could become apprentices to production and post production houses, not to replace our valued technicians and artisans but to give the student apprentice the opportunity to learn from their masters. Then their degrees may actually mean something. A Masters, Bachelor or PhD doesn't teach you to have 'Imagination'."

Williams was appointed CEO of the AFC in 1984, aged 31, at a time when the screen industry was riven with factions and rivalries and clashes between state and federal assistance bodies, he recalls.

He lobbied the Labor government to establish the FFC in 1988 as a federally funded but independent body. “It was accepted most reluctantly by the bureaucrats but the independence it afforded was whittled away pretty rapidly after I left the chairmanship in 1991,” he writes. “I thought it would last for at best half a dozen years but it lived on for twenty before it was replaced by Screen Australia.”

His biggest career mistake was joining the ABC in 1992 with the brief to establish two subscription TV channels, a news channel and a children’s service, both independently financed.

”At that time the ABC was an enormously harsh and difficult place at which to work,” he reflects. “It was almost incapable of considering its audience as it was so mired in internal factions, divisions and rigidities of the most arcane kind.

“Much of that has changed over the ensuing years but I spent almost half my time fighting the institution.”

Months after he was hired as the inaugural CEO of Fox Studios Australia in 1995, plans to launch the pay-TV channels collapsed. In 2001 he left the studios to become CEO of Foxtel.

In the book he reveals he decided to quit FSA because his chief interest was in running a production program while the Fox brass in Los Angeles were content with a basic facility operation.

A keen student of the history of Australian cinema, he expresses concern that film and TV makers have an “uneven knowledge of the industry’s canon of work” and film culture.

He writes, “The height of arrogance is reflected in the dismissive approach that all that matters is one’s own work and direction and that genius shines through. It is such a self-serving and childish approach that it merits little response.

“To make great work you have to have the armoury of memory of the area in which you are working and the major strands of what have gone on before- deep, enduring skills develop from that position.”

Rules of Engagement by Kim Williams (MUP), RRP $45.99, is published this week and available at mup.com.au