Festivals flourishing, but on shifting sands

ACMI Cinemas

ACMI Cinemas

The Australian film festival circuit is about to launch into ‘production mode’ and recent developments can’t help but get the mind speculating as to what kind of cycle we’re about to enter into: a cycle that will set the screen culture scene for at the next four to six years at the very least.

I won’t hide my vested interest in the national screen culture environment as Head of Film Programs here at ACMI and as Chairman of the Board (and founder) of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival – but hey…we’re all friends here.

The environment as it stands is undergoing some considerable change, as seen on a number of fronts.

The recent announcements of a vacated Executive Director position at MIFF and the resultant event restructure of the top end of that organisation, the recently announced departure of Anne Demi-Geroe as long standing Director of the Brisbane International Film Festival, structural reviews and board movements at the Sydney Film Festival, the recently announced move from Melbourne to Sydney of the AFI Awards and a change in emphasis and structure in screen culture support from Screen Australia, all combine to create a fascinating screen culture environment in which speculation is currently rife.

So…let’s add to it by saying I’m not sure if over my 20 years being married to the sector that I’ve seen such beard tugging change in such a short period – and it’s not so much concentrated on the human resource, programming and intellectual shifts that may result, but on something more far-reaching.

At their core, each of these screen culture activities have a strong sense of identity, diverse and high quality programming, professional and highly connected program teams and committed government and corporate support. This ‘perfect storm’ of rapid change, however, speaks more to the environment and the nature of film festivals and screen culture activity rather than the specific activities themselves.

Traditionally what you’d find is a much more subtle displacement of water as contracts end and people move on (and the situation may very well turn out to be far less dramatic than the volume of recent announcements suggests) but it is fair to say that right now, there’s a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.

But with change comes some great opportunities.

From a curatorial or event directorial perspective, opportunities to rise through the ranks are few. I meet with at least one person a week who is seeking a role in the screen culture landscape. The advice is simple: watch as much as you can, go to as many industry activities as your energy (or partner) will allow and volunteer – oh…and most important…never get drunk in public.

Moving into the purely speculative, you’d think that the creation of at least three new positions in one go in Melbourne and Brisbane would introduce considerably more air into the tier below, in which newer curators and programmers may find a place. A shift of three folks into these newly vacated positions may result in the opening of a host of other positions in other parts of the screen culture sector – which, in the curator/programmer world, is a major break.

This may prove to be enormously beneficial to the Australian screen culture sector in the longer term given the rarity of high level positions, flowing through into enhanced professional development and the quality and size of the gene pool these kinds of jobs can draw from in the longer term.

Still speculating, you may also think that the development of this ‘newer’ talent – who have been straining to show their exotic talents – may provide a whole different set of eyes in the programming and management roles.

Combined with a very dynamic time in technical production, multi-platform exhibition delivery, the international sales environment and the marketing/audience development strategies of Screen Australia for local works, there are some exciting slipstreams to explore –  and perhaps a diversification of roles and skills that may accompany fresh eyes.

Opportunities aside, and as an observer, this significant point in time may also be an important one for screen culture (and the activities that populate it) on an international level to really engage in some rigorous self examination. It has to if the lessons of independent film exhibition in recent years are any indication.

That’s not so much about looking into ourselves, but into the crystal ball that houses the collective.

Like the distribution and exhibition scenes – especially in the independent sector – the environment that surrounds film festivals in particular has changed significantly and very quickly.

Aside from the key marketplaces, the centrality of film festivals as a ‘point of acquisition’ for distributors has diminished.

The sheer volume of activities internationally has set in train a move towards other value-adds and side-bars outside of core program delivery to ensure international market cut-through. Internationally this has possibly led to a higher level of competitiveness and ‘brand’ prioritisation over and above core film programs. 

There is a double edge to this: it’s great for partners and a sense of event identity, but presents a whole other layer of business with its own logistics and expectations to service that can run full time throughout the year. This in itself can lead to events ‘fighting’ on too many fronts, perhaps losing some steam and identity along the way.

As a result (and here I’m talking internationally) emphasis may be being given to  ‘invention’ rather than ‘progression’ – a little dangerous for newer events that may find themselves trying to accelerate well beyond their logistic and financial reach in a breathless attempt to assert themselves as unique and important players.

Internationally, I would venture, there are a lot of players with perhaps not enough to say…but that’s just me.

Richard Sowada

Melbourne International Film Festival
Sydney Film Festival
Brisbane International Film Festival
Adelaide Film Festival
Revelation Film Festival

AFI Awards move to Sydney

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