It's a contrast that couldn't be clearer to the cineastes who head Australia's leading film festivals: whether it's Adelaide or Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, some of the most popular titles in their exhaustive schedules are Australian productions. But often the same films, which are the first to sell out their screening sessions, or titles of a similar heritage and quality, struggle to find an audience when they're commercially released.
In each city it's as if there's a positive rule for Australian arthouse movies in the fortnight or so that the film festival is on, with an opposing negative one prevalent for the other 50 weeks of the year.
In recent months bridging that divide to benefit Australian film has been the source of much discussion among the various heads of Australia's four leading film festivals – Michelle Carey in Melbourne, Richard Moore in Brisbane, Katrina Sedgwick in Adelaide, and Leigh Small in Sydney – and now they've announced their initial response.
The four organisations have agreed to simultaneously mobilise their extensive databases, which contain the details of approximately 95,000 e-newsletter subscribers with an avowed interest in the movies, to support the kind of films they feel are being left behind despite their innate strengths.
“The arthouse Australian sector has high quality work, there's no doubt about it, but with some exceptions to the rule they're not finding audiences,” explains Katrina Sedgwick. “A lot of really good films cannot get to people and we cannot rely on independent commercial businesses to do the legwork for us because it's a huge task to get that audience going, yet we need to increase that audience.”
The first two titles to be exposed to the scheme's updraft are diverse not only in terms of content, but also commercial and delivery options. Andy X, directed by the eclectic Jim Sharman and written by Stephen Sewell, is a 40-minute musical that explores the life of one of the 20th century's great artists, Andy Warhol. The self-funded production will be available exclusively via pay-per-view online from February 22.
Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde's Life in Movement, scheduled for a theatrical release in April, is a more conventional documentary about the late choreographer Tanja Liedtke, who died in an accident in 2007 at the age of 29 just as she was about to become artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. The movie has played various film festivals over the last year to strong acclaim, but will face an uphill battle to generate an audience amidst the weekly cycle of blockbusters and international arthouse imports.
Sedgwick, who is in her final fortnight atop the Adelaide Film Festival after a decade's service, sees the initiative benefiting not only the films selected and their delighted distributors, but also allowing the various festivals to communicate with their respective audiences across the entire year and reflect more value for their funding.
“It seemed to me that film could learn from the model used by other artforms,” she says. “When subsidies are giving to an institution or organisation to put on theatre, or opera, or art, you get a subsidy to not only create new Australian work, but also develop the audience for that work. We're not a society that leaps to consume our own culture, particularly at the arthouse/experimental film end.”
Sedgwick cites the likes of Glendyn Ivin's road movie Last Ride and Kriv Stenders' micro-budget drama Boxing Day, as well as Matthew Bate's straight to DVD documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (pictured), as examples of the kind of work that could have previously benefited from having film festival devotees focused on their release.
The arrangement between the four film festivals is the result of a “collegiate” atmosphere. It's an informal agreement, without any new structure to oversee it, and there's no financial benefit to the festivals, or any guarantee that they will program the films they spotlight.
The four festival directors currently have to agree on a title for it to be chosen, and while that may be a less than common event given the diverse opinions held between them, for now they're focused on getting started. “They're baby steps, but it could grow into a larger collaboration in the future,” notes Sedgwick, who points to the success of the Israeli Film Fund, which in recent years has used various initiatives to grow the audience share for domestic films from a mere 3% to around 15%.
The partnership also indirectly challenges the philosophy of funding bodies. With a focus on finding an audience for Australian releases, the scheme suggests that it's not just a matter of funding the production of Australian movies, there also has to be a matching allocation for marketing and promotion. The idea that “If you make it they will come” is only rarely working.
“A lot of this work isn't easy, but it's important. And when audiences actually get in there they're moved and changed and enlightened by the experience, and that's role of art in society,” Katrina Sedgwick observes. “It's our artform and it needs to be supported by our community.”