The Australian film industry will roll out the red carpet on Tuesday for its inaugural Academy Awards. Lynden Barber looks at what the shift from the AFIs to the AACTAs signifies.
27 Jan 2012 - 3:06 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

When the AFI announced last year it was revamping its annual awards by creating a new sister organisation, The Australian Academy Of Cinema And Television Arts, it wasn't easy to get a grip on exactly what it all meant.

The potential for confusion was real, not helped by the name of the new awards, the AACTAs, sounding just like “The Actors”. The justification for the shift was that the new awards would more closely involve the participation of the local screen industry and bring Australia into line with Britain's BAFTA. Which all sounded highly positive and exciting. The questions started to pile up when you examined the media releases more closely and discovered no real explanation of exactly how the new awards would differ from the old ones.

It's not as if the old AFI Awards had been staged without reference to film and television practitioners. Consultation with industry professional bodies over the award rules had been constant – or so the AFI had long been telling us. As a result it was easy to suspect a purely cosmetic change, a silver-plated rebranding exercise rather than a genuinely different basis for holding the local film and TV industry's peak awards.

When I put this to AFI chief executive Damian Trewhella, he replies by saying that in view “this is probably one of the biggest shifts the organisation has had to date. One of the issues with the AFI is that not many people confidently had much of a sense of what the AFI was really doing. One of the reasons is that it was somewhat unique in what it was doing; it was doing particular things in its own kind of way. Now I'm not saying things were necessarily wrong or bad, but it was hard to understand.”

The changes, he says, involve “the alignment with what I call world's best practice, the movement to a model that is very well recognised and understood the world over now for decades. That has already triggered in so many people I've spoken to, nationally and internationally, an awakening, where they've said, 'Oh god, so that's what you're doing?'

“On one hand you're right, we have been kind of doing that to a point. I'm not saying the awards process was terrible, it probably the best in the country. I used to be questioned internationally all the time – 'What are the AFI Awards?' And it would take minutes to explain this thing, and eventually you'd say, 'It's the Australian Academy Awards.' We're just breaking down all those barriers that were there. The AFI Awards probably made sense back in 1958 when they started but the world has moved on and the benchmarks for the economy, prestige and media space are certainly 'Academy Awards' for film. That is not going to change for at least 100 years, I would imagine.”

But surely, I put it to Trewhella, the international media always referred to the AFI Awards as 'Australia's Academy Awards' anyway - in the same way they call the Goyas 'Spain's Academy awards', ditto the Cesars in France, and so on.

“It is good that some of the media internationally understand it,” he says. “But if you're a Hollywood executive or at Working Title in the UK whatever, you might not have that granular understanding of all the countries in the world because there's so many now with production industries. My experience and that of so many practitioners and performers you talk to is (that) you arrive in LA or London with an AFI Award and you've got to go through the process of explaining what it is. In America there's an AFI already, which creates further confusion. So there's a whole level of development there purely around being able to be understood and recognised.

“Certainly the AFI remains. I know this has been one of the confusions for people; it's not that the AFI is becoming the Academy. It's that the AFI, which has this very rich history of film enthusiasts and screen professionals, is now transforming the screen professionals stream, now developing those professional members into a peak peer assembly along the lines of an Academy model. So the AFI retains it's other existing programs and constituency, but it now has a discreet and clearly identifiable modular identity.”

To this end, he adds, “we ve set up an honorary council that includes representatives or nominees from all of the key guilds or professional associations.”

But weren't they involved in the AFI already? “I think they've always been involved, “ Trewhella replies, “but because there wasn't a clear and understandable structure I think it led to strains and pushing and pulling in different directions and nobody quite knowing what the protocols were and how things worked. With the tailspin that came with the lack of funding a decade ago, a lot of things became compromised. I think there's now much more open lines of discussion now withal of those groups and key industry because the structure we've put in place supports that.”

One major and clearly identifiable shift is the active involvement of distributors – who are usual also heavily involved in local film production – as well as exhibitors. “My argument is that any organisation like this needs to be in touch with all of the key elements of the ecology,” Trewhella explains, “so I personally think that production is critical; so are exhibitors, distributors and broadcasters. It's ridiculous to have one without the other. So that's a key shift, to make sure that whatever the production sector is doing is relevant to those other platforms. Probably the thought was there, but the structure didn't support it clearly in the past.”

The AACTA Awards Ceremony will take place at Sydney's Opera House on January 31.

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