Australia’s premier festival directors sat down recently to reveal their insights on the state of local film-going.
19 Oct 2012 - 11:55 AM  UPDATED 19 Oct 2012 - 11:55 AM

One of the reasons Matt Riviera set up The Festivalists, which produces not films but film festivals, was because he was disappointed with the diversity of film and film events available to the residents of Australia's biggest city. He runs a Canadian Film Festival, a festival for seniors, another for people with disabilities, an event at which filmmakers can test out their short films, and more.

“Over the last eight years Sydney's film culture has got hugely better,” said Riviera, whose company now boasts six employers. “It makes it more difficult for us but it's so much more exciting and stimulating.”

Riviera was one of 14 film festival organisers who this week addressed about 100 people about what they did and why at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School (AFTRS). People could have embarrassed themselves trying to outdo each other with success stories; instead there was much good humour and camaraderie.

Significant themes emerged. A majority of film festival ticket buyers and attendees are women for example: two-thirds of Sydney Film Festival tickets were purchased by women and 74 percent of bums on seats at the French Film Festival belonged to women. Also, people most definitely don't go to festivals just to see films: the highest satisfaction levels come from events whether they be a film followed by a Q&A or a silent movie with live musical accompaniment, or a theme night involving film.

Many insights were revealed into the motivations behind programming, how festivals measure their own success, and other topics, and the sheer effort required was regularly made clear. Last year, the Flickerfest International Short Film Festival got 2,500 entries, or 25 times more films than were in the competition, for example. That's a lot of pruning. And a program was subsequently toured to 44 venues. Other festivals head abroad: the WOW Film Festival, which showcases work by women, recently took a program of films to Ulaanbaatar to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Australian/Mongolian diplomatic relations.

Both the Antenna International Documentary Film Festival and the UTS: Sydney International Animation Festival had wrapped the night before the talkfest and sheer exhaustion was embedded in the demeanour of the two representatives. Nevertheless, Deborah Szapiro talked eloquently about how she wanted Sydney audiences to realise that animation wasn't something just for children, and animators to have a place to meet and talk.

Katherine Berger from the Sydney Underground Film Festival wanted to ruffle feathers with “daring, provocative and perverse content,” while Amin Palangi, co-director of the new-this-year Persian International Film Festival, wanted to smooth down ruffled feathers by showing films from Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan – and also from filmmakers in the global Persian community – that challenged stereotypes.

Festivals with a race, regional or country theme are definitely not staged mainly for the benefit of expatriates in Australia: 60 percent of Russian Resurrection Film Festival audiences have no connection to the country and the figure is 80 percent for the Alliance Française French Film Festival. Artistic director Emmanuelle Denavit-Feller uses three criteria when programming the latter: to demonstrate diversity, show what's new and provoke.

Jochen Gutsch, cultural officer at Sydney's Goethe Institute, said the Germany Film Festival was one of a raft of cultural events: “The Goethe Institute supports the holistic idea that art can leave you a different person, can stir emotions, can educate without lecturing, and can encourage you to look at things from a different perspective.”

It seemed that all the speakers were not just passionate about cinema but also about their own brand of cinema. Said Queer Screen's Jain Moralee: “Our main aim is to inspire and engage people through the sharing of queer stories… It's indicative of our job being done that films with queer content are programmed in other festivals. But continue we will!”

An exciting development, she said, is that Queer Screen has commissioned three short documentaries. Many speakers talked about nurturing “their” local filmmakers but few have outlayed money. (The principal festivals in Adelaide and Melbourne commission film but it's rare in Sydney). Queer Screen also puts considerable effort into growing and empower the festival's volunteers and interns, she said, because it guarantees the organisation's future existence.

If the Sydney Latin American Film Festival fell over it would mean less resources for initiatives to do with youth, HIV and AIDS, fair trade and so on in the region from which they draw their films. Esther Lozano said about $100,000 has been raised through the festival.

Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley (pictured) came brandishing a new survey of patrons. One of the things it taught him was that 27 percent of his customers had only bought a single ticket. While some might interpret that as bad news given the number of sessions they could have gone to, he was excited because tickets get cheaper the more one person buys so these patrons are paying top dollar – and perhaps they will return in 2013 and buy more tickets.

Moodley noted that festivals were dependent on ticket revenue and curators had to make tough decisions about how much to allow commerce to influence curatorial decisions – festival goers, just like mainstream audiences, also like recognisable actors and English-language films. It would have been good to discuss big issues such as this – another is the impact of festivals on the patronage of arthouse and foreign films in cinemas – but there was not enough time.

One of the reasons that AFTRS held the event was to draw attention to its Graduate Certificate of Screen Culture. The course is intended for people who want to be festival directors and also critics and arts administrators.