Should the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts continue as the arbiter of the nation's film and TV awards? And if so, who should fund the financially struggling organisation?
These are pressing questions facing the Academy's members and its board, the film and TV industries, the federal government, Screen Australia, state agencies and commercial sponsors. And they need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Really, there is a simple answer to both questions: Yes or no? The implications and the consequences, of course, are rather more complicated.
Last week the Sydney Morning Herald said the AACTA awards “face a financial crisis that threatens their very existence”.
That may sound unduly alarmist but the fact that the Australian Film Institute /AACTA was forced to lay off four more staff, reducing its entire workforce to seven, is a sign of an organisation in dire straits as it struggles to find ways to fund the awards for a third year.
In another distress signal, CEO Damian Trewhella is briefing industry guilds on the need to prune back the number of awards in 2014, down from the 41 handed out this year. There's no chance in the current climate of austerity of creating 10 new awards, mostly in TV categories, as the AFI flagged it was keen to implement in January.
It's hard to think of any other prosperous nation, especially one with a century-old film production and exhibition history, where the premier industry awards organisation is battling to stay afloat.
The AFI seems to be paying a hefty price for the mismanagement of previous regimes which resulted in the Australian Film Commission slashing its funding, forcing the organisation to axe its sales and distribution department and cut its events program.
Screen Australia provided “substantial support” (its words) for the inaugural awards in 2012 but the annual grant has since been reduced to $360,000 – a pittance which represents somewhere between 5%-10% of the AFI/AACTA budget.
The AFI board has been lobbying Screen Australia to increase that support, to no avail. The agency spends hefty sums in marketing, much of it helping producers to attend and screen their films at international festivals and markets, and loans to support the theatrical distribution and marketing of Australian films. Yet there is no support to market Australian talent and its achievements, which would help build confidences among audiences and investors.
Tropfest is a more mainstream, populist event than the AACTAs and it has no shortage of commercial sponsors. Yet the AFI hasn't found any multi-nationals to step in after Samsung abruptly cancelled its $1.5 million sponsorship last September – a body blow which sent the organisation into a tailspin and threatened the 2013 awards.
As a result, the AFI has depended on the non-screen sector for 90% of its funding, a level which isn't sustainable in the current economic climate.
For the awards to be viable, the AFI reckons it needs to lift support from the screen industry to 20%-25% of its budget. It's difficult to see how that can happen unless Screen Australia and/or the federal government increase funding substantially.
The AFI's annual report showed annual revenues of $5.1 million. Production costs, chiefly the awards, amounted to $3.5 million, and the organisation ran up a small operating deficit.
There is one encouraging sign: At this Thursday's AGM, six respected industry figures are standing for election to the board to replace producer Amanda Higgs, who is retiring as a director after six years. The contenders are director Rowan Woods, producer Robyn Kershaw, producer/distributor John L. Simpson, writer/producer Kris Wyld, DOP David Wakeley and exhibitor/producer Ian Sutherland. It's a shame there's only one vacancy.
Sections of the industry have issues with the awards' name, the definition of some categories and whether or not the AACTA International awards are justified.
But surely few people would be happy to see the AACTAs languish – or even disappear?