Guardian Australia, March 2016
In the world of contemporary art, policymakers use our taxes to fund galleries and museums. In the world of theatre, we build new spaces and new stages. In the world of music, we fund broadcasters (imagine the Australian music scene without Triple J, or the network of small community stations whose mandate is to play local and emerging artists).
So why in the film world do we predominantly fund films but not the spaces to screen them in? Why isn’t Australia’s film policy angled more towards distribution, access and experience?
Independent, single-screen and arthouse cinemas have been closing shop for years, after all. Figures from Screen Australia in 2015 show the number of independent theatres tapered off from 350 to 304 over the preceding decade. And these figures come after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) described the cinema distribution market all the way back in 1998 as an “oligopoly”, with pre-existing arrangements that privilege Hollywood films and make it harder than ever for local titlesto secure screening opportunities. Outside of a small number of film festivals which receive partial public funding, it’s not a battle Australia’s film industry seems willing to fight.
Globally, it’s a different story: there are many state funding agencies which have distribution, access and exhibition structures as a central part of their cultural policy. The United Kingdom funds equipment, film hiring fees and publicity for regional film clubs. Canada has its own free video-on-demand platform that automatically includes all government-funded films. Norway has a century-long history of publicly funded municipal cinemas. France collects roughly $1 per ticket for reallocation to the local film industry, funds that don’t just go towards producing new films, but also to smaller arthouse exhibitors showing a recommended list of domestic films of cultural importance – be they classic, historical or experimental art films – that would otherwise struggle to find a space to screen.
All these approaches have institutionalised local film cultures that are alternative to Hollywood. They’ve ensured that local films have a place to find an audience. And they make Australia’s approach of primarily funding film production look way out of step.
Imagine the kind of film culture that could flourish with an ongoing, decentralised network of film experiences: publicly supported weekly film nights in existing theatres, regional film clubs, backyard cinemas, pop-ups in unusual spaces, and temporary events in empty theatres such as Harbour City Cinema in Sydney’s Chinatown. Some Australian film-makers have even built their own pop-up cinemas to screen their films and proved the hunger is there.
With more government support, national networking and a mandate to reserve some minimum screen time for Australian titles, these spaces could program small, smart, sexy, important, classic and retrospective films that don’t get a look-in at either multiplexes or arthouse theatres. Different kinds of films would reach different kinds of audiences, many of which are currently underserved and local films would have spaces to screen in beyond the film festival circuit.
The concept of publicly funded – or at least supported – cinemas isn’t as out-there as it may seem. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (Acmi) is a state-sponsored space that has served alternative film cultures in Melbourne for decades, presenting talks and workshops alongside their film and exhibition program, which includes new local titles from emerging talent like Platon Theodoris’s Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites. Debates have been swirling for years about the need for a similar cinematheque in Sydney. The city would benefit from one, as would other state and territory capitals, but there’s even more potential, beyond big Acmi-style institutions, to create independent screening spaces that continue the work and feel of film festivals year-round.
Australia is sprinkled with small commercial cinemas that offer a sense of the richer local film culture that a cinema- and distribution-centred film policy could foster. We’ve all got our favourites. When I lived in Katoomba, in regional NSW, there was only one option for seeing interesting films that didn’t involve travelling two hours to Sydney. Mount Vic Flicks is a tiny cinema deep in the Blue Mountains. You buy a ticket from the elderly couple who have run it since forever, cross the timber floorboards and take a seat in the old converted hall. The candy bar is not your usual fluoro minimart, but a little hole in the wall with plates of homemade slices and biscuits. On a Saturday I would sometimes make a day of it, watching whichever two consecutive movies were playing for $18 (cup of tea included).
Mount Vic Flicks is sweet; the kind of place you’re likely to strike up a conversation with whoever’s sitting next to you. The cinema is run as a business, but it has a community feel far removed from the monolithic city multiplexes, with their Big Mac stench seeping through the shopping mall walls. This month they showed Australian director Sue Brooks’s Looking For Grace weeks after it had stopped screening in Sydney. Having spaces to screen independent films has been identified by industry analysts as especially important for local independent films to reach audiences and recoup production costs. And I saw all kinds of stuff at Mount Vic Flicks. Their films ran the gamut from brilliant to ordinary, but I was always glad that someone cared enough to make an inviting space to show them.
This alternative vision of film culture and policy in Australia is all the more important given both state and federal efforts to reshape the Australian film industry as a Hollywood backlot. The question is, is that the kind of film world we really want in Australia? The alternative is so much more vibrant and so much more in tune with the democratic aims of cultural policy. What’s more, it is actually possible.
There are all kinds of ways to support local films and ways to structure film industries. So why stop at funding films?