AFI Distribution closes – where do the films go?

Tina Kaufman

Martha Ansara has been making films since 1971 and of the more than a dozen films she has made, 3 titles were still lodged with AFI Distribution, the distribution arm of the Australian Film Institute. Janet Merewether has been making films for over 10 years, and has made 7 short films as well as some video and music clips. She also had 3 films in active distribution with AFID. They are just 2 of the hundreds of filmmakers whose 1500 titles made up the AFID collection. They are now concerned not only with the practical details of retrieving their films and associated materials from the AFI’s Melbourne headquarters, but with the much more worrying problem of finding another distributor.

This is because Australia’s only national screen culture body has had to close down its distribution service. This, despite being the largest distributor of Australian short films and documentaries, and one that has seen the wide dissemination of work by Australian filmmakers to a variety of hirers and purchasers for nearly 30 years. The Australian Film Commission (AFC) announced 2 years ago that it would no longer fund AFI Distribution because it believed that its users came mainly from the educational sector, which should therefore take responsibility for the service. The AFI has tried to operate without government funding for the last 12 months. “We actually did very well,” says Marketing and Development Manager Jason Cook, “but just not enough to keep going without any subsidy.”

The AFI is currently preparing final royalty statements and sending them out to filmmakers along with a letter explaining the situation. “The filmmakers will get all the brochures, stills, and correspondence related to each title, and we’re including a listing of all distributors who might be interested in taking the films, along with other alternatives, because we do believe the films should remain visible and accessible”, Cook explains.

Martha Ansara recognises that older films such as hers may have a problem. “The activity on my films was in dribs and drabs—but it adds up! Everything was in place at the AFI for those films to keep making sales, year after year, but would another distributor be prepared to set that all up again? There are a number of films, like mine, that aren’t new, but still have an active life. For an acquisitions officer at an educational institution, what will they do now whenever a film comes up for renewal, or a tape dies? Will they have to track each filmmaker down? And will the filmmaker have kept their original materials?” She believes that small unsubsidised distributors can only afford to be interested in immediately rewarding markets, and will only take on newer films with such possibilities. “They really won’t be concerned with issues of preservation and long term availability.” She’s now debating whether to try and distribute the films herself, or join with filmmakers in a similar position and perhaps establish a website.

Janet Merewether is not so concerned about her own films, “I do a lot of distribution work on them on my own, anyway,” she explains. What really worries her is the loss of a centralised source of information on filmmakers and their work. “There must be a central point—even if it’s a database—because filmmakers move around a lot, and there must be a way of finding out where they are, and how to get their films, or where their original materials are kept. I was curating the program Eye for Idea (short work and inventive documentary by women filmmakers in the 90s) for this year’s Tampere Film Festival (Finland), as part of its Australian retrospective, and I found it very hard to track down some of the makers of the films I wanted which were not represented by the AFI and several of the films were missing. These were films I knew, because they’d been well received at various festivals and had won awards in the last 5 years, and yet they had disappeared. If it’s already hard to track down award-winning, recent films, how much harder is it going to be with the AFI gone? Surely someone should be responsible for maintaining a complete record of Australian production?’

Jason Cook believes that older short films still have a life because of new technologies and the opportunities they provide, such as broadband, compilations on DVD and the possibility of being used as a support to a feature on DVD. “The problem is that although there are a number of opportunities in the market place, often a particular distributor may not be exploiting all those areas, so filmmakers may have to deal with more than one distributor,” he explains. Likewise, would a client who wants to buy large numbers of films from the one agency, confident that they are getting a good range of films of similar quality, “be prepared to deal with a number of different distributors with a few films each, or even worse, a number of filmmakers with only 1 or 2 films?”

Back in the early 70s the filmmakers who were making that first rush of short films and documentaries realised how important it was for their films to reach the audience. As low-budget production, funded through various government agencies, gathered momentum filmmakers formed the Sydney and Melbourne Filmmakers Co-ops and became actively involved in the distribution process. From 1975, the latter was supported by the AFC. After the closure of the Co-ops, the AFI became the main distributor of Australian work. Its collection included early short films by many famous names, an important collection of films by and about women, many documentaries, films by Indigenous filmmakers on Indigenous issues, and work from the students of Australia’s film schools.

AFC Director Kim Dalton doesn’t see any great cultural importance in the ending of nearly 30 years of continuous AFC funding of distribution. “I’d rather say that the AFC reacted to a situation over 25 years ago, when it was approached by Australian filmmakers. It was the best way to get those films seen [then], and the AFC continued to support it while it was. What we have done is withdrawn funding from one organisation. But the AFC is still very actively involved in making sure there is a range of exhibition and distribution mechanisms for short films and documentaries [including] festivals, screening events, regional tours.”

He argues that smaller distributors: short film specialists like Flickerfest, and libraries like the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, are already home to a number of film collections, and should pick up many of the titles. “There was, in fact, an enormous level of complaint and disquiet about the AFI, whether or not it was deserved. I’m sure there are some very interesting and energetic small distributors out there who, now that there is some space, will do good work. The AFC has not washed its hands of this area of activity—we’re talking to people, and listening to proposals. It’s an area that is organic, dynamic, and changing—I’m convinced that the majority of the films will still be able to be seen.”

Andrew Pike of Ronin Films, one of Australia’s oldest independent distributors, believes there is still a role for a subsidised distribution service. “The distribution of such a wide range of films, and particularly short films, just isn’t commercially viable, and can really only be carried out if it is part of the cultural strategy of the funding bodies.” Ronin will pick up a number of films from the AFI,” but they will have to fit in with its almost entirely documentary collection, mainly marketed to the educational sector.

Bronwyn Kidd says that Flickerfest has been distributing short films in Australia for 4 years, selling mainly to Eat Carpet and to a small educational market. “We’re putting together a first catalogue of about 20 titles for the overseas market. We’ve been getting a lot of interest from overseas broadcasters over the years, so we’re taking advantage of that. The overseas market is much bigger; many international broadcasters in both Europe and Asia have short film strands, and there’s an educational market, with libraries wanting an Australian representation. We see it as an extensive and growing area. There’s a lot happening with cable channels, where the audiences are bigger and seem to be looking for alternative entertainment. It’s complementary to what we’re doing with the festival, and similar to what a number of overseas short film festivals do.”

However, she doesn’t see Flickerfest as taking on many titles. “We’d see a manageable catalogue as being about 70 films at any given time, and I think most filmmakers are aware that their films have a finite life of about 3 years. It’d be no good us taking on any films that had been in the AFI’s collection for several years.”

Several agencies are working to guarantee at least the preservation of the titles from the AFI collection, and to ensure that the films are accessible. Filmmakers are being made aware of their options, whether or not the film is picked up by another distributor. Films can be lodged with ScreenSound Australia, Australia’s national archive, and even if ScreenSound already holds the film, it may be interested in acquiring additional prints for preservation or viewing purposes. However, “we neither want to, nor would we be able to replace the AFI’s distribution service,” insists ScreenSound Director Ron Brent “and I’m concerned that the large majority of the films won’t be picked up by any other distributor.” The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (formerly Cinemedia), home of one of Australia’s largest film collections, which lends films to registered borrowers (mainly film societies, educational and community groups), had been one of the AFI’s largest clients. Collections Manager Simon Pockley explains that ACMI is neither a distributor nor an archive, but a lending collection. “We do want to make sure that as many as possible of the short films from the AFI remain accessible,” he adds.

“If the film is to be available through ACMI, who sells the film to them now?” asks Martha Ansara. “And who handles any requests for a new print?”

This is a confusing and worrying time for filmmakers. “I’ve got a project in development,” says Janet Merewether, “but I’m already spending so much time on distribution, in contact with festivals and sales agents, that I can’t get on with my filmmaking. What will happen to Australian production if that happens to many other filmmakers?”

“Where is the filmmaking community in all this?” asks Martha Ansara. “The only way we had a distribution service in the first place was because of filmmakers’ action and lobbying. Where is the pressure now?”

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 16

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002
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