Re-thinking Australian film festivals

Mike Walsh

They come swirling at me in a mass, screaming, with mobile phones flashing. I’m at the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) in Korea, standing between the overwhelmingly youthful crowd and the object of their adulation, Kim Ki-duk (RT50 Mike Walsh: The ferocious eye of Kim Ki-duk), director of 3-Iron. PIFF, in only its ninth year, has rocketed to prominence as Asia’s pre-eminent film festival.

As mainstream exhibition in Australia coalesces around multiplexing and teenage genres, it is useful to reflect on the form and function of events such as this, given the increasing role played by film festivals in ensuring the health of alternative types of cinema. One of the most significant factors in Pusan’s success is the way it brings together a popular festival, an industry trade show (BIFCOM) and a seeding event for filmmakers known as the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP). The latter, modelled on Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund, might give Australian festivals some food for thought.

One of the key weaknesses in Australian cinema is the yawning chasm between a largely conservative production sector and innovative screen culture events. All of Australia’s film festivals showcase premieres of new Australian films and have industry liaison staff, but some are now moving towards more sustained connections.

Katrina Sedgwick, director of Adelaide’s newly-revived film festival, believes that “the role of a festival is not only to create a critical mass of consumption and discussion of art but also to engage with its industry in, ideally, an ongoing and genuinely productive way.” Adelaide has an investment fund and Melbourne partially funded Clara Law’s Letters to Ali last year, though both initiatives differ significantly from Pusan’s internationally acclaimed PPP.

The PPP brings in a wide range of regional filmmakers who network with distributors and sales agents and pitch projects to a panel. The amount of funding actually given to winners is rather small, but the potential for pre-sale investment for winners is significant given the distributor-rich environment of the festival. Several of the films shown at Pusan this year were PPP winners from the previous 2 years.

The proven success of this model has led to its emulation throughout the region. Hong Kong, aiming to maintain its regional prominence, has announced that it will hold next year’s festival in synch with its annual film awards, the FilMart market event, and the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum, its copy of Pusan’s PPP. Locally, Adelaide has incorporated some of this thinking by scheduling the Australian International Documentary Conference at the same time as the film festival next February. This will allow it to share guests and expenses, but also establish a framework in which production activity and screen culture are shown to be mutually relevant.

The other significant issue raised by PIFF is the audience demographic. Film is a strong part of youth culture in South Korea and the entire audience at PIFF seems to be under 25. Given that Australia’s 2 largest festivals, Melbourne and Sydney, are now in their 50s and had their salad days during the rise of the art cinema movements of the 1960s, the issue of audience renewal is crucial.

Melbourne appears to have made the transition to a new, younger audience by moving into the CBD, and Sydney is now facing up to the challenge of finding a new audience while not alienating its loyal followers who have spent their youth in the State Theatre. Sydney’s new artistic director, Lynden Barber, claims: “The festival’s strong audience growth among younger audiences in the last couple of years is encouraging. 65% of our new audience in that period is now under 35, partly a result of the introduction of student discounts, and films on musical acts such as Metallica, Tupac Shakur, The Ramones, and Macy Gray.”

This brings us to the images cultivated by each festival and the programming specialisations that have emerged. Melbourne is the big guy on the Australian scene, supporting such a large number of films spread over 17 days that it can pursue specialisations in Korean film or other regional cinemas while still having space to satisfy more traditional tastes. Brisbane has emerged as the film buff’s festival, with an Asian focus but also a willingness to take bold chances on historical retrospectives such as the Ozu and Shimizu seasons of the past 2 years.

Of course, the image of a film festival is dependent on factors other than programming. The question of venues is vital. Melbourne, with 5 large theatres within a short sprint of each other is ideally placed (though it’s not clear how much longer the Capitol and Forum can last without significant refurbishment). In Sydney there are longstanding question marks over attempts to take the festival into venues other than the State Theatre, and the ability to arrive at a ticketing system which will facilitate this.

Festivals are influenced by their place in the annual calendar, since proximity to the world premiere festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Venice) has a significant impact on the availability of prominent new films. Melbourne’s move to late July some years back worked well in giving it access to films premiering at Cannes. Hong Kong’s Easter date is just far enough ahead of Cannes that it finds it difficult to pick up new films being held back for the French festival. Making a virtue of necessity, it has developed a specialisation around the growing importance of the Hong Kong Film Archive and its ability to mount strong retrospectives on Chinese film history supported by accompanying publications.

Festivals are a growing part of a diversifying global industry where first-run art cinema release, DVD sales and Pay TV rights combine to create quickly changing, product-hungry markets. For educated audiences marginalised by the commercial multiplex and the Sundancing of art cinema, festivals represent an increasingly important opportunity to access more innovative film forms. The exciting question for Australian audiences is how our festivals will read these changes and respond to them.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 24

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
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