no prizes for the aacta awards

tina kaufman

Julius Avery, Jessica Mitchell, Michael Spiccia, winners of the Dendy Award for Best Live Action Short for Yardbird, 2012 Sydney Film Awards

Julius Avery, Jessica Mitchell, Michael Spiccia, winners of the Dendy Award for Best Live Action Short for Yardbird, 2012 Sydney Film Awards

Julius Avery, Jessica Mitchell, Michael Spiccia, winners of the Dendy Award for Best Live Action Short for Yardbird, 2012 Sydney Film Awards


Because there is certainly something wrong; people still attend them, or watch them on TV, but there are more and more complaints, ranging from issues with the host or hosts or about the presentation to more serious concerns to do with the actual awards.

new times, new media, old categories

In the time running up to each event and in much of the feedback, questions are asked and suggestions made as to what is wrong and what can be done, but none of this seems to register with those in control. The big questions are, do awards still have a role? In this digital age, especially, with so many changes to screen production, distribution and delivery systems, aren’t there large and growing areas of work that are being ignored? Aren’t the selection processes and judging systems now quite questionable, as the parameters of eligibility and the criteria for comparison are thrown open by such changes?

It would certainly appear that the old categories are not really working anymore. For the AACTAs in particular, the huge range of categories, many seeming quite indulgent, unnecessary or just inaccurate, only makes for an overburdened event—and for an electorate equally overburdened by out of date criteria. So I wanted to write something that investigated these issues, looked at the AACTAs and the Oscars, and even worried about the future of the new kid on the block, the APSAs (Asia Pacific Screen Awards).

demise of the if awards

Events, as they often do, intervened. The demise of the IF Awards was announced; that fun and rather irreverent award celebration, produced by IF magazine, which went into hiatus last year, will now not return. With audience-based voting and close ties to the screen industry, these awards, from their inception in 1999, had become a strong alternative to the AFIs, but financial constraints have brought them to an end (although the IF Awards Group is still considering a much less formal celebration). Then, less than two years after a major overhaul of the AFIs and a big launch for the new game in town, and only weeks after the second Awards had been held, it was announced that the AACTAs were in serious financial trouble.

the aacta crisis

The team which had developed the first and second AACTA Awards had suddenly been halved in size, with six staff positions going, and AFI/AACTA CEO Damian Trewhella admitted that the organisation was in the red, with the loss of a naming rights sponsor for the 2013 AACTA Awards causing serious and urgent financial difficulties. With much of the income coming from sponsors and advertisers in the non-screen sector focused on the glamorous awards, the industry and craft categories—such as television direction, documentary, editing, sound, production design and short films, only supported by about 15% of the operating costs—are under serious threat. With outside sponsors not wanting to fund the industry awards, and the industry so far unable to provide the money, Trewhella says, “The only way forward is to have the activities re-evaluated by the screen sector itself.”

Trewhella thinks that it probably is time to rationalise the awards, to perhaps roll a few categories together. And while he sees sense in the suggestion made by a number of commentators to hold the film and television awards separately, he says that the AFI is not in a position to have two entirely separate events. He’s looking forward to discussions across the industry, with the state and federal funding bodies, the guilds and organisations and with the filmmakers themselves; after all, he says, the awards are there to celebrate the people working in the industry.

The Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts was established in August 2011 by the Australian Film Institute, the general membership-based organisation that had been conducting the AFI Awards to recognise screen excellence for over 50 years. This followed a year-long review and industry consultation; the inaugural AACTA Awards were held in Sydney in January 2012 and the second in January 2013. At the AACTA launch in 2011, the new academy was described as a peak peer assembly for leading Australian screen practitioners, made up of 15 chapters covering key facets of the screen industry, from acting, directing and screenwriting to production and distribution, each headed by an industry luminary in an honorary post, with AACTA itself governed by an honorary council which would develop policy, aimed at “creating greater unity among screen professionals.” It’s unclear, however, how much input this academy is having into addressing AACTA’s problems.

The screen industry’s eight guilds and unions want to support the awards; each organisation is preparing recommendations and they’ll come together to work out a joint submission with the sort of changes they want to see and suggestions to solve the many issues they have with existing awards. (The need for the international awards, for example, is universally queried.) Kingston Anderson, Chief Executive of the Australian Directors Guild, asks what the awards are supposed to do, and answers, “celebrate our industry. But what we want is a fair system where people are recognised fairly in their categories—and that the categories themselves are fair.” He adds that the Guilds’ own awards work well, and “that’s because we’re driven by our members. We all have extraordinarily interesting discussions on guidelines and awards.”

With all the guilds and unions holding their own awards annually, there is a suggestion of more co-operation, of an awards season with the specific awards held before the AACTAs, as a build-up to the main event. There are concerns, too, that the marketing of the awards dictates a number of decisions, seen as too driven by the needs of the telecast. “They’re coming from the wrong end,” argues Anderson, “Let’s get the event right first, and then market it. Even if it’s screening on a cable channel, it’ll become desirable once it’s really working.”

On March 19 the AFI/AACTA announced four new AFI board members, Geoff Brown, Russell Howcroft, Alaric McAusland and Ian Sutherland, all industry heavy hitters, who will join existing members Mike Baard, Jennifer Huby, Robert Sessions and Sigrid Thornton, with Alan Finney as chair, restoring the AFI Board to its full capacity (and earning a quip from one media commentator that the AFI now has more board members than staff). This beefed-up board should give it some more bargaining power in the trying times ahead.

the asia pacific screen awards

The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, which had been rumoured to be in trouble along with other cultural activities in Queensland following the change of government, are apparently safe. Des Power, Chair of APSA, is feeling very positive; he’s just had some very encouraging talks with the Queensland Government and believes that they want to continue with APSA.

These awards were established in 2008 to recognise and promote the cinematic excellence and cultural diversity of the vast Asia Pacific region with an annual awards ceremony each November. They’ve slowly but surely established a role and an identity for themselves; it would be a shame to see them disappear after all that hard work. Awards are decided following a complex and rigorous nomination and judging process, taking in hundreds of films from the many and diverse countries involved. An APSA Academy was established in 2008, with an influential alumni of filmmakers growing by around 100 each year. Development funding is now provided to the region’s filmmakers, aiming to stimulate collaboration. Eight films are now at various stages of production.

Des Power, who was behind APSA from the beginning, says that “it’s been a very difficult year for the government, financially, and we want to give them a bit of latitude, use a bit of common sense.” As he explains, it was always envisaged that once the awards were firmly established, they would be held every second year in Brisbane, and in one of the member countries in the alternate year. “We’ve had some very healthy discussions about this, and we’re hoping to be able to announce that this year APSA will take place in one of several cities in the region.” He adds that the move from the Gold Coast to Brisbane last year was very successful, and he’s hopeful that more screening opportunities for APSA’s nominated films will present themselves in future, not only at the Brisbane International Film Festival, but with other festivals and events around Australia.

a model past its use-by date?

Late last year, as the movie award season got under way, Andrew L Urban in his online journal Urban Cinephile argued that “the use-by date for film awards has arrived.” Mainly talking about the Oscars, but with remarks that could also be applied to the AACTAs, he complained about “outdated and old world restrictions” and “creaky and inadequate” categories, arguing that “there really is no rational way to argue that 282 films made in 2012 can be assessed for a single Best Picture award, nor that there is only one contribution in all the other categories that deserves the ‘Best’ stamp.” He added, “So far, no awards body has managed to find an effective alternative system to the template: the nominees & winner formula remains cast in concrete.”

He also suggested that “in a more sophisticated world where people with vision and imagination manage such things, there may be a system that recognises and encourages excellence without demanding that there be one ‘winner,’ a few also-rans and hundreds of ‘losers’…one way to overcome some of the major limitations and strictures of old awards systems might be to discard the old nomination/winners construct and instead to recognise ‘Outstanding Achievement’ in the various award categories…(giving) equal value to all the work that has been peer-judged as outstanding…it elevates the accolade for each and avoids having to compare apples with oranges.”

Some kind of radical overhaul of the system is definitely needed. The constant criticism, both here and overseas, allied with disappointing audience numbers, would certainly indicate that we don’t need this bloated, out-of-date and very expensive monster. A solution is needed that addresses all the issues, canvasses alternatives and hopefully comes up with something new, different and genuinely fresh and exciting; something that does away with the current categories and looks at what awards are actually for. The Sydney Prize, given out at the Sydney Film Festival’s relatively new competition, goes to the film that best satisfies a very specific set of criteria, including innovation—why not then work towards a number of awards, each with its own criteria? We’re looking to compare very different work and practices, and there are all sorts of ways in which this could be done, but we need to start! The situation that AACTA finds itself in should provide a perfect impetus to do something a lot more radical than just fiddle around at the edges.

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 18

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

22 April 2013