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WA screen culture: the good news

Richard Sowada

Richard Sowada is director of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, a lecturer on documentary and an independent film curator.

Screen culture in Australia has changed profoundly over the last decade. The wholesale integration of ‘independent’ exhibition into national distribution corporations, the resulting disintegration of the independent exhibition circuit, post September 11 insurance and freight increases, dwindling funding options and greater box office pressure from exhibitors have all had major effects. Increasingly, independent screen culture events have to unwillingly compete with the commercial imperatives of the distribution and exhibition sector. Though the objectives of the 2 are very different, the dynamics of one are directly transposed on the other. Funding agencies are increasingly market driven. In their response to these dramatic shifts most funds are actually going backwards. Screen culture is simply not a priority.

In Western Australia, funding has been lacklustre, falling short of professional expectations and industry demands. Until 2003, screen culture funding for individual projects from the state film development agency, ScreenWest, was capped at $3,000 (though some received more) with the entire annual screen culture fund of $53,000 servicing 25 major and smaller projects/partnerships. Traditional alternate funding opportunities have also dried up with one of the largest government arts funders—Healthway—refusing to fund any film (or arts) project that depicts smoking in any form, whatever the context.

Despite these difficulties, event-based screen culture activity in WA has seen consistent growth. Grass Roots, Revelation Film Festival, Over the Fence, Big Screen, SPLIF are excellent independent examples. It is against this backdrop of enormous industry change and frustratingly static funding levels that a number of WA based practitioners have engaged ScreenWest in aggressive and sustained lobbying, the aim being to create a competitive and professionally based fund and policy with long-term purpose, muscle and impact for all.

Via this sustained pressure, ScreenWest has comprehensively restructured its existing program to create a model that centres on development opportunities and the encouragement of new players across the sector. Previously the fund had twice-yearly application rounds with projects applying to a single fund and assessed internally. The new structure provides a significant departure both in funds and strategic development. ScreenWest has approved a $25,000 injection, taking the fund to $78,000. Of this, $10,000 is an ongoing grant to the Australian Writers Guild, the remainder invested in independent screen culture. Fresh from the ScreenWest Board comes the approval of a 3-tiered structure. There will be a triennial fund of $30,000 for established, locally generated projects that demonstrate long-term strategies and development potential. An annual grant pool of $26,000 has been established for one-off or established local and national projects whose initiators have proven track records. Local events that show ongoing potential may be invited for application to triennial funds. A development fund of $12,000 for new events and practitioners is designed to provide new players with adequate funding and direct mentoring opportunities with industry professionals in the development of their project. The Film & Television Institute (FTI) will administer this fund.

The central priorities in the restructure are to raise the standard of all events and applicants and to encourage the engagement of greater rigour in examining WA audience and industry specifics to develop critical, curatorial, employment and analytical skills in the state and with the applicants. Projects will be peer assessed.

Timing of the rounds is yet to be established but the $25,000 fund increase fell well short of industry needs and recommendations which advised a conservative, considered and well argued $50,000 injection. However, levels will be reviewed as early as February via ScreenWest’s half-yearly budget analysis so the outlook is hopeful for possible increases.

In a positive response to increased costs, the fund is CPI-indexed and reviewed annually in consultation with a new independent screen culture industry body. This body will examine streamlining local and national project logistics in the creation of consolidated freight, advertising, equipment and accommodation accounts to facilitate bottom line reductions for event-based projects local or otherwise.

Compared with the lack of movement in previous years, this restructure will greatly benefit and impact on the local and national sector. It does not at this stage embrace critical writings, journals and publications, electronic or otherwise, a major sticking point that remains to be effectively addressed and will also provide an immediate and initial focus for the new sector body.

ScreenWest’s movement on this issue and its recognition of the sector as a professional activity in its own right must be applauded, along with the commitment of local practitioners who brought it to the table. Certainly the structure of the new fund is very strong and perhaps one of the best in the country in its intent, but this must be supported by muscle, providing the sector with the ability to develop, not simply survive.

Richard Sowada is director of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, a lecturer on documentary and an independent film curator.

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 16

© Richard Sowada; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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