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A new era begins this week for the venerable, 53 year old Australian Film Institute (AFI). After last week’s public forums in Sydney and Melbourne, and months of industry consultations, the AFI is ready to mobilise its plans to bring the AFI Awards show to the Sydney Opera House, move the event to January and start work on forming a professional Academy, says Andrew L. Urban.

The Academy will comprise only accredited professionals (including all nominees and winners of AFI Awards), and will mean transforming its professional membership. “But it’s not just a rebranding exercise,” says AFI Chair Alan Finney, “it’s a matter of getting the professionals fully involved and to really participate.” 

The AFI has been planning and consulting the industry for the past 18 months in its review of its future and has the support of the professional guilds for an Academy that will involve them all. It has also received about 150 responses from members and the broader community via the survey on its website (about 80% are positive) and has just held public forums in Sydney and Melbourne (June 29 & 30) to show it is listening to everyone with an interest in its future.

"move to form an Academy"

Although the AFI will retain its entity and screen culture functions, and its general members will still vote for the Members Choice award, the AFI’s move to form an Academy from the profession will leave the awards field for the cinema going public to the IF Awards, which is open to everyone attending an Australian film to rate it for a fair and balanced result.

Originally made up of general public who love movies (paying annual fees of $55), the AFI has taken this step to fully engage with the pros, hoping to address some concerns within the industry about the way the AFI awards have been structured. 

To some practitioners, the AFI Awards have become a messy mix, made up of complex voting procedures involving the general membership as well as many professionals through the guilds. In 2009, the AFI split the best film award into two: the official Best Film was peer voted, while the general membership voted for the Members’ Choice Award. (In 2010, Animal Kingdom won both awards.)

"high value, both professionally and commercially"

The major issue of contention from the industry has been that the AFI Awards are not quite the peer awards that practitioners crave. The Oscars, the French Césars, the British BAFTAs and the European Film Awards (to name a few) are all strictly peer voting award systems and this is what gives them such high value, both professionally and commercially.

There was also some dissent over the decision to hold the awards show over two nights – one not telecast, the other designed to attract TV broadcasters and audiences.

One practicing professional wrote on the AFI website: “I resigned my AFI membership at the same time as the AFI decided it would no longer hold the ‘craft awards’ with the ‘celebrity awards’. That was when I realised the AFI cared not for me or the other hard working members of the industry that actually make the films against incredible odds and often under dreadful pay and conditions…”

But another member, filmmaker Martha Ansara, has promised that she will “renew my membership and thoroughly support the changes – as I have tried to support the AFI in the past until I simply gave up. I think that the new energy and the new advisory board has the best possible hope of attracting greater participation…”

Geoff Gardner, once the director of the Melbourne Film Festival and still an advisor to several other film festivals, is adamant that this proposed move to an Academy is “a tacit admission that the AFI’s only remaining real purpose has devolved down into managing and presenting its annual awards. Its claim to be Australia’s foremost screen culture organisation no longer has any validity.

"one time an organisation which provided research facilities for scholars"

“The AFI was at one time an organisation which provided research facilities for scholars, managed a library of independent Australian and foreign films, exhibited cutting edge other stuff in its own cinemas, published material on film culture, history and production, managed a national cinematheque and ran the AFI Awards. Drip by drip the activities dried up,” writes Gardner in his regular newsletter, Film Alert.

AFI’s CEO Damien Trewhella admits that “Our critics are right, screen culture activities are admittedly relatively modest at this time, but these will continue. These changes we propose are not at the cost of those activities. If anything, I think the Academy would feed those screen culture activities by bringing more people into the mix.”

The move of the presentation to the international ‘award season’ and its attendant buzz at the beginning of the calendar year is driven by the desire to allow the awards system to include many more projects from 2011. 

To reinforce the presentation aspects of the Awards, the AFI has hired Renato Rispoli as AFI Awards Event Director, reporting directly to Trewhella. Renato was formerly with Events NSW and played an integral role in the return of the AFI Awards to Sydney.

Dr George ‘Mad Max’ Miller, Patron of the AFI, issued a statement in support of the proposed changes: “The importance of community, screen culture and the pursuit of excellence, driving forces of the AFI for over 50 years, cannot be underestimated. These factors were pivotal to our industry’s acceleration from the late 60s and are certainly no less important today. The 21st Century offers immense opportunities and the AFI’s proposed development of an Australian Academy cleverly adapts successful elements of the world’s leading screen organizations to local traditions. This unifying of common purpose and effort makes such good sense. It’s a very exciting proposal”.

"a more universally recognizable and understood model, an Australian Academy"

AFI Advisor and industry veteran Greg Coote, who has been instrumental in developing the proposal, also issued a statement: “With a long and rich tradition, the AFI Professional Membership is well placed to be developed into a more universally recognizable and understood model, an Australian Academy.”

The establishment of the Academy is a long term strategy, but the first phase – the establishment of an Honorary Council to guide it – is expected to happen quite soon. “Each professional guild will be represented and we will also have other practitioners to ensure a comprehensive group that takes in all aspects of screen activity, says Trewhella.

Given the significance of the change, Trewhella was “pleasantly surprised how positive the responses have been to the core principles – right across the range of members and industry. The most common response has been ‘it’s about time’.”

Published July 7, 2011

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Animal Kingdom – AFI Members Choice & Best Film, 2010

AFI Patron George Miller

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