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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Defending AFTRS - An update on the Film School's activities prompted by the arrival of the new CEO

In response to a note I sent to the then Arts Minister drawing his attention to the information contained in the most popular and widely read post on this website (which you can find here), a Federal Government official wrote in reply:

“As the national screen arts and broadcast school, AFTRS continues to adapt to the changing demands of the industry in order to provide advanced education and training to meet the evolving needs of Australia’s screen and broadcast industries. AFTRS has been rated as one of the best film schools internationally and the Australian Government is proud to support its commitment to nurturing young artists. I note that AFTRS students have the opportunity for training in all facets of film and television production and in radio broadcasting, and it is notable that almost all graduating radio broadcasting students are employed in their chosen field.”

To make it easy here are some relevant paras from that earlier post:

In the ten years between 1993 and 2002, the Australian Film, Television & Radio School produced 29 graduates who have directed 55 feature films.

In the ten years between 2003 and 2012, the School produced 3 graduates who have directed 5 feature films.

AFTRS began life as an elite institution intended to find and develop the most talented would-be film-makers. Much has always been made of that extraordinary group of young people who were in the first so-called Interim class designed to get the thing up and moving including Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong, Chris Noonan, Graham Shirley and James Ricketson. Whoever conducted the search for would be students did an amazing job. Later years saw a panoply of talent find its way to the school and benefit from the national largesse involved in training of the highest order. There was much envy at the resources, physical and financial, devoted to AFTRS from film schools in the outlying states which had to battle on with much more limited resources. But such is the way for elite training institutions.

Among the initiatives for which AFTRS could devote resources was that for the dedicated training of indigenous film-makers, initially held in 1991, 1993 and 1994. Over the next seven years AFTRS trained a whole generation of Indigenous filmmakers including Rachel Perkins, Warwick Thornton, Ivan Sen, Catriona McKenzie, Adrian Wills, Beck Cole, Steve McGregor and Darlene Johnson – all of whom were selected for the immersive, conservatory-type training courses in merit-based competition along with other applicants.

What was achieved? Well, this may smack of a bias towards elitism, but what was being aimed at was the production of film-makers who would make the highest quality films. They would win international as well as local prizes. They would be invited to the world’s great film competitions, in Europe most especially, where each year perhaps fifty films are identified by the international program selectors and endorsed by the international critical and distribution communities as the best on offer for this moment of time. This is an expensive process and one fraught with risk at many steps. A poor or sub-standard faculty, unsympathetic administrators, reductions in government funding and lots of other external factors can seriously and continuously blight an institution’s general level of achievement.

People are now taking a serious look at just what AFTRS did in the distant past and what it’s up to now as a new CEO arrives to take charge at a time when the school, from the start of 2015, apparently headed in a new direction.
I don’t think the Federal Government official’s reply quoted above really got to the nub of the matter but heck they get a lot of complaints about everything these days and signing off these things, and in the process defending the Government and its institutions, is what they are paid to do. Been there and done that myself.

So.....AFTRS – the here and now.
New CEO Neil Peplow has arrived from the UK and is now part of the here and now. Since he arrived AFTRS has already been subject to some interesting recent developments.  First of all one thing has been completed. The departing departmental head Ben Gibson has now been appointed to run the Berlin Film School and according to a report in Inside Film has completed a research project for AFTRS Council documenting the nature and use of screen Master of Fine Arts degrees. Whether this has already been considered or is to be considered when a full Council has been assembled is not known.

I should explain that at this time it should be noted that although AFTRS legislation prescribes that it shall be governed by a Council of Nine members*, at present it has only five. It has no Chair (Professor Julianna Schultz has apparently departed after only one three-year term) and two of the current five members - the CEO and the staff elected rep - are drawn from the School staff. This is not as a rule the way to manage a major tertiary institution. Needless to say, no Council Member is raising any sort of public peep about this situation nor is the Labor Opposition, the Greens, the Clive Palmer group, Nick Xenophon, John Madigan, David Leyonhelm or Bob Katter to name forty. AFTRS affairs do not rate highly on the public interest scale.
Those remaining Board Members are currently unable to take any decisions that might materially affect what’s happening at the school. However some action has been taken. The School has posting on its website a survey regarding industry skills and is seeking to have both companies and individuals respond. AFTRS explains this thus: AFTRS is issuing a call to employers and professionals across film, TV, radio, VFX, animation, brand management and interactive sectors to provide insight into the education and training needs of the screen and broadcast industry.In a constantly changing media landscape, AFTRS' Industry Skills Survey will identify immediate priorities as well as signpost future needs and trends. As the screen and broadcast industries continue to be disrupted by new technologies and distribution platforms, it is essential that the necessary skills and talent needed to adapt are identified and addressed to ensure future growth and innovation.AFTRS is asking for you to tell us what skills you or your employees need both now, and in the near future. The online survey is quick and simple to complete and AFTRS will publish the findings in 2016.

So AFTRS would claim it is looking forward.

The essence however of the most popular post ever published on this blog was that whatever the future may hold, the past shouldn’t be dumped. The educational protocols that produced such an array of quality feature film directing talent from inception to around the early 2000s (hard to put an exact date on it) was overthrown and AFTRS has stopped producing talented directors able to advance quality film-making in  Australia. One statistic would seem to sum up the major changes wrought at the institution. Until 2007, AFTRS was graduating around 60 per year in Film and Television. Since 2008, the School has been graduating approximately 180 to 250 per year in Film and Television.
AFTRS is certainly not looking back over its shoulder to examine just what it might have been doing right or wrong since the early 2000s, the subject of the post mentioned above. But as one harbinger of just how it sees itself, AFTRS has put up a news item  in which it lists 23 AACTA nominations for AFTRS alumni for their work across film & TV including Best Film and Best Director in 2015.

So here’s this year’s list of AACTA nominees, taken from the AFTRS website.

·         Best Film: Sue Maslin (The Dressmaker), Robert Connolly (Paper Planes)
·         Best Direction: Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker)
·         Best Original Screenplay: Robert Connolly, Steve Worland (Paper Planes)
·         Best Cinematography: Steve Arnold ACS (Last Cab to Darwin)
·         Best Editing: Andy Canny (Cut Snake), Margaret Sixel (Mad Max: Fury Road)
·         Best Sound: Alex Francis (The Dressmaker)
·         Best TV Drama Series: Tony Ayres (Glitch)
·         Best Direction in a TV Drama or Comedy: Shawn Seet (Peter Allen - Not The Boy Next Door Ep 2), Kriv Stenders (The Principal E 1)
·         Best Screenplay in TV: Jacquelin Perske (Deadline Gallipoli Part 1)
·         Best Sound in TV: Rainier Davenport, Annie Breslin (Redfern Now - Promise Me)
·         Best Original Music Score in TV: Antony Partos (Redfern Now - Promise Me)
·         Best Short Fiction Film: Kelrick Martin (Karroyul)
·         Best Feature Length Documentary: Gillian Armstrong (Women He's Undressed)
·         Best Documentary Television Program: Jo-anne Mcgowan (Between a Frock and a Hard Place), Kelrick Martin (Prison Songs)
·         Best Direction in a Documentary: Kelrick Martin (Prison Songs)
·         Best Editing in a Documentary: Andrea Lang ASE (The Cambodian Space Project - Not Easy Rock'n'roll)
·         Best Sound in a Documentary: Dan Miau (Life on the Reef Ep 1)
·         Best Original Music Score in a Documentary: Antony Partos (Sherpa

Of note however is there are only two nominations for an AFTRS graduate from the past thirteen years. One is Sue Maslin, producer of The Dressmaker,  who successfully  completed an AFTRS Master of Screen Arts and Business in 2013. At that time she was already an established producer with 3 features, 2 feature length docos, 4 docos and 2 shorts under her belt. The other is Alex Francis, a 2012 graduate who has been nominated for best sound.
Over those thirteen years AFTRS received Government support of $282.7 million.
*There are nine members of the Council, specified under the Act:
·         three members appointed by the Governor-General
·         three members appointed from convocation by the Council
·         the Chief Executive Officer, ex officio
·         one staff member elected by staff each year

·         one student member elected by students each year.


  1. It's very difficult to draw conclusions from the simple statistics of feature films directed by AFTRS graduates from any particular range of years, however tempting it might be. It might be that the quality of training has declined: it might be that the selection process has deteriorated: it might be that the intended outcome of training has widened, or that the school simply doesn't pursue feature direction as the pinnacle of film making careers. These are the simplest conclusions, but they assume that all else has remained equal in the industry.
    However, in that recent period, until this year, it has to be said that the quality of features being made in Australia has been pretty poor. That must go to wider causes than the output of AFTRS - after all, while those 1970s AFTS graduates have had legendary careers making great films, they were among many others who didn't go to any film school.
    Incidentally, there are now many more film schools or media departments of universities than there used to be: some of them perhaps much more nimble, by virtue of being privately run,and small, in responding to student desires and industry needs.
    It's being noted in many countries, including Australia, that top talent is now turning to TV production. Does that perhaps figure? In the 70s and 80s, if you didn't make feature films - on modest but hard-to-raise budgets - you weren't in the game. Now there are so very many more outlets for "media makers", while what they call "feature films" are not necessarily what we'd have called feature films a generation ago.
    In other words, I am troubled by the process of applying parameters that were relevant in the 70s and 80s, to a new generation of film makers and of film making.
    That said, it does seem that AFTRS has shifted dramatically in its mission since those heady days - especially under Sandra Levy. I believe that of late it recruits school-leavers rather than those already demonstrating credentials in the industry. It certainly seems to have averred itself against any charges of elitism - and in so doing it has removed its valuable point-of-difference from the tech colleges and university media departments, and - lo and behold - as a result it has failed to produce an elite.
    There is probably much more: but I do think it's important to judge the school's performance with appropriate criteria.

    1. The point of this series of posts has been to point out that AFTRS is aspecial institution built and supported with a view to maximising the talented who will eventually enhance our reputation as a film-making nation. It's not a TAFE responding to shortfalls in the workforce. At least it wasn't. The survey suggests that's where it heading to.

      Why therefore can’t conclusions be drawn from simple statistics of feature films directed by AFTRS graduates? The reasons cited above - 1. Quality of training declined 2. Selection process deteriorated 3. School doesn’t want to pursue feature direction as the pinnacle of film making careers - are all AFTRS-created reasons. Of course you can say the School isn’t creating as many directors if it fails to train them properly, select them properly or teach them properly.

      The poster seems to accept that AFTRS has dumbed down but doesn’t think we should be allowed to make comparisons to previous decades because “I am troubled by the process of applying parameters that were relevant in the 70s and 80s”. Easy to say, but tell us why. If we can’t compare, then the new AFTRS is bullet-proof to criticism. And factually wrong anyhow. The blog specifically compares the 90s, not the 70s and 80s.

      If producing feature film directors isn’t an appropriate criterion than it would be good to have a discussion as to what is.

      “Feature films are not necessarily what we’d have called feature films a generation ago”. Not sure about that.