Sunday 26 April 2015

By the numbers - some thoughts about Sydney cinephilia

The most popular venue in Sydney at the moment for viewing films presented in curated programmes and accompanied by quality programme notes is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales located on the edge of the city in Sydney's Domain. Presented on such a shoestring budget that the curator Robert Herbert is also the projectionist, the AGNSW presents a film program, of the same film or films twice on Wednesdays at 2.00 pm and 7.00 pm with another repeat screening on Sunday at 2.00 pm. By only observation I think the screenings average a couple of hundred attendees. Programmes are selected to accompany exhibitions at the Gallery and the curator is thus somewhat hamstrung in his choices. When the Archibald Prize exhibition is on, the film season will be 'Potraits' or the like. Currently, to accompany a major exhibition of Australian photography Robert has curated a season of Australian docos and features tilted "Brought to Light; Troublemakers, boat-rockers, trailblazers and whistleblowers." This lack of independence does mean that the AGNSW screenings have to operate in a lonely fashion. They are not shared and do not tour to other venues. Nor does the AGNSW allow itself to participate in any shows, touring to or programmed into ACMI in Melbourne, GOMA in Brisbane or any retrospectives  that may be presented by the major film festivals in other cities. It is a very restrictive remit and one which probably could have been abandoned long ago in favour of an independently selected and presented programme that gives greater freedom and allows for more cooperation with other institutions. Still the films presented regularly draw crowds that often go close to packing out the theatre. Admission is free and to get in you line up early to get a ticket and when the ticket allocation is gone that's it.

The American critic, curator and programmer Dave Kehr was recently in Australia attending, as part of his new day job as a Curator of Film at MoMA in New York, the International Conference of the Federation of International Film Archives (FIAF). He also extended his stay to host screenings in  Sydney and Melbourne. In Melbourne he screened a 35mm print of Raoul Walsh's Wild Girl (1932) and a DCP of Allan Dwan's  The Iron Mask .  279 people attended a screening hosted by the Melbourne Cinematheque. The next night at a screening in Sydney of The Iron Mask only around fifty people turned up for an event hosted by the Film Critics Circle of Australia at the AFTRS Theatre in Moore Park. The AFTRS Theatre has apparently not been certified to screen film archive prints and thus Wild Girl could not be shown. In Melbourne admission was confined to people who had either a full twelve months Cinematheque membership, or  used a mini - season  pass i.e. one that allow admission to three consecutive screenings.  Both of these are paid. In Sydney admission was free. 

Informed spectators have now explained to me, since this piece was first posted, a couple of things. First, the admission policy of three successive screenings on one ticket purchase ensures that this qualifies the screening as 'non-theatrical' the charge being for a 'membership' rather than a theatrical admission. Specifically it means that films can be screened, eg, from the NFSA's lending collection, without breaching the non-theatrical conditions of loan. A free public screening does not qualify, at least in the case of feature films. In these cases a clearance to use a library print is required from the distributor which generally involves paying a negotiated rental fee. Second, This arrangement gives advantageous access to some films at a cheaper or no licensing fee. It also helps prove their non profit bona fides to some film archives. As well, it does help attract audiences - whilst still price signalling that the screening has some value, compared to a free screening program. My informant suggests that this arrangement should be compared to that which occasionally applies at GoMA in Brisbane. That institution puts on free screenings and there is a tendency for audiences, apparently tolerated by the management, to wander in and out as if it's video art.

On Monday nights throughout the year, Sydney's Chauvel cinema screens a program ‘curated’ by a person employed by Palace Cinemas, the management. This is called, by the Chauvel, a Cinematheque. The prints used are 16mm copies supplied by the National Film Lending Service of the National Film & Sound Archive. The Chauvel does not otherwise have access to the NFSA's collection. Admission is paid and punters are required to buy a ticket which admits to three screenings over the forthcoming month. This system is no doubt intended to qualify as a 'membership' in the terms set out above. Audience numbers vary from very few to a few dozen or more. 

Film School Confidential commenced this year and this 'semester' is a program of eight specially selected movies which began on March 11. It is sponsored by the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and screens in the AFTRS theatre in Moore Park. Each film is selected by a guest presenter, these being people from or associated with the film industry. Audiences have so far ranged from a maximum of fifty to just a couple of dozen, notwithstanding a massive advertising bombardment via the  AFTRS website , the Film Alert email and a website   specially created by Barbara Grummels. Admission to the screenings is free though the organisers make clear that regrettably they have not been able to wangle free beer for the usually excellent post-screening discussions.

The WEA Film Group screens fortnightly on Sunday afternoons at the WEA premises in Bathurst Street. The program, mostly selected by the inveterately enthusiastic Leth Maitland consists of classics and rarities screened on DVDs supplied by the NFSA and also by the Goethe Society. Admission is by season ticket which costs about $100 per anum. Average attendance is about a dozen people, sometimes more.

For decades people have talked about establishing a Cinematheque in Sydney. By this they usually mean a Film Centre of the kind represented by ACMI,which incorporates the Melbourne Cinematheque, GOMA, the former ARC Cinema programmes in Canberra, the Mercury Cinema in Adelaide and maybe others. 

What's interesting though is how small attendances are at all venues except for the AGNSW. You have to wonder whether the enthusiasm for the concept would actually be matched by any large numbers coming out. More later as I think about this, or indeed get any reactions.

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