Monday 24 August 2015

AFTRS and the quality curve

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.

So what’s gone wrong? My current interest in AFTRS started some little time ago when there were mutterings that there was some sort of skulduggery going on in relation to the appointment of the next CEO. Such things always pique the curiosity, especially when it comes to institutions that are spending your hard-earned taxes. This was taking place against a background of the re-introduction of a three year degree course at the institution and the hiring of Ben Gibson  the former head of the London Film School, to come out here and run the Degree Program. The proof that it was happening is here. My goodness, a job for a wrangler there. But I digress.

Some six months earlier an announcement  about the Degree Program was posted. It noted “The new BA will be the most in-depth and creatively comprehensive screen degree in the world. Designed to prepare Australia’s next generation of creative practitioners to be the leaders in their respective fields, the degree will provide a deeply engaging learning experience that will develop critical thinking and creative engagement.

“It will prepare graduates to be nimble operators in a platform agnostic world. It fuses deep scholarly engagement with the art of storytelling. Two core subjects, ‘Story & Writing’ and ‘The History of Film’ run for three years as well as elective specialist subjects. Throughout the three-year program exciting opportunities for collaboration with other students are fundamental to the course. 
OK, some licence and hyperbole can always be tolerated and whomever came up with the phrase "nimble operators in a platform agnostic world" earned their pay that day.

The announcement naturally made no mention of the abandonment of the Bachelor and Masters Degree Programs which had existed at AFTRS from 1984 to 2009 and that this was in fact a re-instatement of an academic qualification attained by the most prestigious school alumni, those feature film directors and award-winning technicians whose names are referred to over and over again when the school’s achievements are being broadcast. The CEOs of the institution covered by the period for which statistics and records have been examined through to the present were John O’Hara (1989-1995), Rod Bishop (1996-2003), Malcolm Long (2003-2007) and Sandra Levy.(2007-2015

Never mind that. Since then, there has been the appointment of a new CEO to follow Sandra Levy, (CEO from 2007-2015), The announcement  of Neil Peplow’s appointment took a seeming eternity and he has yet to take up his duties at least in situ. Peplow had formerly worked at AFTRS for three years from 2010-2014 before heading back to London to a position as number two at The Met Film School based at London’s Ealing Studios. His AFTRS appointment is his first gig as a CEO. 

The reason for the delay in announcing his appointment was subject of much gossip and speculation as to who and why but more recently as the gossip leaks out the delay has been sheeted home to the chaotic Cabinet appointment processes in the Prime Minister’s private office. The story now being put about is that George Brandis, the Arts Minister, apparently did not seek to intervene in the appointment notwithstanding much scuttlebutt to that effect going round during the weeks and eventually months it took before the appointment was announced.  

Brandis’s private office did not help this process by putting out ludicrously self-contradictory statements to any enquirers to the effect that the AFTRS Act allowed the Board to make the appointment but that Senator Brandis as Arts Minister would ‘approve it’.  The spinelessness of those who might have been able to clarify quite simply these matters as they unfolded was duly noted.

The appointment of Peplow followed in the wake of the somewhat surprise and near instant exit from the building of Ben Gibson  some 9 months into the job. “After nearly 13 years devoted to educating and developing talented filmmakers, first at the helm of the London Film School and more recently here at AFTRS, Ben has decided to pursue his passion for the industry through other avenues.” So went the announcement way back in May. For a period of time AFTRS was planning to survive without either a CEO or its head of Degree Programs. Worse things can happen I suppose.

The AFTRS story continued with a recent piece in The Hollywood Reporter, similar to a piece in the Hollywood Reporter last year, both of which nominated AFTRS as one of the top Film Schools in the world. But the mutterings about what was happening at AFTRS occasioned by the hiring and exiting of  the head of the Degree Program before even the completion of a year of the new program, Sandra Levy’s departure and the delay in the new CEO’s appointment have caused some consternation about what’s happening at the venerable institution. In the absence of any expressed vision from the school itself, the consternation has begun to focus especially on what AFTRS has actually been doing over the last decade when it abandoned its Degree Program, and whether it has allowed standards to slip, lost sight of its primary objectives, failed to produce any film-makers of note and degenerated in its teaching into a soft TAFE-like institution offering courses of high cost to the taxpayer who funds the institution but low value to the industry and the society into which the scores of certificate holders head.

Some measuring sticks 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. 

So here is a list to assist this contemplation (you have to love lists) gathered from all the available information including the admittedly (by AFTRS Alumni section) not up to date school website

Feature film directors graduating from AFTRS between 1993 to 2002

Peter Duncan  Children of the Revolution, 1996; A Little Bit of Soul, 1998; Passion, 1999; Unfinished Sky, 2007
Daniel Krige  West, 2007; Inhuman Resources, 2012
Andrew Lancaster  Accidents Happen, 2009;
Rowan Woods  The Boys, 1998; Little Fish 2005, Winged Creatures, 2009

Robert Connolly  The Bank, 2001; Three Dollars, 2005; Balibo, 2009, The Turning, 2014, Paper Planes, 2015
Sam Lang  The Well, 1997; Monkey’s Mask, 2000; L’Idole, 2002
Craig Monahan, The Interview, 1998; Peaches, 2003, Healing, 2014
Daniel Nettheim, Angst, 2000; The Hunter, 2011

Tony McNamara  The Rage in Placid Lake, 2003; Ashby, 2015
Anna Reeves  Oyster Farmer, 2004
Warwick Thornton  Samson and Delilah, 2009

Rachel Perkins  Radiance, 1999; One Night The Moon, 2001; Bran Nue Dae, 2009,
Michael James Rowland  Lucky Miles, 2007
Mark Forstmann  Monkey Puzzles, 2007
Martin Murphy  Lost Things, 2004

Adam Blaiklock  Caught Inside, 2011
Ivan Sen  Beneath Clouds, 2002; Dreamland, 2009; Toomelah, 2011, Mystery Road, 2014

Louise Alston  All My Friends are leaving Brisbane, 2007; Jucy, 2001
Serhat Caradee  Cedar Boys, 2008
Kim Farrant  Strangerland, 2015
Cate Shortland  Somersault, 2004; Lore, 2012

Sean Byrne  The Loved Ones, 2009; The Devil’s Candy, 2015
Tony Krawitz  Dead Europe, 2012
Claire McCarthy  Cross Life, 2007; The Waiting City, 2009
Catriona McKenzie, Satellite Boy, 2012
Steve Pasvolsky  Deck Dogz, 2004

Peter Carstairs  September, 2009
Beck Cole  Here I Am, 2011

Rupert Glasson - Coffin Rock, 2009; What Lola Wants, 2015

And here is another list from 2003 to 2012 (again gathered from all the available information including the admittedly not up to date AFTRS website.)

Alister Grierson  Kokoda, 2006; Sanctum, 2010

Dean Francis  Road Kill, 2009; Drown, 2015
Granaz Moussaui  My Tehran For Sale, 2010


I think you might be getting the picture of what concerns some of those who look to AFTRS for the continuing production of high quality talented individuals who will go on to participate in the cutting edge area of film production.

Now as these thoughts have been shopped around and discussed there have been some comments made. One of them suggests that another way to measure success is to look at the time taken between graduation and making a feature film.

Here’s a list of AFTRS graduates from 1993 - 2012 who directed a feature within five years of graduation:

Peter Duncan – 3 years
Alister Grierson - 3 years
Rowan Woods – 5 years
Sam Lang – 3 years
Craig Monahan – 4 years
Rachel Perkins – 3 years
Ivan Sen – 5 years
Cate Shortland – 5 years
Steve Pasvolsky – 3 years
Dean Francis – 4 years
Granaz Moussaui – 5 years

In total, 21 graduates directed a film within 10 years of graduation in the 1993 – 2003 period, compared with 3 graduates in the 2003-2012 period. No AFTRS graduate between 2006 and 2012 has made a feature 

Another factor should not be ignored. In the 2003 – 2012 period, low-budget/no-budget digital feature production became a reality. However, there is no evidence of any AFTRS graduate taking this up as an alternative funding pathway.

So, hopefully without labouring the point, let me summarise this: In the ten years between 1993 and 2002, the 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.

Since 2012, the school has not kept proper records, a matter it says it is rectifying, so any data that might affect these notes is not publicly available.

What is to be done.
The questions for Neil Peplow are interesting. A major change in the school’s activity was instituted at the start of 2015. Given the turmoil behind appointing a Head of Degree Programs and then seeing off that person in less than a year, it’s hard to see any change in the mindset of what’s currently being done. A new group of graduates will be through the school by the end of 2017 which might afford the opportunity to take stock and see just what has been achieved. None however will have directed a feature film and given past experience even among the best and brightest this could be five to ten years away.

Should anything be done before then? Should there be a root and branch look at things, preferably not something carried out by management consultants but one driven by the film industry? Maybe advice should also be sought from those associated with AFTRS teaching and administration in the days and decades from whence feature film directors who have made great and enduring films emerged.    


  1. As always, the thought arises, it would be so good to have a simple way of accessing all those films by those young directors, backed up by a simple access to information about them.

  2. Interesting that considering directors in the 93-02 period only were 1/10 of the student population you have chosen to gauge the success of AFTRS only upon them?

  3. Well, I think that's the judgement. If Film Schools aren't producing seriously talented directors then the money is not being well spent. In that period AFTRS produced all those directors who have since gone on to make 55 feature films, with more than a few major prize-winners among them. That talent production line has trailed off quite dramatically in recent years.


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