The 2020 AACTA awards are coming in hot, with a Covid-afflicted ceremony to be held in November, replete with staggered sittings to ensure guest safety in a limited capacity. As we near the ten year anniversary of the creation of the AACTA Awards, I’m curious about how Australia’s answer to the Academy Awards are celebrating the event.

What follows is mostly my perspective on the AACTA Awards as they stand today – an institution which I value immensely as a way of maintaining, supporting, elevating, and curating, the monolith that is Australian cinema. I’m more than a little passionate about it, and given the trajectory of the past year and beyond, I’m finding myself stymied by a general malaise about the future of Australian film, so why not take a look at the pinnacle of filmic quality as a way of exorcising some of those demons.

This is not going to be an in depth exploration of the academy’s achievements and transformations over the decade, that kind of assessment requires an novel-like critique that will come one day, but rather a look at what is currently going on right now for the AACTA’s.

First cab off the rank is the manner that the previous name for the academy, the AFI (Australian Film Institute), appears to be in the process of being phased out. When the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts was created in 2011, it was done so to compliment the AFI, working in harmony with that decades-long establishment. For the past decade, AACTA has worked as the industry body, with the AFI being the public portal to enjoying Australian film and television. It’s been fairly complimentary, and up until now, it’s been a predominantly innocuous aspect of AACTA.

Now, the AFI membership has undergone a name change, and is now known as AACTA General. There are now three different tiers of AACTA membership that address all aspects of Australian film, the audience, the newcomers, and the established professionals.

The tiers are as follows:

AACTA Professional – Open to accredited screen professionals and industry practitioners, AACTA Professional membership provides you with the opportunity to connect with friends, colleagues and creators working in the Australian screen industry.

AACTA General – Available to everyone, AACTA General membership offers a complete passport to the very best in Australian screen, connecting you to the very heart and soul of our screen entertainment industry.

AACTA Student – AACTA Student membership provides access to a range of resources aimed at further developing understanding the industry, whether you are an emerging creator, have an interest in screen culture or a student in any field.

https://www.aacta.org/membership/

On the surface AACTA Professional description seems a little analogous with many of the guilds within Australia who already provide industry connection events and platforms (plus, you know, there’s Facebook), making the proposal of paying $140 a year for membership a questionable one. With that said, there are discount benefits via AACTA Rewards, but that doesn’t cushion the blow of the entry fee for films.

Right, for feature films, as of 2020, the cost breakdown is:

Budget over $2m – $1,499
Budget $500K – $2m – $999
Budget under $500K – $499

https://www.aacta.org/aacta-awards/entries/film/feature-film/

For documentaries:

Budget over $1M – $730
Budget $500K – $1M – $600
Budget under $500K – $480

https://www.aacta.org/aacta-awards/entries/documentary/documentary/

And, naturally cheaper, for short films:

Entry Fee – $85
Student Entry Fee – $60

https://www.aacta.org/aacta-awards/entries/short-form/short-film/

The Screen Australia page for annual average budget per film is absolutely useless when figuring out the entry fee cost for films. Right now, it states that the average film budget in Australia for 2018/19 was $9.59million, and while I don’t have the totals at hand, the reality is that this average excludes countless micro-budget indies.

It’s easy to get on a soap box about the cost of entry fees for filmmakers in Australia, especially given the costs of submitting Australian films into festivals around the world, post production costs, plus the work that goes into touring the film around Australia and just to get it in front of an audience, and that’s not even including the free promotional work that filmmakers undertake to get their film noticed. But, these fees are no small figure for Australian films, especially under a government that has continually stripped away support for the arts.

Let’s take a look at Hot Mess, an entrant in the 2020 AACTA Awards. The film cost a couple of thousand dollars to make, and has toured around Australia as a festival film. The filmmakers would have paid $499 to enter the film in this years awards with the hope that it would get some kind of attention in the AACTA Award for Best Indie Film category. Given in 2019, the AACTA’s bizarrely combined the adapted and original script categories into the AACTA Award for Best Screenplay, the Indie Film category is the best chance that Hot Mess has for a nomination.

So, for $499, it pushes the film in front of voters, and hopefully gets their attention amongst the sea of other films they need to watch for consideration. It’s obvious that the bigger budget films will rise to the top, garnering prime viewing position in the voters schedule, and pushing down the indie films. With that in mind, the team behind Hot Mess will have likely spent half of their original budget just to get the film in front of eyes.

With less government funding for Australian films, and a precarious future for the global film industry as a whole, it’ll put even more financial pressure on filmmakers like Lucy Coleman who want to make small films like Hot Mess. I’ve been vocal about the gatekeeping that entry fees for the industries major awards institution instigates, with it acting as a financial barrier for many filmmakers, and as such, excludes them from feeling part of the industry they make films within.

Why doesn’t membership alone secure you the right to enter your film in that years awards? Where does the entry fee money go? Isn’t the lucrative branding and marketing from Foxtel and the naming of awards by major businesses like Event Cinemas enough monetary support for AACTA? Or, are they struggling to stay afloat?

The Oscars are struggling to stay afloat financially, with their proposed museum supposed to act as a revenue raiser that will ideally support them when ABC America starts to get nervous about diminishing audience numbers. Are the AACTA’s in the same realm? If so, there is a grander discussion about the need for awards bodies going forward. Do they matter? That’s for a different discussion at a different time.

The introduction of budget ranking for awards was meant to increase the range of films honoured, celebrating the smaller films, while also championing the bigger budget films. And sure, that has been the case with notable films like Acute Misfortune and Buoyancy now getting be registered in AACTA history as nominees, but they’re still relegated to this one category, struggling to break out into the other major fields.

Which leads to the next issue: ten years on, the AACTA’s face an identity problem after changes to the voting structure.

As mentioned, the phasing out of the audience membership of the AFI into the AACTA General membership comes with some new perks for lay folk like myself. I’m an appendage to the Australian film industry, a critic who boosts his self-importance by convincing himself that he’s doing it for the continuation, evaluation, and furthering of the Australian cultural identity. With that in mind, I should, theoretically, be enamoured by the news that General members can now vote for nominees in the Best Film, Best Indie Film, and Best Documentary categories. This is on top of being already able to vote for Best Short Film.

As per the AACTA email:

New in 2020, all AACTA General Members (previously AFI) can now vote to determine nominees for Best Film, Best Indie Film and Best Documentary. All films and documentaries in competition are still available to watch via AACTA TV

https://mailchi.mp/afi.org.au/voting-open-short-film-199043?e=ab41d26736

But, why should those external to the industry who pay for a membership be able to vote for the biggest film award of the year? As a critic, I already have by say with the Australian Film Critics Association end of year awards. For those who aren’t critics, there’s always the audience awards, or even the various Facebook groups out there, like Greg Murphy’s Aussie Movie Favourites Facebook group where folks share their favourite Australian films.

As with most announcements from the AACTA’s this year, this has been delivered with little fanfare. Admittedly, the difficulty of organising an awards ceremony in a pandemic has made decision making more complex. But, this kind of voting change adjusts the foundation of what it means to be an AACTA nominated film. To be clear, General members cannot vote for the nominated films, but the role they play in deciding what will go down in history as a Best Film nominee is transformative.

This leads to a skewed perspective of the films that are nominated under the AACTA’s banner. In the past, box office champions had supporters eager to see them battle it out for gold glory. Now, in a year where the highest grossing Australian film is a Hollywood horror reimagining, and countless Aussie films either skipped cinemas, or failed to get a proper release at all, that obvious figurehead to get behind is less clear. Maybe dragging in the General members will help boost the variety nominated? Without knowing exactly how many members there are, it’s hard to speculate how this move will turn out. Gavin Scott hinted at the difficulty the AACTA’s were having with boosting membership in his piece on SBS about the 2015 ceremony, stating:

…it’s a big deal for the local industry that streaming service Presto is airing a one-off Home and Away special. So big that the Netflix rival sponsored the AACTAs to get the word out – and had their logo everywhere. But did we really need the actual ceremony to grind to a halt so a trailer for it could be shown? They actually brought a pair of Home and Away stars onstage as presenters to plug it. Tacky. See also: the AACTA membership drive courtesy of Daniel MacPherson, Manu Feildel and Erik Thompson. There are more subtle ways to do things.

https://www.sbs.com.au/guide/article/2015/12/10/11-thoughts-we-had-while-watching-aactas

If you have to get celebrities to drive up membership stats and get the industry excited to join in for the awards that are about them, then you’re already on the backfoot.

Which brings me to the AACTA Audience Choice Awards.

In a move to celebrate the decade of awards, the AACTA’s have thrown open the doors to the public at large to determine what the Best Australian Film of the Decade is, alongside other superfluous ‘awards’ like, Favourite TV Contestant of the Decade, Favourite Global Star of the Decade, and Defining TV Moment of the Decade.

By ‘the public’, I should state that it is technically, as per their wording, the ‘News Corp Australia readers’ who have a chance to vote in the ‘exclusive’ poll (although, anyone can submit their votes). This kind of audience voting, as done through the Daily Telegraph portal, is Logie-adjacent nonsense, tarnishing the brand name of the AACTA’s. It doesn’t take a genius to realise how broadly criticised News Corps is as an institution, which makes the AACTA’s association with them feel, well, tacky.

The ten films in consideration include seven winners, three nominees, and a blockbuster Hollywood bunny flick: Peter Rabbit, Red Dog, The Sapphires, The Great Gatsby, The Babadook, Ali’s Wedding, The Water Diviner, The Dressmaker, Lion, Ride Like a Girl, and Mad Max: Fury Road. The two Best Film winners missing are Indigenous dramas Sweet Country and The Nightingale.

Is Peter Rabbit better than Sweet Country and The Nightingale just because it earned more money at the box office? Why is a Hollywood film considered bigger/better than a film that actually won the Best Picture award? If this is how the AACTA’s seek to celebrate a decade of Australian film and TV, then the situation is worse than originally thought.

The realisation that the audience for Australian ‘content’ is one that mostly focused around ‘reality’ TV shows is a dark and bleak one. Are we really putting ‘The Honey Badger Not Choosing a Partner’ on the same audience poll asking whether The Babadook is better than Peter Rabbit? The two entities have cultural value, but are inherently opposed to one another as an indication of cultural identity. One is casual entertainment, a salve for the mind at the end of a busy day, the other aims to engage you intellectually.

I’m nitpicking, of course, but I’m failing to see the relevance of such a poll, especially one that negates two Best Film winners.

There is, naturally, a greater push for television content, away from films. Discussions about television have been higher than those about Aussie films, with workplace chats about Total Control, Mystery Road, and Wentworth, sitting alongside discussions about Game of Thrones, Succession, and Stranger Things. Aussie stories live on the small screen and are supported in a way that Aussie films simply aren’t.  

And maybe that’s what the future of the AACTA’s is: a keen focus on serial content, with a gentle nod towards the films that have been made. With the future of Australian film in the balance after ‘Arts’ Minister Paul Fletcher’s caustic media reforms, it’s hard to see anything else happening in the future. One would hope that the AACTA’s would empathise with the financially strapped members that make up its body, and accommodate their future when it comes to entry fee costs.  

I’m being overtly critical of the AACTA’s mostly because of the lack of transparency with their decisions. I’ll still watch and support the AACTA’s, doing my bit to reinforce their cultural importance, even as they celebrate ‘Australian’ films like The Invisible Man where the Aussie identity is scaled back to the point where it doesn’t exist. As a critic and someone who engages with the industry regularly, the dearth of announcements about anything that’s happened this year creates an air of anxiety that does little to comfort the already disturbed landscape of Australian film.