It must have seemed like a good idea at the time …

When Film Victoria boss Sandra Sdraulig left the funding agency after nearly a decade in the job, Film Victoria’s board decided to throw her a farewell party. Some very nice printed invitations were sent out to 280 guests, and a venue for the swanky cocktail party was duly booked. Melbourne caterers Damn Fine Food provided the canapes and drinks, and a special $10,000 DVD tribute was shot and produced for the occasion. There were even some nice-smelling toiletries from hipster favourites Aesop.

All up, Film Victoria dropped a cool $45,000 on the event.

Unfortunately, word of the soiree reached Labor frontbencher Martin Pakula, who promptly FOI’d the details. The results appeared in the Herald Sun on May 31, complete with an itemised bill. Cue outrage.

Film Victoria reports to Victoria’s Minister for Innovation and Business, Louise Asher, who was apparently less than impressed. Perhaps that’s because she was left off the invitation list — unlike many Labor politicians and former Brumby government figures.

A review of Film Victoria’s events policies was announced, and three board positions have since been advertised.

The Herald Sun made the usual noise about taxpayers’ money being wasted, but many in the industry agreed. After all, as “aaron” commented on film site Encore: “That’s $45,000 they didn’t spend on film development.”

The controversy was only inflamed by Film Victoria’s only public comment on the issue: a spin-heavy “open letter to our Victorian practitioners” from acting CEO Jenni Tosi, in which the agency refused to mention the words “party” or “Sdraulig” at all. Instead, Tosi obliquely referred only to the fact that “this has been an interesting week for Film Victoria” before grudgingly apologising — not for holding the event, mind you, but rather for the controversy it caused.

“We acknowledge that the news has caused some concern and comment in the community and in the industry,” Tosi wrote. “For this we want to say sorry.”

What follows is a rather extraordinary hymn to the value of Film Victoria, complete with laughable PR guff such as  “now it’s time to focus on the future” and “we’ve not lost sight of the big picture”. There’s even a “going forward”, perhaps in ironic tribute to the prime minister.

So what, you’re probably asking? There’s nothing particularly new about bureaucrats living high on the public purse.

But Film Victoria’s party is worth discussing, if only because the funding available to ordinary filmmakers is so small and difficult to access. It also tells us something about the different cultures at the top of Australia’s arts funding agencies, compared to the struggles down at the grassroots.

The truth is that in many parts of the arts, top public servants in funding agencies have almost nothing in common with the penurious artists they represent, effectively occupying a kind of salaried aristocracy in which they enjoy the kind of wages and conditions struggling freelancers can only dream about.

Sdraulig was getting paid upwards of $220,000 a year when she left, according to Film Victoria’s most recent annual report. In contrast, the most recent Australia Council report into artists’ incomes released by Macquarie University Professor David Throsby tells us that more than half of Australia’s artists earn less than $10,000 a year from their practice.

But the Sandra Sdrauligs of this world don’t often mix with the lumpenproletariat of the creative classes. Instead, their privileged position gives them access to wealth and power through the kind of glamor that the screen industry can bestow. And, because of the unique position of power they occupy, few will publicly speak out.

One way of looking at events such as the Sdraulig knees-up is to compare them to parts of the industry that get by on the smell of an oily rag. Like Open Channel, the state’s screen resource centre, which is currently locked in negotiations with Film Victoria and the state government over its new funding agreement.

Open Channel lends gear and provides essential entry-level production support to aspiring and mid-career filmmakers. Yet the organisation is at risk of losing a significant amount of federal funding because Film Victoria and its government masters are so far refusing to provide matching support. Open Channel’s chairwoman Leslie Wood told Crikey the $45,000 dropped on Sdraulig’s farewell would go a long way towards making up the shortfall.

“That amount of money would make a significant difference to the services Open Chanel could offer,” Wood said.

A spokeswoman for Asher confirmed a review of Film Victoria is under way. She refused to comment on Crikey‘s questions about whether Film Victoria’s board, and in particular its chair John Howie, still enjoy her support.

Film funding in Australia is to all intents and purposes a monopsony. In each state there is essentially only one source of finance: the state film funding agencies, generally in partnership with the Commonwealth’s Screen Australia. As a result, filmmakers and producers are often loath to complain or to criticise.

I’ve spent most of the last week trying to find someone in the Victorian industry willing to comment on the party. But, tellingly, no one was prepared to go on the record criticising the event. Nor would Film Victoria or its board comment further, referring me back to Tosi’s letter and giving Crikey the strong impression it believes the agency has done nothing wrong.