The cronyism of Australia’s screen bureaucracy has been in the headlines as of late. Earlier this month, Film Victoria made front pages after it blew a whopping $45,000 — the amount it would take some people to produce a low-budget feature film — on a farewell party for its outgoing chief executive Sandra Sdraulig, spending on food and alcohol in three hours more than three times what the average Australian artist makes in a year.
What is less commonly reported, though perhaps just as infuriating, is the general ineptitude of this same bureaucracy and the various boards that oversee its constituent parts. Most recently, concerns have been raised about the Sydney Film Festival and the relatively glacial pace of its board in seeking a new artistic director following the resignation of Clare Stewart, whose fifth and final festival ended a little over a week ago.
The board, which was significantly restructured last year, in large part so the cash-strapped festival might qualify for a state government bailout, decided to open up the position earlier this year, offering Stewart the opportunity to reapply. Telling friends, and later the newspapers, the constant travel involved in programming the festival was beginning to wear, Stewart declined to do so. The board responded by doing little to find a replacement.
According to SFF CEO Leigh Small, Stewart informed the board of her decision not to reapply for the artistic directorship in early May, two weeks before her departure was made public in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald. While executive recruitment firm Watermark Search was engaged at the time of Stewart’s decision, the position was not advertised until this past weekend, some six and a half weeks after the board became aware of the vacancy. When the Melbourne International Film Festival began looking for a new chief executive and a new festival director at the beginning of last year, it did so some five months before opening night.
It is arguable, and perhaps even understandable, that the publication of the weekend’s advertisement was delayed to avoid clashing with or distracting from Stewart’s final festival, not that it is likely to have done so. But some have expressed concern the board’s timing reflects a troubling unfamiliarity with the year-long lead time required to properly program a festival of such size and scope, and that the board may have compromised the overall coherency and quality, if not necessarily the commercial success, of next year’s festival as a result. Small confirmed to Crikey that Stewart will remain at the SFF for what she described as a “transition period”, though she declined to say how long this transition might take.
Whether the word “transition” is an empty or telling one is yet to be seen. Assuming the latter, it suggests a certain degree of crossover or bleed between artistic directorships. It is worth remembering that several key festivals — Venice and Toronto, to name only the most obvious — are coming up in the next three months. If Stewart’s successor has not been selected within that period, there are concerns the outgoing artistic director may wind up programming a portion of her successor’s festival by default, out of necessity. It seems unlikely that potential applicants to the role will be entirely thrilled if this is the case.
Small had not responded to questions about whether Stewart would be travelling to these festivals under the aegis of the SFF, and in what capacity she would be doing so, before this article went live, suffice to say “it is premature to announce any plans for 2012”. One hopes the festival does not consider it premature to be making them.
One might have thought the board would have known better than to release its artistic director from service without a clearer, better-timed succession plan in place. Deciding to open the position to new applicants is the sort of move that should take place well in advance of a festival so one artistic director’s reign should pass seamlessly into the next. This truism was highlighted only last year, when a separate but related fracas broke out around the artistic directorships of the Melbourne and Brisbane film festivals, resulting in a stalemate between the former’s board and management and essentially derailing the latter.
The role of the screen bureaucracy was again central to these imbroglios. According to one screen culture insider, from the moment she took up the mantle of CEO at Screen Queensland, formerly the Pacific Film and Television Commission, Maureen Barron had her sights set on BIFF, and on its incumbent AD, Anne Demy-Geroe.
“It doesn’t seem like there is much of a story to tell on the surface,” the former BIFF associate told Crikey. “A new CEO decides to build a new department including starting afresh with screen culture. All existing connections to the past are eliminated. A clear commercial imperative is to take precedence and a new AD and Head of Screen Culture with an appropriate and proven commercial track record appointed.
“The details of how this occurred, and whether or not the new CEO was given a directive by others higher up the chain, are an interesting, untold part of the story. Whether the powers that be didn’t approve of the tone of the festival or those that built it we can only speculate.”
And speculate people have. Many suspected the CEO’s creation of a new position within Screen Queensland — the so-called “Head of Screen Culture”, whose commissar-like role would include “overseeing” the work of the festival director — was an explicit attempt to circumvent Demy-Geroe’s curatorial power. The position ultimately went to the Melbourne International Film Festival’s then-director, Richard Moore, whose relationship with his own festival’s board was described by the festival’s former business manager, in a letter to Film Victoria, as having “totally broken down”.
Moore had been advised by MIFF’s board in October 2009 that the role of executive director was soon to become two separate positions, either of which he was welcome to apply for when his contract expired at the conclusion of the August 2010 festival. Instead, he applied for the Screen Queensland role, his appointment to which was announced in February last year. A little over a month later, Demy-Geroe’s resignation was announced, the country’s longest-serving and arguably most-respected film festival director reportedly embracing the opportunity to do a PhD on Iranian cinema. With Moore under contract to MIFF until August, only four months before the new, rescheduled BIFF was to take place, the festival found itself devoid of any meaningful artistic direction for a good five months.
The result was a festival programmed in large part by the bureaucracy. One long-time BIFF insider recounted one selection screening during the “transition period” at which the film being considered was played, not in a cinema, but on a small, uncalibrated television set in a fluorescently lit room within Screen Queensland’s George Street offices, while two of the so-called selectors fussed over — and this is where the story gets truly weird — “a baby marsupial” wrapped in blankets, which they nursed and fed from a bottle throughout the screening. At which point the insider decided to be unavailable for any further selection screenings. Despite sporting svereal Australian and world premieres, last year’s festival will be remembered by festival diehards as one of the weakest and least coherent in memory.
None of this is to say that the SFF will follow the same route, or experience such a precipitous drop in quality and consistency, on the basis of its upcoming reshuffle. Crikey is aware of several potential applicants who, like MIFF’s new festival director, Michelle Carey, would represent not only a continued commitment to high artistic standards and audience development, but also an injection of youthful curatorial blood. (In the interest of full disclosure, Carey was previously this author’s commissioning editor at Senses of Cinema, and has also asked him to write several pieces for MIFF’s soon-to-be-released festival program.)
What it is to say, however, is that the SFF board has clearly failed to learn from the mistakes of their neighbours to the north. At least we can be thankful that Stewart’s departure was marked with a strong final festival and not with a taxpayer-funded orgy.