The AACTA Awards were on this week. The new AFIs, that is (although the Australian Film Institute is still going). This year, the gongs being handed out for Aussie cinema are bestowed by this new body, the grandly  named Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts, the “industry engagement arm” of the AFI.

Confused? Forget about the details: check out the fashion!

The Australian Academy is, by all reports, the brainchild of cherished Australian actor and current Australian of the Year Geoffrey Rush. It emerged from a review of the AFI conducted last year. Among its many laudable goals are celebrating the craft and skill of filmmaking, enhancing public interest in Australian screen culture and, perhaps most importantly, rescuing the annual awards ceremony from the increasing irrelevance it was sliding towards under the old AFI structure.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The AFIs were dowdy and unpopular. Australian film seemed perennially to be in the doldrums. No one wanted to watch the films that won prizes, or the prize night itself.

And so the new awards were moved to the January-February window, to take advantage of Oscars fever in the US. As the AACTA’s website relates:

“In line with international best-practice models, AACTA draws upon some of the well recognised and understood elements of the AMPAS (USA) and BAFTA (UK) models, while tailoring these to meet local industry needs and traditions, and to ensure that the AACTA organsiaton model and the AACTA Awards remain distinctly Australian.”

A new TV deal was signed with the Nine Network. Hollywood A-list stars were lured back to our shores to present awards — or at least to an accompanying US-based event, where they could be beamed to the Sydney Opera House on the night to show their long-distance support. No effort was spared to spruce up the glamour, and put back a little razzle-dazzle.

Judging by the ratings, however, it didn’t work. The AACTAs largely failed to catch fire with Tuesday night television audiences, attracting a desultory 314,000 viewers nationally for a delayed 9.30pm telecast. That’s a little bit better than last year’s AFIs, but well short of what Nine would have been hoping for.

Perhaps its just as well more viewers didn’t tune in. The awards themselves were clunky and at times uncomfortable. There were some cringe-worthy moments, especially the many musical numbers (much as I love Justine Clarke), and some equally woeful scripted humour, particularly Rush’s terrible attempts to work sponsor Samsung into his repartee.

Of course, making awards nights interesting and slick is always a challenge. The Oscars have failed regulalry in recent years. And the AACTA’s were not unwatchable. There was plenty of on-screen talent, some fancy frocks and handsome faces, and yes, there was even some controversy.

But much of what went on made one wonder why the old AFIs were dumped in the first place. For a start, there were the moments when presenters clumsily tried to explain that, while such-and-such was receiving a very first AACTA gong, he or she had also won several AFIs previously. It’s a bit hard to celebrate the history if you’re determined to airbrush it away.

Then there were the usual patchy collection of Hollywood A-listers — or B-listers, such as the Lapaglias, who turned up to demonstrate that, however convincing their Aussie accents sound on screen, their native voice is now West Coast American. Episodes such as this rather undermine the whole “Australian voices” aspect of local funding justifications, regularly trotted out by the local screen lobby whenever discussions turn to levels of domestic screen funding.

But the main impression Crikey took away from the first AACTAs was the continuing immaturity of the local screen sector, which, in commercial terms, remains largely a satellite of Hollywood production, vulnerable to the fluctuations of the Australian dollar and competition from other jurisdictions competing to lure away Hollywood’s “runaway” production. The Hollywood stars on show certainly added lustre, but they also highlight the fact local production relies more and more on name-brand actors to facilitate funding and distribution deals. This trend is only likely to accelerate. Australia’s greatest export in the screen sector tends to be individual talents, as we will likely always lack the local funding depth to genuinely compete against Hollywood blockbusters.

Where Australian screen can compete is in the indie sector, an area that also offers our best hope for international distribution. And yet this is the end of the sector that the AFIs used to be good at celebrating, and that many in the Australian screen sector feel ambivalent about.

It’s not just curmudgeonly local critics, such as The Age‘s Jim Schembri, who copped yet another spray on awards night (this time from Stephen Elliott, whose ill-tempered coming-outburst was edited out by Channel Nine), but also many prominent producers, such as the Screen Producers Association’s voluble Anthony Ginnane who insisted Australian scripts and concepts are simply not populist enough. There are significant artistic issues with many Australian features, but it’s also worth pointing out the many artistic successes: The Black Balloon, which Schembri also slammed when released, turned out to do well in local and international markets, and is a warm and human piece of cinema to boot. Snowtown looks likely to be just as well received in the small-market US indie release to which it is best suited.

It is possible that Australia is on the cusp of a new golden era of cinema, if only we’re prepared to recognise what it looks like. The future of media in general is likely to be split into ever more and smaller niches, and in a sense this levels the playing field to allow small-budget Australian films to compete at festivals such as Sundance. In contrast, cinema in its big-budget manifestations may well have had its day, at least in the dominant sense of blockbuster mass-market culture.

For this reason, it was all the more puzzling to see documentaries excluded from the main program as part of the AACTAs, which decided to have a smaller, earlier presentation for all the so-called “minor” awards in the week before the big Opera House event. The folly of this should be immediately apparent. Film is an industry composed of many crafts and genres, and the technical prowess of the many technicians involved is just as critical to a film’s success. Further, documentaries are surely one of the most intellectually important aspects of the entire artform, so relegating them to the equivalent of the little kids’ table is not just disrespectful, but also probably unwise.

The desire to frolic in the reflected dazzle of Hollywood is understandable, but it is ultimately self-defeating. The future of Australian cinema is not as mass entertainment — which is not surprising, given that it certainly isn’t the present. A more mature industry awards night would revel in the beauty of smallness, and understand the inherent strength of diversity.

Failing that of course, we could just look for a decent host. Geoffrey Rush, your country still needs you.