AFTRS CEO Neil Peplow.

AFTRS' new five-year strategy was shaped by what the school calls the most comprehensive and up-to-date national industry skills survey ever undertaken. The report was supplied by Screen Audience Research Australia (SARA) who undertook nationwide research, consulting with more than 500 Australian practitioners.

The survey found skills gaps in the areas of screen business, new technologies, and script coverage, among others. SARA CEO Peter Drinkwater pointed out that "the industry is rapidly changing: tighter budgets and greater time pressures mean less acceptance of failure. The role of training is therefore paramount, with 90 percent of the industry wanting access to more training opportunities in the future.”

On the eve of the report's unveiling earlier this month, IF sat down with AFTRS CEO Neil Peplow to discuss the school’s five year strategic plan and its focus on outreach, talent development and industry training.

Coming in to AFTRS around nine months ago, what were you looking to change?

I’ve come in and looked at the school and why it was set up. And really drilled down into the purpose of the organisation and how we can fulfil it. Before it was set up in 1973, there’d been very few Australian feature films made over the previous decade. The industry was on the verge of flat-lining. And even in TV, a lot of it wasn’t Australian. So there was a cultural intervention as much as an industrial one [in ‘73]. Fast forward to now, we’re on the verge, potentially, of a similar situation, with new online content platforms and technology that has led to a tsunami of digital content that are driven by algorithms and business models that are very much transnational. We need to understand these new technologies and platforms and work with them to amplify the Australian story. We need highly creative entrepreneurial filmmakers who are able to take these emerging opportunities. AFTRS wants to ensure that Australian stories are part of this global ecosystem.  

ie Netflix?

Netflix, YouTube, Google, Amazon, who don’t necessarily have those considerations about culture and national identity as much as an organisation like ourselves or Screen Australia or the [NFS] Archive has. So who is going to be the keeper of the flame? Unless the school continues to create those filmmakers, then we could be back to where we were in 1973, where the films and TV series that people were watching didn’t really resemble Australia. And if we’re going to do that properly, we have to make sure that the people coming to the school genuinely reflect Australian society. That we are finding those people who want to become storytellers from across Australia, and casting that net wide, so we have a more thorough and complex understanding of what the Australian story is. 

So you’ve been too Sydney-centric, or are you talking race, gender…?

Everything. What does Australia look like, where is it, and how do we create pathways for it to come through the school and then onto industry? That’s what we’ve been looking at over the past six months. I went up to Cairns last week to talk to Cairns TAFE North, which has an Indigenous Unit running Cert III and Cert IV courses, and they want to introduce a Diploma. So the question is how can we help them develop that curriculum, and how can we use that as a way of identifying talent. Then how we can encourage those students to come to AFTRS, and once they’re at AFTRS how do we make sure that they stick? We’re creating this talent development pathway through to industry which is much broader, so that it actually helps inform the stories that are being told within industry and makes them more diverse and interesting. 

How are you encouraging those people to come to AFTRS? Is it just about making yourself visible?

It’s more than making yourself visible. It’s actually getting your hands dirty and working with those partners who are already doing it. We have limited resources so it’s about finding partners who we can help and support. We went over to Perth and spoke to Central TAFE, we went to Cairns, [to] Randwick just around the corner [in Sydney]. We were down in Tasmania recently, talking to Wide Angle, supporting an online training initiative they’ve just launched. So it’s [about] working with the existing SROs, state agencies, the TAFEs. And the cultural community organisations, like ICE out of Western Sydney. 

How are you going to tailor the support for those students – do you really have the manpower to do that on an individual basis?

There are three elements to the strategy, aimed at finding storytellers from all of Australia. So we’ve got outreach, and that is working from primary school through to secondary, encouraging an understanding of screen culture and how you could potentially have a career in it. It’s what the BFI do with their educational strategy. That would be creating curriculum materials, and adding online material. So if you wanted to make a scene from Paper Planes, we could have online video materials that could step the students through what was required of a particular scene, and suddenly for the teacher it takes the pressure off them. That came in to sharp focus when I was at my kids’ local public school and the teacher asked if anyone knew anything about making short films. Obviously I put my hand up, but they relied on the parents to supply the expertise. But if that [know-how] could be supplied to every classroom it wouldn’t be about chance, it’d be about intent. Besides outreach, it’s about talent development. Making sure there are pathways into the school for those we see as having potential, and then making sure they’re supported while they’re here. The first point of contact is the BA Screen, and the BA’s going to be driven around a generous approach to production. So when students come out they’ll have done something episodic, something short-form, something long-form, something factual. They’ll all have an understanding of social media, they’ll understand how to reach an audience, they’ll be entrepreneurial. 

What’s the third prong?

After the BA there’s the Graduate Certificates as well as the discipline-specific MA.

There’s been a gap there for a couple of years.

Effectively it’s back to the future. The MA Screen 2017 will have 11 disciplines, and there’ll be six students in each discipline. Highly merit-selected. 

Are those streams different in any substantial way to the old discipline-specific MA offerings?

We’ve recognised that collaboration is increasingly important in the way that people are producing content. There’s more fluidity between disciplines. Previously they’d all been delivered in a siloed way; the head of discipline developed the course and it was delivered. Whereas now there’ll be one person in charge of the entire Masters’ program and then we effectively deliver the disciplines within that. So that’s the major difference. It’s not eleven separate courses. It’s one course with eleven specific disciplines within it. We’re now hiring discipline heads, and those heads of discipline will inform the curriculum at each level. So previously they’d only inform one course. But [now] they’ll inform the MA, the graduate certificates, the BA, the diplomas and even the Open short course program. They’ll have an overview of their discipline across everything we’re delivering. So they can control the gradient. 

You recently hosted the She Shoots initiative, aimed at supporting female shooters in reality TV.

We’ve got the outreach and talent development sides to our strategy, but we’ve also got the industry part. Are there skills gaps that we should be addressing that we’re not? We’ve got diplomas and advance diplomas, which are one level below a degree program, so they can be more technical. So we’re delivering things like a script editing and development advanced diploma next year, because Screen Australia have said they need more people who understand how to do coverage. We’re doing a camera assisting advanced diploma because the Australian Cinematographers Society said the camera assistants are looking for more in-depth training. We’re doing one in screen business, because one of the other things that came out of the report is that those basic business skills just aren’t there. We’re also doing a social media diploma; how to gain an audience and how to sustain one. So we’re tailoring the diplomas very specifically to those industry needs. She Shoots was a combination of talent development – we’ve got female camera operators who are hitting a ceiling, how can we help them push through? – and diversity. The fact that there are no female camera operators in reality TV is something that needed to be addressed, and we could do that with that type of talent development lab. 

How are you preparing students to cater to the burgeoning online space?

That’s the final area. Outreach, talent development, industry and inclusion informs everything [we’re doing]. The other thing that informs everything is our research program. We need to make sure we’re filtering out the noise in terms of new technology, so [that] industry knows which areas they should be focusing on and why. So rather than being an academic organisation that takes years to get research published, we want to get practical research out to industry quickly. Where we work with industry on a project and then deliver the findings on that project. For instance the VR research we did on VR Noir with Start VR, a start-up VR company run by Nathan Anderson. We’re also looking at SVOD and how we can get an insight into how that works. YouTube is another area. We can help leverage innovation in a way that will have an impact commercially and culturally. 

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