‘I find it appalling that there is now so little funding for short films,’ said Gillian Armstrong as last year’s SPAA conference. ‘Sadly, only three short films are to be funded in New South Wales this year, none at all from Screen Australia, and I don’t know what’s happening with Film Victoria, who used to lead the way.’
When Gillian Armstrong took to the podium last November to discuss the future of filmmaking in Australia, she pointed to a decreasing amount of support for filmmakers starting out. Most notably, the decline in short film funding.
‘The world’s contracted markedly,’ says Metro Screen’s David Opitz. ‘There are fewer opportunities around for short film funding than there were over the last decade or so. Obviously, we feel that has a strong impact on the development of grassroots filmmaking. Those that we hope will go on and become industry icons in years to come.’
There are numerous reasons for funding programs drying up, but perhaps the most significant one is the global economic downturn.
‘Basically, the reason there’s been a contraction is purely economic,’ says David Opitz. ‘There unfortunately appears to be less funding around from a state government level, and Screen Australia don’t have it in their current charter to support short film as such. They’re interested in promoting feature films, longer form, and new media, online material. There are components within the Screen Australia funding regime to support short films, and we get some funding from them for a program called Raw Nerve, and some from the indigenous unit, but there’s been a contraction in the state budget in supporting the arts. We’ve been told this may change in the future.’
Although AFTRS continues to produce short films – last year, the postgraduate courses alone produced 58 – students have recognised the growing difficulty in getting short films noticed, and have begun branching out.
‘I think the thing is sometimes the short is the right thing to do,’ says Neil Peplow, AFTRS Director of Screen Division. ‘Sometimes it might be directly related to the script you’re trying to get through. The students here are all looking at their next script now. They’re very savvy at contextualising what it is that they produce.’
Thanks to the high profile of quality productions such as The Slap and Puberty Blues, as well as the international series coming from BBC, HBO and AMC, film students are becoming increasingly keen to hone their TV making skills. In this instance, the move away from short film production has been driven by them.
‘For the students, a short film achieves something in being able to state their style and approach and voice,’ says Peplow, ‘but in terms of their career, they recognise that they need to prove that they can do something which is longer form; be able to do something that is half-hour or hour if they want to get into TV. A lot more have their eyes on trying to make features, ’cos they see a crowded shorts market and go, let’s try to make a microbudget feature.’
Before working at AFTRS, Peplow worked in the UK film industry, and noted a similar dwindling in funds for shorts.
‘In the UK, the short film funding also dropped drastically,’ he says. ‘Film Four cut their funds, and the Film Council cut their funds, but it was also about being clever with the way you used the money that you did have, so it wasn’t being put into a generic scheme. And the question is: do you need less funding because people have access to technology and are doing it anyway?’
Despite the downturn in funding, the number of short films being produced has skyrocketed, thanks to the increasing accessibility of equipment.
‘I think what’s changed is the barriers to entry have collapsed,’ says Peplow, ‘so in theory you can shoot a short film on your mobile and then distribute it. It just means there’s a lot more material on the market.’
For filmmakers, finding their place amongst so many competitors is the bigger challenge.
In addition to the traditional established film festivals, there is an increasing number of short film festivals, many of them on the internet. This has had the effect of opening up a traditionally niche format to a whole new audience.
‘Hopefully when the NBN comes online, that’ll increase the speed,’ says David Opitz. ‘There’s greater options available to have people see short films than there ever was before.’
Over the past three years, another funding model has emerged from the internet. Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Pozible and Indiegogo have given filmmakers a forum to solicit smaller donations from a wider audience. Investors can often donate as little as ten dollars towards a project, often with the promise of a prize at the end, be it a souvenir or a DVD of the finished film.
Australian short Troll Bridge broke crowdfunding records last year when it raised nearly double its target. The filmmakers had originally attempted to raise the money from government agencies. ‘While I genuinely believe they loved the film,’ says director Daniel Knight, ‘they were ultimately unable to help us out.’ Post-production funding was offered, and the production had to source the budget elsewhere.
Due to the story’s popularity – it is based on a short story by award-winning author Terry Pratchett – Knight and producer Ahren Morris were able to reach out to an established fan base that was keen to see the project realised.
Metro Screen has now incorporated crowdfunding into its model, seeing it as a necessary complement to the funding they already give. ‘In the past, filmmakers may have held events or hit up friend’s relatives; now Pozible and Kickstarter provide other options.’
Rather than simply being an alternate funding option, Metro views crowdfunding as an important part of the producer’s entrepreneurial development.
But even with all the equipment, Gillian is right about support training ground.
Director Amiel Courtin-Wilson sees the democratisation of filmmaking tools as a positive, but remains pragmatic. ‘I think ultimately it’s back to that old adage: “It’s still a f–king pencil”. It’s a tool, it’s a means to an end. It means more films can be made, but I don’t think it means better films are made.’
This article first appeared in IF Magazine Issue #151