Want an honest evaluation of a film festival by its director? Greg Dolgopolov finds some surprising truths running Australian films beyond the Black Stump in Queensland.
The kid's club in the Royal during the day at Vision Splendid.
The ruminations about how a film festival performs are usually shared only with the sponsors, stakeholders and friends. So, for something a little different, here goes with an unvarnished look at the the 2019 Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival in Winton in outback Queensland.
Winton is a town of about 600 people that was once a booming farming community, but now after years of droughts is focused increasingly on tourism. Thank god for dinosaurs!
Nowhere is as outback as Winton, so we have run six edition of the world’s biggest outback film festival. It also happens to be the only film festival in Australia dedicated exclusively to Australian films. We screened three programs of shorts and some 30 Australian feature films that were a combination of new films released over the past 12 months and a selection of retrospective titles.
If there is one thing that I learnt doing the Vision Splendid film festival it is this:
You can never underestimate audiences and there are people who love all sorts of films and they deserve respect and support.
The audience in Winton has a real passion for Australian cinema but they would prefer more sophisticated, lighter and more emotionally connected material and sentimental melodramas. And that is perfectly understandable given how tough life is for many locals and how rarely they actually get out to see a film.
I try to program a festival for everyone and to appeal to a broad taste palette, to feature independent films, films by Indigenous directors, films on ageing and disabilities, films by young people and by female directors. I don’t always get them but I try.
I seek to get the right mix of arthouse and crowd-pleasers and a range of invited guests - not only famous actors and directors but also emerging talent and specialists in various crew roles. This year we had a focus on writers with Mike Jones and Chris Kunz taking masterclasses and Chris presenting her second draft of a script set in Winton that was directed in a rehearsed reading by Jeremy Sims featuring some of the locals.
Biggest highlight was producing a remixed version of the world’s oldest feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) with a live musical performance by the Volatinsky Quartet that had everyone raving about it.
The final night attracted a sold out house that saw some of the best short films made this year in Australia and the films made during the festival by the film students featuring the town and local actors. That is always a hoot. Best film award went to the magical Yulubidyi: Until the End by Nathan Mewett and Curtis Taylor.
Whatever way you dice it, the festival was a success this year. Audience numbers were solid for the selection of crowd-pleasing films and even the more provocative arthouse numbers. Events were well-received. The 55 students who gathered for a couple of weeks and made 7 films were terrific and most of their films really successful. Audiences were engaged, grateful and unafraid to voice their opinions. And for the first time in years… we broke the drought - rain fell on on our outdoor cinema - people got a little wet but in times of drought no one seems to mind.
Something always must go wrong and that turned out to be plenty of little things that probably no one noticed and a couple of big things.. like the distributor didn’t provide the digital key for the files holding Top End Wedding with a full house booked on Saturday night. Aaaaargggh!. The projectionist wasn’t adequately prepared and the overseas hotline to sort it out in the four hours before the screening didn’t work. A perfect storm for disaster. We had to switch the program around - replacing our Saturday night film with Damon Gameau’s 2040 but we had to refund some tickets. People were understanding and very gracious about it, but it was a total stuff up and I felt dead inside.
When we eventually screened Top End Wedding on Monday the audience cheered and everyone enjoyed themselves but still that was the first time in more than 200 screenings where we had such a major stuff up.
We had a few other smaller issues with some audience members being upset at some of the robust language used in some of the films. We could have done better promoting some of the excellent events that we had on with our stars and festival guests. Can there ever be enough publicity?
Other points of frustration that most directors of smaller festivals regularly encounter is the opaque reasoning of some distributors in providing or denying access to a particular film. They claim that they have the best interests of a film at heart and that they have complex strategies in place for a film’s release, but frankly that is humbug.
Denying a new Australian film to a festival that exclusively screenings Australian films to a avowedly mainstream audience is not only denying filmmakers a source of revenue but also reducing the opportunity for positive word of mouth and clever publicity and promotion. I would be surprised if screening a new film at Vision Splendid would in any way detract from its subsequent broad release or indeed at any other festival, but every year there are a few films that I want, but can’t get because a distributor claims it is ‘not strategic’ as if they have a crystal ball on subsequent audience activity.
I believe that the success of Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival in a tiny Queensland country town demonstrates my second key fact:
The biggest problem in Australia is a broken distribution system for Australian content and a failure to connect with local audiences.
Everyone is already talking about coming back next year - both the students and the industry guests including our celebrities who loved getting out in the bush. A couple are really inspired to make a film out in Winton after they experienced a combination of Wake in Fright and Priscilla and sleeping out under the stars. You know that Winton has been voted one of the darkest skies in Australia which means that it is a great place for star gazing … no wonder it has been dubbed the ‘Hollywood of the bush’.
See I can’t help myself, I’m already spruiking the festival for next year where we will be celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Qantas with a sidebar of aviation films. And no disasters. See you up there next year from 24 June 2020.
Screenhub covered the 2019 festival through the eyes of the mayor Gavin Blaskett and Ashley Burgess who runs the student program.
Here's a film about the students at Vision Splendid in 2016.
Griffith University film student Maeve McKenna shot this at Vision Splendid in 2014.