‘Crushed’ director Megan Riakos blasts AACTA Awards selection process

07 December, 2016 by Megan Riakos

Megan Riakos.

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WIFT NSW stormed the AACTA Awards last night, with a dozen members tumbling out of the back of a van and onto the red carpet – dressed as sausages to protest the male dominance of the country's film and television industry. Below, WIFT member and filmmaker Megan Riakos calls for "a fair and diverse AACTA Awards". 

Earlier this year I entered my debut feature Crushed for the AACTA awards.

At first I didn’t intend to enter; although I had screened at a number of international festivals and had a successful limited theatrical release (including 43 screenings across Australia), my film did not qualify immediately for selection as we did not have a “traditional” cinematic release, and the cost of the entry was prohibitive for me at that time.

However, when AACTA approached me, confirming Crushed's eligibility for pre-selection and encouraging me to enter, I invested in applying for the awards and spent the time to fill out the application in full.

From everything I was told, this process was a formality and as long as my film passed the minimum requirements for pre-selection Crushed would be accepted into the screening program for AACTA for its chance to be nominated by the AACTA members.

What subsequently happened opened my eyes up to how our industry really works.

In order to understand the award results, you must understand the initial selection process. If your film has had a traditional theatrical release during the specified release period (October 16, 2015 – October 16, 2016) you gain automatic admission into the official AACTA screenings program (where members can then select films for an AACTA nomination).

If your film had a limited or non-traditional release, you must fulfil a more detailed set of criteria which can include a limited theatrical release and/or DVD release and/or online release during the same release period.

On August 11, 2016, AACTA announced the 24 films that would be put to the AACTA members for consideration for nomination. Crushed was not one of them.

Of these films, 2 were directed by women (representing only 8 per cent of films) and 3 were films with a female protagonist (representing only 12.5 per cent of films). Although many of the films clearly fit into the automatic admission selection process, there were a number of smaller sized films with the same scope, budget and success as Crushed that were selected, but with no explanation as to why they were in the screening program and Crushed was not.

Although there appeared to be no transparency in the selection process of these smaller films, I wasn’t confident in voicing my concerns and I decided that it wasn’t worth rocking the boat.

However, on 22 August 2016, due to “strong industry feedback”, AACTA announced a further 4 films that would be added to the screening line-up. None of these films were by female directors and none of these films had a female protagonist.

So that makes only 2 out of 28 films directed by women (now only 7 per cent) and 3 out of 28 films with a female protagonist (now only 11 per cent).

If we consider that the Screen Australia statistics show that 16 per cent of features are directed by women in Australia, this reveals a huge gap in the representation of women at the AACTAs.

When they referred to “strong industry feedback”, did this mean producers whose films were excluded were putting pressure on AACTA? Was it pressure from distributors? There was no clarification on how a decision was reached for this second tranche of films. I immediately regretted not questioning my exclusion from the initial line-up. What if I had spoken up, I wondered. Would I be in this new announcement of films? This time I decided not to stay silent.

I knew it was too late for Crushed to be included in this year’s screening program, but I also knew that it was imperative that I speak up, otherwise I could be entering my next feature into the AACTAs years down the track and face the exact same obstacles.

To begin with, I researched the selected films in the screening program.

Of the 28 films, at least 7 (25 per cent) did not immediately fulfil the criteria for selection, with the biggest issue being their theatrical release date not falling within the AACTA rules for inclusion.

Some have only had festival screenings, with no theatrical date announced. Some other larger movies will have their theatrical releases during the upcoming summer, long after the October 2016 cutoff.

Similarly, there are films on the list that had their theatrical release in early 2015, well outside the beginning of the required release period.

I understand that AACTA is able to use this rule at its discretion (as per Rule 4.1[B]), however I don’t believe there has been transparency in its use – or why, with a record breaking number of feature entries, they chose to exercise it to begin with.

I then used this information to write a letter to both the AACTA Awards team and to the AACTA board regarding the awards process, identifying this lack of transparency and also highlighting the woeful number of women selected to even be considered for nomination.

AACTA has said that the nominations are up to its members, but if a film cannot pass preselection (made up by an unknown number of judges, of unknown gender, ages and backgrounds) then it can’t even be considered by its members.

I received no response from the CEO or the AACTA board. However I did receive a very short reply from the AACTAs Awards team regarding my letter:

“The films that proceeded through that second round process did not do so due to protests or anything of that nature. Removing the original cap on the number of films to progress, we went back to the original results of the Pre-Selection jury meeting and allowed through those films which had a level of consensus amongst our jurors. This resulted in 4 additional films joining the original 24 in competition.”

I later discovered that fellow filmmaker Louise Wadley and her film All About E had received the same treatment as Crushed.

The producer of that film wrote to each board member highlighting that this was marginalisation in action in the midst of all the lip service paid to gender diversity. While some individual members responded, there has still been no official response from AACTA.

I approached WIFT President Sophie Mathisen regarding this lack of transparency and she requested for AACTA to make public the demographic details of the judges. Her request was ignored.

This sparked a number of questions:

ï‚· Why weren’t we advised that our films not only had to pass the pre-selection criteria, but that there was also a judging process?

ï‚· Why were so many films included that did not fulfill the basic rules of the awards?

ï‚· Who were the judges that chose the final films?

ï‚· What was the selection criteria that they used to judge them?

ï‚· Did they consider the need for diversity in the films selected, especially considering so many films that were selected DID NOT fulfill the criteria?

In light of the above, I realised that this was not about the quality of my film. The AACTA members did not get the chance to judge the quality of Crushed. This is about access.

It is well documented that female-led films have a harder time than their male counterparts when it comes to securing traditional distribution and screens.

I draw your attention to the detailed article at Filmonomics.slated.com that clearly demonstrates that, although films directed by women have a better per-screen average than films directed by men, male-led films still occupy a much larger number of screens. There's no fiscal reasoning behind this: simply the perception that male-led films carry less risk.

This disparity in distribution opportunity marginalises many female-led films with a limited release and severely hampers their ability to break out.

The direct effect of this is that only two Australian films directed by women were able to secure immediate inclusion in the AACTA screening program this year – Girl Asleep and Looking For Grace. For the rest of us, we must then enter a competition where none of the rules of engagement are clear, in a world that has a natural bias in favour of male-led stories.

Without an assurance that the judging panel itself is from a diverse background, thus ensuring a wide variety of film tastes, and without transparency for why the rules are waived for some films and not others, how can the AACTA Awards be held up as our highest national film accolade?

It is obviously too late to change the 2016 AACTA Awards, but there needs to be an immediate commitment to a fair and diverse 2017 selection process.

WIFT NSW has developed the WIFT Charter for Gender Equity at the AACTA Awards to address the issues outlined. I call on AACTA president Geoffrey Rush, CEO Damian Trewhella and the AACTA Board to stand by the WIFT Charter and to work with WIFT NSW and other industry bodies to help achieve a richer and more diverse AACTA Awards, otherwise 2017 will be another year where we end up with an #AACTASausageParty. 

http://www.wiftnsw.org.au/sausage-party/

https://www.facebook.com/wift.nsw.au/ 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Stephen Carnell

    The Australian film industry and most of the Arts on general is being crushed by male oriented nepotism. There seems no simple solution.

    The only film I’ve produced had a female director and co-writer.

  • Shane

    Or maybe you just made a bad movie?

  • Clive Hopkins

    I saw CRUSHED at a special screening at the Randwick Ritz, and thought it was an entertaining and accomplished first feature. I hope that Megan gets the opportunity to make more and better films.

    Given the fact that most AACTA members are voting on the basis of online screeners, why all these barriers to even being considered? It’s not like we make hundreds of feature films per year. Beyond some restrictions on running time and when it was made, just put them all up there and let the members decide from an open field who should be nominated. You can’t force members to watch all the films under consideration, whatever the selection method.

    We pride ourselves on being the land of the Fair Go, but this feels like a fair go for those already deemed worthy.

  • Louise Alston

    Something similar happened to us with Jucy in 2012. Fem directed, produced with fem protags. http://Www.jucythemovie.com Having been named as one of the 15 must see films of Toronto 2010 by programmers, making Varietys “exec checklist”, achieving a US sale and releasing on 7 screens, we were not welcome to enter aactas because we hadnt released in Sydney or Melbourne. My first film (All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane) had been nominated in the category of best adapted screenplay in 2008.
    We were told this was a quality control issue and there are plenty of screens in Sydney and Melbourne willing to screen Australian films. I withdrew my membership.

  • Jessica

    I didn’t know the AACTAs are meant to represent a type of people. I thought the AACTAs are intended to represent brilliance in film making.

  • Hero Tailor

    So the ‘Gender matters’ fund doesn’t address this?

    They can give you all the money in the world, but if you’re making films for the wrong reasons…like for example making films with an all female cast and crew for the sake of using only women to promote the feminist agenda…it is not only reverse-sexism and hypocritical but your film is probably going to be ordinary anyway.

    Here’s an idea if any of you are serious about balance….Why not submit films where there are no names attached and the filmmakers get a number…after the films are chosen based on merit, the filmmakers can be revealed instead of this horses#it of choosing films based on the gender of the filmmakers and furthering the cancerous 3rd wave feminist agenda…

    Thank youp!

  • James

    Shane, you clearly didn’t read the article. The issue raised is about access. The complaint is that the film wasn’t even judged. So the ‘bad film’ you refer to is irrelevant. Schrodinger’s film can be neither good nor bad until it is seen.

  • Clive Hopkins

    Shane, maybe you should see the movie before you make comments like this. Or maybe make one yourself? Anyone who has done so knows how difficult it is to make any sort of movie, and how much more difficult it is to make a good one.

  • Some bloke

    Certainly there are some clear issues with the transparency of the selection process at AACTA that need to be answered publicly, but I find it hard to accept there is a gender-motivated reason for disparity in the selection process – besides, possibly, unconscious bias. Plus the endemic wider-industry problem that feeds into this outcome: A cursory Google search of 2016 Australian films reveals a small handful of female-directed narrative features to choose from in the first place. Sophie Mathisen’s film Drama is the only female-directed Australian feature not mentioned in the above article that I could find that seems to qualify, bringing the total number of eligible female-directed films up to a grand total of 5. Note: it was a quick search.

    I understand Megan looking for a reason for Crushed not being included and that is understable considering the exhorbiant cost of entry but ideally the judging teams or selection committees or whoever is making these initial selections shouldn’t be looking at who (or what gender, or ethnic background etc) the director or writer is at all – besides where relavent later on for specific categories. Films approved for the screening program should be selected on merit alone. Promoting certain films just to meet some preferred ratio doesn’t really help the industry in the long run, especially for an awards ceremony supposedly built on singling out the best of the best.

    However, Megan raises some very good points about the selection process more generally – a process which is further compounded by AACTA’s ‘hint hint, wink wink’ submission process whereby filmmakers are often approached directly and are encouraged strongly to submit with the never-stated-but-clearly-implied suggestion that you’ll qualify no worries. Indeed, AACTA approaching Megan to submit mirrors anecdotes I’ve heard from other filmmakers over the past few years. The reason this is problematic is that the submission fee for features under $2 million budget is a whopping $1350!! Which is massive for anyone to risk not making the cut, not to mention a filmmaker who scraped together funds to make something on a lower budget.

    Anyway, to finish on a positive note, here are some female-directed films coming up in 2017 which we might hope to see represented at next year’s awards: Jasper Jones, Berlin Syndrome, The Butterfly Tree, Cargo, The Nightingale, Don’t Tell, Out of the Shadows, Innuendo, plus docu-drama Casting JonBenet. That’s a fine list.

  • Joshua

    Shane its a fair question, albeit unlikely given sour grapes is when you lose out to another in competion for an award, and then you go asking for a recount etc. In this instance, the film’s ‘Bad’ or ‘good’ isn’t in question here ya dig? Pay attention please , keep up etc. Ok.Alrighty then. Maybe an organisation thats using yours and others tax dollars to buy themselves a party and is breaking their own code of conduct. And maybe people are outlaying money for something they were never going to receive all along because they were deliberately mislead. Maybe we should hang out more ShaneO. Can I call you ShaneO?

  • Ian McFadyen

    Before we start thinking about the status of women in film and television at the AACTA Awards we need to address the issue of what the whole purpose of these award is. Firstly, there is not a single Australian company connected with the production of Hacksaw Ridge. It appears to have been nominated because it was shot in Australia, which would have put a host of other overseas productions into contention including Star Wars I – III. If the purpose of the awards it to reward and foster Australian filmmaking, why are we honouring an American film? Secondly, in stark contrast, I have to admit I had never heard of 2/3 of the films and TV shows that won awards. So is it recognising achievement in the international movie industry, or the avant garde end of the Australian television industry? The answer is that these awards probably only made sense back in the early EIghties (as the AFI Awards) when there was a push to encourage Australian film making. Since then they have sought to “broaden” the scope by including television, and then foreign films, meaning that they are now just an excuse for a television special where a bunch of stars are trotted out on a red carpet – for whose benefit, we don’t know.

  • Jessica

    If a film is already released to the public, in which case it should have reached its intended audience and therefore achieved the sole reason why said film was made to begin with; then why do filmmakers demand their peers massage their ego’s with awards, especially if said filmmakers clearly disagree with the social merit such an award holds?

  • Haydn Keenan

    Some analysis really needs to be done on the quantifiable benefit of these awards to film makers and the films. What does winning one actually do for you or your film? Entry fees are so exorbitant as to exclude smaller players totally.

  • Clive Hopkins

    Jessica, a producer I used to work with once told me that anyone who thinks that awards are rubbish has never been given one. For a small film, getting an award can be a lifeline, whether in selling unsold overseas sales, or closing local deals in other media like streaming or airlines. If you were a buyer at Qantas with a choice between two small Aussie films, wouldn’t you buy the award winner?

    Also, for a film maker starting out, an award can make a crucial difference to whether or not you can make a second one – the majority of first time feature directors never make another. The bigger players certainly understand this – the Oscar successes of The Silence of the Lambs was crucial in giving Jonathan Demme the leverage to make the more challenging Philadelphia.

    In these circumstances asking for transparency and fairness in the way that awards are administered doesn’t seem an outrageous suggestion. If you think that awards suck, then the slogan ‘award winning’ on the DVD box isn’t going to sway you into making a purchase, but for some people, it just might.

  • Petrice

    “Some Bloke”, “Hero Tailor” and “Jessica” – all referencing ‘merit’ and ‘brilliance’: merit and brilliance are subjective, and generally speaking we know that male and female taste differs. AACTA needs to be transparent on the demographics of the pre-selection panel, and ensure there is a balance of men and women.

    This should apply to film festivals, and all industries. It’s important to have an equal number of men and women at the top, to represent the equal number of men and women in our population.

    Let’s not make our little girls have to try harder than our little boys because they’re trying to understand then learn a male’s way of doing things to be employable or selected. Let’s encourage everyone to be themselves, by starting at the top, and implementing quota’s. That’s surely when we’re at our best.

  • Fiona

    Further to Ian McFadyen’s comments about Australian content in the ACTAA Awards, I am far more concerned that since regulations changed in 2009, two- thirds of Screen Australia funding now goes directly to international companies such as NBC Universal, Sony etc via their Australian relationships. That means Australian taxpayer dollars going to big studios who could afford to pay for their projects themselves.
    Is this really the Australian film industry model that we want?

  • Dean

    Great article – and it adds to considerable opinion that there are flaws in the AACTA pre-selection process which is anonymous and lacks accountability. This year there was certainly a perception that “strong industry feedback” was indeed a bunch of producers putting pressure on AACTA. Good on them, but it’s sad that CRUSHED and projects in previous years have not been so lucky – especially if they are made by woman or minorities.

    Last year I was involved in a film which though it did not have a traditional release on X screens in X states simultaneously it had found a bigger audience than other films put up for AACTA judging and had strong critical feedback around the world. But it was a “confronting” LGBT film. It was disappointing (but perhaps not surprising) when the film was prohibited from being screened to AACTA members with no explanation as to the basis of this decision, the criteria by which it as assessed, no ability to appeal and no information about who or how many people made this decision.

    Minority films have everything working against them – including the lack of faith in minority stories by local theatrical distributors and the fact that theatrical distributors must be on board as a condition of direct government funding and the offset. Funding for the industry is (theoretically) provided as a “cultural remit” to support Australian stories on their cultural merit so it’s disappointing that so much of it goes to projects that could easily find marketplace funding without public funds, which shy away from diversity and which frequently have little-to-nothing to do with Australia.

    Though its encouraging to see the focus on diversity recently, and the amount of funds for projects produced and directed by women increasing, no one is tackling the issue from the perspective of distribution. Though @Jessica might be tempted to believe that filmmakers want awards for their peers to “massage their egos”, the bigger reason is that awards bring films to the attention of the public which boosts box office, and in the case of certain films, increases the visibility of minorities who would otherwise not be represented in screen stories. And that’s why AACTA is in a great position to lead the way on making our screens more diverse on the distribution end. Its been a really disappointing few years in terms of how AACTA has behaved but lets hope they can rise to the challenge in future.

  • Scot McPhie

    Awards have nothing to do with art

  • Mike Piper

    I’ve employed more female directors on my productions than males 5 to 2.

    It’s also interesting to note that Arts NT (Film) is the only state agency that has a staff gender balance at 50/50.

    The breakdown of staff by gender of all Australian film agencies, easily verifiable by checking their web sites, indicates a total of 49 males and 133 female staff. That’s a gender split of 27% male and 73% female.

    When will we hear the equality brigade call for gender balance in our film agencies I wonder?

    And who cares anyway – I’ve always employed people on their skill, not their gender!

  • Ross Howden

    Skin Deep, a great cinematic film which was mainly female filmmakers couldn’t be submitted as though theatrically released it had not got the DVD/digital deal at the submission stage. Of course it now has a TV and the other releases. Despite requests it was no allowed to be submitted. It shocks me there are late entries when they reject these wonderful aussie films.
    As for the stroking egos comment earlier. These awards are required for filmmakers to advance their careers as many can’t get future money without even and acceptance etc. Hence why people/members look after some films and some filmmakers

  • Frida

    We need more quality female driven films like Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger.

  • Karel

    Why TF does this have to be turned into a gender thing again?
    Transparency is absolutely needed, yes. And clearly lacking here, obviously.
    You are suspecting that the jury is majority male and the reason your film didn’t get access was because of this. You are doing yourself a massive discredit going by those assumptions. By all means demand transparency, but don’t pull the gender card until you have evidence.
    BTW – Thank you Mike Piper for making perfect sense.

  • Mike Piper

    Thank you Karel,

    I think the only way we can reach true equality is by adopting a policy of “GENDER DOESN”T MATTER” across the board – the current campaign and the way it’s being conducted is devicive, alienating, and offensive.

    It’s time for change. Remove the gender ticking box from all State and Federal Government funding applications and ensure all projects are judged competitively on their merit alone.

    We need to embrace creativity, talent, and skill … irrespective of gender – and get on with the job!

    GENDER DOESN’T MATTER!

  • Stuart Scowcroft

    As long as there is advantage to be gained by using political pressure for personal gain, lobby groups will do it. To select films or any other project based on the gender of the film maker is ineffably flawed. The concept of positive discrimination is, itself, contradictory since it relies on the same discriminatory practices that the vested interest group members condemn. Social engineering should have no place in film and television.Let us remove all those identifiers such as gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and anything else that is not relevant to the merit of the work. George Orwell’s famous line “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” should remain a warning to us all.

  • Support and don’t support

    It’s not because you are female… it’s because you failed to put pressure on them. Don’t try make this a gender issue. I support you in terms of Aacta BS rules, but I hate that you try use your gender to beat this up. You failed to act. The world isn’t going to chance to suit you. Especially if you use smoke and mirrors to get attention.