Some Early History of the Australian Film Institute: A Memoir of the 1970s

The Australian Film Institute (AFI) has always struggled to find its niche within Australian film culture. It has also always had financial difficulties. These two issues intersect at the point where the AFI applies for funding from government agencies: if the agencies are unsure of the function of the AFI, or disagree with any of its stated policies or activities, they reduce funding. This has been the situation from as long as I have known the AFI, and is well-documented in the new book by Lisa French and Mark Poole.[1]

I was a member of the AFI Board at a time when important decisions were made about the directions the AFI should take, and when funding difficulties were acute. What follows is my attempt to describe and analyse that short period in the AFI’s life. It is unapologetically a partisan report, as I – like the rest of the AFI Board – had strong opinions at the time, and in most cases still hold those opinions.


The AFI was incorporated in Victoria in November 1958. The signatories to its Memorandum of Association (dated 29 October 1958) were: Hamilton Aikin, Colin Bennett, George Lugg, Harold Podem, and Frank Nicholls, with the signatures witnessed by Erwin Rado. An early publicity brochure for the Institute listed its Governors (17 of them, all men) and the skills or affiliations that led to their selection: science, law, film-making, connections with film societies, festivals or production.

The Articles of Association do not specify how this membership might be changed. However, over the years the numbers did grow – by invitation. I was not privy to the debates about how and when to invite new members, however the principle behind the selection might be deduced from Board papers. David Roe was Executive Director from late December 1973, and was in December 1977 proposing to step down from that position, but to continue as a consultant till a replacement could be appointed and find his feet.[2] In a report to the Board on how this might be managed, David stressed that full members of the AFI should be invited ‘for what they can do and not for what they have done’.[3] It was a system designed to strengthen the lobbying capacity of the AFI, by inviting to membership people (even a handful of women) who had position or influence in some area relevant to film culture.

I was also not privy to the debates which resulted in a major change to this system. New Articles (adopted February 1976) established two categories of membership. Full membership was still by invitation, limited to one hundred people, and with the right to elect four members of the Board of Directors. Associate membership was open to the public on payment of a subscription, but subject to the approval of the Board. Associate members elected three members of the Board, thus ensuring that the full members retained nominal control over decision-making.

I followed the fortunes of the AFI with interest from its inception – and with particular interest after it began to open to the public. This article is based on documentation which I have retained from that early period. I have a receipt for Associate membership dated 27 August 1973, which seems to be the first time I joined. In August 1976 I received a letter inviting me, as one who had been accepted as an associate member before the adoption of the new constitution, to apply for official associate membership, and send a further subscription fee of $5.00. My status as an associate member was registered on a list dated 17 Sept.1976 and approved in the Board minutes of 15 Oct.1976.[4]

Almost at once, I stood as a Board member for the Associate Members, and was elected (appointment announced at AGM 16 Apr.1977), along with Matt Carroll & Ian Macrae. At the same time, those representing full members were announced: Barry Jones (chairman), John Flaus, Susan Dermody and Tim Read. My first meeting was 1 July 1977. David Roe was Executive Director at that time and until the end of that year. John Foster, who had been business manager under David, then temporarily took on the duties of Executive Director. With David still around as consultant, the management team really did not alter much, and eventually (after a lengthy selection process which did not produce an outstanding candidate), John was promoted to the Executive Director position in his own right, and proved a capable and conscientious administrator.[5]

An election of Board members was to occur every year, with, to ensure some continuity, half the Board positions being declared vacant each election. We had all been elected at once, so in December 1977 three members were selected by lot to retire at the next AGM (April 1978) – Susan Dermody, John Flaus, and Matt Carroll. The two-tier membership system was then dropped by a resolution to change the Articles,[6]  approved at a Special General Meeting in March 1979. When it was my turn to stand again in April 1979, I was re-elected under the new general membership rules, and could under normal circumstances have assumed that I would not have to stand for election again until April 1981. However, the merger of the AFI with the National Film Theatre of Australia occurred later in 1979, and, with the greatly increased membership of the AFI after the merger, a new election was called. Again I held my seat, but then the AGM arrived in April 1980 and all the new Board members were again ballotted to determine who should retire. I lost this ballot, and as that would have meant contesting a third election within a twelve – month period, I decided I had had enough.

So I was on the Board for just three fascinating years – April 1977 to March 1980. During this time, the challenges faced by the AFI were huge – sometimes overwhelming. Most of the staff and Board members were devoted to the organisation – loyal, and hard-working. Those that were not, did not usually hang around for long. Board meetings were capably chaired by Barry Jones, and usually amicable – though some subjects produced heated debate, and some Board members had very clear agendas.

A ‘dead end’ – National Film Day

Some frequently-discussed matters produced little practical result.

When I joined the Board I found that David Roe had already put considerable effort into establishing a National Film Day. In November 1976 the minutes note that the idea has fallen through because of lack of co-operation from the American distributors. However, a National Film Day sub-committee was formed in September 1977 and the idea limped on until about November that year, when it faded away completely.

Limited progress – Research and Information Centre, media education, publications

One of the objects of the Institute, listed in the Memorandum of Association, was to ‘form a library and archive of films and related material’, and to work with other collections to promote the study of film. From the first, the AFI had a modest Information Resource collection. Then, in 1975, the AFI had acquired the David Francis Collection – a collection of books and journals, as well as historical film artefacts (cameras, projectors, etc) and memorabilia. In 1976, the books and journals were kept in the AFI premises, and the objects were stored in crates in the basement of the Museum of Victoria, awaiting suitable display premises. While I was overseas in early 1978 I spoke to David Francis, who was anxious that the collection be housed adequately and renamed appropriately.[7]  Throughout my term on the Board there were periodic bursts of activity seeking new premises where everything could be used and/or displayed. Several were found, and some even went so far as to be audited by the state government, but all failed to reach what was considered an appropriate standard. When I left the Board, the crates were still in the museum basement… [8]

The print-based section of the David Francis collection, along with some journal subscriptions, formed the nucleus of the Information Resources Centre, at first managed by Helen Zilko in a voluntary capacity. The Board was not unanimous about the importance of the Information Resources Centre, but it did appoint a sub-committee in March 1978 to consider a proposal to amalgamate the AFI’s collection with the George Lugg Library of the Federation of Victorian Film Societies. Those in favour of this development pointed to the British Film Institute as a model: those against insisted that encouraging production should be the first priority of the AFI. By April 1978 Helen Zilko had been officially appointed as Information Resources Librarian (though funding for this position in the following year was not assured) and by May 1978 the amalgamation had been approved by both parties, retaining the name George Lugg Library, but operating within the AFI. After a few months, even the more reluctant members of the Board were impressed with the potential of the collection,[9] and the AFC expressed its support.[10] The main problem was that the library would never become independent of subsidy: in fact, it could be expected to become ever more expensive, without (unlike the Vincent Film Library) any increase in income generated. Nevertheless, the benefits were also clear and continuing. A report by Helen Zilko[11] provided an overview of the scope of the collection, but also of the enormity of the task of organising and cataloguing it all from scratch.

Helen’s most ambitious plan was for the AFI’s Information Resources Library to take on national responsibility for print-based archives, while the National Film Archive concentrated on the conservation and preservation of film itself. The Board considered this proposal premature,[12] but encouraged co-operation between the various national collecting institutions. Meetings were arranged between representatives of the AFI (Helen Zilko and the Information Resources sub-committee of the Board), and representatives of the library of the Australian Film & Television School in Sydney, and the Films Division of the National Library in Canberra. Helen’s first practical proposal was the collection of unpublished scripts of all Australian film productions, responsibility to be shared between the three collecting institutions.[13] The goal was to have a script of every Australian film available in at least one of these specialist libraries, though it was also acknowledged that having them in more than one was helpful in providing easier access for researchers. While Experimental Film Fund grants were managed by the AFI, it was relatively simple to make the lodging of a script one of the requirements of the grant. The possibility was discussed of including such a requirement in every grant administered by the Creative Development Branch (from October 1978, the Creative Development Fund). Meetings between the three information resource collections continued,[14] and there were areas of co-operation and other areas where overlaps were minimised. The AFI Board was enthusiastic about all this, but progress was slow.[15]

Helen was also responsible for initiating proposals for the AFI to become actively engaged in film education. In April 1978 she called the first meeting between AFI Board members and Melbourne film educationalists, and out of this came further meetings and eventually the commissioning of Mick Counihan to prepare a report on how the AFI could encourage and take part in film education in primary and secondary schools as well as universities and tertiary colleges.[16]

In the first half of 1978, I was on Study Leave in Perth, attached to Murdoch University, so unable to take part in these discussions. When I received the minutes I was alarmed to find frequent references to the need for the appointment of an AFI Education Officer to initiate the design of a film study course at secondary level and the preparation of related teaching materials. This seemed to me to be way outside the AFI’s brief – I considered that curriculum planning should be properly undertaken by practising teachers, if necessary through teacher organisations.[17] What I wanted the AFI to do (through an Education Officer if necessary) was to support teacher lobbies working towards the inclusion of film study in education at all levels, and to provide resources to teachers involved in such courses, such as films that could be screened in classes, and access to information for teachers (for instance to the AFI’s own Information Resources Library). This was, in fact, broadly what Mick Counihan had recommended, but it was not always how the debate proceeded.

Meanwhile, John Flaus had consistently argued that the AFI should be initiating in-service courses of various kinds, to get the AFI into the education loop. An application was made to the Victorian Department of Education for a residential conference on ‘detective genres in the classroom’, but funding for this was denied: not so surprising, when you remember that this was still the period when media education was struggling against the reputation of being a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject, and the serious study of detective films seemed very radical. In the end it was the difficulty of finding financial support for an Education Officer position that killed the idea. When I left the Board, the issue was still unresolved.

Another partial success was the publications programme. Before I came on the Board, the AFI had in the pipeline one joint publication with Currency Press (Judy Adamson’s book of Australian film posters), and another with Oxford University Press (Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper’s seminal work Australian Film 1900 – 1977).Both of these were launched while I was on the Board, and (despite slow returns on investment) the Board seemed eager to build upon these precedents.

At my first Board meeting, sub-committees were appointed and I, along with Susan Dermody and Mike Thornhill, became a member of the Publications Sub-committee. Sylvia Lawson was invited to become General Editor of a more systematic publications programme, and a slate of six books was approved by the Board for publication jointly with Currency Press. Lawson stated that her aim for the series was a combination of ‘theoretical sophistication, intellectual rigour and lucidity,’[18] and she defended her choice of subjects vigorously, against the reluctance of some Board members. By the time I left the Board, several volumes were in preparation, including one that I co-authored with Diane Collins. In the end, the AFI withdrew from publishing books, but Currency Press went on to become the foremost publisher of film-related books in Australia. [19]

Contractions – video centres, the Experimental Film Fund

Two other activities passed out of the hands of the AFI at that time. The community video centres, set up while Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister, had been a constant problem: the AFI was never really the appropriate body to manage them and had surrendered them by the end of 1976, with relief

The administration of the Experimental Film Fund (EFF) was a different matter. Support for independent film production was an important part of the AFI’s brief, and the films made under the auspices of the EFF were usually lodged for distribution through the Institute’s Vincent Library. At the AFI Irisa Zilveris was in charge of administering EFF grants, with one typist and additional assistance as necessary from various other members of the AFI staff. However, the funding initially came from the Film, Radio and Television Board (FRTB) of the Australian Council for the Arts, and this division of responsibility had already caused some disquiet. A Working Party of representatives of the AFI and of the FRTB had met before I joined the Board. They had proposed (20 Apr. 1976) a structure which established the FRTB as the primary authority, and the AFI as a contracting party, entirely responsible for the administration of the grants. A small joint committee would recommend procedures to implement the policy jointly agreed, and any Film Consultant (at least from the end of the current incumbent’s contract) would be employed by the AFI. However, the Australian Film Commission replaced the FRTB shortly after, and placed a twelve month moratorium on policy changes. Even after the expiry of the twelve months, the terms of the agreement were not ratified by the AFC, so they had never been implemented. At this point, the AFC (through its Film Consultant) administered the assessment process for applications, and the AFI administered the funding granted to the successful applicants.

There seemed to be constant problems with disgruntled unsuccessful applicants, and with irresponsible successful applicants who did not follow required procedures for spending money and reporting on their grants. There was also an unacceptably high percentage of unfinished projects, and a growing bank account in the name of the EFF as unspent funds accumulated. In February1977, the AFC appointed Albie Thoms as Film Consultant for the EFF, based in Sydney. Thoms later described the job as: ‘to advise [the AFC] on the Fund, co-ordinate the administrative responsibilities with the AFI, oversee grant films in progress and assist in assessments for future grants.’[20] This appointment was a clear breach of the terms of the Working Party agreement, so John Foster, who was still pressing the AFC to ratify this agreement, advised against it. The problem was not only that the AFC had ignored the advice of the AFI, but also that they had appointed a long-term opponent of the AFI – someone who had repeatedly criticised the AFI, calling it a private organisation that had received unfair funding advantage over film co-operatives.[21]

Irisa Zilveris immediately resigned from her position in protest. The AFI Board supported her, deciding that the AFI would withdraw from administration of the fund if the Film Consultant’s position continued. But Albie Thoms was under contract, and his appointment did persist. He and Ken Watts (Executive Director of AFC) visited Melbourne for talks with Irisa Zilveris, but she was not re-assured. At the end of the assessment of Batch 20 (in March 1977) Thoms recommended that the administration of all grants, including those of the EFF, should be integrated within the Creative Development Branch of the AFC, which implied also removed to Sydney. Correspondence between Barry Jones and Ken Watts failed to settle the disputed issues, and the AFI Board resolved to withdraw from administration of the EFF unless the terms of the Working Party agreement were ratified by the AFC.[22]

This was the position when I joined the AFI Board, in April 1977. At the first meeting of the new Board, the resolution of the previous Board was confirmed. A full discussion took place at the July meeting. The Board re-iterated its desire to continue to administer the EFF. One ground for this was that the kind of projects supported by the EFF were not designed primarily for commercial release, and so were very different from others within the purview of the Creative Development Branch. It also seemed likely that if the AFC administered the EFF grants, the voucher system would not survive, and it was not clear how the AFC’s standard accounting procedures would lend themselves to the very small amounts typical of EFF grants. There was also the sense that the AFC was bent on keeping all film administration under firm control in Sydney. But most important of all was the AFI’s conviction that support for such small, innovative and developmental projects was an integral part of its brief, and that it was the most appropriate body to administer the EFF.

The whole thing came to a head in July-August 1977. The Commission invited a delegation from the AFI to its July meeting, and provided the AFI with a copy of a paper prepared for the Commission’s June meeting by Lachlan Shaw, Head of the Creative Development Branch. David Roe prepared a statement of the AFI’s position, and a detailed response to Shaw’s paper. On 12 August, Shaw and Thoms met in Melbourne with the AFI Board and Greg Tepper (Acting Administrator of the EFF), but the minutes indicate that neither side shifted their position as a result. There was a hint in Shaw’s comments that the AFI could expect serious problems in its next application to the AFC for funding, even that Shaw was unconvinced that the AFI had any valuable role to play in Australian film culture at all. So the only surprise, when the AFC announced in a press release on 1 September 1977 that it would resume full control of the EFF, was that the fund would be administered from a new AFC office in Melbourne. The AFI was informed that, in recognition of the reduction to the workload of the AFI, AFC financial assistance would be reduced from $300,000 in 1976/77 to $260,000 in 1977/78.

Funding tensions – the AFI’s role in film culture

There was continued debate, both within and outside the AFI, about what its proper role and function in Australian film culture might be. Where the founders of the AFI considered the need for such a body to be self-evident,[23]  others considered the whole organisation redundant.

In later years, for instance, Barrett Hodsdon assumed that the AFI’s funding from the AFC was assured, even automatic: in his book on Australian film culture, he several times refers to the AFI as an ‘official’ organisation (implying official support, and funding), in contrast to the ‘unofficial’ organisations, the film co-ops.[24] Back in the seventies, Albie Thoms was equally critical, but for him the main problem was that the AFC was willing to fund what he called a ‘private’ organisation – still the AFI. Thoms went even further, implying corruption in funding, with special deals to support friends or family members.[25]

From inside the Board, as we fought for every penny reluctantly distributed by the AFC, and constantly sought to increase other income to make the organisation less dependent on government financial support, it looked very different. The EFF saga is just one example of the constant trouble over AFC funding. AFI exhibition and distribution were always financially stressed and embattled. The Board had no doubt that exhibition and distribution were important aspects of the AFI’s brief: it seemed self-evident that encouraging production required provision for the distribution and exhibition of the films produced.

Film distribution – the Vincent Film Library

The AFI’s distribution department was the Vincent Library (renamed the Vincent Film Library after the Information Resources Centre was established as a print-based library). It had a small collection of films imported for screening in AFI cinemas, but its main function was to be a clearing house for locally-made, independent or small-budget films, that were unlikely to obtain distribution through commercial channels. As a condition of EFF funding was the lodging of a print with the Vincent Library, the library’s collection was heavily-weighted towards EFF productions, but it sought out others as they became available. Prints of the films were stored on AFI premises, and were distributed for screening in educational contexts and/or independent cinemas, with the bulk of the fees collected being returned to the film-makers.

Over my years on the Board, the returns to film-makers steadily increased, while the relationship between the AFI and those same film-makers seemed to deteriorate. The Melbourne Film-makers Co-op cinema closed in 1977, when the AFC withdrew its subsidy. The AFI Board issued a press release expressing concern about this decision, both because it regretted the further centralization of film industry resources in Sydney, and because it agreed in principle with ‘the existence of, and financial support for, such independent and specialized outlets in Melbourne.’ [26]

After the EFF had been returned to AFC control in late 1977, there was some doubt about where EFF-funded productions could (or should) be lodged for distribution. In practice the AFI serviced Melbourne and the Sydney Film-makers Co-op serviced Sydney, with only a tiny market in other states, usually serviced by whichever was closer geographically. Both distributors were funded by the AFC, and – given the AFC’s determination to force amalgamations – the doubling up of independent distribution appeared to be an anomaly. It seemed obvious that co-operation between the Co-op and the AFI in any approach to the AFC would be preferable to competition, and early in 1978 Nick Herd (Executive Director of Sydney Film-makers Co-op) approached the AFI Board, suggesting discussions towards such co-operation.

In September 1978, a meeting (described in the minutes as ‘amicable and constructive’[27] ) took place between the AFI, the Co-op and the Association of Independent Film-makers. In November that year, representatives of these three bodies met with representatives of the AFC and recommended that two prints should be made of EFF-funded films, one to be lodged with the AFC, and one that might (at the discretion of the film-maker) be lodged with the Vincent Library, but that if a film-maker wished to lodge a print with both the Vincent Library and the Sydney Co-op application could be made for additional funding at the discretion of CDB staff. A further meeting to clarify the AFC’s policy on the distribution of low-budget films was told that decisions would be made on a film by film basis. This drew criticism from all sides as it implied that marketability was the main criterion. In the end, the AFC notified the AFI that they had decided to fund a single print of all EFF films for lodging in either the Vincent Library or the Sydney Film-makers Co-op, but that the AFC would also provide a grant to cover a second print if the second library and the film-maker both requested this.[28]

So, co-operation had achieved a result which pleased both the AFI and the Sydney Film-makers Co-op.[29] On 17 August 1979 Nick Herd wrote to Barry Jones proposing that a meeting be set up between the Board of the Co-op and the Board of the AFI ‘to discuss the possibility of forming a proposal for the two organisations to merge.’ Barry Jones replied that he would put the matter before the new AFI Board once it had taken office. Before this could happen, the suggestion was vehemently rejected by the Co-op Annual General Meeting.[30] All the correspondence was tabled at an AFI Board meeting on 14 February 1980, and the idea faded away: the Sydney Co-op seemed determined to see the AFI as part of the problem rather than as a potential part of the solution.

Such disagreements with the film-makers seemed once again to centre around money. Advertising was largely through printed catalogues, and it was noted that a new catalogue caused an increase in bookings.[31] However, the funding of the publication of the new catalogue had to be factored into the Vincent Library budget, and took funds that might otherwise have gone to the film-makers. The AFI was caught between the film-makers’ insistence that the AFI promote their films widely, and the concurrent demands that they should receive a higher percentage of the returns from the hiring of their films. Meanwhile the AFI walked a constant tight-rope between keeping faith with the film-makers and convincing the AFC that the Vincent Library was potentially self-sustaining, and in the meantime should continue to be subsidised.

Film Exhibition: – an alternative cinema chain; the National Film Theatre of Australia

The AFI was equally embattled over its exhibition policy. The shortest and simplest of the aims of the AFI, in its statement of ‘role, function and place in the Australian film scene’ was ‘to exhibit films’. It is necessary to remember that in the late-1970s Hollywood dominated even more than it does nowadays. Outside film festivals and film societies, Australian audiences had no opportunity to see documentary, experimental or avant-garde films in cinemas at all, and could only occasionally see feature films from any country other than USA or (less often) England, and then only in specialist outlets. Australian feature films were rare, and – with few exceptions – the public habitually regarded them as second-rate and something to avoid.

In this climate, the AFI accepted a responsibility to exhibit not only Australian productions, but any film ‘of genre, style or interest that would be unlikely to obtain a release through the mainstream commercial exhibition circuit’.[32]   With the support of the Film, Radio and Television Board, the AFI developed a policy of inaugurating a chain of specialist cinemas for alternative exhibition.

French & Poole describe how the State Theatre, Hobart was purchased as the first in the proposed chain of cinemas.[33] $165,000 was spent on purchasing, renovating and equipping this cinema, which commenced operation in February 1976.[34]  It struggled from the start, and cut-backs in funding caused the screenings to be reduced to four days a week. Even then, the limited audience meant that turnover had to be more frequent. So, in addition to art-house product, the State ran second-release commercial product, assumed to be of no interest to the commercial exhibitors. Nevertheless, a complaint was sent to the AFC by the Chairman of Tasmanian Drive-In Theatre Holdings.[35] The problem of sustaining funding under these circumstances was balanced against the importance of maintaining a presence outside Victoria, and the operation limped on.

In Melbourne, the AFI first leased the Playbox cinema, but by the time I joined the Board, the Playbox screenings had fallen into the doldrums, and the Melbourne screenings were shifted to the Longford cinema in Toorak Rd from 17 August 1976. In the AFI’s funding submission to the AFC for 1977/78, it was pointed out that since the move to the Longford, the AFI’s Melbourne screenings had earned $123,000, and required a subsidy of only $50,000. In the 1978/79 submission, figures and a graph showed that gross box-office returns in the AFI’s Melbourne exhibition outlets had steadily increased over the four years from 1975 – 1978, and the required subsidy had steadily decreased. A statistical summary based on the nationality of films shown at the Longford from August 1976 to January 1978, showed that the number of Australian films exhibited was almost double that of all other nationalities put together (55 to 28), and that at least one (and often up to 5) Australian films had been screened on every day that the Longford had been in operation. Of course – given the nature of the Longford’s programming, the availability of Australian films for screening in such an alternative venue, and the need for the cinema to become increasingly self-supporting – the vast majority of the Australian films referred to in these figures were shorts or supporting features. By late 1978, there were other cinemas in Melbourne with a screening policy similar to the Longford (particularly the Valhalla cinemas and the Rivoli, Camberwell), so the Longford programming had to take such competition into account.[36]

The exhibition function had always been considered as part of a national strategy, so – though it was logical for the flag-ship AFI cinema to be in Melbourne, under the constant eye of the senior staff and Board – it was equally important that the AFI establish a presence in other states. There were occasional screenings or short seasons of AFI films in all states, but in the 1970s it was only in NSW and Tasmania that there were attempts at a more systematic presence.

Early in 1978, the decision was made to trial AFI seasons in the Music Room of the Sydney Opera House. These were financially successful and encouraged the AFI to continue. However, in 1979 the ‘Perspectives of the New Cinema in Australia’ season and the AFI’s contribution to the Bennelong Programme, in conjunction with the Opera House Trust, made losses that wiped out the profits from the previous year.[37]  As this venue was not subsidised by the AFC, and was not operating continuously (but rather as a series of discrete seasons), it was important to programme it with a view to marketability.[38]

Early in my time on the Board, staff had warned that if box-office figures continued to decline then at least one of the cinemas would have to be closed.[39] Financial difficulties following the reduction in AFI funding in 1977/78 led to staff cut-backs, and a search for alternative sources of funding. Some of these were successful,[40] however the most reliable way to increase funds for exhibition was to increase box-office returns. The AFI needed to have some financially successful seasons (often of art-house product, imported for Film Festivals) to balance out the less successful ones (often the local product). But every time they had a hit (for instance Hester Street, or The War Game in 1977) the commercial cinemas complained that the government was subsidising their opposition.[41]

From another direction, the Sydney Film-makers Co-op made a similar argument – that any AFI screenings were eating into potential Co-op audiences.[42]  The AFC appeared to be ever ready to listen to any argument that could provide an excuse to reduce funding, and put the AFI under constant pressure about its exhibition activities. At the time I left the Board, the State cinema (Hobart) was in financial trouble, while the Opera House (Sydney) and Longford (Melbourne) were barely holding their own. Nevertheless, negotiations were also under way for the AFI to operate regular screenings in Coronation House, Brisbane, and screenings in Launceston were being seriously considered.

In all this sorry story, funding was the determining factor. Similarly, the merger between the AFI and the NFTA, achieved in 1979, was almost entirely a financial decision: in 1978, the AFC had announced that it would not fund two such similar organisations, so continued funding was dependent on a merger.[43] The AFI at that time was well-managed and kept strictly within its budget: the NFTA was carrying a large, and increasing, deficit. The AFI was based in Melbourne, the NFTA was based in Sydney. The overlap of their activities was considerable in the exhibition area: indeed many NFTA screenings occurred in AFI cinemas. However, this overlap was far more significant to the activities of the NFTA, which existed primarily to exhibit films, than to those of the AFI, which had a much greater range of functions. It was obvious that any merged organisation would still be called the Australian Film Institute, with the NFTA as a Division within it (similar to the George Lugg Library or the Vincent Film Library) . The AFI Board could see in this merger both cultural advantages and possibly efficiencies, such as amalgamating the AFI’s Opera House screenings with the NFTA’s Ozone cinema screenings. However, it was ultimately financial pressure from the AFC that drove the negotiations. A staffing model for the merged organisation was worked out, and the AFI Board agreed to the merger on condition that the AFI would not be responsible for the NFTA’s deficit. When the merger actually occurred, the deficit proved even larger than anticipated, and the AFI Board insisted that the AFI had agreed to the merger only if the deficit was covered. The AFC reluctantly agreed to take on the debt, and the merger took place.

You would have thought that this would please all parties: the NFTA had its deficit paid and became a part of a much more stable administration; the AFI had a surge in membership, a small increase in staff, and could oversee the NFTA’s exhibition practices, particularly in AFI cinemas; the AFC had only one, more financially stable, organisation to fund. The AFI staff and Board just got on with the business of making the merger work. But the AFC quickly forgot that it had pushed the two organisations together and continued to complain about funding the AFI for exhibition. The NFTA also forgot the benefits that the merger brought, and complained about how the AFI had ‘taken over’ the NFTA – a complaint raised again with me only weeks ago, by a respected colleague in Sydney, which made me wonder how much of the ill-feeling was produced by inter-city rivalry…

For there certainly was ill-feeling – both from the AFC and other film organisations against the AFI, and from the AFI Board against the AFC. And most of it about money: the AFC always considered that the AFI was given too much, but so, too, did other film organisations that felt they were competing against the AFI for the limited amount of available AFC funds.

There was some confusion about whether the 1976/7 funding application should be addressed to the Australia Council (and its FRTB) or the newly-formed AFC. The FRTB had supported the AFI within the Australia Council, and had been generally sympathetic with the Institute’s aims. The AFC was a very different kettle of fish, and seemed bent on reducing (even eliminating) subsidies to other organisations, preferring to spend its funds on grants to individual film-makers or projects. The correspondence between the two organisations contained constant pressure for the AFI to give up what the AFC considered inappropriate activities, such as exhibition or information resources. On one occasion, the AFC specified that it would not fund AFI proposals under the heading of Information Resources, Interstate exhibitions, and Central Booking Agency.[44]  In fact, reading between the lines it seemed that the management of the AFC could see no real function for the AFI beyond the annual film awards – the least-favoured AFI activity among the members of the Board at that time.

So, every time the budget rolled around, the AFC complained that the function of the AFI was not clear, and announced that AFC support could not be taken for granted. In 1977 the previous grant from the FRTB was reduced by 25%. The following year, funding was cut by a further 20%, with the threat that once the EFF had moved to AFC control there would be additional cuts. This seemed particularly harsh as the AFI had already incurred the cost of the EFF from the end of the previous financial year to October 31 when the transfer officially occurred. However, the AFC remained firm in expecting the AFI to live within its budget, including adjusting to the cut-backs. The most that Ken Watts would promise was that if the AFI managed to get funding from other sources the AFC would not automatically reduce the grant by the amount so raised.[45]  Overall, these cut-backs amounted to around 50% over the two years after the transfer of responsibility from the FRTB to the AFC. Even after staff were cut back and activities curtailed to fit within the straitened circumstances, a shortfall of $7,000 remained between the projected budget and the AFC grant. It was a great relief when the AFC reluctantly agreed to fund this shortfall.

Meanwhile, several of the AFI’s recent initiatives were starting to bring in money, that is, they were no longer completely dependent on subsidy. The two AFI cinemas (Longford in Melbourne, State in Hobart) were 64% self-supporting in 1977/8, and the Vincent Library had a gross income of almost $42,000 in the same period (of which $30,000 was returned to filmmakers as hire payments). The Board hoped that these activities would continue to grow, as they played an important part in supporting and developing Australian film culture, but they also considered that additional funding would probably be needed for some time.

One strategy was to start in May 1978 a new bank account for ‘Special projects’, opened with the profits received from the successful seasons of Harlan County and Phantom India at the Sydney Opera House. It was intended that money paid in to this account would come only from initiatives not supported by the AFC, that it would therefore not need to be reported upon to the AFC, and could go to financially supporting those aspects of the AFI’s programme that the AFC specifically excluded from the funding it provided. However, the success of this strategy depended on continuing successful seasons at the Opera House, which (described above) proved over-optimistic.

To the surprise of the AFI Board, the 1978/9 budget was approved by the AFC, including the provision for the new George Lugg Library, possibly because this was yet another amalgamation, which seemed to be a goal of the AFC at the time. The 1979/80 budget included the additional funds to cover the NFTA deficit, so once again an amalgamation led to a reprieve in cut-backs to the AFI.

The Board and management became increasingly frustrated by all this. Surely people could see that a healthy and vibrant film culture was to everyone’s advantage – a culture that included Melbourne and Sydney, local and imported films, commercial and independent exhibition. It became a vicious circle. Every time part of the film industry railed against the AFI, that was a further justification for the AFC to cut funding, and the capacity of the AFI to achieve its goals was further reduced. This recurring struggle to maintain funding continued well after I left the Board.

Australian Film Awards

Despite the fact that several Board members saw awards as the least important of all the AFI’s activities, the annual AFI awards took up a great deal of meeting time, discussion and planning. In the 21st century, these awards have a settled administrative system and a standard form of presentation. But in 1977-80 nothing was settled… There were constant meetings with guilds and associations, all striving to protect their perceived interests. The awards presentation produced a deluge of correspondence, much of it supportive, but just as much disappointed or angry. In my brief 3 years on the Board, there were major confrontations about the awards with Age film critic Colin Bennett, film-maker Tony Buckley, and ex-Film
Festival Director Erwin Rado.

The details of the changes would take up too much space, so I here summarise just a few of the main developments. There was no clear leader in the field of film and television awards, though it was in this period that the AFI first aspired to being the Australian version of the US Academy Awards. A Hollywood-style national televised presentation began in 1977 when the ABC hosted the presentation in Sydney’s Regent Theatre. In 1978 the presentation was done by TVW7 in Perth. In 1979, the planned presentation was cancelled because of the TV strike; and was replaced with an untelevised presentation at Sebel Town House, Sydney. In 1980, after I left the Board, it was planned to again have a nationally-televised presentation from Sydney. This kind of glamorous event always produced controversy about who should be chosen as invited presenters or guests.

The move to a higher public profile was connected to changes in the voting system. In the early years, awards had been judged by a jury panel, but voting by guilds and associations had been introduced before I joined the Board. Controversy erupted about the possibility of rigging the voting by mobilising all the people involved in the production of an entry.  However, after the 1977 awards, it was pointed out that for the previous two years the Jury award had gone to the same film as that voted Best Film by the industry.[46]  It took several years – and many meetings of AFI staff and Board members with industry representatives – to fine-tune this system.

One result of the changed voting system was the introduction of screenings for all the feature films entered, and a pre-selected number of films in other categories. At first these were only available in Sydney and Melbourne (and, I think, Brisbane), but they were extended to Perth and Adelaide in 1978. There was much debate about whether all films should be screened or only those that had not had a commercial release, and about whether viewing a film at an awards screening should be compulsory for anyone wishing to vote.

There were also changes in eligibility criteria: for instance, in February 1977 it was decided that all films must have a commercial release before they could be eligible for entry.

There were repeated changes to the awards themselves – adding or dropping categories, introducing awards for television, and inaugurating special awards. The Longford award for Lifetime Achievement had been inaugurated in 1968, awarded again in 1970, then from 1976 was awarded every year. The debate about potential recipients was always fierce, but usually resulted in a consensus. In 1977, Elsa Chauvel accepted on behalf of her husband Charles Chauvel, in 1978 the award went to pioneering film-makers the McDonagh sisters, in 1979 to Jerzy Toepliz (who was about to return to Europe after establishing the Australian Film and Television School), and in 1980 to Philip Adams.

The Awards sub-committee of the AFI Board was kept very busy during these years, and though over time much of the heat went out of the debates, the AFI’s association with these awards is still often quoted as a reason for not supporting the organisation.


My memory, even with the assistance of Board papers, is neither complete nor absolutely reliable. In any case, a three-year period out of a fifty-year history is too short a time from which to draw definitive conclusions. However, I can say that for most of that three years there was a sense of purpose within the Board and the staff: we usually knew where we wanted to go, even if circumstances (and funding agencies) were against us. We also knew when we had become caught up in someone else’s agenda (usually the AFC’s), and despite our most determined efforts were swept in a direction that we did not really desire or approve. Every time I hear the AFI criticised – and there are plenty of people who still make the same criticisms that I heard back in the 1970s – I remember how hard we fought to achieve each little advance or just to sustain what we had already achieved, and I hope that the current Board is as conscientious and open-minded as the Board that I was a part of. Maybe everyone needs a stint on a film administration body, just to understand the limits of the possible…


[1] Lisa French and Mark Poole, Shining a Light: 50 Years of the Australian Film Institute, Moving Image no.9, 2009.
[2] I do not think that a female EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR was contemplated as even a remote possibility at that point.
[3] Executive Director (David Roe), Report to the Board of Directors, 9 Dec. 1977.
[4] I have retained membership continuously since then, which I have been told makes me the person with the longest continuous membership (though there are others still alive who were members before I joined).
[5] David Roe was elected to the Board in September 1979.
[6] First mentioned at a Board meeting 2 Aug. 1978 (Minute 12a). Approved at a Board Meeting, 16 Oct.1978 (Minute 10).
[7] Board meeting, 2 August 1978 (see Minute 16a).
[8] I am, therefore, particularly pleased with the new ACMI permanent display, which does more than we could have imagined in 1978 to illustrate the history of the moving image, and has access to the contents of those crates.
[9] See Helen Zilko’s report to the Board, in the Agenda papers of the meeting of 16 Oct. 1978.
[10]  ‘I am pleased that you are able to proceed with George Lugg Library proposal. This seems likely to become an important part of the Australian Film Institute’s activities.’ K.F.Watts, Chairman AFC, to Barry Jones, Chairman AFI, 17 Oct. 1978.
[11] To the Board meeting 16 Aug. 1979.
[12]  It was also firmly rejected by Ray Edmondson on behalf of the Films Division (see Agenda papers for Board meeting 5 Feb 1979, item 6A).
[13] This was first proposed at the Board meeting of 30 May 1978 (Minute 7).
[14] An attempt to draw the library of the State Film Centre (Melbourne) into the group was unsuccessful (see Helen Zilko’s notes, Board meeting 29 June 1979, agenda item 8b).
[15] I personally had had a vision of the Centre becoming a clearing house for film research, maintaining a computerised database of all film information resources throughout Australia (Proposed at a Board meeting 30 May 1978, Minute 12). So you can imagine how disappointed I was when, in 2002, the AFI’s funding for the Information Resource Centre was eliminated altogether. I am grateful that this magnificent resource was not dispersed at that time, but its current location within RMIT still represents to me a lost opportunity…
[16] This was presented to a Board meeting on 27 Mar. 1979 (Agenda item 8).
[17] The Association of Teachers of Film and Video (later Association of Teachers of Media – ATOM) had been founded in the early 1960s, and their journal Metro had been in publication from not long after. This body seemed to me to be both better qualified and more appropriate to initiate curriculum proposals. I had the same kind of reservations about a later incarnation of the AFI Education Committee (1985-6).
[18]  Sylvia Lawson, paper to the Board, 16 Oct. 1978.
[19] John Tulloch’s Legends on the Screen (1981) was the first joint publication, followed by Bertrand & Collins Government and Film in Australia (1981), and Albert Moran, Making a TV Series: The Bellamy Project (1982). However, some time after 1982 the AFI withdrew from the publication of books. Sylvia Lawson continued as general editor of what was now Currency Presses Australian Screen series, with publications such as Albert Moran & Tom O’Regan eds, An Australian Film Reader (1985) and Susan Dermody & Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia (2 vols 1987-8).
[20] In a letter to Brian Beaton, 15 Apr. 1977 (AFI Board papers, Agenda for meeting of 1 July 1977).
[21] See Albie Thoms, ‘Distribution: 1974’ and ‘Ten Years of the Sydney Filmmakers Coop: Part Two’, in Polemics for a New Cinema, Wild and Woolley, Sydney, 1978.
[22] Minutes of Board meeting, 12 March 1977.
[23]  The objects for which the Institute was established, listed in the Memorandum of Association, were wide-ranging, and inclusive (none of the objects refer exclusively to ‘Australian’ film).
[24]  Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines, Bernt Porridge Group, Shenton Park, 2001, p. 54
[25] Albie Thoms, Polemics for a New Cinema, pp. 378-380. I was surprised when Albie Thoms was elected to the AFI Board in March 1980. Perhaps he changed his mind about the AFI, or perhaps he decided to effect change from within…
[26] AFI Board Minutes, 12 Aug. 1977.
[27]  AFI Board Minutes, 7 Sept. 1978.
[28] Lachlan Shaw (CDB) to John Foster (AFI), 12 Jan. 1979.
[29] However, the implementation of the decision did not produce the result that the AFI Board had hoped, as the number of prints lodged with the Vincent Library from EFF productions steadily decreased (Board meeting, 29 June 1978, Minute 7).
[30] Nick Herd to John Foster, 26 Nov. 1979.
[31]Minutes of Board meeting, 12 Aug. 1977.
[32]Cinema Exhibition Position Paper, attached to Board meeting Agenda, 16 Oct. 1978.
[33] French & Poole, p. 51.
[34] Grants were obtained from the Film, Radio and Television Board of the Australian Council for the Arts, and from the Ministry for Tourism and Recreation (Board minutes, 5 Feb. 1979, minute 7e).
[35] Board meeting 29 June 1978, Minute 6.
[36] During 1979-80 a proposal to shift the Melbourne screenings to the Savoy cinema was carefully considered, but in the end rejected, despite considerable projected cost savings. The deciding factor was that the AFC subsidy could not be relied upon, and that the longer lease required at the Savoy (13 years instead of two years) was too great a risk to take.
[37] Screenings at the Opera House made an operating loss of $7,276 on a gross box office return of $40,745, in the four months ended 29 Oct. 1978 (agenda papers, Board meeting 28 Nov. 1978).
[38]Cinema Exhibition Position Paper, attached to Board meeting Agenda, 16 Oct. 1978, p. 4.
[39] Memo, David Roe & John Foster to Board, 7 Sept. 1977.
[40] In 1978, the Tasmanian State Government provided a grant to the AFI towards the running of the State theatre, and asked the AFI to consider presenting a programme in northern Tasmania.
[41] See, for instance, an article in Variety (‘Commercial Sites, Piqued At “Subsidy” Of Art Feature Pix’, 10 May 1978), quoting Dr Darrel Killen, head of the Cinema Centre group, who claimed that the AFI was showing imported films at subsidised admission prices, and was out-bidding commercial operators for film supply.
[42] See Barrett Hodsdon’s ‘Report on minority exhibition and distribution’, commissioned by Sydney Film-Makers Co-op 1976, and David Roe’s Commentary on this, dated Dec. 1976.
[43] Lachlan Shaw to John Foster, 9 Oct. 1978.
[44] Lachlan Shaw to David Roe, 31 Aug. 1977.
[45] Ken Watts to Barry Jones 7 Oct. 1977.
[46] Minutes of Board meeting, 22 Sept. 1977.

Created on: Monday, 21 December 2009

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →