‘Is Happiness Festival-Shaped Any Longer?’: The Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals and the Growth of Australian Film Culture 1973-1977.

This is the fourth in a series of papers discussing the history of the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals. Three of our previous papers examined the period from the Festivals’ emergence in 1952 and 1954 respectively, through their development and growth to 1972. [1] This paper continues the broader historical narrative and deals with the period from 1973 to 1977. It also retains the key premise of our previous papers that the history of both Festivals can be understood as “involving a continuous negotiation between the demands of ‘culture’ and the demands of ‘industry’“. [2] With regard to the demands of culture, the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals were established as non-profit organisations for the purpose of screening alternative film not available in commercial film venues. As organisations borne of the film society and Australian film production movements in the 1950s, the Festivals’ roots were firmly planted in those cultural practices associated with ‘film culture’, practices that legitimised the status of the two Festivals as non-profit entities.

However, rising commercial interest in international and art film from the 1960s led to a growth both in the number of film organisations and institutions driven by industrial imperatives, and the extent of their influence over film supply and demand. The Melbourne and Sydney Festivals were thus increasingly required over the course of their history to take into account a range of industrial pressures in order to ensure their survival and augmentation as institutions. [3] Within this context then, for the two Film Festivals “meeting the demands of ‘industry’ was essential for their survival as organisations (for example, if they were to obtain quality product); but meeting the demands of ‘culture’ was essential for ensuring their continued legitimacy”. [4]

The key development that occurs in the period dealt with here is a clear illustration of this tension between ‘culture’ and ‘industry’. On the one hand, this period provides evidence of the success of the two Film Festivals in terms of their cultural role, in that ‘film culture’ became genuinely established in Australia. However, this cultural success generated an obvious industrial predicament for the Festivals. The growth of film culture led to a proliferation of new exhibition sites for ‘art’ cinema, which in turn convoluted the distinctiveness and indeed original purpose of the Festivals. The result is that this period was characterised by a search, on the part of both Festivals, for a distinctive institutional role and position – one that met ‘industrial’ imperatives and could simultaneously be justified in appropriately ‘cultural’ terms.

The increasing complexity of the environment in which the Festivals operated during the period from 1973 to 1977 makes a rather more intricate site for analysis than in previous periods. More particularly, this period is the precursor for what is arguably one of the most difficult phases in the history of the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. For in 1978, the Melbourne Film Festival collapsed, and the Sydney Festival made a substantial loss for the first time in its history.  The narrative under consideration here will thus be dealt over two papers to better articulate the trends and events that underpin this downturn: this first paper traces the history of the Festivals within the broader theme of film culture – more particularly the role of the Festival during this period within the burgeoning film culture scene in Australia. The second paper considers the history of the Festivals within a vastly changing national and international industrial landscape. While it is clear that this division is to some extent artificial, the two arenas of culture and industry are distinct enough within the Festival archives to justify separate consideration.

The history of the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals is important not only because of its intrinsic interest as a record of two key Australian cultural institutions, but also because most of the literature on film festivals remains focused on their content (i.e., the programming) and key personalities (e.g., famous festival directors), rather than upon their nature as cultural institutions in their own right. Throughout this series of papers, we have emphasised the key point that film festivals are not merely ‘empty vessels’ for the showing of particular films, but organisations with a distinctive place in the global cinematic supply chain. As such, they are institutions operating under various constraints within the complex nexus of film culture and industry activity.Their history is thus valuable as part of the broader story of the culture industry and the role played by alternative mechanisms to mainstream commercial practice.

As noted above, the key development in the early to mid-1970s was the significant change in the Film Festivals’ environment, which resulted from the growth and establishment of ‘film culture’ in Australia. This term is usefully defined by Barrett Hodsdon, as follows.

In its most obvious sense film culture is an all encompassing term for a variety of structures, processes, activities and discourses that comprise a film community in its broadest definition.

A properly conceived notion of film culture embraces a film community not as a fully unified entity but rather as a number of spheres that may or may not intersect.
Film culture stresses the process of second level reflection (criticism, commentary, analysis and theory) on the normal practices and institutions of commercial cinema (and television). As well, it points to the continuing possibilities for alternative and other film practices (and their discursive context which are not strictly bound by the commercial ethos. [5]

The establishment of film culture in Australia in the early to mid-1970s has been dealt with in detail by others, so here we can just briefly note some of the key developments. [6] In this period, film studies courses were introduced at the newly established Colleges of Advanced Education (e.g. Canberra CAE, 1971, Mitchell CAE, 1972); and Universities (e.g. Griffith University, 1974; Macquarie University, 1975); [7] there was increasing attention to film studies at the secondary level; [8] and scholarly works by Australian film theorists and historians of cinema began to proliferate. [9] Reflecting these developments, a range of new journals began to appear, such as The Australian Journal of Screen Theory (established 1976); the government-funded Cinema Papers (1974); Cantrills Filmmnotes, the avant-garde film and video journal (1971); Metro, the journal for ATOM, the Australian Teachers of Media Association (1974); and Filmnews 1976 – (old Sydney Filmmakers Co-op newsletter). [10] This increased scholarly and educational interest in film percolated into the mainstream urban press, where ‘art’ cinema received increasingly detailed reviews (see, e.g., Colin Bennett’s reviews in The Age, and film reviews in The Nation in Review). [11]

The establishment of film culture in Australia was also reflected in a further development, namely, the increasing numbers of exhibition and distribution sites for ‘non-commercial’ or ‘non-mainstream’ cinema. With a growing Australian audience for ‘art’ cinema in the late 1960s and 1970s, more independent cinemas arrived in what was an already burgeoning market, [12] while the commercial cinema chains (such as Greater Union, Hoyts and Village) also began to screen more of such material. Indeed all three chains made the most of the more relaxed censorship climate of the Whitlam era, which included the introduction of the R certificate. [13] For example, in 1973 the commercial exhibition chains screened Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971), Pasolini’s Decameron (1971) and Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). [14]

In addition, over this period a range of other exhibition sites also appeared. The AFI began having first-run exhibitions of Australian and art-house films in 1974, operating at first from the Playbox Theatre (from mid-1974 to 1976), and then moving to the Longford Cinema in Toorak Road. [15] There were also a number of film libraries that stocked a range of ‘non-commercial’ forms of cinema, and which were reaching a larger audience in this period. So, for example, there was the Vincent Library – which increasingly acted as a library for independent features and short films – and the film libraries of other public sector organisations, such as that maintained by the South Australian Film Corporation, and the 16mm film library of Educational Media Australia. [16] Other film culture bodies, such as the Sydney Filmmakers’ Co-operative, began regular exhibition and distribution (from 1973 and 1975, respectively). [17] Finally, we should also note the appearance of one more film festival in this period: the short-lived Perth Film Festival (1972-1976). [18]

All of these new sites for exhibition and distribution were occupying ground that was once the main preserve of the Film Festivals. Perhaps the clearest example of this challenge to the distinctiveness of the Festivals is provided by the National Film Theatre of Australia (NFTA). The NFTA, which was officially established in 1968, was funded primarily by membership funds, screenings, small grants and “the good will of film sources”. Its exhibitions across the six capital cities became increasingly popular in this period, with its national membership growing to nearly 10,000 by the mid-1970s. By 1973 the NFTA was screening 6 nights per week in Sydney – 3 nights at the Opera House, 2 at the Australian Government Centre in Chifley Square and one at the AMP theatrette. [19] Writing of it in 1974 in Cinema Papers, Arthur Austin stated:

The N.F.T.A. has managed to survive, necessarily with a certain amount of compromise and lack of adventurousness, but generally maintaining its original function as an organisation screening objectively worthwhile films on a non-commercial basis, to encourage more widespread appreciation of cinema as an art form. [20]

This remark makes one thing clear: that the NFTA provided a rationale for its existence (its ‘function’, in the words of the passage), which was almost identical to that of the two Film Festivals. Indeed, a similar rationale was offered by the first official film festival in Australia – the Olinda Film Festival in 1952 – a Festival that served as the precursor to the first Melbourne Film Festival in 1953, and arguably also to the first Sydney Film Festival in 1954. [21] The 1952 Olinda Film Festival programme thus claimed one of its key aims to be:

(to) bring together Australian film enthusiasts so that they may see films that would not otherwise be available, and to encourage these film enthusiasts to talk films, think films, and exchange views to their mutual advantage[22]

From the perspective of the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals, this rapid establishment of a vibrant film culture in Australia in the 1970s thus represented a cultural success, but also an institutional challenge. From their beginnings at Olinda, the Film Festivals had seen one of their key roles as the spreading and establishment of film culture in Australia. [23] However, the greater the Festivals’ success in realising this cultural imperative, the more their distinctiveness was diluted – which in turn tested their viability as institutions. This test of their viability had both an ‘industrial’ and a ‘cultural’ dimension. Stated in ‘industrial’ terms, the spread of film culture in Australia in the 1970s meant that the Film Festivals were now operating in a more competitive market. They could thus no longer rely simply on their uniqueness as exhibition outlets for ‘alternative’ or ‘non-mainstream’ cinema, to guarantee either a supply of appropriate films, or an audience.

However, the problem went further than this, for these developments also convoluted one of the foundational, self-conscious cultural roles of the Film Festivals, which was to ensure that ‘non-commercial’ cinema reached an audience. In the words of the inaugural Melbourne Film Festival Programme (of 1953), one of the key roles of the festival was “[t]o enable people to enjoy and appreciate films which they otherwise could not see”. [24] This role as an exhibition site for ‘non-commercial’ cinema (i.e., film which would not otherwise be available to the public) provided the core of the Festivals’ cultural and institutional identity, and gave them a self-conscious rationale that structured what they did, and how they justified it. However, with this distinctiveness being progressively diluted over this period, it was no longer clear what the specific purpose or identity of the Festivals should be. If, in this new industrial landscape, the usual festival fare was being successfully shown to audiences through other exhibition sites, then the screening of such films in special annual events was no longer the unique proposition it had once been. Even if the Festivals could successfully maintain an audience, their institutional identity depended upon their cultural role, and it was this role that increasingly made less sense. In sum, the more firmly and widely film culture became established in Australia, the more it constituted an existential challenge to the two Film Festivals.

The point made here is simple enough, but it is a clear illustration of our core theme: that the Film Festivals are not entities existing in a purely cultural realm, obeying only cultural imperatives (even if that is how they are presented by their own rhetoric), but instead are always forced to negotiate between the demands of ‘culture’ and of ‘industry’. The Film Festivals were thus faced in this period with the problem of having to modify and adapt their institutional identity, if they were to maintain a distinctive position within the industrial-cultural landscape. This search for a new or adapted identity had to meet certain criteria. To begin with, as the Film Festivals were non-profit organisations, whatever identity they adopted had to be justifiable in cultural terms (e.g., as advancing or supporting film culture in some way) rather than purely industrial ones (e.g., that they could still attract sufficient audiences). However, this new identity also needed to provide the Festivals with a clear identity or distinctive role to play, which would differentiate them from other exhibition sites for ‘non-commercial’ cinema, and justify why the film trade would wish to deal with them.

This need to search for a new or adapted institutional identity rose to the awareness of the Melbourne Film Festival organising committee in the obvious ways: via declining ticket sales, slower uptake of tickets, and increasing complaints from their audiences. Although these problems appear to have been less evident in Sydney, its organising committee also became markedly more reflexive and concerned about their institutional identity in this period.

By May of 1974 it became clear to the Melbourne organising committee that applications from film society members were “lower and slower” than in previous years. [25] In response to this, the Festival’s post-mortem committee meeting (held on 1 July) included a section entitled “Future of the Festival”. The minutes of this meeting show that the committee was aware that with reduced film society demand and a drop in sales of professional tickets, it needed to consider possible fundamental changes to the Melbourne Festival’s image and format. The Chairman outlined the current image of the Festival “as a fairly serious event supported by film lovers essentially with film society background, the emphasis on short films, and a shop window on the world’s cinema.” [26] He suggested that perhaps the Festival should be changed “to fit in with the current needs of society which itself is changing”. [27] Questions such as “Is the Festival too bourgeois?” were posed at this meeting.

Concerns about the future role of the Melbourne Festival were not restricted to internal committee debate, but were also aired in the mainstream press at this time. In particular, the influential film critic for The Age, (as well as ex-member of the Melbourne Festival committee and judge of the Festival’s film awards), Colin Bennett, reviewed the 1974 Festival in an article that is worth quoting at length:

Critics only have to criticize, not execute. We are the dreamers, not the doers. Which is just as well, because I feel that the Melbourne festival, after 23 years of splendidly serving the film lovers of this city and popularising international cinema in this country, has reached the time of decision, the time for a change of format, or policy, or something … but I’m damned if I know what.

Festivals such as Melbourne’s venerable institution are now limited to the dwindling minority of classy films from all over that have not been seized commercially, plus a necessary leavening of half a dozen that the commercial trade considers arty enough to contribute.

And within these limitations Melbourne does as well as it can. It tries to provide a cross-section of world cinema which would otherwise take years to filter through. It brings unfamiliar countries and talents, and the ‘difficult’ films the distributors fight shy of, and keeps us abreast of the development of some of the less commercial directors.

But although we no longer expect to be enraptured, are we even contented? Is happiness festival-shaped any longer?

One has the nagging feeling of a creeping mediocrity – that our festival is becoming set in its ways, and needs a new image of alternative functions. A more retrospective role, as I’ve suggested in the past? Or a role as the once-a-year meeting ground for film buffs and makers? [28]

In this article, Bennett clearly states the key problem for the Festival: the films it can show are a “dwindling minority”, and therefore the Festival “needs a new image of alternative functions”. We have filled out the premises of this argument above – the films Melbourne could show by 1974 were “dwindling”, precisely because of the growing establishment of film culture in Australia; and this development convoluted the distinctive role (in both the ‘cultural’ and ‘industrial’ sense) of the Festivals as exhibition outlets for ‘non-commercial’ cinema.

Showing the seriousness with which Melbourne took these developing concerns, a follow-up meeting was held later in July of 1974 to further pursue debates about the Film Festival’s future direction. [29] At this meeting, various attempts were made to explain the reduced demand for tickets, and corresponding strategies (i.e., “alternative functions”, in Bennett’s words) suggested for addressing this problem. One line of argument was that the Festival was failing to attract a younger audience in sufficient numbers, because of its conservative programming. It was suggested that this younger audience viewed film as a “communications medium”, and would therefore be attracted by more “experimental” and “adventurous” programming. It was suggested that a special sub-committee be formed to plan such segments for future festivals. A second line of argument was that the Festival should distinguish itself by emphasising the internationalist dimension of cinema. Festival Director Erwin Rado thus tabled the idea of running four national segments at the Festival  – namely, France, Germany, Italy and Hungary, because of the quality and volume of films coming from these four countries. [30] (Two of these proposed segments were in fact run in the 1975 festival.) [31] Finally, a third line of argument made at this meeting was that the Festival was no longer sufficiently distinct from an ordinary experience of visiting a film theatre. To address this, the festival should no longer just be “sitting in the dark”, but should be developed into a qualitatively more engaging experience as a whole. Suggestions for achieving this aim included having more discussion sessions interspersed throughout the programme, having “special themes”, such as a retrospective, and using the Palais de Dance as a venue for special meals and other forms of entertainment. [32]

Although they were not suffering the same obvious and concerning drop in demand for tickets as Melbourne, a similar debate about the future of the Festival was occurring at Sydney as well. In particular, the organising committee was divided between the views of the president Ross Tzannes, and those of the director, David Stratton. Tzannes argued that the Festival’s central cultural role should be to show “cutting edge” work that would not otherwise reach an audience, and thus that there was little or no place for screening films that were already available via standard exhibition sites. [33] Stratton, on the other hand, argued that the Festival’s role was to be the key film event in Australia, and to show-case “the best of world cinema”, even if some of those films had already been screened. In organising committee debate over this issue at the end of 1972, Stratton argued that the publicity given by screening at the Festival could help films achieve a longer run and reach a wider audience than they otherwise would, and that this was sufficient reason for showing films that were already being screened. [34]

In these internal debates, we can thus discern three different strategies which the Film Festivals considered in the attempt to resolve the problem of their institutional identity.  One option was what could be termed the ‘avant garde’, or ‘purist’, strategy. This was to continue to take seriously the thought that the Film Festivals existed primarily to show film that did not have alternative exhibition sites. Then, given that ‘art house’ cinema was now broadly accessible (at least to urban audiences), this strategy would mean that the Film Festivals should instead focus on, for example, short films and/or highly experimental cinema. A second option that was considered could be termed the ‘internationalist’ strategy. This was the thought that the Festivals should specialise in film culture as an expression of nationhood (rather than ‘art’ per se), and thus, for example, structure their programmes around the cinema of particular countries. The third option could be termed the ‘experiential’ strategy. This was to aim at establishing the Festivals as the key film events in Australia, and to be distinctive by virtue of the nature of the experience that they provided to their audience (that is, the total intensity, length, quality and range of the experience).

The ‘avant garde’ strategy considered by the Festivals was to maintain the original idea of being a site for the exhibition of films that had no real exhibition possibilities elsewhere. Whilst this idea of keeping the Festivals at the ‘cutting edge’ of film culture had some support in the Sydney organising committee (as noted above), it was mainly the Melbourne Film Festival that seriously considered this as a possible solution to the question of its institutional identity. Melbourne – with its close links to the film societies – had, since its inception, always had a stronger ‘purist’ element represented on the organising committee, and had seen itself as a more ‘serious’ film culture event than Sydney. [35] It had, for example, run the Melbourne Film Festival Awards, an international short film award, since 1962. [36] This emphasis on short films was a key point of distinction for Melbourne, which consistently ran high numbers of shorts in their programme (for example, in the 1973 programme, of the 158 films in the main programme, only 38 were feature length). [37] However, although this focus on short films fit naturally with adopting a self-consciously ‘avant garde’ identity, it also raised an obvious institutional problem for Melbourne, namely, that the audience for such films were small. The Awards ceremonies were usually poorly attended, and it seemed to have become an annual ritual for the judges to complain about the poor quality of the films submitted. Dave Jones, writing of his experience as judge of the 1973 Melbourne Film Festival Awards, remarked that a “striking feature” of the films:

was their apparent sameness. After a while, the shorts began to look like some sort of celluloid bouillon, soupy, entropic, all merging together, indistinguishable. Rarely was there a feeling that a particular film could have been made only in its country of origin. … The films seemed to be trying to conform to an idea of what is professionally acceptable. Few films required any work from the viewer or took him anywhere. Many of them presented “universal” experiences by skipping the particular, and most of them were boring. [38]

There was a further incentive for the Melbourne Film Festival to pursue a more avant-garde identity. The Festival held a long term connection with the Australian Film Institute (AFI) via its Director Erwin Rado. Rado helped to establish the AFI [39] and served as its Director alongside his role as Director of the Melbourne Film Festival. The AFI was charged with administering the recently established Experimental Film and Television Fund, a government-funded initiative designed to encourage the development of an Australian film industry through the support of low-budget and experimental productions. [40] The Melbourne Festival thus provided a natural conduit for the screening of this and similar output.

However, Melbourne’s experiments with showing more experimental cinema resulted in similar problems to its screenings of short film. The imagined ‘youth audience’ turned out to have little interest in such films: the National Seasons at the 1975 Festival “weren’t well attended”, while many people left during the screening of the Kamler Retrospective of experimental film, with the director, Rado, admitting “that even 21 minutes of these experimental films in one batch in The Palais Theatre, was a mistake.” [41] Rado was once again,

extremely disappointed at the response to these magnificent experiments, but I would now agree that perhaps in a concentrated form as presented at the Festival, they would only appeal to a small minority. [42]

This comment from Rado sums up the intrinsic problem posed by attempts to adopt the ‘avant-garde’ strategy as an identity for the Festivals. Almost by definition, ‘cutting edge’ film that had no commercial possibilities for exhibition elsewhere, is of interest only to “a small minority”. Hence, if Melbourne were seriously to have gone down this road, it would have had to accept a substantial shift in its institutional presence – from being Melbourne’s premier film event, to becoming a small-scale, ‘niche’ event, patronised only by a tiny group of enthusiasts. This might have been a possible strategy for a small, amateur organisation, but was clearly not acceptable to the Melbourne Film Festival’s organising committee.

We turn now to examine the Festivals’ attempts to explore the second strategy noted above: the focus on the notion of ‘culture’ in the ‘anthropological’ sense rather than the ‘art’ sense, in an attempt to make the internationalism of the festivals their distinguishing feature. Prima facie, this strategy appeared to possess a number of ‘industrial’ advantages, as well as offering a clear ‘cultural’ justification and distinctive role for the Festivals. For showcasing, say, Italian film as Italian film seemed to have a ready-made potential audience in the form of the various ethnic communities in Melbourne and Sydney. In addition, grouping films by nationality (rather than thematically, for example) offered certain logistical advantages. Rado, for example, suggested that it was much easier to arrange “a parcel of films, with diplomatic freight, guests etc.” if this were negotiated on a country-by-country basis, rather than, say, on the basis of cinematic theme. [43]

This ‘internationalist’ strategy was experimented with by both Melbourne and Sydney in 1976, with both Festivals making Italian film a focus of that year’s festivals. Thus the centrepiece of the 1976 Melbourne Film Festival (its 25th anniversary), was a ‘Salute to Italian Cinema’. [44] This ‘Salute’ included a sizeable delegation of Italian directors and actors as special guests of the Festival, and the presentation of seven Italian feature films. The Melbourne Film Festival used this opportunity to reiterate its historical and cultural importance:

if it were not for the Festivals, the works of directors whose films play both cinematic art and socially prominent roles in Italy…would never have been seen in this country.

Thus the Festivals in Australia continue in their role of filling lacunae, giving critics, students, and, above all, distributors, an opportunity of assessing new facets of the film making scene in Italy and in other countries. [45]

However, despite the large Italian community in the city, the Italian programme was clearly not well attended in Melbourne – with the organising committee labelling it a “failure”. [46]

To make matters worse in 1976, some of the Italian guests proved problematic. Michelangelo Antonioni, the most heralded and renowned of the delegates, was “taciturn and shy, shunning the TV cameras and reluctant to do anything” while film star Giancarlo Giannini was “permanently offended about the lack of adulation of the public or the press”. Rado noted that Giannini’s “presence yielded little publicity for us, but this was richly compensated for by all the headaches and embarrassment he caused to us who had to look after his over-inflated ego! [47] Despite the poor attendance at the ‘Salute to Italian Cinema’, the 1976 MIFF still managed to make a small profit (of just over $10,000) from subscriptions. [48]

In comparison with Melbourne, Sydney’s 1976 Italian focus was more successful. While Melbourne had opened subscriptions up to the general public in 1975, it was still overly reliant on its (declining) subscriptions from the Victorian film societies to provide its audience. [49] Sydney, on the other hand, had no such ties, and Stratton ensured that the 1976 Festival was aggressively marketed. The 1976 season was sold through advertisements and a separate brochure, and tickets were available through central agencies rather than only from the Sydney Film Festival itself. Sydney also actively targeted the Italian community via advertisements in the local Italian press. This marketing was extended to the opening night of the Festival, which had an over-the-top Italian theme, in order to garner widespread publicity from the press. This theme included Italian dancers, and a gelato ice-cream vendor in the street, whilst the theatre’s foyer was decorated with Italian flags, Cinzano umbrellas, photos of the late Visconti and Pasolini, and programs handed out by ‘seven beauties’ in Italian costumes (courtesy of the sponsorship of Grace Bros.). The opening night was also attended by the Lord Mayor of Sydney, and both Neville Wran (the Premier of NSW) and Gough Whitlam (the Leader of the Opposition) were among the official guests. All these marketing strategies were successful, and Sydney generated a profit of over $6,000 from this event alone. [50]

The third strategy that the Film Festivals explored was the attempt to distinguish themselves by virtue of their nature as a film culture experience. This was the notion that the Festivals had a distinctive institutional position in the culture-industry nexus, because they offered a certain sort of intensity, depth, breadth, and experience of the glamour of film culture, that other ‘art’ film exhibition sites could not match. This ‘experiential’ quality had a number of components. Most obviously, the Festivals were distinctive in that they involved the exhibition of a very large number and variety of films over a relatively short period of time, so that they offered their audience the possibility of a uniquely ‘immersive’ experience of film and film culture. As part of this, the Festivals were also highly curated events, so that audiences were (in part, at least) attracted by the quality of the choices of programming that were made (i.e., not just which films were shown, but the juxtaposition and organisation of them). Finally, the Festivals were, by this stage, also glamorous and prestigious social events, with their opening nights, famous official guests, award ceremonies, press coverage, the presence of celebrities and the social elite, and so on and so forth.

One way in which the Festivals attempted to heighten this ‘experiential’ dimension, was by interweaving various ‘film culture’ events (such as forums, workshops, and discussion panels) into their programmes. So it was during this period that the Sydney Festival began to introduce a more consistent forum section into the Festival proper. In 1973, for example, Sydney held a forum on film and feminist thought, entitled ‘Film and the Second Sex’ which, according to Australian documentary filmmaker Martha Ansara, “introduced electrifying ideas”. [51] From 1977, the Sydney Festival would include panel discussions as a regular feature of its programmes – in part thanks to federal government funding support for bringing international directors and actors to Australia. [52]

By 1975, both Festivals were increasingly being designed self-consciously to be, in part, glamorous spectacles. The 1975 Festivals each had a screening of the Hal Ashby film Shampoo as their centrepiece, and the star of that film, Warren Beatty, was one of the official guests of the Melbourne Festival (Beatty, according to reviewer Bob Ellis, “took on one token women’s lib lunatic in the audience and wiped the floor with her”). [53] Melbourne also held a gala preview for that year’s Festival. These moves towards emphasising the nature of the Festivals as prestigious social events were not without their critics, who saw such moves as incongruent with the serious business of being a properly ‘cultural’ event. For example, in his review of that year’s Melbourne Festival, Colin Bennett wrote in The Age that:

The Festival should certainly be festive, as I’ve always claimed. But I doubt the answer lies in the folk songs and bazza jokes of the gala preview …By all means let’s not be too pompous and earnest over the people’s art, but let’s leave the popfest element to jazzier Sydney, which apparently handles it well. [54]

Jazzier Sydney may well have handled the ‘popfest’ element more successfully than Melbourne (in that Sydney had always had less pretensions to cultural ‘seriousness’ than the earnest Melbourne Film Festival), but the glamorous 1975 Sydney Festival also had its critics. Broadcaster John Hinde, for example, stated in his review of the Festival that:

I can’t help being critical of it for moving so fast along that dreadfully old-fashioned path of ‘bigger means better’ and especially for growing and glittering in the way it is without taking on any compensations in the way of added functions. … I just can’t help feeling that the brilliant growth of spectacle is carrying the Sydney Festival right to the point of no return. [55]

The point we have argued for here is that the Film Festivals’ increasingly frenetic attempts to “grow and glitter” were not arbitrary choices, but the result of objective pressures to differentiate themselves in a cultural site that was, by the mid-1970s, becoming increasingly crowded.

Despite their (admittedly tentative) experiments with the three strategies for institutional identity that we have considered above, the problems of the Festivals continued. At Melbourne in particular, sales of tickets declined further, so that by the end of April 1976 not enough subscriptions had been sold even to cover the costs for that year’s festival. This led Melbourne to undertake “a considerable campaign of hard sell” which “cost money and a good deal of effort”. [56] In the Melbourne organising committee, increasingly anxious criticism was being raised over Rado’s film selection strategy. Rado’s defensive reply was that:

Films were not selected with the aim of pleasing audiences, but because the Committee believed in the films, and hoped that they may please the audience. [57]

In general, among the organising committee at Melbourne there were increasing concerns about “the lack of vitality at the Festival”, and the “staleness” of its format. [58] The Sydney Festival was concerned enough about maintaining its audience and access to films, that it “unilaterally engaged the services of a public relations officer who would, in addition to normal festival PR, cultivate critics and distributors”. [59] Overall, at both Melbourne and Sydney there is evidence of a general and growing unease in the Festivals’ organising committees, and a realisation that ‘business as usual’ for the Festivals was not sustainable.

We have argued that the growth and establishment of film culture in Australia by the mid-1970s left the identity of the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals in a state of flux. This is because the spread of various strands of film culture during this period led to a concurrent growth in the outlets for alternative film, which in turn convoluted the original role of the Festivals as exhibition sites for ‘culturally significant’ films that would not otherwise be shown.

In response to this change in the cultural–industrial landscape, the two Film Festivals experimented with various strategies of redefinition, in an attempt to provide themselves with a distinctive institutional identity. We have discussed three of the key strategies that they used to do this – the ‘avant-garde’ strategy, the ‘internationalist’ strategy, and the ‘experiential’ strategy. This exploratory redefining was a process still underway when the Festivals hit their lowest point in 1978. These later developments, however, are important enough in the history of the two Festivals to warrant analysis in a subsequent paper.


[1] See Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, ‘ ‘Films for the intelligent layman: The origins of the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals (1952-1958)’, Screening the Past, 19, March 2006; Cathy Hope & Adam Dickerson, ‘ ‘Ill-will with the trade’: The Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals 1959-1964’, Screening the Past, 20, December 2006; Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, ‘Separating the sheep from the goats’ ‘: The Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals 1965-1972, Screening the Past, 20, December 2006.
[2] Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, ‘Films for the intelligent layman’: The origins of the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals (1952-1958), Screening the Past, 19, March 2006.
[3] See Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, “‘Ill-will with the trade’: The Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals 1959–1964”, Screening the Past, 20, December 2006; and Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, ‘Separating the sheep from the goats’ ‘: The Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals 1965-1972, Screening the Past, 20, December 2006.
[4] Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, “‘Ill-will with the trade’: The Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals 1959–1964”, Screening the Past, 20, December 2006.
[5] Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: the Quest for Film Culture in Australia from the 1960s?, Shenton Park: Bernt Porridge, 2001, p. 21.
[6] See in particular Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams, Australian Film Theory and Criticism, Volume I Critical Positions, Bristol: Intellect, 2013; Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: the Quest for Film Culture in Australia from the 1960s?, Shenton Park: Bernt Porridge, 2001.
[7] Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams, Australian Film Theory and Criticism, Volume I Critical Positions, Bristol: Intellect, 2013, pp. 106-7.
[8] Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams, Australian Film Theory and Criticism, Volume I Critical Positions, Bristol: Intellect, 2013, p. 15.
[9] Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams, Australian Film Theory and Criticism, Volume I Critical Positions, Bristol: Intellect, 2013, p. 25.
[10] Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: the Quest for Film Culture in Australia from the 1960s?, Shenton Park: Bernt Porridge, 2001, 39-42.
[11] Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams, Australian Film Theory and Criticism, Volume I Critical Positions, Bristol: Intellect, 2013, p. 21.
[12] For example the independent cinema chain ‘Palace’ was established during this time, with The Roma (Bourke Street, Melbourne), and The Palace and The Metropolitan (both in Bourke Street, Melbourne)  opened in the early to mid 1970s. (http://www.palacecinemas.com.au/about/history/)
[13] See our paper, Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, ‘The Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals, and the Liberalisation of Film Censorship in Australia’, Screening the Past, in press. See also, Ina Bertrand, Film Censorship in Australia, St Lucia, QLD: University of Queensland Press, 1978.
[14] Sydney Morning Herald, April 1 1973.
[15] AFI, ‘Longford Opening’, Australian Film Institute Newsletter, July/August 1976, No. 1., Carlton South: Cables Film Institute, 4.
[16] Cinema Papers, November – December, 1975.
[17] Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: the Quest for Film Culture in Australia from the 1960s?, Shenton Park: Bernt Porridge, 2001, p. 89
[18] See Perth Film Festival, 1st Perth Film Festival – 1972 – 5th Film Festival – 1976 programmes; see also  Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: the Quest for Film Culture in Australia from the 1960s?, Shenton Park: Bernt Porridge, 2001, p. 40.
[19] SFF – Sydney Film Festival, 1973 programme, 2.
[20] Arthur Austin, ‘National Film Theatre of Australia’, Cinema Papers, April 1974, pp. 136-7.
[21] Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, ‘ ‘Films for the intelligent layman’: The origins of the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals (1952-1958), Screening the Past, v19, March 2006
[22] Olinda Film Festival programme, 1952, p.2.
[23] Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, ‘ ‘Films for the intelligent layman’: The origins of the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals (1952-1958), Screening the Past, v19, March 2006
[24] MFF – Melbourne International Film Festival – 1953 Programme, 3.
[25] MFF – Min., 23 May 1974, Box No. 52.
[26] MFF – Min., 1 July 1974, Box No. 52.
[27] MFF – Min., 1 July 1974, Box No. 52.
[28] Colin Bennett, ‘New image needed for future festivals?’, The Age, 29 June 1974, p.16.
[29] All quotes in this paragraph from MFF – Min., 23 July 1974, Box No. 52.
[30] MFF – Min., 26 November 1974, Box No. 52.
[31] MFF – Min., 25 February 1975, Box No. 52.
[32] MFF – Min., 23 July 1974, Box No. 52.
[33] SFF – 1972 President’s Report, 28 November, Box No. 3.
[34] SFF – Min., 28 November 1972, Box No. 3.
[35] Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson, ‘ ‘Films for the intelligent layman’: The origins of the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals (1952-1958), Screening the Past, v19, March 2006.
[36] MFF – Press clippings, author unknown, ‘180 full length films and documentaries from around the world’, Stock and Land, Box No. 7.
[37] MFF – Melbourne International Film Festival – 1973 programme, 4-46.
[38] Dave Jones, ‘Judging the Shorts’, Lumiere, July 1973, 26-27.
[39] Ina Bertrand and Diane Collins, Government and Film in Australia Sydney: Currency Press, 1981, p. 147.
[40] Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of a Film Industry Volume I Sydney: Currency Press, 1987, p. 54.
[41] MFF – 1975 Director’s Report, 23 April, Box No. 52.
[42] MFF – 1975 Director’s Report, 23 April, Box No. 52.
[43] MFF – Min., 16 March 1977, Box No. 52.
[44] MFF – Melbourne International Film Festival – 1976 programme, iv.
[45] MFF – Melbourne International Film Festival – 1976 programme, iv.
[46] MFF – Min., 7 October 1976, Box No. 52.
[47] MFF – 1976 Director’s Report, date unknown, Box No. 52.
[48] MFF – Min., 30 September 1976, Box No. 52.
[49] MFF – Min., 25 February 1975, Box No. 52.
[50] MFF – Min., 7 October 1976, Box No. 52.
[51] Sydney Film Festival, 40 Years of Film: An Oral History of the Sydney Film Festival Sydney: Beaver Press, 1993, p. 13.
[52] Sydney Film Festival, 40 Years of Film: An Oral History of the Sydney Film Festival Sydney: Beaver Press, 1993, p. 13.
[53] MFF – Press Clippings, Bob Ellis, ‘The hairdryer gave fair head’, Nation Review, 20-26 June 1975, Box No. 68.
[54] MFF – Press Clippings, Colin Bennett, ‘Festival patrons walk a long way’, The Age, 14 June 1974, Box No. 68.
[55] SFF – Press Clippings, John Hinde, This Week in Film, transcript of broadcast, 2 June 1975, Box No. 4.
[56] MFF – 1976 Director’s Report, date unknown, Box No. 52.
[57] MFF – Min., 16 March 1977, Box No. 52.
[58] MFF – Min., 16 March 1977, Box No. 52.
[59] MFF – Min., 23 October, 1973, Box No. 52.

About the Author

Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson

About the Authors

Cathy Hope

Cathy Hope is a lecturer in communication theory and practice at the Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra. Cathy's research interests include the history and operations of cultural organisations, and non-profit sector marketing strategies.

Adam Dickerson

Adam Dickerson studied history and philosophy at the University of NSW. He has been teaching at the University of Canberra for the past ten years, first in Communication and Media, and now in International Studies. His research interests include epistemology, communication ethics, and cultural history.View all posts by Cathy Hope and Adam Dickerson →