On 18 February, for the first time, the country's largest short film festival, Sony Tropfest, will be beamed via satellite into eight regional centres across Australia. This marks the realisation of a major new initiative - the launch of the AFC's Regional Digital Screen Network (RDSN), and a milestone in the AFC's ongoing commitment to taking Australian films and screen culture to regional audiences. GABRIELLE BONNEY looks at what's in store for regional cinemas in the RDSN.
The RDSN is a network of eight cinema venues in Albany (WA), Devonport (Tas), Hervey Bay (Qld), Katherine (NT), Port Augusta (SA), Singleton (NSW), Wagga Wagga (NSW) and Yarram (Vic) - all of which have AFC-funded Kodak digital cinema equipment installed to enable them to screen Australian films in a digital format. The upshot of this is that these regional centres will now be able to unveil new Australian films in line with the metropolitan release. They'll also be provided with specially curated monthly screenings by the AFC, mini festivals featuring films not screened in these locations before, and other festival events like Tropfest.
Regional cinemas have never had the opportunity to release Australian films on the same date as their city counterparts, commented Katrine Elliot, General Manager of CMax Cinemas, Devonport, at the RDSN media launch at the AFC's Sydney headquarters in December. "By the time we get them they are three or four months old, they're about to hit the DVD store, the excitement behind the film has gone and I think a lot of our audiences start to feel like the poor cousin. The biggest advantage is the fact that finally regional cinemas and our audiences are going to be treated like people in the cities. It'll be great to run off the back of the national marketing, when the stars are touring and the directors and producers are talking about the films."
Gayle Lake, Manager of the Regional Digital Screen Network, emphasises how getting the RDSN off the ground has involved many parties: "We are working not only with our eight venue partners but a broad range of independent distributors and filmmakers, local businesses and government, industry associations and colleagues right across Australia to get the work up on the screen."
For distributors, the high cost of producing multiple 35mm prints of new release films and freighting them round the country has been restrictive. Creating digital file copies means that films can be sent quickly and cheaply to cinemas in the RDSN, and as an added bonus the quality is superior to the second-hand, often scratched, 35mm prints the regional cinemas are used to receiving.
The cultural and economic impacts of access to new Australian releases and the venues' commitment to increased Australian programming - by way of specially-curated festival programs, Indigenous programs, programs for schools, documentaries and shorts - will be keenly felt in all eight regions. This will hopefully expand with the growth of the RDSN into more centres in the coming years.
The impact of a huge Australian film festival like Sony Tropfest landing in regional areas simultaneously with the live event is going to reverberate throughout many sections of regional communities. "It will encourage and inspire young filmmakers who are untapped at the moment," said Michael Laverty, Managing Director of Tropfest. "I hope we reach young Australians. Within two years I'd like to see a young rural kid up there in the finalists in Sydney, showing their story. We've always wanted to look at how we'd peg Tropfest regionally and this is the perfect mechanism."
The regional cinema managers agree and are excited by the opportunity to have Tropfest fed directly into their cinemas. "To get a four-hour event, with 16 finalists and the whole red carpet beforehand … I can really imagine our region embracing the event, people coming dressed in black tie and feeling like they are a part of it," said Katrine Elliot.
Kieren Dell, General Manager of four Majestic Cinemas in NSW (Nambucca Heads, Port Macquarie, Singleton and Inverell), feels that the festival programming, such as Tropfest, will bring in a lot of young people who are already making films or want to get into filmmaking. "There's a lot of young people around who do make films - they make skating films or [other] short films - and we've actually shown quite a few of them at the cinema," he said. "They love seeing themselves up on the screen and they have ambitions. Films become a communication medium for them, and to be able to have it on the big screen is great. I don't think we've done enough with short films, so having something like Tropfest where you can package them up into a few hours of a program and a fun night will be fantastic. In Singleton there's a younger population than we've got on the coast, and they don't get a lot of opportunity for these cultural events. I'm pretty excited about it!"
Most of the eight venues that have joined the RDSN have hosted the AFC's Big Screen Travelling Film Festival in the past. Big Screen has been touring Australian films around the country since 2001, and a central part of each festival's program has been the curation of archival and classic films, provided by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). In 2006, the key title on the tour was the 30th anniversary director's cut of Peter Weir's magnificent Picnic at Hanging Rock. This kind of programming - the celebration of Australia's cinematic heritage - will also be a core aspect of the RDSN's monthly screenings and mini festivals.
"The big one we ran last year was The Man from Snowy River," said Kieren Dell. "I remember the first time we ran it we had a whole lot of people who hadn't been to the cinema for quite some time. And they were coming from the areas surrounding Nambucca, like Bellingen. It was drawing them back in, for something different. We've run Indigenous festivals in the past and we've had a great response to that sort of thing. People think: That's not something I can get at home. Sure I can get some of the films on DVD but it's not the same experience. There are two audiences [for this programming]. One is the older audience who want to reminisce about the films they see, like Picnic at Hanging Rock. And the other is the kids who are introduced to a film like The Man from Snowy River on the big screen, which is just an awesome experience."
Katrine Elliot concurs, "Suddenly we're seeing a really mature audience that we haven't seen in the cinema for a very long time. There's also a whole new market of kids out there who probably haven't seen Picnic at Hanging Rock or footage of Footscray with the trams. It will grow our audiences and bring people long distances to see these amazing films."
So with this array of opportunities and possibilities on the horizon, 2007 is looking bright for Australian films as they reach wider audiences right across the country. "There is no doubt we are at the beginning of a very exciting period of development in terms of digital cinema delivery," says Gayle Lake. "But let's face it: content is always king. The hallmarks of the Regional Digital Screen Network will always be diversity, currency and accessibility."
Here's to the longevity of this groundbreaking new Australian network.