You undertook an ISSI fellowship in 2013. What was the focus of your fellowship? Where did the fellowship enable you to travel? Who did it enable you to visit and learn from?
The fellowship provided an incredible opportunity for me to visit a range of film development schemes (with names such as Microwave, WarpX, iFeatures, Super16) across the UK and Europe and to learn about ways they support feature filmmaking at much lower budget levels than most feature films we make in Australia (for example a $50,000 feature compared to a $1M feature). I also had the opportunity to meet a number of filmmakers such as the creators behind the film Borrowed Time, the producer of this film would later share his entrepreneurial expertise to a conference I ran in Melbourne in 2015. This research fellowship was undertaken at a time of tremendous disruption in the film industry, such as the growth of online and streaming services, the decline of DVD, and the polarisation of cinemas into the blockbuster/festival-type mix we see dominating today. The real opportunity presented by working at lower budgets is to broaden the types of stories that can be told, including for niche and diverse audiences, as well as to increase opportunities to develop practical skills and talent that both support the mainstream industry and that are giving birth to new market opportunities as well.
What impact has the fellowship had for you professionally and for the wider sector you work in?
I learned a tremendous amount through the people I met and found writing the final report an extremely rewarding part of the process, not only as an advocacy tool but also as a resource for filmmakers to use – it was great being complimented on the report by people like a Screen Australia executive, and completing the report gave me confidence when advising filmmakers, educators and industry on microbudget strategies. At the time I was working for development organisation Open Channel who engaged me shortly after the Fellowship to run the aforementioned Microbudget Conference in 2015. This was attended by more than 400 people from Victoria and abroad, and featured a keynote speech by Hollywood “microbudget” legend Jason Blum of Blumhouse Pictures (Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Insidious) and inspirational Australian indie filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Ruin, Hail). The conference created an incredible networking space and one would hope also helped forge the seeds of new film projects and collaborations between those who were there.
You’ve recently founded your own non-profit Cinespace – can you tell us a bit about it? What led to you embarking on this project?
Around the time as the post-fellowship conference, director Sean Baker released what is now the most famous iPhone shot film Tangerine at Sundance, shining a light on ways that accessible technologies give a cinema voice to more diverse types of storytelling, and showed that these films could have wider success. Together with my learning from the George Alexander/ISS Institute Fellowship, I was motivated to try and find a way to replicate the Tangerine methodology to support new culturally diverse cinema voices in Victoria, at a time when CALD communities were identified as being under-represented on Australian Screens. In 2015 an opportunity to do this arose through a partnership with Big Red Films and the Victorian Government to run training workshops and create a series of films talking about social cohesion. The ‘Brimbank Cinespace’ project in 2017 started with 60 participants in community workshops, continued with three months intensive training for 20 filmmakers, and resulted in the production of four short films (as well as a play) filmed on digital SLRs (these films winning awards and screening at festivals such as Setting Sun, Emerge, Indian Film Festival of Melbourne and VMC Film Festival). During this project in 2017, a number of other filmmakers joined with me to incorporate Cinespace Inc. as its own non-profit association committed to longer-term investment in new filmmakers from culturally-diverse backgrounds.
Did your fellowship experience inform your decision to establish Cinespace?
Absolutely the fellowship was critical to this decision to establish Cinespace. I’ve drawn on the knowledge and the contacts made in establishing the organisation, and to be able to point back to the fellowship as an inspiration when talking to people about the organisation is a fantastic story too. One of the key things I’ve been able to share with people is the need to apply principles of ‘containment’ to microbudget movie concepts, so they can compete on a level playing field with projects of bigger budgets. If you think of films like Tangerine, Borrowed Time and Paranormal Activity, these limitations and constraints become an asset that works for the film’s interests, rather than a liability (trying to make a bigger idea on too small a budget).
What do you hope to achieve with your work through Cinespace?
Much of what I learned during the fellowship is as relevant today as it was in 2013, some innovations more so (with emerging technologies and practices spotted on the fellowship now coming to fruition), so I hope to continue to integrate findings from the fellowship into our future Cinespace projects as well as to continue to advocate for microbudget schemes in Australia more broadly.
Cinespace has been embraced as one important tool in helping grow the breadth of filmmaker voices here in Victoria, and Film Victoria supported us in 2018 to run Story Lab, developing over 30 new screenwriters.
Personally, my hope is that the organisation will continue to give access to opportunity; advance the discussion around a more diverse screen culture, and contribute to successful careers for the many filmmakers we work with. I hope we’re part of the structural change of the industry to be more representative and inclusive of people and stories from all backgrounds, at all levels. I’ve loved seeing the new relationships developing between the participants we’ve been working with, and seeing those teams developing new projects themselves. I hope these new filmmakers also take an active role in leading the direction and priorities of Cinespace into the future and sharing their knowledge back to others.
How can others get involved?
We set out to be lean as an organisation, so we could be sustainable, project-based and non-reliant on operational funding. Thus we don’t have physical premises as such (we do have film equipment though that we can support some productions with!), nor do we have a general membership beyond our committee (at the moment).
People can get involved by giving us a ‘Like’ on Facebook to keep up to date with our projects and can apply to participate in funded projects such as production initiatives, story and script labs. If people are really keen to advocate for what we do or take a leadership role, they can volunteer to help run projects, and are welcome to nominate themselves to join our committee. People can also drop us a line directly at email@example.com.
The report from the ISS Institute Fellowship supported by the George Alexander Foundation is available for download here.
Obviously I’m committed to continuing the rewarding work of Cinespace, and we have a writer’s project and some iPhone filmmaking workshops starting soon.
Outside of Cinespace, I’ve been producing films with a talented Filipino-Australian filmmaker Matthew Victor Pastor, who works in a very lean, low budget way but with a very unique style, telling stories about race, class and culture. So once again, I’m finding that the Fellowship points to everything I’m doing – and I’m loving it!