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Graeme Mason: what we learnt in NYC

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason lists his top three takeaways for the Australian industry now the Australian International Screen Forum has wrapped up in New York.

Talent USA recipients were joined by industry veterans like Gillian Armstrong and Screen Australia's Graeme Mason and Rosie Lourde at AISFTalent USA recipients were joined by industry veterans like Gillian Armstrong and Screen Australia's Graeme Mason and Rosie Lourde at AISF

Australians are familiar with Los Angeles as a movie-making hub in the US, but AISF has reminded local creatives that plenty of opportunities also exist in New York City.

“Between us all we do a lot of work on the West Coast in the US,” Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason acknowledges. “But really not much on the East Coast. That was part of the motivation behind the Australian International Screen Forum.”

The other motivation was to shine a light on Australian talent. It was an idea that initially came from Australian expats Chris Beale, Francesca Beale and Michael Kelleher, who were soon joined by industry partners and AISF evolved from there.

The inaugural four-day event was held at the Lincoln Centre in New York in March 2017 and was attended by Australians, creatives and backers from the American industry, and a film-passionate general public.

It had several elements to it.

First, it was a retrospective of Australian drama. Actor Deborra-lee Furness spoke at the 30th anniversary screening of Shame, Gillian Armstrong attended a Q&A screening of her newly-restored 1982 feature Starstruck, and Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale hosted a masterclass.

Naomi Watts and Simon Baker at the New York premiere of <em>Breath</em>, which happened as part of AISF Naomi Watts and Simon Baker at the New York premiere of Breath, which happened as part of AISF

Then there was the promotion of recent successes, such as the Q&A screenings of Breath with debut feature director Simon Baker, award-winning Sweet Country with director Warwick Thornton, and documentary Mountain with director Jennifer Peedom and actor Willem Dafoe. And Australian director Kate Dennis (Handmaid's Tale) was part of one of the In Conversation sessions with House of Cards writer Laura Eason. 

Then thirdly, was the crop of 13 up-and-coming Australian creatives who were selected to attend the public-facing event, on top of an additional day of masterclasses, networking, and meetings with agents and managers. The contingent was made up of four screenwriters, one director and eight writer/directors and included Alice Englert (The Boyfriend Game), Billie Pleffer (upcoming Deadlock) and Dylan River (Nulla Nulla). This was part of Screen Australia’s Talent USA program.

“The primary ambition of AISF was cultural,” Mason says.

“Then we chose to add onto this an extra layer, of looking at opportunities for some Australian creatives and what we can bring back to the sector as a whole. And all of us were pleasantly surprised to discover just how broad the opportunities were.

“It was really inspiring and we would definitely do a version of it again.”


1. There is a push for indie features, documentary, digital and animation for adults

So don’t discount the East Coast, particularly if you are in the indie feature, documentary, digital, TV comedy or animation for adults (think Rick and Morty) space.

“Everyone recognises that the West Coast is the huge engine for the global entertainment industry, but it’s good to remember the East Coast has content backers and creators in film, television and digital in particular. It actually surprised me how much real tangible gain there would be, especially for people who operate in the more indie end of the spectrum,” he says.

“There’s some of the big players there as well, who are there instead of the West Coast.”

Some of those key companies who have offices in New York include VICE Media, HBO, AMC, NBCU, FilmNation and Sony Pictures Classics.

2. NYC is home to some of North America’s premier indie, small-budget theatrical distributors

New York City is the home office for distributors such as A24, who were behind the Oscar-winning campaign of Moonlight as well as features Ladybird and Ex Machina. They have been credited with “galvanis[ing] a young cinephile audience”. Another distributor targeting and proving the validity of this demographic from its base in NYC is Neon, which was founded by veterans Tim League and Tom Quinn. At AISF, Quinn took to the stage to discuss their distribution of I, Tonya as a case study.

Mason says: “We are operating in a space more like many filmmakers on the East Coast and a lot of the distributors there specialise in indie content.”

“Whereas if you are aiming to get work on a bigger budget film or bigger budget TV show, to a large extent that’s on the West Coast, but on the East Coast there’s still a lot of business to be done and potentially much more sharing than I had envisaged, because people operate in the same tonal, creative and budget place that we do.”

Other independent distributors in New York City include IFC (they acquire TV and films including Killing Ground), Bleeker Street (who distributed features such as Beasts of No Nation and Captain Fantastic), Gunpowder & Sky (distributors of documentary, digital, and drama including Hounds of Love), and Submarine (who primarily distribute documentaries and were involved in the sales of Oscar-winning docos such as Citizenfour and Searching for Sugarman). More traditional companies such as Sony Pictures Classics and Magnolia Pictures have offices there too.

Director Gillian Armstrong's recently restored Starstruck screened at AISFDirector Gillian Armstrong's recently restored Starstruck screened at AISF

3. The focus is on the creatives – and their ability to collaborate.

Attendees to AISF remarked on how the New York industry seems to place an emphasis on writers and directors above anything else.

“It reminded me how much the East Coast is into the creative process, and things that are being made in a lower budget way where the story has to be the driver,” Mason says.

And he says there’s a lot of “peer-to-peer sharing available”, between writers at similar stages of their careers, or directors. People are willing to share their insights.

It’s these collaborations that are invaluable to Australia, he says.

“Australia is too small to support the ambitions of all of us, creatively and commercially, so we have to look out,” Mason says.

“Australian creatives need to be open to finding production and distribution partners.”

That might be to Asia, Europe, Canada or New Zealand (potentially as an Official Co-production), but if it’s to the US, Mason says AISF reminded everyone that there are opportunities on the East Coast too.

“Australian creatives need to be open to finding production and distribution partners and to always look for those collaborations.”

AISF – The Lowdown

What was it?

The Australian International Screen Forum

When was it?

19-22 March 2018

Who went?

Simon Baker, Naomi Watts, Deborra-lee Furness, Hugh Jackman, Gillian Armstrong, Warwick Thornton, Jennifer Peedom, Willem Dafoe, Kitty Green, Kate Dennis, John Seale, Mark Johnson, Tom Williams.

What were some highlights? (Aside from Q&A screenings)
  • I, Tonya case study with Tom Quinn, CEO of Neon, which was moderated by Indiewire’s Eric Kohn
  • Kate Dennis In Conversation with Laura Eason (Writer, House of Cards)
  • Cinematographer John Seale masterclass
  • Writer, director and producer Jennifer Fox (The Tale) In Conversation with director Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet).
  • Meet the NY Indies: Shruti Ganguly (Producer, Yosemite, The Color of Time), Kitty Green (Director, Casting JonBenet), Kirsten Tan (Director, Pop Aye), Bassam Tariq (Director, These Birds Walk), chaired by Kent Jones (Director of the New York Film Festival)
  • Women in Screen Discussion with director Gillian Armstrong, Anna Dokoza (Producer, Flight of the Conchords, Lady Dynamite), Jenny Halper (Maven Pictures), and Simone Pero (NYWIFT, producer, The Tale). Moderator: Sophie Tedmanson (Deputy Editor of Vogue Australia)
  • Virtual Reality panel with Bessie Kohnshari (Ink Stories), Duncan Ransom (The Endless Collective) and Marli Scharlin (Eko). Moderator: John MacFarlane (POV)
  • Chairman Chris Beale surprising Director Gillian Armstrong with AISF Pioneering Woman in Film Award

Event partners for AISF include Screen Australia, Ausfilm, the Chris and Francesca Beale Foundation, the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP), The Australian Consulate-General, Qantas and Arthur. J. Gallagher & Co.