Megan Riakos: Writer, Director & Inspiration
This is Megan Riakos, writer/director/producer of Crushed (a thriller, 2015, available on iTunes, Google Play in Australia, New Zealand and North America).
Megan also inspired WIFT New South Wales’ red carpet demonstration at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) awards in Sydney, after she had ‘a terrible experience with the AACTA Award selection process’ and approached WIFT NSW, where she’s a committee member.
She got a very supportive hearing: WIFT NSW says it’s ‘fed up with the Sausage Party that is the Australian film industry and calls on AACTA to make Australia’s night of nights truly representative of our diverse screen culture’. It’s also produced a Charter for Gender Equity at the AACTAs.
The demo was called the Roast the AACTAs (#AACTASausageParty). Here are The Activist Sausages.
The protest attracted lots of attention.
And here’s one of my favorite images from the demo, with a necessary glimpse to remind us of the key issue within any discussion of Australian diversity.
Megan’s story is useful for any filmmaker who finds herself in a similar situation, in or outside Australia. I’m deeply impressed by her courage. I’m super-impressed that she’s challenged AACTA’s decision making and taken direct action, with her WIFT NSW allies.
by Megan Riakos
Earlier this year I entered my debut feature Crushed for the AACTA awards. At first I didn’t intend to enter; although I had screened at a number of international festivals and had a successful limited theatrical release (including 43 screenings across Australia), my film did not qualify immediately for selection as we did not have a ‘traditional’ cinematic release and the cost of the entry was prohibitive for me at that time.
However, when AACTA approached me, confirming its eligibility for pre-selection (films with a limited release) and encouraged me to enter, I invested in applying for the awards and spent the time to fill out the application in full. From everything I was told, this process was a formality and as long as my film passed the minimum requirements for pre-selection Crushed would be accepted into the screening program for AACTA for its chance to be nominated by the AACTA members.
What subsequently happened opened my eyes up to how our industry really works.
In order to understand the award result, you must understand the initial selection process. If your film has had a traditional theatrical release during the specified release period (16 October 2015–16 October 2016) you gain automatic admission into the official AACTA screenings program (where members can then select films for an AACTA nomination). If your film had a limited or non-traditional release you must fulfil a more detailed set of criteria which can include a limited theatrical release and/or DVD release and/or online release during the same release period.
On 11 August 2016, AACTA announced the 24 films that would be put to the AACTA members for consideration for nomination, Crushed was not one of them. Of these films, 2 were directed by women (representing only 8% of films) and 3 were films with a female protagonist (representing only 12.5% of films). Although many of the films clearly fit into the automatic admission selection process, there were a number of smaller sized films with the same scope, budget and success as Crushed that were selected, but with no explanation why they were in the screening program and Crushed was not. Although there appeared to be no transparency in the selection process of these smaller films, I wasn’t confident in voicing my concerns and I decided that it wasn’t worth rocking the boat.
However, on 22 August 2016, due to ‘strong industry feedback’ AACTA announced a further 4 films that would be added to the screening line-up. None of these films were by female directors and none of these films had a female protagonist. So that makes only 2 out of 28 films directed by women (now only 7%) and 3 out of 28 films with a female protagonist (now only 11%). If we consider that the Screen Australia Gender Matters statistics shows 16% of features are directed by women in Australia, this reveals a huge gap in the representation of women at the AACTA’S. When they referred to ‘strong industry feedback’ did this mean producers whose films were excluded were putting pressure on AACTA?
Was it pressure from distributors? Regardless of this, there was no clarification on how a decision was reached for this second tranche of films. I immediately regretted not questioning my exclusion from the initial line-up. I wondered, what if I had spoken up? Would I be in this new announcement of films? This time I decided not to stay silent. I knew it was too late for Crushed to be included in this year’s screening program, but I also knew that it was imperative that I speak up, otherwise I could be entering my next feature into the AACTA’s years down the track and face the exact same obstacles.
To begin with, I researched the selected films in the screening program. Of the 28 films, at least 7 (25%) did not immediately fulfil the criteria for selection with the biggest issue being their theatrical release date not falling within the AACTA rules for inclusion. Some have only had festival screenings with no theatrical date announced, some other larger movies have their theatrical releases during the upcoming summer, long after the October 2016 cutoff. Similarly, there are films on the list that had their theatrical release in early 2015, well outside the beginning of the required release period. I understand that AACTA is able to use this rule at its discretion (as per Rule 4.1[B]) however I don’t believe there has been transparency in its use or why, with a record breaking number of feature entries, did they choose to exercise it to begin with.
I then used this information to write a letter to both the AACTA Awards team and to the AACTA board regarding the awards process, identifying this lack of transparency and also highlighting the woeful number of women selected to even be considered for nomination. AACTA has said that the nominations are up to its members, but if a film cannot pass pre- selection (made up by an unknown number of judges, of unknown gender, ages and backgrounds) then it can’t even be considered by its members.
I received no response from the CEO or the AACTA board, however I did receive a very short reply from the AACTA’s Awards team regarding my letter:
‘…the films that proceeded through that second round process did not do so due to protests or anything of that nature. Removing the original cap on the number of films to progress, we went back to the original results of the Pre-Selection jury meeting and allowed through those films which had a level of consensus amongst our jurors. This resulted in 4 additional films joining the original 24 in competition.’
I discovered fellow filmmaker Louise Wadley and her film All About E received the same treatment as Crushed. The producer wrote to each board member highlighting that this was marginalisation in action in the midst of all the lip service paid to gender diversity. While some individual members responded, there has still been no official response from AACTA. I approached WIFT President Sophie Mathisen regarding this lack of transparency and she requested for AACTA to make public the demographic details of the judges. Her request was ignored.
This sparked a number of questions:
Why weren’t we advised that our films not only had to pass the pre-selection criteria, but that there was also a judging process?
Why were so many films included that did not fulfill the basic rules of the awards?
Who were the judges that chose the final films?
What were the selection criteria that they used to judge them?
Did they consider the need for diversity in the films selected, especially considering so many films that were selected DID NOT fulfill the criteria?
In light of the above, I realised that this was not about the quality of my film. The AACTA members did not get the chance to judge the quality of Crushed. This is about access.
It is well documented that female led films have a harder time than their male counterparts when it comes to securing traditional distribution and the number of screens it gets released on. I draw your attention to the detailed article at Filmonomics.slated.com that clearly demonstrates that although films directed by women have a better per screen average versus films directed by men, male-led films still gain a much larger number of screens for their release with no fiscal reasoning behind it, rather the perception that these male-led films have less risk.
This disparity in distribution opportunity marginalises many female-led films with a limited release and severely hampers its ability to break out. The direct effect of this means only two Australian films directed by women were able to secure immediate inclusion in the AACTA screening program — Girl Asleep and Looking For Grace. For the rest of us, we must then enter a competition where none of the rules of engagement are clear in a world that has a natural bias to male-led stories.
Without an assurance that the judging panel itself is from a diverse background thus ensuring a wide variety of film tastes, without transparency for why the rules are waived for some films and not others and without a commitment to diversity, how can the AACTA Awards be held up as our highest national film accolade?
It is obviously too late to change the 2016 AACTA Awards, but there needs to be an immediate commitment to a fair and diverse 2017 selection process. WIFT NSW has developed the WIFT Charter for Gender Equity at the AACTA Awards to address the issues outlined. I call on AACTA president Geoffrey Rush, CEO Damian Trewhella and the AACTA Board to stand by the WIFT Charter and to work with WIFT NSW and other industry bodies to help achieve a richer and more diverse AACTA Awards, otherwise 2017 will be another year where we end up with an #AACTASausageParty.
Here’s the Sausage music video! Enjoy…
Here’s Megan talking about her filmmaking career and Crushed.
And here’s the trailer for Crushed.
There’s so much happening around gender equity in film in Australia at the mo. Coming soon… a post about more of it.