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The National Film and Sound Archive has put itself into crisis.

A review of its activities has recommended significant changes and, as part of that prospect, already at least 28 staff have been advised their current positions are “excess”. This comes at a time when the NFSA is preparing to meet the voraciously expanding requirements of the digital age, a task which over time is estimated to cost anything up to $10s of millions but for which funds are not apparent. So, at the risk of being accused of saying things in public that would be counterproductive and damage the Archive, here is an attempt to explain to cinephiles and others just what’s happening

Where to Start Two and half years on since his arrival, the current CEO Michael Loebenstein has embarked on a process to shake the NFSA up, re-orient its services, respond to the new demands of a digital world, get rid of (perceived by him) personal deadwood and focus on a new set of priorities agreed between manager and Board[1]. At the time he joined the NFSA, the Chair of its Board was long time Arts specialist and former Senator Chris Puplick. Puplick has been a very public contributor to many of the debates on Arts policy over recent decades. I assume Puplick was instrumental in Loebenstein’s selection. The current Chair, Gabrielle Trainor[2]  was appointed by Simon Crean, the then Arts Minister, in July 2012.

You would have to assume that there has been some deep and meaningful discussion between Loebenstein, his two successive Chairs and his Board about what needs to be done. Only a little of this discussion has been held in public which is why some of the NFSA’s otherwise strongest supporters are more than a little irate about what is taking place and how it is being managed.[3] How much time has gone into the current decision taking process, which began in an ungainly fashion with leaks about Loebenstein’s proposals published in The Canberra Times and on the ABC News on 11 April, is a little difficult to ascertain. So let’s just say that to those outside the process it’s hard to work out just where the real start point is in considering these major changes of direction and the accompanying savage staffing reductions now underway at one of the nation’s premier cultural organisations. No matter the obscurity of the origins, the proposed new directions have been devised by Loebenstein

In a letter to Tom Jeffrey, a member of a loose group of mostly film industry veterans called the Film and Broadcast Industries Oral History Group (FBIOHG)[4], Loebenstein states this was done via “an internal business review we (the NFSA) conducted over the last couple of months”. In his announcement on 11 April Loebsenstein claimed that decisions had been made “following a six-month review and consultation process.” There is more on this matter below.

But no matter what and where the start, the point has been reached where the NFSA has made public its intentions about proposals approved by Gabrielle Trainor and her Board. It’s all systems go for what Loebenstein says, in his letter to Jeffrey, to introduce changes that will enable the archive to operate in a sustainable manner. This review of our business model will provide us with an opportunity to maintain collecting, preserving, and sharing a national audio-visual collection, and to build critical capacity to operate in an environment where resources are tighter.  

While supporting her CEO, the new Chair is not someone with particular knowledge of Australian and/or international film, its history, its production or its conservation. Her bio on the NFSA website says that she was a founding partner and co-owner of John Connolly & Partners, a communications and public affairs firm, and worked for over 25 years advising large listed companies on the management of difficult issues across stakeholder groups including investors and the financial markets, government and regulators, NGOs, commentators, internal audiences and other influencers.  She has given that up in favour of appointments as a non-executive director and certain charitable activities including among the indigenous community. Of the other Board Members only producer Natasha Gadd has had any direct experience of work in the film industry.

The Business Review The review was carried out under Loebenstein’s supervision. The slog work was done by senior bean-counters in the organisation and its conduct and preparation remained entirely in house. The findings of this Review, are set out in a document not yet formally made public or indeed widely disseminated within the NFSA itself. While Loebenstein has mentioned an accompanying ‘consultation process’ it’s not known which bodies and individuals were part of that but logically at least it should be assumed that this is dealt with in the document itself. But it is unclear when or if the document will be made available.

Ownership and Control In Loebenstein’s formal public announcement he says the NFSA will be doing many things differently in the future so we are even more effective, innovative and relevant. This means some things will not continue in the way we have traditionally done them. Others will be integrated with other functions, or re-focused to take advantage of collaborations and the continually enhancing ability to share and feature our collection using technology.

....                                                                                                                                                 

The changes we are making will be evident in our public programs and outreach activities in the ACT and across Australia. While existing programs such as the Arc Cinema program, exhibitions, and the touring film festivals will in many cases continue unchanged until the end of the winter season and into spring, they will be gradually replaced by new programs, with an increased focus on online delivery, and activities delivered in collaboration with partners in the cultural sector, the industry and communities.

The Digital Imperative Let’s take a further step back to pick up on a key element of  what will become the NFSA’s work in the near and medium term future. Back in August 2013 it was announced that a conference would take place in Canberra jointly convened by the NFSA and the ABC to explore the challenges and opportunities that cultural institutions face in the digital age. The conference was titled Digitise or Perish. Michael Loebenstein was one of the two discussion leaders along with ABC Television Head of Arts Katrina Sedgwick.

The announcement of the event said that for many years our national collective memory, preserved in archive, museum and library collections, has largely been unavailable to the public through its fragility and sheer volume. Now the digital economy promises the unlocking of these treasures.

And it went on: How can our cultural institutions harness this potential? What models can we explore to maximise access in this new transactional world? The panel will explore the sector’s financial constraints and copyright restrictions, the role it can play in the national curriculum, and the potential of partnerships with private entities. Two visiting firemen were brought in to tell us all about the possibilities Rick Prelinger from the USA, curator, director and cofounder of the Prelinger Library and The Internet Archive said: “Archives used to be quiet places whose reading rooms hosted few visitors beyond the occasional scholar and media researcher. But all of this has changed; empowered by online availability of historical images, sounds and documents, emergent generations and communities are interpreting history on their own terms for themselves and for society at large. Powerful digital tools and networks are now at our disposal — our challenge is to use them thoughtfully and towards useful ends. I find this a tremendously exciting time to be an archivist and public historian.”

Former Director of the BBC’s Creative Archive project and current Digital Director at Mozilla, Paula Le Dieu (London, UK), said “We have so much publicly funded cultural wealth hidden in the depths of our institutions that can only be accessed by a select few. The internet offers us the chance to make our public cultural institutions genuinely public. We can throw open the digital doors and allow the public to access, curate and re-use their cultural heritage to inform, shape and inspire their own cultural expression and value creation.”

Michael Loebenstein said that audiences are embracing the notion of collective ownership of their national estate. “Availability in our current environment is characterised by our users’ expectations of being part of a two-way exchange. Instead of 'granting access’ we are expected to 'share’ our collections. We live in a 'transactional’ environment.”  

The NFSA website is silent about any outcomes, resolutions or ways forward that emerged. But lurking behind this little confab is an elephant in the room. For all of this to happen, the NFSA, like its archive counterparts everywhere faces the prospect of finding the necessary funds and resources to carry out the digitization that will form the basis of this expanded access and ‘value creation.’

So, and pardon me if this story is becoming a little like Wojciech Has’s Manuscript Found at Saragossa, but some more background may be helpful. Since it was invented way back in 1896, the cinematograph has grappled with ways of preserving itself and its products and making them accessible to later generations. When production started it no doubt didn’t seem that important hence huge swathes of films were lost. To this day there are still occasional treasures unearthed, quite often at literally the end of the world, well New Zealand and Alaska anyway. But once found and stored the hard part is to keep it in a condition that will allow it to be shown for generations to come. Some time ago, when film was made from nitrate stock it proved to be explosive and the imperative was to transfer all such material to acetate safety stock. Safety stock has proven to be less than stable and to suffer deterioration. It has also been superseded as the common form of recording and screening films.

I sought advice from Dominic Case[5] about these matters and his thoughts about the task the NFSA faces are somewhat bleak. In Dominic’s view the NFSA struggles under a colossal burden - or several.

“ There is no statutory deposit law in Australia, so although there is an expectation that NFSA holds copies of everything that's been made, that isn't the case. Much of the collection has been acquired many years after production, when producers' or lab vaults have been cleared out, and so it's often in bad condition, incomplete, or in a non-preservation format. NFSA still holds a fair amount of nitrate film that hasn't been transferred, and a lot that has been transferred onto acetate, which itself has started to decay. And there is much that simply isn't held at all, not all of it old.

 “As such there is a huge backlog of material to be transferred onto polyester base film, or digitised. Digital has yet to prove itself as a long-term preservation prospect, with ever-changing formats, not always back-compatible, and the possibility of not gradual decay but sudden and total loss of recoverable data. You can't transfer, shelve the tape, and forget it. Moreover, a fundamental archival principle is to continue to preserve the original material - typically the original negative or an intermediate copy - but a projection print isn't suitable. And the cost and effort in preserving digital media cannot be ignored.

“ In 2007 AMPAS's paper The Digital Dilemma estimated that, amortised over 100 years, it cost $1,000 per year to preserve a typical feature film on film, but $12,000 per year to preserve it digitally. That huge figure would be very much smaller now as the transfer equipment is cheaper, and digital storage is cheaper (Moore's Law): but the cost of maintaining storage conditions and running the equipment for regular re-transfers and checking will continue to increase with the cost of electricity.”

European countries have also been considering these issues for some years now, these developments being traced back all the way to the origin of archives which were born as a reaction to the massive destruction of silent films when sound technology came about in the 1930s. The advent of digital technology will impact on the preservation of and access to the European cinema of the past and of the future. Europeans are increasingly aware of the need to provide access to the collections held by those various institutions. Loebenstein’s background is such that he would highly conscious of these demands impacting on his management of the NFSA over time.

Loebenstein would be aware that Europe produces around 1200 feature films a year plus innumerable amounts of documentaries, TV series, commercials, shorts, trailers and so on, has taken steps to address a new and major cultural challenge. Every year more and more is produced. Every year the need to ensure its safe and lasting conservation and preservation becomes greater. It is not a role for which the private sector equips itself well, notwithstanding that some, like the major US studios, have been supremely diligent in their attempts. It has fallen to the state to protect this element of its cultural heritage.

How far do we need to go to ensure Australia also responds appropriately to this challenge? The British Film Institute’s (BFI) Screen Heritage UK Fund proposes to spend around £32 million pounds up until 2017. This would be to “digital 10,000 significant works from the BFI National Archives and other archives across the UK and to make them available across as broad a range of platforms” Little of this will be the BFI's or the government. Most funding will come from some £6 million of philanthropy cash and over £20 million of UK National Lottery monies.[6]

A 2010 report for the Comité des Sages of the European Commission, “The Cost of Digitising Europe’s Cultural Heritage”[7] estimates there is 1.04 million hours of film preserved in European film archives. The total cost of its digitalisation would be around €1.03bn, based on a per hour cost of between €1000 to €2000.

The equivalent costs to Australia can only be guessed at. A quick check of a few Australian film histories suggest that at least 1500 feature films have been made here since 1900. Many of the silent features have been lost. But there must still be much more than a thousand films of more than 90 minutes. Then there are short films, documentaries, television. The NFSA itselfestimates that it has "442,000 moving image works" in its collection (www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/collection-policy/). So the local cost potentially is into the tens of millions of Australian dollars.

Business and private enterprise is unlikely to kick in at all for the project. It is regarded even by them as the duty of the state. But there is no sign that the state is likely to come forth in the near future. Nor is there any clear public sign, so far, of a proposed NFSA strategy to do this, at least compared to the likes of the BFI's Screen Heritage UK fund.

Dominic Case has a slightly different view of the task He advises that three or four years ago, he was quoted costs of over $100,000 to fully prepare, digitise, colour-correct, clean up, remaster sound and create a full suite of preservation formats (on film and digital) together with cinema, video, and DVD/BluRay versions for screening, on-line versions etc. That's for ONE feature film. That was using top-level commercial providers, and again, would have shrunk substantially since then as all that work and equipment has become routine in the commercial sector.

“That clearly it isn't all going to happen. As it is, NFSA already has a fierce and complex system of prioritising its preservation and digitising activities, based on significance, demand, and condition among other factors. Not much progress can be made in reducing the backlog!

 “ Film scanning to digitise is a slow process, and only one of many steps needed to digitise 35mm film. Older material would need far more physical repair and so take a lot longer than clean new film. Optimistically, with all the required equipment, and several more fully-trained staff, I doubt if they would get through more than an hour or so of material per week. That might be 40 features in a year, or more short films. With equipment they don't have and staff who are already being reduced. That's completely ignoring the constant demand for jobs prioritised on the basis of demand. (eg doco makers wanting to include shots in a current production, who can't wait for ever).”

“So part of the solution to preserving all its holdings is for the NFSA to store most of its film holdings in the best possible conditions (it recently opened a new building with 8km of shelving) until it can get around to them. But that means that much of it is therefore rendered inaccessible until its number comes up for digitisation and/or preservation, or even low-quality transfer for viewing only. This invites a couple of comments in the light of Michael Loebenstein’s expressed ambitions, “to share the wonderful collection with more people, in even more innovative and interesting ways, across Australia and overseas.”  For this, as Dominic points out, leads to yet another problem. “The NFSA doesn't own the rights to most of its collection (the exception being most of the fabulous Film Australia/Commonwealth Film Unit library). So any public "sharing" of the collection as distinct from "granting access" has to be associated with the horrendously complex matter of tracking down rights holders and negotiating fees. That isn't something NFSA does, nor is it something it can make any money out of.”

Loebenstein, responding to leaks about savage staff cuts which were reported by both the ABC and the Canberra Times, has made clear that “the NFSA will never become 'a mere storage facility'. We will continue to be a place where people and communities can engage with Australia's national audiovisual collection.”

However, how to do that is a serious question given that the first step taken has been to announce an overall reduction of at least 28 positions and the “making excess” of the jobs of some seriously experienced people who are being let go because there will be significant changes of direction and the elimination of or significant downgrading of heretofore key programs. Among the activities which will eventually go include the NFSA’s ARC Cinema, public access to the onsite library and the NFSA's provision of DVDs and 16mm films to film societies and other community users around the country and touring film festivals (which are almost entirely directed towards rural and provincial Australia). Other major programs will have their budgets reduced and lose key senior managers.

The here and now for cinephiles The proposed closure of the ARC Cinema, the most public place for interaction between institution and its beneficiaries has brought some withering criticism. ACT cinephiles are upset that a venue that ranked with Melbourne’s ACMI and Brisbane’s GOMA for quality presentations devoted to the art of the cinema is being abandoned. One local complainant has written to Loebenstein in, inter alia, the following terms: The focus of your recent review seems to have been on the NFSA’s role as a storehouse for Australian cultural production. By removing the Arc screening program, the NFSA is positioning itself as a parochial institution, rather than engaging, as it has been so effectively doing, with the history of the film medium on a global scale.

In losing this commitment to positioning the NFSA as a global leader in cinema programming, the NFSA has also diminished the goals of the organisation. In saying that the programs that have been run by Arc in the past are equivalent to a commercial “arthouse” cinema, you diminish the amazing work that has been done by the staff at the NFSA running this program.You can find the full letter online here.

Others have come at the closure from different viewpoints. Dominic Case has gone public with some of his concerns in a letter published in The Canberra Times. The letter isn’t online so here it is in full.

The National Film and Sound Archive plans to cut out its regular film screening program at its ARC cinema. The Archive's CEO Michael Loebenstein says it is hard to justify spending taxpayer funds on importing international films to screen to the public (NFSA sheds 28 staff, cuts Canberra film screenings:
April 11).

The idea that the nation's principal film archive must abandon regular film screenings in its own cinema for want of film prints is absurd.

Perhaps the archive should look a little closer to home - indeed, it needs only to examine its own vaults. International programs are one thing - but the NFSA is the nations's repository of Australian films: its declared mission is "collecting, preserving and sharing our rich audiovisual heritage". It holds thousands of titles in its film collection, of which surely enough have good screening copies to provide a regular and relevant Australian program. Moreover, the collection does include a range of international classics.

The Archive is right in its plans to embrace digital and online delivery of its collection, but even if the luxury of screening imported material is no longer affordable, it is entirely wrong to abandon screening Australian films in the format and environment they have always been, and continue to be produced for - a large screen cinema.

Playing full forward in a team where the back line isn’t firing Loebenstein has been the public carrier of this whole change process thus far. It’s been his announcement. Gabrielle Trainor and her fellow Board Members may have Loebenstein’s back as he takes on the process of managing change but publicly they have been absent and silent. Loebenstein has devised and owns it all.

One of the key matters that should emerge for consideration is how the archive sees  its purpose in conserving film. When it was separated from the National Library back in 1984, there were blue sky opportunities for it. The path chosen over time by the half a dozen, or maybe more, Chief Executives and the dozens of people appointed to its Board and preceding Advisory Committee, slowly but surely edged towards activities which emphasised an Archive that was an educational resource for Australian history and social studies. In many respects this may be a product of the perception that among the staff of the NFSA there has never seemed a whole heap of internal cinephile culture, certainly when compared to the staffing of similar institutions outside Australia. That most of the programs that now appear to have been cut seem to be those that are trying to celebrate cinema and support a public cinephile culture in Australia does not do anything much to dissuade this view.

Anyway cinephilia, the preservation of film heritage, the celebration of film as an art and the study of film itself by theorists and scholars aren’t trusted as sufficient reason for the Federal Government to annually tip large sums of money into the NFSA activity

Now, in the meantime, Michael Loebenstein, having laid down the markers, apparently but hardly openly and enthusiastically supported by his Board, has to juggle all the nervousness about change, loss of significant institutional memory, the demands of the Abbott Government for greater efficiency and lower costs and, the elephant in the room, a huge bill for the future digitization of the NFSA collection.

Sydney, NSW,

29 April, 2014

Since posting this story, critic and programmer Juanita Kwok has posted a petition protesting about this issue. You can find it here



[1] His bio says that prior to coming to Australia he held the positions of Curator for Special Programmes at the Austrian Film Museum and Project Manager and Researcher at the Ludwig Boltzmann Society.

[2] Trainor was appointed by the Gillard government by Simon Crean. While Trainor co-chaired the 2012 Federal Government review of the Australia Council for the Arts which Crean commissioned, it does not appear that she had any previous experience in hands on arts administration or in managing a medium sized and occasionally cranky public institution.

[3] Deleted

[4] The FBIOHG meets quarterly at the NFSA office in Sydney and, inter alia, acts as a sounding board for the NFSA’s Oral History Program managers.

[5] - Dominic Case was the Technology Manager for the Atlab Group for many years, and on the Board of the AFC during the period that the NFSA was a part of that organisation. He also worked for the NFSA briefly as head of the Film Branch, and for a year as Development Manager. He gave a paper at the last SMPTE conference on the difficulties faced by film archives in the digital era.