Genevieve Clay-Smith,
Bus Stop Films

City of Film? Sydney’s Untapped Potential

Sydney is a city proud to lay claim to the title of filmmaking capital of Australia, and it has been recognised as a leader in being named a UNESCO City of Film. Rightly so, as Sydney leads Australia in the film industry, with nearly 60% of production and post-production businesses based here, and we’ve produced remarkable international talent the likes of Cate Blanchett, George Miller and Baz Lurhmann—to name just a few. We are home to Fox Studios, containing the largest sound stages in the southern hemisphere, the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), one of the world’s top 25 film schools, and we boast a diverse array of incredible locations for production. We also host the Sydney Film Festival, Flickerfest, the World of Women Film Festival, Arab Film Festival, Queer Screen Film Festival, Tropfest and more.

So why is there a sense that things aren’t as good as they could be? Sydney has an incredible arts scene, but due to funding cuts and a lack of understanding about the importance of grassroots innovation, we’re putting at risk our future generations of filmmakers.

Our emerging sector is under threat. Metro Screen’s 2014 report Emerging Visions found that our current screen industry is built on established and mid-career practitioners who have had the benefit of substantial investment over many years, while emerging talent has been left out. If we want a sustainable film industry with a global impact, we need to foster the diverse, fresh voices of new filmmaking talent.

We must seek out and support emerging talent like Indigenous filmmaker Ryan Griffen, from Western Sydney, who developed an Indigenous superhero television series, Cleverman, while interning at production company Goalpost. Last year, Cleverman had a successful premier at the Berlinale Film Festival and its rights were acquired by Sundance TV in the US. This is a brilliant example of emerging talent being given a chance to thrive and bring a fresh voice to our cinematic landscape.

Lack of funding opportunities, creative hubs and artist residencies for filmmakers impact on the career development of emerging screen practitioners. The closure of Metro Screen in 2015 has left a dent in Sydney’s culture. We lost an important innovation hub which, for the last three decades, cultivated a culture of supporting grassroots talent. It delivered affordable short courses, offered grants and was a centre for collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas, all in the heart of the CBD.

Dr Karen Pearlman, a notable filmmaker, academic and lecturer at Macquarie University, told me that the closure of Metro Screen was 'devastating for the film culture of Sydney especially emerging filmmakers. It’s a terrible message to send to filmmakers, that their grassroots organisations aren't valued'.

The only organisation close to resembling Metro Screen is Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE) in Parramatta, but Sydney’s city centre needs its own creative hub. A creative hub in Sydney’s city centre would send a message to the public that we as a city, value our film industry and emerging talent. It would allow for a creative community to be built in the city itself which only adds to Sydney’s culture.

We also need a space dedicated to film, a cinematheque or film centre, to live up to our potential as a UNESCO City of Film. Six years ago, the Sydney Film Centre Committee 1 together with the City of Sydney explored the feasibility of a film centre and found the benefits to Sydney’s creative culture to be overwhelming. In the absence of a cinematheque, perhaps we need to look at more cross collaboration between existing cultural institutions. We could have more festivals and screenings for films at the MCA, MAAS or the State Library, building on the promising plan to expand Carriageworks to include a 200 seat cinema.

People still crave engagement with film and cultural experiences collectively, outside of their computers and devices. No one can deny the magic of an event, when people come together to experience art, then continue to engage in that art through conversation. Referring to the sold out performances of Imagined Touch at the 2017 Sydney Festival, screen industry executive Courtney Gibson said, ‘It offered audiences the chance to experience the world as a person who is deaf and blind. We want to feel how others feel, we want to walk in others shoes, and in this case two women who are deafblind wanted the world to know what life is like for them. Art experiences like this make us a stronger, more engaged society’.


In 2008 at the age of 19, Metro Screen provided me with a small grant of $2,000 and free access to their camera equipment to help me make my short film, Be My Brother. I had no credits to my name and no proven track record of success. There were no other options for funding other than from Metro Screen. Be My Brother went on to win 1st prize at Tropfest and the lead actor, Gerard O’Dwyer won Best Actor. He was the first actor with Down Syndrome to receive the title. The film was made by a crew of people with and without disabilities, it was my first inclusive film and the experience inspired me to co-found the not-for-profit organisation Bus Stop Films.

Bus Stop Films is leading the way when it comes to fostering professional filmmaking opportunities for people with a disability. We’ve developed work made by people with intellectual disabilities that has screened in competition at academy accredited film festivals around the world, including Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia where we won an audience choice award. The 2015 premier of our short film Heartbreak and Beauty at Palm Springs Shortfest was a world first. Never before had a film featuring three directors and nine performers with an intellectual disability, been selected to screen in competition at an academy accredited film festival. This kind of success and ground breaking work is thanks to the initial grassroots support I received for Be My Brother.

Current grants available for short films are few and far between. With the exception of targeted funding aimed at increasing gender equality in the film industry, funding for emerging and entry level filmmakers is non-existent. Grants are not tiered, so every prospective filmmaker vies for the same funding. Television and commercial directors apply for the same $20,000 grant as emerging filmmakers aspiring to make their first short. This kind of competition isn’t healthy. We need tiered funding for filmmakers, starting with micro budgets like the ones Metro Screen gave out, then as a filmmaker progresses in their career, the funding matches their career level.

Courtney Gibson believes there’s an opportunity for City of Sydney and local councils to support grassroots filmmakers. State funding bodies exist to support practitioners from right across the state and underrepresented groups in regions outside the city, but ‘Sydney doesn't have its own screen advocate; it doesn't have dedicated support in its own backyard.’ By comparison, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in October committed US$5 million to support females in film and theatre, including script development funding and project financing.

As with the wider creative sectors, filmmakers feel that Sydney’s cost of living greatly impacts on their ability to innovate. It’s hard to get past the level of expense involved with living and working in Sydney. Extra grant programs, discounts on location fees, and other incentives driven by council to bring down production costs for low budget films could help. If we don’t tackle cost of living, we will lose creative talent to other cities where job opportunities are better, cultural production more concentrated and where low rental prices allow creatives to earn a living wage. Subsidised studio spaces, supported housing and prioritised grants for artists and filmmakers are other incentives that could relieve the financial pressures and help Sydney to reach its full potential as a great cultural city.


In some areas, Sydney is definitely leading the way. Screen NSW has an initiative to achieve 50:50 gender equality by 2020. In just twelve months, figures for female participation in key creative roles rose dramatically. Across all genres and formats, female directors were attached to 46% of funded projects up from 28%, female writers rose to 48% from 30% and producers rose to 67% from 56%. These figures make Sydney a pioneer in the world in terms of delivering gender equality. Production companies have been opening their arms to interns with a disability. And as a city we are pushing the boundaries in virtual reality technology.

We must build on our momentum. Sydney is a city of incredible arts and culture, with a wonderful film industry full of talent, resources, locations and screen practitioners, but we can do more. We must take special care to address the lack of support for emerging filmmakers. The grassroots is where innovation and the future sustainability of our film industry is generated. Having the UNESCO title will mean nothing if in ten years our industry has been corroded by a largely non-existent emerging sector. We need a new creative hub, innovative ways to support filmmakers living in an increasingly unaffordable city and spaces in which we can share the experience of film and cinema. If leadership fails to see the value in supporting Sydney to be the city of film we would all like it to be—healthy from the top down to the roots—we will miss the opportunity to reach our full potential.

Author's Note. My thanks to Dr Karen Pearlman, Lilliane Moffat, Ali Kadhim, Courtney Gibson and Eleanor Winkler for their contributions to this essay.
  1. Led by film veterans Gillian Armstrong, Jan Chapman, Margaret Pomeranz and Sandra Levy, with the support of industry luminaries Jane Campion, Toni Collette, Andrew Denton, Robyn Nevin, Metro Screen and others.