Where to now for NFSA?

The National Film and Sound Archive desperately needs a sense of direction.

In the past dozen years the organisation has had five directors or CEO’s, two from overseas. It has been moved into the arms of the Australian Film Commission and out again, and undergone several organisational restructures.

Over that time, it has attempted to expand its operations to meet the directives of successive ministers and boards. In particular, since it inherited several touring screening programs (such as Big Screen and Black Screen) as well as the Australian Screen website from the now defunct AFC, it has thrown more emphasis into the “sharing” part of its task. Its collection has veered between a “take anything” curatorial policy to a strictly Australian only one (and selective at that), countered by a determined international (and sometimes esoteric) approach to its screening program at the ARC cinema in Canberra. While centred in Canberra, with only limited operations in Sydney and Melbourne, it has developed a highly respected and influential presence in international archive circles, with staff playing pivotal organisational and training roles in FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives) and SEAPAVAA (South East Asia & Pacific Audiovisual Archive Association).  Its popular-style Kookaburra magazine was replaced by an academic journal, and a residential program supporting visiting research scholars was introduced. More recently it has absorbed the Film Australia library which manages a responsive program of supplying stock shot footage and complete programs from its catalogue of a century of government information films (only a couple of years after that operation had been grafted, uncomfortably, onto Screen Australia).

What of its core tasks? Has it been succeeding? While NFSA can point to many achievements, there has been a constant and widespread opinion among film-makers that material is too hard to access and takes too long, and many are reluctant to deposit material with the archive for fear that they will never see it again.

According to its website, “The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia is the nation’s living archive, collecting, preserving and sharing our rich audiovisual heritage.”   This is such a broadly defined function that it’s no wonder it has felt obliged to expand into an ever-wider field of activities. There are no limits, there is little that doesn’t fit somewhere under this umbrella.

It has been an ambitious program. And all this has been at a time when the “film” part of its brief has been undergoing the massive change from physical, analogue reels of film to digital data, threatening to make much of its collection obsolete and unusable, but offering unprecedented opportunities to bring that collection to a wider audience. The NFSA has struggled to balance its task of preserving the past with the challenge of surviving in the future. It has tried to be something for all time and for everyone.

So it’s hardly surprising that the current CEO Michael Loebenstein has conducted a major review of the organisation and has just announced a restructure. Nor is it surprising that there have been howls of protest at the announced changes, which includes 28 jobs cut (one in seven of the total workforce), a cessation of the regular ARC screening program in Canberra and of the various touring programs such as Big Screen, and transfer of its Oral History program from a curatorial division to the Communications brief. More of this later.

A growing business

One unavoidable fact about an Archive collection is that it is a growth business. Every year, more and more is produced. As long as there is any media production at all, the Archive’s collection will inevitably grow if it is to do its job properly. And while conventional feature film production is unlikely ever to regain the “glory times” of the 1970s and 80s, the explosion of digital media, and the consequent ease of production already outstrips those times in sheer physical quantity, leading to what has been called the Digital Deluge. This presents the NFSA with a new challenge: what new formats should it be collecting? Independently produced TV drama? Amateur, unfunded digital features shot on a smartphone? Video games? Websites? User-generated YouTube clips? Mash-ups? Some of these might be dismissed as ephemeral and unworthy: but that is exactly the view taken of cinema a century ago.

The Analogue Avalanche

Furthermore, there is no statutory deposit law covering screen media 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 its 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. In recent years, as production companies have realised that the many thousands of feet of film in their vaults take up a lot of expensive space and have become virtually obsolete, they have presented the material to the NFSA with a simple alternative: take it or we ditch it. Thus the Digital Deluge is now supplemented by an Analogue Avalanche, adding to the already vast backlog of material waiting to be properly catalogued and preserved.

So clearly, after years of an – at best – static annual budget, steadily eroded by the “efficiency dividend” so beloved of Federal Treasurers, something has to give. NFSA can’t go on doing everything.

The CEO’s statement

The current CEO of the NFSA is Michael Loebenstein, a young Austrian film archivist who was appointed in 2011 by a Board which, including its then Chair, has since been entirely replaced. After a number of interim changes and a six-month internal management review, reports emerged earlier this month of significant changes to the organisation. There would be a number of redundancies, and many public programs would cease. The initial press release was minimal in detail, but a statement from the CEO appeared on the NFSA’s website a little later, apparently in response to rumours that the NFSA would become “a mere storage facility”..

Among other points, Loebenstein says:

More than any other collecting institution, transformational digital technology can be used to position us as the ‘archive of the future’. But this means we need to re-focus what we do and how we do it, to allow for re-investment into building capabilities and capacity to operate better in this online environment.

We 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.

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.

Under the new structure, we will be taking some hard decisions to reduce our staff numbers. . .

There may be a lot of good in this reshuffle: but it’s not visible in this statement, nor in the snippets of information that are emerging from NFSA staff. Sadly, in the present political environment, where cuts in public spending and activities are being announced on a daily basis, even the slightest hint that “some things will not continue . . .”, and the absence of specific detail of new activities will, inevitably, be taken badly. News that several of the highest profile staff members, representing unparalleled expertise in film history and culture and knowledge of the local industry are among the staff casualties can only lead to confusion about the CEO’s plans, even though inside sources suggest that the staff cuts are across all sections – administrative as well as specialised – and at all levels.


Like any Public Service organisation, NFSA is, inevitably, a bureaucracy. It has a very traditional management and reporting structure imposed on it by the norms of the APS. With around 200 staff, though, it is a small organisation, arguably [proportionally overburdened by these structures, committees and processes. It requires many arcane set procedures to be followed for even straightforward tasks – unlike the film and television production community it serves, whose operations tend to be much more outcome-driven (shoot first, ask questions later!). It may well be that Loebenstein’s changes will address some of these obstacles, although they will, necessarily, be limited by APS requirements, and by a firmly entrenched culture in the NFSA. After all an archive, of all possible institutions, can be expected to preserve its own culture.

Preservation and digitisation

Of the many tasks facing the NFSA, perhaps the most fundamental one is its core one: that of preserving its vast holdings of film and tape. Archivists around the world agree that, under proper conditions, film itself is the best medium for long-term preservation. Formats are settled, and the images are easily retrievable. Ideally, copies should be made on modern polyester film and preserved in controlled temperature and humidity.

By comparison, 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: the data needs constant maintenance. And data volumes are huge: while a DVD copy of a feature is just a few Megabytes, the uncompressed, full resolution version of the same film is measured in Gigabytes – a thousand times as much. Digital storage presents a not inconsiderable cost.

But digital versions are now the best way to make images available: via the internet, on DVDs or as high-resolution cinema versions.

It’s a fundamental archival principle to continue to preserve the original material – typically the original negative or a printed intermediate copy (a projection print isn’t suitable). So like archives around the world, NFSA faces a dilemma: how to best preserve – and share – its massive collection of film – amounting, at the latest count, to nearly 130 million feet. Not unsurprisingly, it has a huge backlog of material to be catalogued, transferred onto polyester base film, or digitised.

While NFSA can provide “broadcast quality” transfers of items in its collection, it still lacks the equipment for full-resolution scanning of 35mm film. Even with the required equipment, scanning is a slow process, and only one of many steps needed to digitise 35mm film – preparation and repair beforehand, quality checking and copying afterwards, all require resources.

The archive struggles to provide a reasonable turn-around time for material requested by producers or researchers. At its current level of resources, even with the equipment required, it’s doubtful if it would ever catch up with cataloguing, digitising and preserving the backlog of additions to its collection.

Estimates of the cost of digitising and preserving the film collection vary widely, but could be between $25million and $50million, and it would take many years to complete. With an annual operational budget of around $25million for all of NFSA’s activities, clearly this operation is presently unfunded.


But to focus its resources exclusively on the preservation task is clearly far short of Michael Loebenstein’s vision for the NFSA. In a recent seminar he emphasised the “sharing” part of NFSA’s vision, saying 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.”

This draws attention to another challenge for the NFSA. Unlike the archives of the major film studios or newsreels, NFSA only owns copyright in about five per cent of its collection. Negotiating rights and obtaining clearance to use or screen (and, in many cases, even to copy for preservation or any other internal application) any of the material is complex, time-consuming and expensive. Currently, copyright clearance isn’t handled by NFSA Access staff; it’s up to whoever hopes to use the material. NFSA has been pressing for simplification of copyright law: there’s no doubt that this complexity needs to be resolved.

But where’s the money to come from?

Even with considerable staff cuts and a pruning of programs, NFSA will struggle to meet its commitments under the present level of government funding. It is hard to imagine that the Federal Government is about to increase funding. So where is the organisation to turn?

By comparison with many archives, especially in the SE Asian region, the NFSA is well funded and resourced. But it is almost unique among Australian and international cultural and collecting institutions in that it receives virtually no philanthropic support.

Art Galleries at National, State and Regional level, State Libraries and the National Museum among many others large and small have all attracted significant funds from wealthy benefactors, amounting in some cases to many millions of dollars annually. Many less wealthy Australians also make regular donations. A glance at the website of any of these organisations reveals a page listing principal supporters, and providing facilities for contributions. There is no such information on NFSA’s website. In the past it has benefited – in kind – from sponsorships such as the Kodak/Atlab and Deluxe/Kodak collections, providing prints and preservation copies of 75 of Australia’s greatest feature films: but currently there appear to be no sponsored programs, and no patrons, or preservation foundations or supporters’ plans of the sort to be found elsewhere.

It might be argued that Fine Art has an aura of wealth and privilege about it that a popular form cannot match. But overseas, for just one example, the billionaire J Paul Getty was a key supporter of the British Film Institute.  Cinema in the twentieth century has traded in glamour; it has created some of the wealthiest people on the planet; and it can appeal to national sentiment in a way that no other creative form can compete with. More directly, many thousands of people have a connection with filmmaking – or recorded sound – in some way that they would like to recognise. There is, surely, a rich vein of support waiting to be tapped here. .

Australia is a country with film production dating back to within a year of the first public screening of a film anywhere in the world. Australia’s feature film industry led the world 100 years ago, and experienced an impressive resurgence 40 years ago. It has a documentary and newsreel tradition second to none, and a fine reputation for technical innovation and excellence. It is among the wealthiest countries in the world, with, for many years, one of the highest cinema attendances in the world. By these standards, the nation’s film and sound history of the past and the present deserves more support than it gets.


6 responses to this post.

  1. I should note that I was on the Board of the AFC at the time that it managed NFSA (2003-2008) . More recently I was briefly head of NFSA’s Film Branch, and for a year I was Development Manager. I no longer work there.


  2. You have not mentioned the worst part of the restructure. The Lending Library used by film societies all over Australia is being closed down. While the films themselves will be transfered into the main collection, The NFSA will no longer pay for a licence to screen those films. This means that if a society does choose to borrow a film from the NFSA it will cost three times as much. Film societies are small, not for profit organisations and this will drive many of them out of business.


    • Absolutely right. It’s another moot point. Some might say that NFSA can’t afford to subsidise film societies, others might say they play a vital role in NFSA’s ambition to “share” its collection, and should be supported. But my point is that with its present budget, NFSA can no longer do everything it has taken on, or had foisted on it. Either programs have to be cut or it must find more money.
      It seems to me that a broader degree of _public_ consultation would be appropriate. For example, what would _you_ cut in order to preserve the National Lending Library operation?


      • I can’t answer that question without a detailed copy of the NFSA’s budget. However, I can’t imagine any cut that the NFSA could make that would hurt people as much and as directly as closing down the lending collection. People in Alice Springs or Taree won’t notice if the archives digitisation program drops from 90% to 70% but they will notice when their local film society needs to close down.

  3. Thanks for your input to this, James. I personally think the Archive’s primary concern is collection and preservation: without that, there ultimately won’t be material to send out to film societies. Of course, there’s equally no point in preserving material without any program to make films accessible. Hence my argument that the greatest priority of all must be to seek more funding from elsewhere. (Clearly and unmistakably not from the government!).
    By the way, the film & video lending collection wasn’t always the responsibility of the NFSA, it’s just one of those extra things it has been required to take on in the past few years.


  4. Posted by bestqualitycrab on May 16, 2014 at 11:45 AM

    Hmmm. I don’t think the NFSA was “required” to take on the Lending Collection. It was previously operated by Cinemedia (later ACMI) as the Cinemedia Access Collection and I believe the NFSA bid to operate the service. Happy to be corrected on this but I’m not aware of any relationship of obligation between Cinemedia and NFSA. Related and equally problematically the NFSA’s announcement that its legal team will be made redundant means that many of the issues raised in your post (licensing for example) just became that much more difficult.


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