Can The Mercury
Transform Itself?

by Mike Retter

Things are changing at the Mercury Cinema and Media Resource Centre in Adelaide.

Things are changing at the Mercury Cinema and Media Resource Centre in Adelaide, a combination of public cinema and filmmaking organisation. Recently the board has completely changed after a failure to secure funding and they are thus attempting to start afresh. But will it be radically different or more of the same?


As a filmmaker in Adelaide, I have had some experience with this organisation and I have my own thoughts on how it could run. So in this time of change, I want to publicly put my views out there. The vision is to put the cinematic artform, film culture, the public and filmmaking productivity as a priority above all else. The Mercury should be a one-stop shop for film culture, incorporating production, exhibition, publishing and broadcasting criticism (driving culture). When all those functions are running, it will be bigger than the sum of its parts. The ultimate goal is to generate new, thriving cinematic art-movements worth talking about.


Firstly, I think the Merc/MRC should be an almost entirely volunteer-run organisation. There's a saying in filmmaking "No money is better than not enough money". I have walked right through this building many times only to see the thing dead of activity. They don’t have just one cinema, they have two (plus lots of office space) and I just can't see the justification for the building if they are not using it as much as possible. The outgoing CEO Karena Slaninka promoted in her final statement the importance of "providing opportunities to learn by doing" and this should be taken to the extreme.

Courtney Kelly in Dry Winter (2021) – Microbudget Feature Film Directed by Kyle Davis as part of Flinders University screen studies program. Officially selected for MIFF. 


"The MRC's filmmaking equipment can be granted towards feature films, with the goal of helping double feature film production in South Australia ... "


General Manager needs to run it like an artist


More important than formal qualifications and industry connections for whoever takes over is to have a strong personal vision for what is possible with such an awesome space. But often, The Merc/MRC programs feel like middle of the road attempts to meet funding requirements. In regards to the MRC – let’s leave conventional short film production for the film schools. This just isn't what will inspire new art movements. The concepts/ideas that could spark new art movements would arguably be rejected in the MRC's current form and this needs to change if we want to have a real industry. Thus why I think it would be better if the MRC had less funding but more creative freedom in the right hands because we should care more about outcomes for Australian cinema (where we all benefit). With limited funds, people volunteering their time should see their role as an opportunity to achieve something historic (achievement builds a career) and thus the more younger people with energy the better. Balance that with older people eager to share their knowledge but without a current opportunity to do so. There should be less barriers between fulfilling concepts and ideas if the energy is there. Inspired people should be given an opportunity, be delegated to, and not have a wet blanket thrown on them. Seeing the role of manager like a film director, ninety-percent of directing is casting and thus delegating creatively can be more powerful than many thousands of dollars. The MRC's filmmaking equipment can be granted towards feature films, with the goal of a future MRC helping double feature film production in South Australia. With the right pragmatic methodology, feature films are entirely achievable on tiny budgets without the need for cash funding and this needs to become part of MRC culture. I will go into detail about how future management could be more artistic and visionary with cinema programming in the next few paragraphs.


"The MRC has the ability to both generate and exhibit work and should thus be structured to accelerate this ... "

The Iris Cinema as a radical productive space


"The Iris" is the 2nd, smaller cinema screen at the Mercury, and could be the home of many things such as an alternative film school (run by volunteers and participants). Something for people who don’t fit into the conventional system. Perhaps leading to the creation of several low-budget feature films per year. Think this cannot be done? There are hundreds of people with PhDs and feature films under their belt with no current way to contribute with their knowledge. And once you create something genuinely cool, it will attract all kinds of people of merit to contribute. Put simply, the MRC has the ability to both generate and exhibit work and should thus be structured to accelerate this. The Iris can also become a live podcasting venue that can host an audience, bringing the organisation to the mediums of the 21st century. Or it can be used regularly for experimental film screenings and KINO clubs (groups that produce a new film every month). I know of one respected person in Adelaide who wanted to do this, show lots of contemporary Australian indie work, but was strung along and it led to nothing. The underground needs a home. There are people who are happy to work for free, for the love of cinema and they should never be held back. Why leave the Iris Cinema dormant?



Podcasting can be visually creative because it utilizes DIY aesthetics and fits outside the rules of established TV. It also doesn't have the formal or content constraints of TV.



New Forms Born From Internet Culture

As briefly mentioned in a previous paragraph, newer forms such as podcasting, memes and youtubing have become more relevant than movies. These can be legitimate artforms but are neglected by our institutions. Aspects of meme-culture and youtube editing-styles are important for modern cinema not stagnating. These mediums are the current home of experimental film. So truly understanding these forms and finding ways the Merc/MRC can incorporate them will ultimately decide the institution's relevance. But there is a generational divide, in that older people simply don’t understand or appreciate these new mediums. Hence why more young people must be delegated to and involved in driving the institution. 


Feature Film Guarantee


The Mercury could better serve the community and encourage more film production if they made a guarantee to give one screening to any feature film made in SA (on its main screen). When people make a self-funded feature, regardless of its imperfections, they should be rewarded by the system and not discouraged by it. Making a movie is like climbing Everest and it's unfair to ask people for $1000 for cinema hire when they have already begged, borrowed and financially exhausted themselves to create this valuable screen activity. Standards need to be flexible (within reason) on this simply to encourage more movies being made in SA. People might make a bad film but learn a lot in the process for next time. Public screenings help filmmakers, crew and actors get better. But, such encouragement will also help some GREAT low-budget films get made. It sweetens the deal for low-budget productions when they can tell actors there is a guaranteed public screening in a good cinema on completion. It would also be a good news story in the media and make people pick up their cameras.


"There is no such thing as an arts movement existing without a critical culture around it. It needs to be written and talked about or it doesn't exist ... "


Cinema greats Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard, both writers at Cahiers du Cinéma .. An idealistic paradigm where filmmakers were also critics. The new home
for this dynamic is not traditional cinema but among the youtube commentary
community, who often make films about each other's work, which can have
audiences in the millions.

Cahiers du Cinéma
November 1960 featuring Janet Leigh and John Gavin in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.


The Mercury website should be a thriving film journal


The Mercury website does not perform much of a purpose and so we rarely visit it. So why not turn it into a pumping movie website? Universities, the public and existing film critics can provide content for a new film journal based in SA. This can also cover/promote films that have upcoming screenings through interesting writing on the subject. Articles, reviews, interviews .. not to mention podcasts created internally. There is no such thing as an arts movement existing without a critical culture around it. It needs to be written and talked about or it doesn't exist. And we cannot depend on mainstream media to cover this any more. The business model for film criticism is basically dead and so we must fill the void ourselves. Plus, the best model for a filmmaking movement is the French New Wave, who were all film critics. The things feed into each other. And some of this content can make it onto hard copy in the form of a physical magazine. With more traffic to the website, people reading articles – more people will come to the cinema. 


Expand Mercury membership by making it compulsory for all film students to be members


All film courses in SA should come together and decide that every film student will automatically become a member of the Cinematheque at a discount rate, which will be added to their yearly course fees. This would boost membership/revenue for the Cinematheque and encourage more young people to experience a wider variety of cinema (and film culture). This would include all the university film courses, TAFE and MAPS having their students automatically become members of the Mercury. In return, the Mercury can host some public screenings for these film schools. It's common sense. Just a fraction of these students in total turning up would be a boost.



More Creative Programming

The TLDR version is more high and low – but less middlebrow.

The inspiration for the French New Wave was not stuffy art films, but in fact dirty and cheap crime films from America. This is not an argument against obscurity, I argue that there should be adventurous Cinematheque programming of action films, thrillers and romantic comedies that are unseen, straight to video, foreign etc. And this is not an argument against art films either, just that they should not dominate programming, nor should the same films be programmed over and over. But I am arguing that we start to see the art in action and popcorn films too, rather than just enjoying them ironically. More high and low – less middlebrow.


If we do want to be experimental, let's actually be experimental. We act like the internet doesn't exist and that new forms have not blossomed from it ... Why are these not taken seriously with some examples being shown in cinemas? The moving image keeps moving and changing, but we have locked ourselves into a very narrow view despite some of this online-born content being wildly popular. Our notion of digital avant garde too often requires anointment by the academies before being taken seriously. World-famous creators (youtubers and otherwise) could be premiering their work in sleepy Adelaide before uploading to the internet. These range from feature-length pop-culture documentaries, dramatic work, comedy, action and critical pieces. It would be some prestige for youtubers to be shown in a cinema but also some exclusivity for Mercury, a win-win where the institution would be promoted internationally by the online creators. That goes for the world of digital indie cinema (including local work), literally endless amounts of great filmmakers to show for free if we were adventurous enough. When you are short of money, there are exciting content options that will cost little to nothing to screen apart from someone pressing play. It just requires the right contextualisation – a film culture around what is exhibited, rather than screening something and just hoping people turn up. It is our job to build that film culture.



"For this institution to be truly memorable, ushering in a golden era of indie film production, exciting exhibition and film culture – it must become a complete organism ... "



For this institution to be truly memorable, ushering in a golden era of indie film production, exciting exhibition and film culture – it must become a complete organism. That's why I suggest every aspect of film culture be incorporated and every function of the space be used. But if each were to be paid for conventionally, it would be impossible. If everyone working on this required a wage, it would never exist. Yet with the power of volunteering and available funds going directly towards unavoidable costs – it truly could happen. I’ve worked at various volunteer run organisations in my time, ranging from Community TV, Format Art Collective and eventually the Video Shop we created in Port Adelaide called Film Buff Central. FBC spun-off several films shown in festivals and winning awards, we also created our own film festivals and a physical magazine. I know that with the right vision and methodology all of what I've outlined can be achieved on less money. But it can't be seen as a conventional Government arts institution with all the red tape that comes with it. It needs to be seen as its own institution and not just an extension of other existing institutions, existing in some weak middleground. The real gift given to the MRC is the building and so much activity and opportunity can be leveraged from it with the right approach. The building must be liberated! Think of it like a fork in the road, this could be seriously cool, have an exciting future, make history and be worth talking about internationally. Or it could basically be just more of the same with a few superficial adjustments. Where do you think it should go? 


Mike Retter is a film director, of the indie feature Youth On The March, creator of the zine "Cinema Now", and the Podcast "Meat Bone Express", and part of the Port Film Co-op.

Published December 22, 2022. © Mike Retter 2022.