Not so Bright Ideas

Where does all the money go?

Bright Ideas is an annual grants program which distributes “financial assistance, marketing support, mentoring, business advice [and] access to industry contacts” to USyd students who want to a develop a creative project. Successful applicants are handed around $2000 to finance “fashion, art, theatre, music, word, food and design” projects, which somehow also extends to ideas like the recently resurrected Manning Bar bingo.

The rationale behind what is and isn’t a “Bright Idea” seems unclear. Are these ideas selected on merit? The financial demands of the project? The diversity of the applicants? Whatever the reason, it seems like very little is turned down by the program—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it makes you wonder whether too many projects means too little money to spread around.

$2000 per project sounds like a lot but it doesn’t stretch very far for most projects. Once you’ve hired a theatre for a show, a studio for your band or film equipment for a couple days of shooting, you’d be lucky to have enough room in the budget for a few sandwiches. And $2000 stretches even less without industry professionals helping you use it. Although “mentoring” is touted as a privilege of being part of the program, various groups have found themselves without guidance.

“They were originally [going] to have fortnightly meetings with us, which fell wayside,” said Alex Richmond from Holt! The Musical, a student production that had its premiere run at the Seymour Centre mostly funded by Bright Ideas.

Similarly, Bruno Dubosarksy directed his short film Method using 2017’s allocation, and throughout the process the film’s team was not offered the support initially promised. “There weren’t any industry contacts involved,” he said. “I never asked them for any but it certainly could’ve been useful to have someone to give guidance on film production.”

It’s not just technical and creative guidance where professionals would come in handy. Budgeting assistance should be provided to the projects to ensure that every dollar from the grant is invested wisely.

Most of Dubosarksy’s funding went towards renting professional gear, which his crew couldn’t have otherwise afforded. However, it is unclear why the USU could not make an arrangement to loan out the filming equipment already owned by the Department of Media and Communications, thereby allowing teams to use the funding on other necessities, like paying actors. Perhaps these shortcomings wouldn’t seem so dire if the promises made in the Bright Ideas mission statement were met more frequently, but as it stands, the USU seem to be promising more than they have the capacity to deliver.

For instance, Holt! was promised a planning and rehearsal space, which the USU did provide—but it lacked desks, computers and printing resources at the time. It was only open during semester, meaning projects planned during long holiday breaks were forced to make alternative arrangements, despite that being the ideal time for students to engage in creative pursuits.

When a Bright Ideas project fails to meet expectations, it’s probably not because it was a bad idea but rather that it wasn’t adequately incubated by the program that commissioned it.

The USU does not follow up projects that miss deadlines and sit in development hell, nor does it revoke their funding. Bright Ideas doesn’t even publicise upcoming projects on its social media page, and only promotes the rare few it deems ‘success stories’ in advertising material for the next round of grants. On the surface, staying an arm’s length away from its creative teams appears to allow creative freedom—the program doesn’t check or approve any material before it is launched, and according to Richmond, “they kind of just let [Holt!] do what we wanted”. However, staying completely out of the loop is more lazy and negligent than productive.

For all its misgivings, Bright Ideas does play a vital part in kickstarting creative projects that would otherwise struggle to get made. For the majority of projects, grants provide the lion’s share, if not sole source, of their financing; but without the financial and technical assistance promised, these projects may as well be made for nothing. If you were given the opportunity to receive $2000 and just run with it, or have an industry professional show you how to make $2 look like $2000, which would you take?

Applications for Bright Ideas 2018 open early September. With the next round of candidates around the corner, I can only hope they commission a little less, fund a little more and connect their successful applicants with industry professionals that will elevate the projects to places that money alone cannot. Wouldn’t that be a Bright Idea.