Special Report for MIPDOC: Emerald Films

March 1, 1998


A MIP of its own: Golden Age or Fleeting Frenzy for Non-Fiction?

Like its kiddie cousin, non-fiction now has a market of its own in mipdoc. Dedicating two days of screenings, meetings and greetings prior to miptv, Reed Midem has officially bought into the idea that this is, indeed, a Golden Age for documentaries. Gaggles of sellers and buyers will be hitting the Hotel Martinez (in the daytime, even), hoping to cash in on this widely heralded boom. On the trail of the cable explosion, new global links for production and distribution, and an ever-changing, ever-expanding definition of what’s in the genre and what’s out, RealScreen goes tri-continental and quinti-national and asks five very different Cannes-bound production companies: ‘Is this golden, or what?’


For too many television documentary makers determined to make it in the late 90s, ‘dumbing down’ is all part of a day’s work. This, however, is not a strategy adopted by Emerald Films, the tiny Sydney-based independent run by two thirtysomething filmmakers, Sally Browning and Leisi Hillhouse.

Emerald has won international acclaim for producing such serious, socially concerned films as Raskols, an examination of gang culture in Papua New Guinea, and, in a lighter vain, The Christmas Cake, the prize-winning portrait of two Australian political matriarchs who recount some of the most entertaining episodes from their lives while baking the annual family Christmas cake.

‘Most of the films I make are reasonably politically motivated, though not necessarily party political, and explore the way society views those considered marginal in whatever way that may be,’ explains Browning, who formed Emerald six years ago after a career in print journalism.

She and Hillhouse, a former children’s tv presenter, had met in 1991 as undergraduates at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. ‘Within the first two weeks of meeting we realised we shared a common goal,’ Browning says. ‘We’d both outgrown our previous careers and wanted to make documentaries.’

The pair started in the edit studio, producing several educational films about such topics as AIDS, hepatitis, and law and order for those on the edge of society, be they prisoners, transsexuals or young criminals.

Browning explains: ‘I am very interested in social issues, particularly the impact of political change, unemployment and law and order on families who might be considered to be living on the fringes of the economy. Inevitably through my education films for inmates, I have an interest in the effects of drug abuse and rehabilitation.’

Emerald’s first documentary was the low-budget, fully funded A Hope In Hell, depicting the emotionally shattered lives of special-care inmates inside an Australian jail. Its next film, Raskols, co-directed by Browning, was pre-sold to sbs-tv in Australia and Channel 4 in the u.k. The venture made a ripple on the festival circuit, winning a prize at Mumbai (Bombay) and three Australian Film Institute nominations. The Christmas Cake, the company’s third documentary, followed a year later in 1996.

It confirmed that Emerald was a name to watch; so far The Christmas Cake has won four prizes, with strong sales in Europe and Scandinavia, though not yet in the u.k. With luck, the film may also give Browning and Hillhouse that vital first leg up into the American market if negotiations with a cable net are successfully completed.

Emerald’s films, being of fairly limited appeal, have thus far been fully funded or pre-sold, often with backing from the Australian Film Commission and or local public broadcasters. In the future, Browning and Hillhouse hope to attract interest from international sources, particularly as a change of government in Australia two years ago has led to budget cuts at both abc and sbs-tv.

‘For financial and creative reasons we want more international involvement in our films,’ says Browning. ‘There’s a good case for Australian documentary film makers to work with u.k. and Canadian producers. They are our natural market. The u.k. is similar culturally, and the practice of Canada and Australia buying one another’s documentaries is well established.’

Emerald currently has distribution deals with three sales houses; London-based Jane Balfour Films, Australia’s Jenny Cornish Media, and Montreal-based Films Transit, who, at mipdoc, is hoping to find other partners for The Diplomat, a film about the East Timor exile Jose Ramos Horta, pitched at Amsterdam in December.

To date, Emerald has worked with modest budgets, ranging from us$135,000 to around us$270,000, and their projects have favoured first-time directors, although the plan is for Tom Zubrycki, a well-known Australian director, to helm The Diplomat.

Emerald has yet to enter the coproduction market but Browning has high hopes for an ambitious travel film, to be shot in Africa, provisionally entitled Africa On Iron Horses. The budget is around us$500,000.

Despite the belt-tightening of Australia’s public broadcasters, Browning insists she is under no pressure to change direction and move towards producing documentaries that possess more obvious commercial appeal, and denies that Taking Care Of Elvis, about a pilgrimage of Australian Elvis fans to Memphis, now in post-production, marks a shift in direction.

‘We’re not going to start doing Driving School or any other sort of documentary soap, but even in the most responsible films there’s always a bit of soap. All our work needs to have a strong narrative. It’s a challenge to represent real people in a true sense and in a way that will also entertain and inform audiences.’

Also in this report:

-Australia’s Emerald Films

-U.S.: ABC/Kane Productions

-France: Gedeon Films

-U.K.: Lamancha Productions

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