Growing Pains

Australians long ago recognized the necessity of nurturing documentaries to ensure a filmic archive of their unique culture exists.
February 1, 2003

Australians long ago recognized the necessity of nurturing documentaries to ensure a filmic archive of their unique culture exists. The government subsidizes both domestic productions and international coproductions through the Film Finance Corporation Australia (FFC), while organizations such as Film Australia and the Australian Film Commission (AFC) support doc-making through production and advocacy. On the broadcasting side, public channels ABC and SBS both air a healthy number of docs.

These efforts have paid off: Australia has spawned some internationally celebrated doc-makers, including Dennis O’Rourke (Cunnamulla), Bob Connolly (First Contact) and the late Robin Anderson (Facing the Music), and has established a talented corps of producers.

Despite this strong foundation – and in some cases because of it – many in the Aussie doc community feel the industry has hit a critical juncture in its development. Growth in the indie sector has outpaced the expansion of the domestic funding sources, particularly the film subsidy system, which helped give many their start.

‘The documentary organizations and networks do their best, but they can’t escape the clinical cruelty of the mathematics,’ says Film Australia senior manager Mark Hamlyn. ‘Budgets have not kept pace with increasing production costs over the last five years.’

International copros were particularly hard hit when a critical FFC fund dried up early in the current fiscal year. The fund had provided up to 50% of the money for films that secured both an Australian and international broadcaster. Says doc-maker Andrew Ogilvie of Perth-based prodco Electric Pictures, ‘The system has stalled for international coproduction finance.’

Susan MacKinnon, the Sydney-based documentary investment manager for the FFC, agrees that the system is struggling to keep up with growth in the sector: ‘The FFC’s documentary allocation has not increased over the past few years, so in real terms there is less money available.’

Time for a shake-up

Many think the time has come for an overhaul of the entire funding system. ‘If Australia wants to maintain and improve its position we’ve got to deal with this crisis,’ says Ed Punchard of Perth-based Prospero Productions. ‘It’s down to everybody to: one, acknowledge there’s a problem; and two, participate in a solution. It’s no good saying everything is fine, because it ain’t.’

Punchard’s not alone in his thinking. Both the AFC and the Australian Film Television and Radio School are looking into how the film subsidy system can better mature with the doc industry.

One aspect under scrutiny will be the FFC’s documentary ‘accord’ system, which provides Aussie filmmakers with funding for docs already backed by the ABC or SBS. Under the system, the broadcaster puts up 35% of the budget; the FFC chips in the remainder. The arrangement has produced scores of quality films over the years, most recently the highly praised A Wedding in Ramallah, by first-time director Sherine Salama, and Mike Rubbo’s Much Ado About Something, which aired on PBS’s ‘Frontline’.

But, not everyone is satisfied with the way the system is working. ‘[The accord system] is creating a ghetto for badly paid filmmakers,’ notes Ogilvie. ‘It’s becoming much less relevant and much less useful to sustaining a population of experienced filmmakers.’

Daryl Karp, head of factual programming at ABC, acknowledges that indie producers are bearing the brunt of fiscally tough times. ‘We’re being incredibly tight with the budgets…which makes it very difficult for filmmakers.’ Last year, the maximum production budget for any individual program the ABC supported was AUS$330,000 (US$193,000). At SBS, the high end of the scale was $280,000 (US$170,000).

The FFC’s MacKinnon disagrees with Ogilvie, however. ‘The aim of the accord structure is not to create businesses for people… It’s a vital part of the industry that produces valuable and often splendid films for Australian audiences and overseas.’ She adds that while some accord producers can move on to coproducing with international partners, ‘not everyone will survive the process.’

Reaching out

Indeed, securing international support hasn’t been easy for Australians. According to Karp, the challenge for producers is building credibility. ‘Australia’s difficulty is that when you want to make the break to the next level, which is international coproduction, you need to have a significant track record,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t work saying…’Have a look at this film,

but bear in mind it had a budget of less than £150,000 [US$243,000]‘, because people don’t think about that when they watch it, they just look at it for what it is.’

But, shrinking budgets on the domestic front mean that successful doc producers need to raise global interest. Says Ogilvie, ‘We are increasingly focusing on topics that have international currency, so we can get pre-sales elsewhere.’

Ironically, if Australian producers are successful at bringing in international partners, they may run into difficulty at home. Chris Hilton of Sydney-based Hilton Cordell Productions explains: ‘If we pick an international subject…[Australian] broadcasters say, ‘We can pick up something like this from Channel 4 or the bbc for a small amount rather than paying a higher level of pre-sale.”

The low value of the Australian dollar has also had a mixed impact on building an international presence. ‘From the point of view of the cost of production, staff and crew, Australia is a very affordable location to work from,’ Ogilvie contends. ‘However, the cost of shooting overseas is now a great deal more expensive for us.’ Electric Pictures’ last few films – Dinosaur Dealers and Football Farm, both with copro partner Alley Kat Productions – were almost exclusively shot overseas.

Despite these challenges, some indies are not only surviving but thriving internationally. They’ve done so by branching out into many genres and styles, becoming experts on the business side, and feeding the appetite for popular documentaries. ‘A large part of the world market for docu- mentaries is television entertainment,’ says Prospero’s Punchard. ‘You can utilize those opportunities to sustain yourself as a business, but also to give you the opportunity to make greater cultural statements.’

Prospero has just delivered Shipwreck Detectives, a three-hour maritime archaeology series for National Geographic Channels International, as well as Aussie Animal Rescue, a 13 x 30-minute series for Australia’s ABC, Animal Planet and the U.K.’s Granada Media.

Both Punchard and Ogilvie have been helped by their Western Australia location: Screen West is a film funding and development agency that is pumping AUS$8 million (US$4.7 million) into the state’s film industry through two separate funds, a benefit viewed with envy by other Australians. Says Hilton, ‘We’re looking at going into coproduction with West Australia to try and get a hold of money that’s available.’

Rolling with the punches

Mark Atkin, acquisitions and development consultant at SBS, has over- come Australia’s geographic hurdle by relocating to London, U.K. ‘We can prepurchase a lot more films, because I can actually be there when people discuss them and I can discuss them with my peers as well.’

SBS illustrates how Australians have learned to punch above their weight. Despite tiny pre-sale budgets and viewer ratings that average 5.5%, SBS figures prominently in Australia’s international profile, not least because it’s instrumental in getting copros off the ground. ‘We really can help people,’ says Atkin. ‘It’s so hard to get funding these days but we’re putting in money with yle and other Scandinavian [pubcasters]. Because we meet up on a regular basis at places like Amsterdam and Toronto [for the idfa forum and the Toronto Documentary Forum, respectively], we can pool our small amount of money and make it much more significant.’

SBS broadcasts popular landmark series like Washington, D.C.-based Devillier Donegan’s ‘Empires’ to bring in viewers, then hopes they’ll stay for more eclectic fare such as auteur-driven Australian stories, presented in strands like ‘About Us’, Atkin notes. The station is also branding its output through recognizable strands such as ‘Masterpiece’ for arts docs and ‘As it Happened’ for history.

The broadcaster prides itself on showing edgier fare than the more staid ABC, which has been criticized for pushing out social docs. Comments doc-maker Mike Rubbo, ‘The ABC is going more towards entertainment. It’s had a whole string of documentaries bought from overseas about celebrities and old Hollywood stars, and endless documentaries on the super bad men of the world, like Hitler.’

The ABC’s Karp counters, ‘Yes, we do have some of those sorts of programs, but it’s not a trend towards commissioning. I don’t think we’re going lighter. What we’re doing is programming differently. We’re pushing very hard for people to be aware of the schedule and to take into account our different audience needs. A 7:30 audience on a Sunday night, which is really big family viewing, is going to be quite different to a 9:30 on a Wednesday.’

At the helm since November 2001, Karp says a major strategy of hers has been to pull out Australian documentaries from two specific domestic strands, ‘Big Picture’ and ‘True Stories’, and interweave them throughout the schedule. ‘We are actively seeking material for a broader range of time slots than we have sought over the past five or 10 years.’

Karp’s job is to balance the demand for docs with the fiscal reality. ‘From a scheduling point of view, documentaries are critical to the ABC. But, the financial climate for making documentaries is very tight. That’s the wonderful tension you’re always dealing with.’

Whether others will agree that the tension is ‘wonderful’ remains to be seen, but it is certain that Australians will take a hard look at the health of the industry at the Australian International Documentary Conference in Byron Bay this month. ‘We’ve got a fairly bloated film bureaucracy; there’s a lot of money being swallowed,’ one producer observes.

If the squeeze on funds continues, producers could soon be an endangered species. Film Australia’s Hamlyn predicts that the shrinking of domestic budgets will lead to a reduction in the number of producers in the industry. ‘Think Darwinian natural selection,’ he says.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.