Getting Global

For Australia, the tyranny of time zones and the country's strong local content standards make partaking in the global market a challenge. But, with help from both the public and private sectors, Australia's doc industry has come a long way. RealScreen investigates the initiatives that are helping to bridge the gap.
March 1, 2001

The international market is tough to crack, and although Australia is English-speaking, which serves as an advantage in the global marketplace, the country’s documentary industry is nevertheless isolated. Says Errol Sullivan, CEO of Southern Star Entertainment, ‘The things that define our market are isolation and distance. Another thing that defines it is its small population… this means when we make programs, we must use an economic model that makes sense – meaning low-cost – or we have to think about foreign markets. If you want to increase your budgets, or make money, then you must talk to a bigger market. The distance must be overcome.’

To complicate matters, Aussie broadcasters must abide by strong local content standards. Says Sabina Finnern, manager marketing at the Australian Film Commission (AFC) – a federal agency that provides industry support – ‘The difficulty doc-makers are facing is that there is great support in Australia for docs about Australia, with an Australian view. But, the size of our population doesn’t afford us to make these docs without an international sale. Doc-makers are forced to have a foot in each world.’


You cannot cater to the international market without first knowing what it wants. Richard Sowada, director of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) sums it up: ‘Our isolation removes us from the center of the broadcast community, so the face-to-face contact in bringing broadcasters to Australia is crucial. It is of major importance for Australian filmmakers to be exposed to the style, the discussion and the views of the international community.’

The AIDC is one of the world’s largest international doc conferences – this year attracting over 500 delegates from around the globe. The conference, along with its pitching event (DocuMart) are great opportunities for Aussie filmmakers to explore the international market, see what broadcasters are responding to, and secure deals. Sowada says the challenges of holding an international event in Australia are not as great as they may seem: ‘Firstly, people love coming here, so there is the attraction of the location itself. Secondly, the event is a strong one. Thirdly, for people from the U.S. in particular, the dollar is good, so the expense isn’t too frightening.’

Even the film festivals and events that don’t involve the international industry directly have an eye to that marketplace. Take the REAL – Life On Film festival, established by the Cultural Film Foundation of Australia (CFFA). Although the fest does not solicit international industry reps, the aim of the event is to expose Australian filmmakers to international work. Scott Millwood, festival director for REAL, acquires films from the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (both in New York City) to screen at the Aussie event. Says Millwood, ‘By providing a forum for the presentation and discussion of documentary film, Australian filmmakers are encouraged to tackle new themes in their own work.’

In addition to hosting, Australians are accustomed to travelling to events abroad. Says Sullivan, ‘How do you enter the international market? You travel. You attend all the markets and make contacts with commissioners in key broadcast systems… You know your buyer, your client and your market. You must if the market you’re in covers such a small part of your production costs.’

Last year, the AIDC collaborated with Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival to expose Australian doc-makers to the Canadian market. Hot Docs featured a spotlight on Australia, at which 10 Australian films were screened. The spotlight was an offshoot of an exchange program initiated by Hot Docs that sent a group of 15 Canadian producers and directors to the AIDC. In exchange, Australian state and federal funding agencies organized a delegation of Australian doc-makers to attend Hot Docs. Says Chris McDonald, executive director of Hot Docs, ‘[The agencies] saw it as an opportunity. They treated it as a competitive process and took calls for entries from across the country to make a selection. More than 40 Australians came to Hot Docs.’

The cost of travelling is a major hindrance to Australian indies, but state film agencies and the AFC offer funds for filmmakers to attend markets and festivals in the form of recoupable loans. The AFC attends the major TV markets and festivals, offering a base from which Australian filmmakers can operate. Says Finnern, ‘This has proven beneficial for independent doc-makers to become internationally savvy – they get to talk to the right people, both for styling their documentary and securing presales.’ At events, the AFC distributes a catalog containing details and contact information for all docs produced in Australia in the last two to three years. The AFC also does market and festival briefings, wherein they introduce how to work a market, and how to find the right festival for your film.

The Australian Film Finance Corporation (FFC) is the government’s principal agency for providing investment in the Australian film and TV industry. Although their mandate for assistance is focused on local-content docs – ‘accord’ films that support the government’s cultural objectives – FFC investment is provided on the basis that projects first obtain support from non-FFC investors such as broadcasters, distribs and sales agents. FFC managers also attend festivals and markets and work with filmmakers to assist with securing the contacts, deals and market information that will help them acquire the presales and distribution guarantees that trigger ffc financing. Last year, the FFC funded 26 hours of internationally co-financed docs and 25 hours of domestically backed films. The FFC also provides Aussie producers with current deal terms by maintaining contact with many international commissioning editors and distribs.

Meeting the market is key to global relations. Says Sowada, ‘At every turn, we need to raise the business and creative bar for Australian filmmakers to operate in an increasingly competitive environment. Unless filmmakers are exposed to that environment, they are operating in a bubble and cannot respond to the demands of audiences and broadcasters.’


When you can’t be there in person, you’ve still got to be there. Says Cathy Payne, CEO of Southern Star Sales, ‘Being based in Australia is not a problem for making sales, you just have to have your mind on where you are and the time zone you’re in. You’ve got to be available when your clients are available.’An important part of relating with the global market is keeping on top of technology. Beyond International was one of the first companies to test the electronic delivery of program rough cuts. Says John Luscombe, head of production at Beyond, ‘Overnight, we receive feedback on our programs as a result of internet-based technology. As with many international distributors, Beyond Distribution not only attends markets for the purpose of program sales, but also utilizes the internet to platform product.’ A lot of producers are putting their programming on their own websites and some distributors have included their programs on group databases. According to Payne, a good way of keeping clients informed is through one-page shots that can be faxed or e-mailed. Says Payne, ‘We send clients information on product – things that will be of interest to them, such as how a show might have rated in a major market, awards it might have won, or particular promotional opportunities on that project.’

Keeping the domestic market informed is equally important, so the AFC has established a range of online services. Finnern explains, ‘We’re about to launch a festival site where we profile 50 of the key international festivals. We show those festivals from an Australian perspective, so filmmakers can get an idea of what screened from Australia in the last 10 years. You get a sense of what people are looking for, where they’re coming from, how they represent their festival vis-à-vis Australian filmmakers, plus core information on how to get a hold of them.’ The AFC is working on another web initiative designed to educate the Australian marketplace about the international one. It will feature online stories that trace the development of successful documentaries, to demonstrate the real-life options open to filmmakers.

While technological initiatives are an important part of relating to the international forum, they are only a part. According to Payne, ‘It’s great to have good electronic means to get clients information, but I still find that nothing beats pitching a show face-to-face.’


Film Australia is a government production and distribution company that commissions docs for TV under the National Interest Program (NIP) – a contract that awards almost AU$7 million per year (US$4 million), to produce 20 documentary programs in the national interest. Sharon Connolly, CEO of Film Australia says it is necessary to create films in the international market’s preferred format: ‘We make international versions of Australian films. For example, we’ll make a feature-length documentary [85 minutes] for Australia, then remake it into an international [55-minute] version, because there are very few broadcasters around the world who are interested in buying feature-length documentaries. We make sure we make things in appropriate formats for sale overseas.’ Susan MacKinnon, investment manager of documentaries at the FFC broaches a different format issue: ‘Most Australian documentaries are one-off projects, whereas the growth potential in the international market lies primarily in documentary series.’

But, which genres are desirable for the international market and which are not? Payne says there are definite genres that are more popular with international audiences: ‘Wildlife, natural history, popular science and adventure programming are the most popular kinds of docs distributed internationally.’ She continues, ‘For Australian markets, productions are on particular subjects that are relevant to that audience – there might be a one-hour on a particular part of Australia. With a documentary you’re selling overseas, that might be one segment. Docs produced for the domestic market might have local personalities, and experts talking to the camera. But, if we’re making a version for the international market, we wouldn’t have any of that.’

Sullivan agrees the project must have universal appeal: ‘It’s got to have universality in story matter and we try to use our locale and our difference to bring out the exotic. We try to get that mix of exotic and the universal language of storytelling. That is the general mix of the pitch.’According to MacKinnon, ‘The cultural concerns or life experiences and interests of Australians are different from non-Australians and often it feels as though the industry in the ‘North’ is not interested in anything below the Equator, other than Australian Aborigines, furry animals, sharks, remote tropical islands and the red desert. It has been difficult to co-finance films about the political conflict in East Timor, the contemporary history of Indonesia or the conflict in Bougainville Island, for example.’

Connolly has a different perspective on what appeals to the international market and suggests there is a justifiable reason why particular genres are less popular abroad than others: ‘I don’t think the local character of a program is necessarily an impediment to its sale. That said, clearly the genres that export the best are going to be wildlife, nature, adventure, travel and science. The films that are harder to sell around the world are the ones that look at contemporary life – observational or reality-type programs where context is important and where each country would want to make their own. There are films that deal with universal themes and issues, but which other countries would prefer to see in their own context. The more universal themes are harder to sell.’

Finding just the right niche without compromising the integrity of the industry continues to challenge Australia. Millwood explains, ‘It’s changing a lot, but part of the Australian psyche is to feel that what is cutting edge or what is out there is being done somewhere else. We have a constant battle here with making projects that push the medium. One of the objectives of REAL is to demonstrate that international context – that in so many other places the medium is being pushed and it’s just as valid to do that here.’He adds, ‘Although the Australian film industry is still largely self-contained, I do think this is changing quite rapidly with filmmakers looking outward before they look inward.’

About The Author