(l-r) ABC Head of Factual Steve Bibb, Film Victoria’s Jenni Tosi, host Virginia Trioli, Screen NSW CEO Courtney Gibson, Screen Australia’s Documentary Senior Manager Liz Stevens and SBS’s Head of Documentaries John Godfrey.
The plenary session at last month’s Australian International Documentary Conference aimed to assess the health of the local factual sector.
The verdict was mixed.
Virginia Trioli hosted Film Victoria’s Jenni Tosi, Screen NSW CEO Courtney Gibson, Screen Australia’s Documentary Senior Manager Liz Stevens, ABC Head of Factual Steve Bibb and SBS’s Head of Documentaries John Godfrey in a panel discussion.
Trioli kicked off by asking about the perceived bias on the part of the public broadcasters towards Sydney and Melbourne, a point amusingly underlined by the presence of leaders from Screen Tasmania, ScreenWest and Screen Territory in the audience – but not on the panel.
"We are getting commissions through SBS but through NITV, with quite small online commissions”, said Screen Territory’s Penelope McDonald from the bleachers.
“Part of my brief is to develop the cultural and economic impacts of the industry in the Northern Territory, and without commissions from our major broadcasters that's difficult to do".
According to ScreenWest’s Ian Booth, “producers are saying to us that the tyranny of distance has never seemed greater”.
“As an agency we spend probably half a million dollars annually on travel alone".
Bibb acknowledged “we should be doing more in other regions".
All agreed that standalone documentaries will find it increasingly tough going.
“The challenge for documentary is the same as it is for all shows on television, which is that these days everything has to play like an event”, said Screen NSW’s Gibson.
“If you're promoting singles, you're building it from the ground up every week”.
Bibb observed, “To spend all the marketing dollars we have on a single that comes and goes is really challenging. There's no doubt that you get far more benefit in a series, because there's a long tail. A returning series is even better. Singles have to punch above their weight".
Gibson described festival play as one measure to build word of mouth – cheaply.
“At the Sydney Film Festival last year, a third of the films that they showed were documentaries”, she told AIDC.
“If you're a broadcaster, there's no better free marketing tool than a festival premiere followed by a discreet theatrical run. Because by the time you give it a run on television, there's a great buzz around it. If you can work the windows so that they work for everybody, that can work very well for broadcast”.
Film Victoria’s Tosi told the delegates a key challenge was that factual is “not a growing marketplace”.
“There's just no way we can manage the desire and capacity of everyone in the room who wants to make a living on an annual basis”.
Speaking to IF, SBS’s Godfrey reiterated the point: “The challenge is that the number of filmmakers and companies is growing, but the number of hours and outlets is quite static”.
On the panel, Tosi and Gibson agreed that the marketplace is much tougher now than it was ten years ago.
Back then, according to Gibson, “emerging practitioners got to make half-hour, one-hour docs. One of the consequences of the digital revolution and platforms like iView is that now emerging practitioners are encouraged to make short form content rather than getting that long form opportunity”.
Part of the puzzle for emerging documentary makers are prior-credits stipulations at the funding bodies.
"I think it's always useful to ask, are we enabling the production, if we are the gatekeepers, of the most interesting work in the sector?” said Gibson.
“When I looked at our criteria for production funding, there were so many conditions in there about prior experience and credits in the same genre which we ripped through with a red pen in order to see what we might get”.
Responding to Trioli’s quip that she’ll be “inundated", Gibson responded, “in my experience that doesn't necessarily happen”.
The Screen NSW CEO encouraged filmmakers to think outside the well-worn pathways.
“It’s very important that the sector works out how to be less reliant on traditional forms of support from, say, public broadcasters”.
One potential route to self-reliance is the grassroots impact campaign – 'impact' being the inescapable buzzword at this year’s conference.
“Distributors are starting to see that their audience is fragmenting and they need to be reaching them in different ways”, That Sugar Film impact producer Anna Kaplan told IF.
“Because an impact campaign does drive sales and revenue ultimately, the funding bodies and investors are recognising it as a bonafide line item in the budget”.
KEO Films Australia’s Head of Programmes David Galloway, whose Struggle Street provided endless grist for the opinion columns last year, agrees.
“The message coming from the ABC is that they're looking at more innovative ways of presenting [factual]”, he told IF.
“That's certainly the way we're looking at production pitches for broadcasters: how we tell stories in new ways from within the story? I think the technology now is allowing us to do that in particularly exciting ways”.
Galloway told IF that factual opportunities are slimmer than ever at the commercial broadcasters.
“Where there used to be the opportunity for half-hour docs, which they still run, [now] their broadcasting platform is really based around those big event shows, massively noisy in their terms, to bring people to their platform”.
“Opportunities for factual now pretty much reside with ABC and SBS and Foxtel”.
Gibson warned AIDC delegates that the next twelve months will see even more players after a slice of the pie.
“Seven does a lot of internal factual programming", she said, "Nine now has an internal production unit, and I would think that a lot of producers who rely on Nine will start knocking on the public broadcaster doors”.
Gibson said she sees apathy among documentary producers, “the most passionate but not the most organised sector”, when it comes to lobbying Canberra.
“It's no secret we would hope to get an increase in our funding in the next state budget. Loads of drama producers come up to me and say, how can we help? No-one from the world of factual and documentary says that to me”.
“SPA has maybe prioritised drama as what they're lobbying for”, Godfrey told IF.
But as the ADG’s Kingston Anderson pointed out during the plenary, "Every guild has been trying to meet with the minister for six months, and he won't. We have a big problem in Canberra".
As the rise of SVOD continues apace in Australia, all eyes will be on the likes of Stan to see if they add to the likes of No Activity and Wolf Creek with local factual commissions.
"The loss of revenue over in the broadcast sector has not been made up by money spent in the SVOD sector”, Gibson told the audience at ACMI.
“It's not clear there'll be factual commissions from those services any time soon".
Screen Australia’s Liz Stevens told the conference [that] "The broadcaster pre-sale is always going to be part of the finance plan until the SVODs take up that space".
While iView have started commissioning, SBS on Demand is still only acquiring documentaries, though according to Godfrey "it's only a matter of time before we're commissioning for that platform".
This year’s AIDC was headlined by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, the writer-producers of The Jinx, and the success of that series and others will see both channels broadcast true-crime documentaries in the next twelve months.
“I don't know why we haven't had a crime franchise”, Bibb told IF.
“We're just about to commission one. It'll be initially six hours and then we'll probably do more than that. Because there are lots of those sorts of stories here to be told.”
Meanwhile SBS has commissioned feature length documentary Deep Water, premiering in October as part of a cross-network event spanning both drama and factual, broadcast and online.
“It's not dissimilar to The Jinx and Making a Murderer”, said Godfrey.
“It's a true-crime feature where we've been interviewing victim's families, police, and – potentially – perpetrators”.