The Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) is urging the Federal Government to treat documentary distinctly from drama as it proceeds with reform to the Producer Offset.
Specifically, DAF is calling for the ‘status quo’ to be maintained on a number of measures for feature documentary, that is: for the qualifying Australian production expenditure (QAPE) threshold to stay at $500,000, and for the Gallipoli clause to remain in place.
In an open letter drafted to Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher that has already attracted around 170 signatories, DAF argues that it is “deeply concerned that a number of the proposed changes [to the Producer Offset] will have unintended consequences likely to devastate documentary feature films”.
“While we welcome the overall intent of the announced changes, we believe minor changes to the proposals with respect to documentary will prevent extensive negative impacts. Left unaddressed, these outcomes would seriously disrupt established businesses, diminish regional, Indigenous and minority voices and result in a considerable cultural loss to the nation,” the letter states.
At present, the government intends to raise QAPE threshold to $1 million for all feature length content from July.
DAF argues that documentary producers are likely to be disproportionately impacted by this, noting that while 97 per cent of narrative features that received Screen Australia funding over the last three years had a budget of more than $1 million, only 42 per cent of feature documentaries did.
The average cost per commercial broadcast hour for single documentary over the past five years, including features, was $551,917, and DAF data indicates most documentaries in development and production have an average budget of $618,000.
“There is a significant risk that the 58 per cent of documentaries being made with budgets less than $1 million will not be made at all, if these proposed changes to the QAPE threshold are brought in,” states DAF’s letter.
“To put this in perspective, the award-winning documentaries Backtrack Boys, Gurrumul and In My Blood It Runs would not have been able to be made if the increased QAPE threshold had been in place.”
The government also intends to scrap the Gallipoli clause, which allows a number of offshore shooting costs to be claimed as QAPE. The clause takes its name from an example in the legislation’s initial explanatory memorandum that acknowledges a film about Australia’s involvement in Gallipoli would need to shoot in Turkey.
If the clause is removed, DAF argues it will be harder to include international elements in Australian documentaries, effectively “disincentivising” international funding and co-production partners.
“By their nature, documentaries need to be filmed in the locations where the stories occur. While a feature drama may be able to shoot a story set in Miami on a Queensland beach, this is not possible with documentary without undermining the veracity of the story,” it says.
“Many Australian produced documentaries are stories with international elements, which require some parts of filming in overseas locations. Internationally recognised and award-winning documentaries such as The Surgery Ship and Firestarter were able to employ Australian crews on their international shoots because of the Gallipoli clause, creating jobs for the Australian screen industry.”
Speaking to IF, DAF CEO Mitzi Goldman elaborated that removing the Gallipoli clause is contradictory in terms of how it applies to documentary, especially if the government wants to encourage feature docs with global reach.
“The best and most internationally acclaimed documentaries are those that deal with international stories – these need to be shot overseas for their veracity. It is not like drama. So if part of the government’s aim is to support internationally recognised filmmakers and high quality work, then the Gallipoli clause needs to remain,” she said.
Ultimately Goldman hopes the letter will start a conversation with the legislative powers that be, so that DAF can explain “unintended consequences that may not have been considered thoroughly enough”, and the detrimental economic, cultural and social impacts that may follow.
There are myriad industry concerns with regards to the Producer Offset changes across various different sectors.
Goldman sees “wins and losses” in the harmonisation of the film and TV offsets at 30 per cent, and argues that the copyright cap is an issue, particularly for the subset of documentaries that are archival compilation.
However, DAF has recognised the QAPE threshold lift and the removal of the Gallipoli clause as “the most damaging” changes to documentary, and so hopes the government will reconsider them in particular.
“We are focusing on these two specifically rather than attacking on all fronts. Our aim to be able to invite a conversation so we can explain the details and the effects this will have on our industry. We don’t expect the ministers or the tax office to be fully across the broader implications of these reforms which is why we would like to engage in a dialogue about them.”
DAF ran an information session about the letter at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) yesterday, and will continue collecting signatures until March 9, before handing the letter to Minister Fletcher, a number of crossbenchers and shadow ministers.
The letter is open to all for sign.