More money for docs than TV drama from Screen Australia

17 December, 2014 by Don Groves

Screen Australia invested more money in factual content than in TV drama and only slightly more in narrative features in the last financial year.

Yet the funding body recouped far less from documentaries than from drama and feature films.


That emerges from an analysis of SA's annual report for 2013-2014 which was posted on its website in October but not widely disseminated.

In that period Screen Oz provided $74.5 million in direct funding in 196 projects with aggregate production budgets of $346 million.

Of that, $24 million was invested in 22 features with total budgets of $128.5 million. In TV, $11.8 million was invested in 11 dramas worth $92.6 million and $8.3 million in four children’s projects valued at $34 million. So the TV drama sector received $20.1 million.

Some $19.1 million was funnelled into 125 docs worth $57.8 million, including development and special initiatives such as Opening Shot and Think Big.

However of the money allocated to features, a total of $2.29 million went to theatrical docs Only the Dead, Women He’s Undressed, Sherpa: In the Shadow of the Mountain, The Last Impresario and That Sugar Film (the last two got completion funding).

So, in effect, the factual category received $21.3 million versus $21.7 million for narrative features. That $21.3 million excludes the Indigenous program's investment in 10 docs.  A further $2.3 million was spent on developing 69 feature projects.  

The ratio will change in the current financial year after budget cuts resulted in a $1.1 million reduction in direct funding for docs and the agency decided that producers of cinema docs can no longer apply for feature film investment.

In terms of recoupment on production investment, SA received $6.78 million last financial year, of which $1.25 million went to producers, so the net benefit was $5.5 million.

TV drama returned $2.8 million (nearly $1.5 million from adult projects, $1.3 million from kids programming) and films generated $2.1 million.

Docs recouped just $586,157. Recoupment overall is likely to fall from this financial year after SA decided to treat all investments up to $500,000 as grants.

However filmmaker Simon Nasht says, "The vast majority of documentaries are grant-funded, not investment, so how can they make returns?" 

Nasht also makes the case that the figures don't include funding from international co-pro partners; many docs are made entirely for domestic audiences "for the very reason that we are telling stories about ourselves";  and there is virtually no secondary market for cable TV sales in Oz, unlike the UK, much of Europe, the US and Canada.

Electric Pictures' Andrew Ogilvie says, "When you divide the box-office receipts for many Australian films by the cost of a cinema ticket you are left with embarrassingly low numbers. Certainly if our productions as documentary producers rated so abysmally when they went to air on TV we wouldn’t get many return commissions."

In feature film production investment, the biggest beneficiaries were The Dressmaker ($2.4 million), Oddball ($2.26 million) , Strangerland ($2.2 million), Lion and Blue Dog (both $2 million), Holding the Man ($1.9 million), Sucker ($1.77 million) and Paper Planes ($1.46 million).

Kids programs were the most strongly supported led by Mako Mermaids season 2 ($2.56 million), In Your Dreams series 2 ($2.45 million) and The Adventures of Figaro Pho ($1.47 million).

Love Child and The Secret River both received $1.45 million and Hiding got $1.39 million.