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Screen Australia-funded ‘Alick and Albert’ (Photo: Freshwater Pictures).

Screen Australia has decided to postpone the introduction of the revised documentary programs from July 1 until 2021, to the dismay of some factual filmmakers who wanted the new regime to happen sooner.

Announcing the move, Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason said: “Documentary has a unique set of challenges in this current situation and many creators in this space were already operating in difficult circumstances. As such, my focus right now is on giving the documentary sector as much stability as possible.”

The existing documentary programs including the Producer Equity Program (PEP) will remain in place for the rest of 2020. The budget for documentary in 2019/20 remains unchanged and Mason said the documentary team headed by Bernadine Lim is now working on a very large number of new applications.

In a letter to Lim from 360 Degree Films’ Sally Ingleton on behalf of the Australian Independent Documentary Group, she applauded the agency’s decision to boost drama development funding in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

But Ingelton questioned why there are no additional funds to develop documentary projects and asked for small business support for docs producers during this time of great uncertainty.

Applications to the new $3.4 million Premium Plus late-stage scripted development program will open tomorrow, representing a 230 per cent increase in funds available for premium story development.

“It’s hard to believe that it was just over a year ago that the documentary industry en masse signed a letter requesting urgent changes,” she wrote representing the group whose members include Ruth Cullen, Pat Fiske, Mark Gould, Tom Zubrycki, Simon Nasht, Catherine Scott, Anna Broinowski and Trevor Graham.

“Following that a few of us had a productive meeting with yourself and Graeme and later provided constructive feedback to Screen Australia’s draft revised Documentary Guidelines.

“More than six months has passed with no sign of new guidelines. And now our sector is reeling with uncertainty as productions are put on hold, fundraising from the private sector has dried up, cinemas and festivals are closed, putting cinema release plans on hold, and travel is forbidden.

“We believe there needs to be a package of assistance accessible to projects currently in production that may need additional support, additional funding available for documentary project development and small business support for documentary producers.”

Ingleton, who is working on the rough cut of Wild Things, a feature doc which looks at the campaigns to stop coal mining, fracking and logging in Tasmania’s Tarkine rain forest, added that many documentary makers are not eligible for the JobKeeper scheme.

The producer-director asked for a dialogue with Lim to see how Screen Australia can assist the sector.

In an immediate response, Screen Australia said it had intended to publish the new documentary guidelines to coincide with AIDC but that was delayed due to the options paper which was released yesterday.

After speaking with documentary creators it was clear COVID-19 had reduced the appetite for change so it was decided that all the current programs, including PEP, would continue and to delay the switch to the new programs until 2021.

Finally, Screen Australia was waiting for the latest documentary development and producer rounds, which closed last week, to gauge the call on funds. The documentary team hopes to give the sector an update by May.

More broadly, Mason revealed the agency received 246 applications across all programs in February-March, which are being processed as normal.

In those two months it processed 22 final certificates for the Producer Offset with total rebates of approximately $30 million, plus 26 provisional certificates.

“We intend to expend every dollar in our 2019/20 budget. We continue to provide production funding, with the knowledge some shoots will be delayed. Next week we will announce the latest slate of scripted projects to be greenlit,” he said.

The agency has been varying payments for Screen Australia-funded drama and documentary productions that had their shoot interrupted to ensure they come out of hiatus as soon as practical.

For funded productions that had an imminent shoot interrupted, it’s assessing requests for assistance as received.