Sally Caplan.

Launched on July 30, Screen Australia’s COVID-19 Budget Support Fund so far has supported 24 projects that are greenlit and ready to go into production within six months.

The beneficiaries include four features, seven scripted TV projects and eight online works. In addition, funding was allocated to three documentaries and two children’s TV series.

In this Q&A, Screen Australia head of content Sally Caplan explains how the fund is operating, the critical role of the COVID Safety and Risk Assessment Plans and her views on Australian films going straight to streamers.

Have you been inundated with applications for the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund?

Yes. Since the fund opened we have supported 24 projects. But prior to the launch we were doing as much as we could to support projects impacted by COVID. We supported over 27 projects with shut down costs and also guidance on how to prepare COVID Safety Plans and budgets before this fund opened.

We’ll continue to help screen projects navigate the challenges of COVID regardless of whether they apply for this fund or have come through one of our other funding programs.

As it is a competitive fund, which criteria are you using to determine which projects are eligible?

The criteria are set out in detail in the funding guidelines on the Screen Australia website. Essentially for a project to be eligible it will need to be able to demonstrate robust and bespoke COVID Safety and Risk Assessment Plans and an accurate budget; a need for COVID costs from the agency; be of scale and something that will create significant work for the sector; and finally it needs to align with our policies for supporting gender equity, diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera.

The strength of the safety plan is paramount. We can give general advice on what you need to do to make it as safe and comprehensive as possible. Plans need to be bespoke, not generic. Every project is different and one size does not fit all.

As noted in the guidelines, applications may be more competitive if other parties are contributing towards the COVID costs and the majority of the production spend (80 per cent or more) is in Australia and on Australians.

Projects which are already in production (apart from animation and factual) are not eligible. The fund is only for projects that cannot get going without COVID costs to enable them to implement their COVID-19 Safety Plans or those that had to shut down due to COVID and now need the support of the fund to get back into production.

When it was announced, Screen Australia said the fund would close either when exhausted or at the end of the 2020 calendar year. So is there still money to be allocated?

It’s a juggle. We have had no extra funding for the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund (or Premium Plus), and have had to reallocate from other areas of Screen Australia funding. We are constantly monitoring what has been spent due to COVID issues and what we expect to come in for funding (and are likely to fund) through our other programs.

We will probably call a halt if we see that monies being spent on COVID costs is likely to limit our ability to fund new (and exciting) projects applying to us for general production funding.

Whilst the immediate priority is to get the sector back to work again, it is important to ensure there are more projects in the pipeline.

More generally, what has been your major focus as most of the country emerges from lockdown?

Our core focus as the country begins to emerge from lockdown has been getting productions safely back into production and ensuring there are sufficient projects that are almost production ready to ensure a continuing momentum of productions.

‘I Am Woman.’

Were you disappointed that moviegoers did not get the chance to see straight-to-streaming releases like I Am Woman, Relic and The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee, while accepting that distributors can’t risk spending $1 million or more on theatrical marketing when ticket sales were and are in a trough?

Of course it is disappointing on several levels. There are still a lot of us that enjoy the big screen experience, and the talking points that ensued at and after those screenings. I Am Woman managed an innovative hybrid, with limited “special event” theatrical screenings followed by a quick release on Stan, who did a fantastic job marketing that film.

It’s quite understandable that distributors don’t want to put up hefty P&A to release at cinemas operating at a “socially distanced” capacity to audiences who might still be nervous to go to the cinema.

There is an understandable reluctance of studios to release their tentpole movies that might finally tempt erstwhile goers off their sofas.

There is also an audience who has become accustomed during the past six months to sitting on their couches, watching great product on streamers, who find they don’t miss the theatrical experience as much as they might have thought.

It is of course, worrying to think of the consequences for distribution, exhibition and producers if audiences do not return to similar levels as pre-pandemic.

Having said that, the cinema experience is unique and I think as restrictions ease people will return to cinemas to get that big sound and visually spectacular shared cinematic experience.

Given the big outlays on development from Screen Australia, the ABC and state agencies, has this resulted in an improvement in the quality and commercial appeal of film and TV dramas that are applying for your production investment?

Really too early to say. Development is a lengthy process and it has really only been since April that we started funding bigger amounts in development. We set up and launched the Premium Plus Development Fund in April aimed at projects in late stage development that were halted due to COVID.

The idea (particularly for TV drama) was to use the delay to further refine the scripts and to get them even better. We also encouraged projects to bring in heads of department at an earlier stage than normal, again to get the scripts and projects in the best shape.

Because those projects were late stage, it is feasible that we would see improvements in the quality of films and TV edging towards production. The program was shut down on July 31. Between Premium Plus and the Premium Story Development Fund, more than $2 million was pushed out to the sector between April and June this year.