Screen Australia has explained the rationale for the revised guidelines on documentary funding after criticism from the Australian Directors Guild and some filmmakers.

Senior manager, documentary, Liz Stevens says the new guidelines are designed to strike a balance between the medium-to-large screen businesses and the true independents.

She acknowledges the ADG’s concerns that the proposed Broadcast program ($9 million–$10 million) reintroduces the funding allocations for domestic broadcasters, with 45% for ABC-backed projects, 40% for SBS projects and 15% for other platforms.

The ADG had argued the funds should be uncoupled from the broadcasters and that the system will not give Screen Australia sufficient oversight over the types of projects commissioned by the ABC.

“We have reinstated the percentages because producers and broadcasters told us they needed certainty,” she said. “They need to know the projects they are developing will go ahead.” In the past five years the ABC received about 50% of the funding for broadcaster-backed projects.

As for oversight, she said all projects submitted for the Producer program in the first stage would be assessed by Screen Australia on the basis of content and the production team. Projects that pass that hurdle would then be evaluated on the basis of the deal-making structure.

Filmmaker Tom Zubrycki cautiously endorses the rejigged guidelines, particularly the reinstatement of the Producer Equity program and in recognising the importance of story-telling in the evolving media and distribution landscapes.

But he questioned the change which means theatrical documentaries will compete for funds in the Producer program ($5 million- $6 million) with other docs and can longer apply for the main production investment program.

Filmmaker Simon Nasht concurs, observing, “The real cuts to documentary are much greater than the announced $1.1 million reduction because for some unexplained reason, cinema documentaries have been excluded from seeking theatrical funding. Given the cinema began with documentary and the worldwide trend for successful documentary cinema shows no sign of peaking, this is both illogical and inequitable. Just how much coddling does our failing narrative cinema industry require?”

Stevens said she is willing, if the agency is presented with what she terms a “good line-up” of theatrical docs, to discuss a flexible funding approach.

“We do have the potential to get funding from production investment,” she said, noting the agency has invested $600,000 to $1 million per year in theatrical docs in the past five years.

Zubrycki laments the disappearance of the unique Signature Documentary brand, which supported titles such as Sophia Turkiewicz’s Once My Mother, although he acknowledges the guidelines refer to the principles of innovation and strong creative vision.

“Not dedicating a specific amount to Signature docs is a pity because the last thing many of us documentary makers want is for these principles to become eroded," he said. “Why not at least 50% of the allocated $5million – $6 million? We need strong, courageous, socially impactful and ground-breaking films."

Stevens asserts there will still be a valuable space in the funding program for films of that ilk.

Overall, she said, “We are trying to level the playing field and strike a balance between the medium and large businesses and the true independents. I think the balance is as good as we can get.”

Essential Media and Entertainment co-founder Chris Hilton agrees, telling IF, "My observation is that the overwhelming majority of documentary practitioners in the industry are happy with the amended guidelines with only a few tweaks required."