Clarity, passion, versatility, and a strong team are what’s needed to navigate today’s factual climate, according to industry experts.
In a session at Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) on Monday, Network 10 executive producer Sarah Thornton, Joined Up Films co-founder and creative director Dan Brown and CJZ head of factual Andrew Farrell were each asked to confront commissioning ‘mortality’ and come up with a program that would ensure their salvation.
Moderator and head of factual at Northern Pictures, Karina Holden, provided the speakers with a special toolkit from which they could select two items that would act as a metaphor for the type of program they would create and commission.
Brown and Thornton’s survival strategy was framed in the context of the documentary Coronavirus Australia: Our Story, which aired last April on Network 10.
The Joined Up Films productions had a timeline of just 18 days from pitch to launch.
Brown said the experience had demonstrated the importance of having a strong team to work with, as well as pitching from the heart, represented by painkillers and matches in the toolkit, respectively.
“It was such an important project and we had confidence in that team,” he said.
“If we didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the challenge because we knew we had a team that had the experience to pull this off.
“We really wanted to have a conversation with Australia at that time and that was the only thing to do.
“It was a really obvious pitch to me and it was about getting Australia thinking they could get through this.”
His sentiments were echoed by Thornton, who also chose the matches from the toolkit as a symbol for the role of passion in factual content, along with a magnifying glass for clarity.
“I think the thing that factual content needs on Network 10 is emotion and heart,” she said.
“We had a bunch of submissions for documentaries we could do around COVID but Dan came in with something that had a genuine passion at the centre of it and was about rousing the emotion of the nation in a positive way.
“Even though we hadn’t been speaking with Dan for that long, there was a real clarity in communication in the way we moved forward with it that led to a great level of trust.”
Thornton also spoke about her choices in relation to the true-crime documentary Lindy Chamberlain: The True Story, which she said shone “a new light” on the way the crime was perceived and the historical treatment of women by the Australian judicial system at the time.
“At the time it was pitched, we were in the midst of #MeToo in the US and the idea of looking back on Lindy’s story with the clarity and new lens from that movement was utterly compelling,” she said.
True crime has also been part of CJZ’s factual slate, with the four-part documentary Murder in the Outback Murder: The Falconio and Lees Mystery airing on Seven last July after premiering in the UK on Channel 4, which commissioned it.
The series was awarded Best Documentary or Factual Program at last year’s AACTA Awards.
After speaking on the success of the program, Farrell chose the swiss army knife from the toolkit, describing it as “emblematic” of not only CJZ, but also his own career.
“I think you have to be a jack of all trades and have diverse skills, interests, tastes, and levels of usefulness to succeed in this space,” he said.
“At CJZ, we’ve got a little bit of drama, a little bit of entertainment, and a little bit of factual, so that helps us survive the jungle of factual, as well as the jungle of TV.
“If one thing is a little bit quiet, hopefully the other things are blooming and vice versa.
“On a career level, I always say to all young producers that its super handy to have a diversity of experience and interest because if all your eggs are in a tiny basket, then you are finished if its gets dropped.
“If you’ve got skills in a lot of places, it makes you much more employable.”
AIDC runs until March 3.