2019 outlook part 4: Boom and bane for feature documentaries


While Australian feature documentaries are punching above their weight at home and internationally, leading filmmakers say the sector is facing several daunting challenges.

Some are critical of Screen Australia’s continued funding of TV programs based on overseas formats. Others lament the lack of support for one-off docs from SBS and the ABC.

And there is widespread dissatisfaction with the federal government’s inaction over imposing local content quota obligations on streaming services.

“Despite the digital era presenting new opportunities, most of us working in the sector are facing a grim and uncertain future,” veteran filmmaker Tom Zubrycki tells IF.

“Fashioning a career from making documentaries has never been easy. As one colleague commented: ‘We are awaiting the new dawn, it’s not there yet.’”

Australian Directors Guild CEO Kingston Anderson observes: “Australian documentary directors are producing world class documentaries in cinemas and on television. But the continued increase of overseas formats on television and the lack of access to cinemas are putting this great work in danger.

“We need to ensure that funding for documentaries from organisations like Screen Australia don’t restrict their creative output by funding predominantly overseas formats on television instead of original content, and that they treat the documentary feature more like the narrative features they fund.”

Yarra Bank Films’ Dr Trevor Graham hails the theatrical success of Gurrumul, Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy and Backtrack Boys and credits Screen Australia’s continuing support for feature documentaries through the Producer Program.

“The issue at hand for us as producers, audiences, practitioners is: outside of the cinema and festivals, how do Australians get to see and appreciate either short form (TV hour) or this latest crop of great Australian feature documentaries?,” says Graham, who is raising the funds for My Big Fat Italian Kitchen.

Graham aims to start shooting the feature doc, which follows Antonio de Benedetto, an Italian chef whose apprentices are aspiring chefs with Down syndrome, as an Italian co-production supported by Screen Australia and the Berlin Film Festival, in September.

“SBS and the ABC badly let the team down and their audiences. You would be hard pressed to see a ‘one-off documentary,’ either Australian or best of international, on either broadcaster. The dire fate of the documentary one-off is occurring across international frontiers as public broadcasters increasingly ditch them to cache audiences via series – and increasingly, hybrid reality TV/documentary series and factual entertainment.

“The lack of engagement by our public broadcasters beyond a narrow band of bigger companies in the industry, particularly in Sydney, is appalling.”

There is growing momentum for a format lab proposed by Madeleine Hetherton, who is partnered in Media Stockade with Rebecca Barry. The idea is the lab would be supported by the funding bodies and buy in from ABC, SBS and the commercial networks. “We need to know our local broadcaster will support, nurture and take the odd risk in the format space,” says Barry.

Keen to inspire audiences to regularly attend documentary screenings outside of festivals, Media Stockade is working on two initiatives.

Doc Lovers Club is an embryonic, social media-based community aimed at nurturing documentary lovers in Australia and supporting/amplifying documentaries being released in the cinema, TV and online. The hope is the community will grow and become a powerful word-of-mouth, crowd-generating entity that helps connect audiences with films.

Media Stockade Impact, a consultancy for the corporate market, has completed a pilot scheme with two high profile companies entailing screenings, some hosted by filmmakers, that are curated and molded to the needs of the client.

The aim is to find a film or a slate of films each client can use to activate change within its business, thus creating a new audience in the corporate sector and a new revenue stream for filmmakers, Barry says.

Screen Voice, a group of Western Australian-based production companies, advocates a significant increase in the Producer Offset for all forms of eligible production and that Screen Australia’s investment should support majority Australian-owned production companies and Australian-owned IP.

“The association would particularly welcome a new international documentary production fund to assist Australian-owned companies finance international productions,” says Screen Voice chair Andrew Ogilvie.

In 2017–18, Screen Australia contributed to the funding of five factual series based on formats developed overseas including Filthy Rich and Homeless, Teenage Boss and War on Waste 2. Concerned about the impact on the local independent sector, 38 producers signed a submission calling on Screen Australia to cease funding local remakes of international formats.

“Getting behind original Australian formats is to me a no-brainer,” says Zubrycki, who last year produced Teach a Man to Fish for NITV and produced and directed Hope Road, which screened at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals and had a theatrical release through Demand.Film.

He is also an EP on Nicholas Wrathall’s Undermined: Tales from the Kimberley, which tells of the David-and-Goliath battle between Indigenous peoples and mining companies and agribusinesses and will be released in cinemas next month by Umbrella Entertainment.

Zubrycki believes it is inevitable that Netflix, Amazon Prime and other platforms will be obliged by regulation to commission Australian content and hopes they will support local documentaries, as happens in the US. “Precedents have been set in Europe and Canada, so why is our government so slow to act?” he asks.

Filmmaker Jennifer Peedom has delivered 3D, 2D and Dome versions of her hit Mountain, she is encouraged by the initial sales and may do more in the large-screen format.

Stranger Than Fiction Films, the production company in which she is partnered with Jo-anne McGowan, is developing two drama features and Peedom is also keen to move into TV directing this year.

“The feature doc space is booming and we’re well placed to capitalise on it,” Peedom tells IF. “We’re looking for projects that will work with international audiences – and with strong relationships with distributors here and internationally, we’ve got access to international finance.

“I travelled a lot in 2018 and my sense of the market is that buyers are hungry for top quality projects. They don’t care where they’re made – just that they’re made for international audiences.”