The single documentary is an endangered species in Australia but there are a number of solutions to address the crisis in the documentary industry.
That’s according to documentary filmmaker Jennifer Crone, who aims to use a session at next week’s Australian Directors Guild conference to explore new paths to financing docus.
Bob Connolly will moderate the November 7 session entitled Tell Us the Truth: The Demise of the One-Off Documentary with a panel comprising Crone, Tom Zubrycki, Trevor Graham and Genevieve Bailey.
Crone quotes a new study by Sharon Connolly which shows just 21% of TV documentaries funded by Screen Australia in 2012-2013 were single docs, versus 79% for series. Since 2008 when Screen Australia launched, the average number of hours of single docs funded by the agency has fallen by 22%.
“Documentary filmmakers are in an absolute state of crisis,” Crone tells IF. “It’s really very dire. Very few people are making a living any more. There are filmmakers with very significant track records who are working as researchers for the larger production companies, and smaller companies who used to employ 4-5 people had to get rid of all employees.”
Crone blames the drastic reduction in one-off docs on the ABC and SBS, which are commissioning factual entertainment series and specialist factual series at the expense of single documentaries.
Amongst the ideas she will be floating at the ADG conference, she favours Screen Australia no longer requiring projects funded by the National Documentary Program to have a broadcaster attached.
This would provide a new funding door and enable Screen Australia to meet its obligation to ‘place an emphasis on documentaries….and programs with a high level of cultural and artistic merit.’‘ It would also address the issue of a handful of commissioning editors at the public broadcasters determining which programs Australian audiences will have the chance to see, she says.
Another proposal is to enable more projects to secure Screen Australia funding for feature-length docs by removing the need for these films to have a national cinema release. This recognises, says Crone, there are numerous ways to reach audiences nowadays.
Yet another idea is for Screen Australia to provide a slate development fund for small production companies to enable more players to remain in the industry, turning out a greater variety of documentary content. This scheme would be similar to the Australian Film Commission’s general development investment program, which was abolished in the Screen Australia merger.
Crone hopes the session will debunk the notion that single documentaries are no longer drawing sizable TV audiences. She points to her most recent production, Divorce: Aussie Islamic Way, which had 500,000 viewers (consolidated figures) when it screened at 9.30 pm one Thursday on ABC1 last year. She rates that as a fine result for the program, which followed Sheikh Khalil Chami as he advised Muslim women on how to get a divorce under sharia law, particularly given it was mostly in Arabic with English sub-titles.
That figure compares favourably to the factual series the ABC is commissioning for ABC2 with Screen Australia investment, which are watched by much smaller audiences.
Despite the docu sector’s woes, Crone is optimistic about the genre’s prospects, noting BBC2 recently reinstated its single-docs strand Modern Times.
She hopes the ADG panel will lead to the formation of a working group who will then initiate discussions with Screen Australia, the public broadcasters and other parties.