Self-described “new guy,” Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason, wasted no time in addressing the big issues during his opening address at the Australian International Documentary Conference this afternoon.

Taking to the podium at Adelaide’s Intercontinental Hotel, Mason seized the opportunity to identify what he perceives as some of the biggest issues affecting the current Australian screen industry, and in particular, the documentary sector.

“I am concerned in my 12 weeks in the job about the level of negativity in our sector,” Mason said in his opening paragraphs. “It sets a tone which isn’t helpful in setting a way forward.

“The second thing, which I find to be very surprising, is the level of entitlement and the focus and chatter of perceived failure around local documentaries.

“Negative conversation is unhelpful in setting a way forward, and this ‘sky is falling’ approach seems to me to be partly driven by errors and misunderstandings. Also, by an understandable but impossible yearning for days passed and a failure to see clearly the state of play and changes, good and bad, that have and are taking place for our industry generally and for documentary in particular.

“We must look at the possibilities for the future. We have to look forward.”

Mason was quick to quote recent statistics regarding documentary production, noting that ABS data indicates a dramatic increase between the two most recent industry surveys in 2006/07 and 2011/12.

“The number of broadcast hours doubled to 566, and total production spend tripled to just under $160 million,” he said. “The number of non-TV documentaries (including those made for cinema release) also more than doubled to 168.”

He also pointed out that Screen Australia provides 18 to 20 million dollars’ worth of funding to documentary development and production each year, as well as highlighting the additional $20 million that went into documentary production through the Producer Offset last year.

“Since the inception of the Offset in 2008 until June 2013, 343 documentaries were issued with final certificates for the 20 per cent Offset, receiving some $71 million,” he said. “We fund lots more documentary than any other form of content, and we know that it is because generally budgets are lower. There are also far more slots and funders for documentary than there are for feature films, drama or kids’ television.”

But Mason also acknowledged it was time to have another look at the documentary sector (evident by the fact Screen Australia last week sent out a documentary funding discussion paper entitled Stories that Matter) and asked for the assistance of delegates in reviewing the body's documentary funding programs. “We want, no need, your input,” he stated. “It is key that this input is forward looking and not just for today, but for five years out.”

Listing the need for a review, audiences, production trends and people, diversity and international engagement as key themes to be looked at, Mason was nonetheless clear an increase in funding is not on the agenda.

“We have around $20 million for documentary funding overall per year and that figure is unlikely to increase,” he stated, before softening the blow with: “We could, however, consider new allocations of funds across programs, or start afresh with some new programs.”

Mason concluded with inviting delgates to submit their views via the discussion paper, due four weeks from the conclusion of the conference.

Screen Australia plans to develop new guidelines over the coming months with the aim of publishing in the middle of the year, to come into effect on 1 January 2015.

The Australian International Documentary Conference runs from 4 – 7 March, 2014.

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