‘The Australian Dream’. 

Australia’s beleaguered documentary sector may see significant shifts in government funding availability if a raft of new proposed recommendations from Screen Australia are ratified.

Screen Australia released potential revisions to its documentary funding program in a discussion paper today and is calling for industry feedback; the last time the programs were reviewed was five years ago.

They include changes made to the existing Development, Producer and Commissioned programs and the creation a new Completion funding pathway for lower-budget documentaries, replacing the Producer Equity Program (PEP).

There are four core reforms proposed:

  1. The funding pool for Development and initiatives would increase by up to $500,000 to $1.3-$1.7 million, to help projects build momentum and early market interest with encouragement for creation of local formats. Three types of development opportunities would be offered: Seed funding, General Development funding and Advanced Development funding.
  2. Applications would be open to Producer Program funding five times a year, up from four, and capped at $500,000 per project. The funding pool for the Producer Program would increase by up to $300,000 to $4.4-$4.9 million. A portion of the fund will be quarantined for low-budget documentary.
  3. The revision of the Commissioned program to fund projects by all major platforms including free-to-air, Pay TV and streamers. The cap per project would be lowered from $1 million to $750,000, in order to enable more releases. Local platforms may receive preference for funding, but provided a project qualifies for the Producer Offset and the Australian producer is bona fide, projects for global streaming platforms will be eligible. The funding pool for the Commissioned Program will remain in the $6.5-$7 million range.
  4. Introduction of a creatively-assessed completion fund for low budget projects ($125,000-$500,000 range) which provides up to 20 per cent of an approved budget via accelerated cash flow. This would see the scrapping of the PEP. The new Completion Fund would be open all year and have a total funding pool amount of $1.5-$2 million.

“Over the past few months, we have met with over 100 documentary content creators, distributors, and broadcasters from around Australia. We have heard and considered the range of issues and opportunities facing the documentary sector. Whilst we can’t provide solutions for every pressure point, for those matters within our sphere of influence, I believe these proposed revisions will ensure creators can keep telling exceptional true stories,” said Screen Australia head of documentary Bernadine Lim.

In March, the Australian Independent Documentary (AID) group issued an open letter with signatures from over 250 filmmakers at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), calling for a “radical overhaul” of government policy to support the sector. The group argued against recent changes it saw as undermining the viability of the independent documentary sector and its ability to produce distinctive Australian content for local and global audiences.

Among the group’s various concerns were interim changes to the PEP program put in place by Screen Australia once it recognised that, due to unprecedented demand, the fund would be exhausted before the end of the 2018-19 financial year. The fund was ultimately exhausted in April, with applications in excess of $3.3 million.

Many in the sector rely heavily on the PEP program for low budget projects, as they do not have access to the Producer Offset. However, while the offset is paid by the Australian Taxation Office, PEP funding comes out of Screen Australia’s own budget.

Given the recent strain on the program, and in efforts to avoid funding for other programs being reallocated, Screen Australia has suggested that the new Completion Fund include creative assessment – a criteria that PEP does not have.

“Screen Australia proposes to preserve support for lower-budget documentaries, but focus this support on projects that demonstrate cultural significance and an achievable pathway to audience that is appropriate to the level of funding requested,” the discussion paper states.

While currently PEP funding is capped at $2.5 million, the completion fund will have a smaller funding pool at $1.5-$2 million. However, the total annual funding available to the Screen Australia documentary department remains in the $14-$16 million range.

The Australian Directors’ Guild (ADG), which endorsed the AIG Group push, has welcomed the overall discussion paper. It will go over the detail with its documentary committee and respond accordingly.

ADG CEO Kingston Anderson said he was pleased to see that Screen Australia is consulting with the industry openly and transparently, and hoped that viable solutions can be agreed upon with robust discussion.

However, Anderson said that the problems that the documentary sector faced were not limited to Screen Australia funding. “We are being starved of funds not just from Screen Australia but from the networks and the ABC, which like Screen Australia, has had funding continually cut back. It is harder for documentary films getting into cinemas and it is harder and harder to get documentary series made,” he told IF.

Following from the industry delegation to Canberra earlier this month, Anderson said that the hope would be that the government would regulate the industry and put obligations on the streaming services.

“There will be five streaming services in Australia by Christmas. It is a ridiculous situation where free-to-air and cable have to produce documentary content and these five new players don’t. Netflix is bringing in $600-700m a year in subscriptions in Australia which is a fair amount of money being flung out of the county, with no obligation to local content. That would be a solution for the issues that documentary makers face,”Anderson said.

AIDC board director and Flame content and sales director Fiona Gilroy also welcomed the dialogue.

“I’m certain the Australian industry will benefit from anything that streamlines and speeds up application processes and access to funding for documentary content. Extending the opportunities to work with all the platforms – traditional linear and streaming, that now exist in the market here is also a great way forward and reflects the changes in the marketplace,” she said.

Wildbear Entertainment CEO, Michael Tear, welcomed the “well considered” discussion paper, particularly around the positioning of globalisation of the industry and platform0led changes taking place.

Tear was concerned however the low budget documentary sector still faced a worrying amount of uncertainty.

“There is much less certainty around low budget funding and that is the area that we need to talk with our peers about. I understand that there is a need to ration the funding but the offset remains unavailable to low budget films and that is a significant funding problem.”

Overall Tear posits that the Australian documentary sector is in good health but faces great uncertainty as to where and how audiences will be consuming that content.

“Clearly online and demand are increasing in significance as platforms for consumer content consumption and the data I have seen on platforms is that there is really healthy audience appetite for docs, locally and internationally, which we want to ensure will be satisfied with opportunities to access Australian documentary content and options on those platforms.”

Industry feedback is being sought, with submissions closing October 27. New guidelines will be published in February 2020, and will be effective from 1 July 2020.

Provide feedback via the online portal.

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