Screen Australia’s Liz Stevens hails the improvement in documentaries

Liz Stevens.

Documentary filmmakers are getting smarter with the projects they are pitching to Screen Australia, according to Liz Stevens, senior manager for documentary.

“The pitches we are seeing for the Producer Program are getting better,” Stevens tells IF. “That is being driven by the competition for funds, not just from us but internationally and also from distributors. Also we cannot estimate the huge impact that Good Pitch Australia has had on the education of producers.

”Producers are thinking about audiences more than they ever have in the past and thinking about stories in layers, not just in linear ways. With each round of the Producer Program the applications are coming ahead in leaps and bounds.”

Screen Australia’s budget for developing and producing documentaries in 2017/18 is $15 million- $16 million and Stevens expects a similar amount in the next financial year. Of that about $1 million is allocated to development. The overall funding varies depending mostly on the uncapped Producer Equity Program, which funds up to 20 per cent of the budgets of low-budget docs.

Although the Australian theatrical market remains challenging for feature docs and indeed indie titles of all stripes, Stevens regards that as an important sector.

She makes the distinction between the more commercial productions which are earmarked for cinema distribution and those that are destined primarily for film festivals such as Eddie Martin’s Have You Seen the Listers? and Travis Beard’s RocKabul and which have cultural resonance such as Naina Sen’s The Song Keepers.

In the current financial year Stevens expects to have supported eight festival docs and three for cinema including CJZ’s Jimmy Barnes memoir Working Class Boy, directed and co-produced by Mark Joffe, which Universal will release in Australia.

Among the upcoming cinema docs are Ray Argall’s Midnight Oil 1984, which opens via Madman Entertainment on Thursday; Jeremy Sims’ Wayne, a bio of former world motorcycle champion Wayne Gardner (Transmission); Damon Gameau’s futuristic 2040 (Madman); and Richard Lowenstein’s Michael Hutchence profile Mystify.

The agency is keen to support online factual projects although, as Stevens notes, there is no viable funding model yet for that sphere.

“We try to encourage people to look to online and to support producers to find their own funding model,” she said. “If we fund more online projects then the likelihood is that someone will eventually crack a funding model or a number of models.

“There is so much noise online that Australian documentary makers need to be there and contributing their voices.”

Stevens rates the current financial year as the strongest yet for online content. She expects to support six online projects through the Producer Program, some with the ABC’s iview.

They include Gun Ringer, which follows Indigenous ringer Jeff Harrower as he catches feral bulls in the Northern Territory, produced by Tom Lawrence, Ben Davies and Ash Davies; and Mashup Pictures’ The Horrors, which reinterprets real-life situations where things have gone horribly wrong, both for iview.

Yet to be announced are the final Producer Program and development funding rounds of this financial year, and maybe one or two Commissioned Programs.