Essential Media’s ‘Living Universe’. 

Tom Zubrycki is veteran Australian documentary filmmaker, who has directed and/or produced over 36 projects, including The Diplomat and Molly & Mobarak. The following is an extract from his new Platform Paper ‘The Changing Landscape of Australian Documentary’, published by Currency House and available at

In recent years we have seen a radical shake out in the old television broadcast model. So what place will documentary have in this new factual environment? According to statistics released by Screen Australia, documentary series production rose from 295 hours in 2011–12 to 366 hours in 2016–17. Yet only 21 single title documentaries were shown on television or cable in 2016–17 compared to 51 five years earlier. This includes commissions and acquisitions.

The two public broadcasters are largely format and series driven; though they still commission a small number of one-offs. SBS annually commissions four single documentaries for the Untold Australia series, while ABC commissions some single documentaries preferring that they play across multiple platforms. True Crimes Stories is a recent example. Budget cutbacks, especially at the ABC, play a bigger part in commissioning considerations than ever before. Also it’s cheaper for ABC and SBS to market a series than an individual program. Rating requirements dominate broadcast decisions, even more so now that online has severely cut into TV audiences. How many times have we been told, ‘You have an excellent program but it’s too niche for us. We’re only interested in subjects that have broad public appeal.’

Eventually many (but, unfortunately not all) of the documentaries funded through the various state and federal agencies are purchased by the broadcasters, once they are presented to them as acquisitions. But when they do make a purchase, it is at a fraction of the cost of commissioning them. This was the case with The Namatjira Project, the iconic story of the Namatjira family, tracing their quest to regain the copyright of their grandfather’s artwork. The film was originally turned down by the ABC, but when it was broadcast by the network in 2017 it achieved excellent ratings, and audiences gave it a score of nine out of ten on internal measures of quality and distinctiveness.

Tom Zubrycki.

With these results it’s a shame that the ABC doesn’t commission more one-off’s, rather than waiting and then acquiring them at bargain price on completion. Although Steve Bibb, [former] head of factual, seems to leave the door open:

“From my commissioning point of view, I don’t have a specific policy in relation to series and one-offs for factual […] To me, it’s always about the strength of the story. […] Creativity, storytelling, form and what’s best for the audience should lead.”

Where once there existed a whole range of small independents whose business plan relied on a broadcast commission every one or two years, now there are few—and fewer still who work in the area of co-production. One exception is Simon Nasht of Smith & Nasht. His latest feature as executive producer is a one-hour science documentary, The Kingdom of Fungi, directed by Annamaria Talas. Fungi, the world’s largest and oldest of organisms, was a subject with genuinely universal appeal.

Nasht wanted to fund the film as an official co-production with CBC in Canada and for that he needed an Australian broadcast partner. The ABCdeclined a pre-sale. Eventually National Geographic (Australia) consented, which triggered the ‘pathway to (local) audience’ required by Screen Australia’s offset department. Then European and North American distributors signed up and Nasht was able to start production. A year later the program had been sold to more than twenty countries and won several major awards. According to Nasht, himself a producer of 25 years’ experience: “It’s never been tougher because the domestic market is so thin.”

Chris Hilton, CEO of Essential Media, and one of Australia’s most prolific producer/directors, likewise struggled to fund his series Living Universe, which examines the quest to find extra-terrestrial life by ‘the brightest minds in space exploration’. The documentary, a combination of a four-part series and a feature documentary, is allegedly the most expensive ever made out of Australia and took six years to finance and produce. Living Universe did get a licence fee from the ABC, but at a reduced rate. Marketplace attachments that flowed into the budget were: distribution guarantees against various territories, presales from North American streaming sites and European broadcasters, grants from Screen Australia, Create NSW, the Offset and investment from a post-production house. The 90-minute version played at Event Cinemas and very quickly afterwards the series appeared on the ABC.

The Kingdom of Fungi and Living Universe are complex and expensive projects to finance out of Australia, mainly because national broadcasters have a remit to commission Australian stories. This gives them a perfect reason to say ‘no’. However, they do not shy away from re-makes of foreign formats that have been developed and road-tested overseas.

While Kim Dalton was head of television at the ABC (2006–13), the broadcaster had a blanket ban placed on foreign formats. This is no longer the case. SBS never had that reservation. In the 2017–18 financial year, Screen Australia funded five factual series based on formats developed overseas, including Filthy Rich and Homeless, Teenage Boss and War on Waste 2. The agency contributed $2.66 million to these series: 17 per cent of the total documentary department budget. This has caused considerable alarm. On 25 May 2018, 37 producers, concerned at the impact this was having on the local independent sector, put their names to a submission pressing Screen Australia to refuse to finance such productions.

“Every foreign format produced means that a local production opportunity has been lost. Local ideas create Australian owned IP—giving future income potential to local companies and investors—[and] raise the expertise in the local talent pool in program development. Locally developed shows help sustain an economically viable independent production sector.”

Getting behind original Australian formats is to me a ‘no brainer’. It makes sense for screen agencies to assist in the development of new formats, and the idea of a ‘format lab’ is gaining in popularity. Anything to quell the tide of overseas formats dominating our small screens and devices.

The producers’ submission also raised alarm about BBC Studios, a new Australian production arm of the BBC opening its doors in Sydney. The company will be eligible to apply for Screen Australia funding despite being the operator of five TV channels in Australia broadcast on Foxtel. One of the quirks of the broadcasting regulatory landscape is that instead of the channel itself holding the broadcasting licence, Pay TV carriers are the licensees of all the channels they carry. The letter demanded that the BBC Studios loophole be closed immediately:

“The relaxation of funding restrictions, together with reduced funding and consolidation of foreign ownership of the local industry, is increasing competition for ever-diminishing Screen Australia production investment. The few remaining Australian-owned companies must now compete in the domestic market against extremely well resourced, vertically integrated multi-nationals, which are receiving public funds designed to encourage Australian culture.”

Responding to the producers’ submission Michael Brealey, chief operating officer of Screen Australia, responded. “Screen Australia sees value in not limiting which projects can receive its funding, provided at all times they will be made as Australian stories of relevance and interest to local audiences.”

Screen Australia’s response has stunned the sector. It has always been assumed that industry programs are meant solely to support Australian cultural producers, but apparently this is no longer the case.

The rise of cinematic features 

Today there is a growing public demand to experience documentaries on the big screen. This is the case the world over. Cinematic documentary is booming. In the US there’s talk of a ‘golden age’. Here in Australia, where there’s also been a striking resurgence of documentaries in the cinema, the trend is similar. Between 2007 and 2011 only 38 documentaries achieved cinema release. In 2017, in just one year, a total of 19 Australian documentaries were released. These included Mountain by director Jennifer Peedom; The Namatjira Project by Sera Davis and Sophia Marinos; and The Opposition, a David-and-Goliath battle over land in Papua New Guinea by director Hollie Fifer.

Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy was one of the most successful of the 18 released in 2018. Produced by Michael Cordell of CJZ and distributed by Universal, Jimmy Barnes ran up $823,000 on 230 screens—the widest release to date for an Australian feature documentary. After a few weeks’ theatrical run, the film turned up on Channel Seven, securing an audience of 1.2 million. According to Cordell, “the approximately 40,000 who saw the film on the big screen certainly did not affect the ratings”.

Releasing Jimmy Barnes just prior to television showing was a smart move because the film piggybacked off the publicity generated by Barnes himself in the mainstream media and which spilt over into the broadcast. This kind of marketing is something that ABC and SBS have traditionally resisted, determined instead to keep the premiere run for programs they commission, but in so doing depriving themselves of festival showings and theatrical runs. In my opinion this ‘first window’ requirement is short-sighted because it denies the producer the opportunity of building the film’s profile.

Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy’.

Jimmy Barnes is at one end of the scale. At the other end in the marketplace are a whole lot of low-budget features, many of which garner as much attention as (and sometimes more than) the bigger budget ones. In October 2018 Backtrack Boys, directed by Catherine Scott, a character-driven film about youth at risk in rural Australia, opened on 60 screens, helped in no small way by a social-impact producer and off the back of a successful film festival run at which it had achieved a lot of awards and publicity. Backtrack Boys deployed the new ‘alternative content cinema’ platform, which means a film has a typical run of only a limited number of screenings a week at a single cinema, and thereafter has the chance of building up an audience from week to week.

The ways these two documentaries were financed, however, were quite distinct. Jimmy Barnes was a sizeable Channel Seven presale. Screen Australia funds and the Offset covered the remainder. Backtrack Boys was initially self-funded; then DAF [the Documentary Australia Foundation] got behind it as executive producer and finally they secured funding via Screen Australia’s Producer Program.

The Producer Program has four rounds per year and on average receives 18 applications per round, most of them feature films. In 2017–18 only eight features were funded, approximately 15 per cent of the submissions. The investment managers concede they turn down very good applications. I believe that this all-or-nothing approach needs a fundamental re-think, one that acknowledges the organic, evolving nature of documentary production. At the 2017 AIDC [Australian International Documentary Conference] Sam Griffin called for such a new approach and proposed what she called the Progressive Fund. She underpinned the philosophy of the fund in her MSAB thesis:

“In documentary filmmaking, particularly creative documentary making, the lines between the development, pre-production, production and post stages are blurred; they intersect and inform each other, often in non-sequential ways that can’t always be predicted in scripts and treatments”.

Griffin suggests that funding be distributed progressively over multiple stages, with subsequent funding depending on a continuing positive trajectory of the project. Each project would be given a series of smaller grants, rather than a single large one. She envisages four stages with up to fifty projects per year receiving seed funding, of which 25 would get through to the second stage, ten to stage three, and eight to stage four. “In this model the agency spreads its exposure to risk across a greater number of projects at an earlier stage, allowing both unknown filmmakers and/or unpredictable stories a chance to test ideas.”

What would happen to projects that don’t make the cut after having received some funding? Griffin suggests they could be finished in other ways—perhaps self-fund at first and later apply to Screen Australia’s Producer Equity Program (PEP); or they could attract interest from distributors, broadcasters or philanthropists. This model involves calculated risks, but Griffin argues that in her model only the very best receive funding through to completion. In the end, she claims, the payoff will far exceed the risk and result in broadening the pool of voices in Australian documentary filmmaking and the types of films produced. Isn’t this what screen agencies are mandated to do?

Filmmaker Anna Broinowski, on the other hand, believes that while Griffin’s new model could provide invaluable opportunities for emerging filmmakers and projects, Screen Australia also needs to do more to support high-end feature documentaries for theatrical and digital platforms.

“Australian feature documentaries consistently punch above their weight at film festivals around the world, and have held their own against Australian dramas, both at the local box office and on new cinema-on-demand and SVOD platforms: from Jen Peedom’s Mountain which grossed $2.13 million, to That Sugar Film (1.71 million) to Taryn Brumfitt’s Embrace ($1.13 million), to Kitty Green’s audacious Netflix hit, Casting Jon Benet. With contemporary filmmakers blurring the fact/fiction boundary for increasingly genreagnostic audiences, the doco/drama divide in film financing is outmoded. Feature documentary makers with cinematically ambitious, international projects need the same upfront creative and financial surety as drama filmmakers working with similar budgets.”

Making a feature documentary can often be a long, hard road. It can take years if it follows an unpredictable narrative, and I wonder how many promising films are started but never finished? How many important opportunities are missed, to share with audiences new and different stories about Australia and Australians?

Online documentary

Opportunities are evolving for original short-form content on new online platforms, but not as fast as filmmakers would like; and the licence fees paid, with few exceptions, are quite small.

‘Black As’.

Screen Australia is crucially involved in many of these initiatives. One has been with The Guardian newspaper, which in 2018 commissioned four local documentaries for YouTube, and another with Vice. In 2014 Screen Australia launched a joint initiative with Google called ‘Skip Ahead’. To be eligible for funding, a ‘content creator’ needed an existing subscriber base of at least 25,000 on YouTube. Science communicator Vanessa Hill was one of the successful applicants. Her channel boasted 450,000 subscribers. Hill then approached Margie Bryant of Serendipity Productions, who succeeded in getting sizeable presales from YouTube for two of Hill’s projects: Mutant Menu, an immersive look into genetic engineering, and Attention Wars. Both were supported by the Screen Australia initiative. “Online works to its best advantage when it’s short-form”, Bryant observes. “A one-hour long form usually needs to be re-written as a short-form series.”

In August 2017 The Australian newspaper premiered a new project: The Queen and Zak Grieve, a six-part documentary investigation by Ivan O’Mahoney and Nial Fulton. The six ten-minute films told the story of Grieve, a young Indigenous man convicted of murder and facing a life in prison under Northern Territory’s mandatory sentencing laws. The series was launched on The Weekend Australian’s website in daily instalments. In the same way that many of the great (audio) podcast shows have unexpected twists and turns, O’Mahoney notes, “We wanted this series to have unexpected moments as well. We wanted to keep the viewers guessing.” Foxtel acquired the rights to a 90-minute version of the project. For them a tie-in with another Newscorp entity was enticing.

ABC Documentaries had been commissioning occasional series for their iview platform, but it was ABC Indigenous that took a risk with Black As, a 24-part sharp and funny adventure series of five-minute episodes, set in Arnhem Land. It confounded the commissioning editor Sally Riley’s expectations, getting over a million views. ABC Arts funds four different series, each made up of six five-minute programs called Artbites, also for iview, and aimed at emerging filmmakers. Artbites is supported by Screen Australia and is in its third year.

SBS, too, has been an innovator in this new space. In August 2018, the network launched a world-first, live documentary for Instagram called She Called Me Red— the personal journey of Yunus, a 27-year-old Rohingya man now living in Melbourne. Through a series of Instagram posts and videos, audiences can follow Yunus as he navigates his new home while supporting family overseas. Followers can view Yunus’ regular updates, including curated text, photos and artwork. User interaction and comments will be integrated into the final documentary.

The Changing Landscape of Australian Documentary’ is available at  The paper will be launched in Melbourne at ACMI as part of AIDC March 5 10.45-11.30am, and Sydney at OzDox March 13, 6.30-8pm at AFTRS.

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