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Documentary – 2003 vs 2018

Liz Stevens' 15 years of expertise forms the basis of this analysis of the past decade and a half in the documentary sector.

Fifteen years.

Fifteen years ago most documentary makers couldn’t tell you what an impact producer was, and smartphones, streaming services, social media campaigns, and the Producer Offset were yet to even exist.

It was also the year Liz Stevens started working at Film Australia, first as a Production Affairs Manager, then as a Business Affairs Manager. When Film Australia (FA) merged with the Australian Film Commission (AFC) and the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) in 2008 to form Screen Australia, Stevens took up the role of Manager of Documentary, and later as Senior Manager of Documentary. 

In 15 years, Stevens has overseen the funding and support of more than 600 titles, which collectively add up to more than 1,000 hours of content. Now, in 2018, as she readies to exit Screen Australia, Stevens reflects on the major changes in documentary over that time – and pinpoints what to expect going forward.

Driven by commentary from Stevens, this three-part series will delve into the Film Australia Annual Report of 2003/04, as well as the Screen Australia’s data from 2017/18, to look at what’s different, what’s remained the same, and what is on the horizon.

<h6>Liz Stevens</h6>
Liz Stevens

Part One will look at changes in financing, particularly in what the public broadcasters are commissioning and the growing significance of the Producer Equity Program (PEP).

In Part Two, the evolving form of documentary will be examined, including the rise of outreach documentaries and the feature documentary, and the impact of factual entertainment.

And Part Three looks at the trends, challenges and opportunities going forward, such as building international relationships and how to represent Australian voices both online and on streaming services.

But first, a quick explainer of how Australian Federal Government support of documentary, and its role, has changed over the period.

Film Australia, one of three predecessor agencies to Screen Australia, was a very unique organisation.

“It was a production house.”

“So producers who got greenlit from Film Australia would hand over their copyright and they'd actually be working for Film Australia, instead of their own production houses,” Stevens says.

As a result, Stevens says the Film Australia archive (now housed at the National Film and Sound Archive) has a total of 3,300 titles that were collected between 1913-2008 with 100% copyright on the vast majority of them.

“There's not many archives around the world that have that… So Film Australia's role in some ways was to keep that archive alive.”

For example, in 2003/04 Film Australia completed six 55-minute documentaries, two series, and one 27-min documentary, as well as two DVDs – Film Australia’s Immigration and Film Australia’s Wilderness. So on one hand, the organisation was building up its archive, while at the same time, compiling new DVD documentaries that drew on existing material in its library.

As the Business Affairs Manager, Stevens was in charge of the contracts. When it came to equity, “some producers might negotiate an equity position and especially if they brought money to the table themselves. But they didn't have the copyright, so they couldn't determine the life of the project.”

Film Australia had a distribution arm, so if sales did happen, they were done through that department.

But Stevens says this structure became increasingly problematic for creatives. As production companies tried to become sustainable, producers wanted their own copyright.

“There was a lot of pushback on that, because producers didn't want to come in and just work for Film Australia. They wanted to have ownership and build their own businesses. And so I think that became a wedge between the production industry and Film Australia,” she says.

“And when the idea came up to merge the three agencies (Film Australia, Film Finance Corporation and Australian Film Commission) there was a group of about 45 filmmakers who signed a petition saying they wanted Film Australia to merge.”

In 2008, that merger happened, and Screen Australia began.

“I felt my job during the merger was to protect the documentary industry,” Stevens says.

“To do that, we were running full steam ahead in order to keep it ‘business as usual’ for the industry while we smashed these three organisations – with completely different remits and culture – together.”

The first thing they did for documentary was a guideline review. After a call for submissions, the new guidelines went out in 2009, and this was an initial attempt to keep stability in the industry.

“We had to consolidate the approach of the AFC, FA and FFC to funding documentary because it was all quite different.”

Two more reviews and guideline changes came through – the last of which are largely reflected in the current guidelines that exist today.

“With each review we had to think: what are the pressures on the industry, what are the trends for the sector, and what it is Screen Australia can offer that's working toward industry goals but also Screen Australia goals,” she says.

Another significant change for documentary, introducing the Producer Equity Program in 2011/12, you can read about in Part 1: Financing.