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Part 1: financing

What's being commissioned for TV and the introduction of PEP.

One thing that hasn’t changed in 15 years is a reliance on the public broadcasters for documentaries, but what and how much the ABC and SBS/NITV commission has shifted.

“Absolutely there's an expectation that the public broadcasters have a responsibility for documentary. And traditionally that's where documentary has played,” Liz Stevens says.

“[But] the broadcasters are very particular about what they'll support that can then trigger producers to come into the Commissioned Program. And I think that's getting quite tough on a few fronts.”

While the number of hours being commissioned are increasing, Stevens says there's been a preference for more series and factual entertainment.

“They also don't really do one-off feature-length docs. Occasionally they do,” she says.

In 17/18 there were only three one-off documentaries out of 19 funded projects in the Commissioned Program. The other 16 were all series, and five were a second or returning season.*

“The marketing and the branding drives, not their decisions, but the need for series, because it's easier to promote a series than it is a one-off,” Stevens says.

“But they might for instance commission four or five individual one-hour documentaries under a banner, so Untold Australia for SBS for instance, or Unravelled, which is the ABC's crime series.”

This can also happen when projects are commissioned to coincide with an awareness week around a particular topic, such as mental health or domestic violence.

Stevens says this change in approach is partially due to the impact of online that’s seen TV audiences for the past five years falling across the board. For example, the top-rating Australian free-to-air (FTA) TV documentary episode in 2017 (ABC’s John Clarke: Thanks for Your Time), was watched by 40,000 less people than the top-rating episode of 2012 (Seven’s Anh Does Vietnam). For TV drama the change is even more marked – the top-rating episode for 2017 was watched by 1.66 million less people than the top-rating episode of 2012

“And so it's very difficult for broadcasters to know how to bring the audience back and that’s because of the changing nature of how we consume content, and the amount of content on offer across all the platforms, 24 hours a day. You don’t need a schedule anymore.”

As for the commercial FTA networks, Stevens says Screen Australia would fund two maybe three projects on average a year for the networks. In 17/18, only one title – Network Ten’s Secret Life of 4 Year Olds – received production funding.

“But their reliance on reality and lifestyle TV and in-house production probably excludes them from documentary funding,” Stevens acknowledges. “And the networks have their own form of documentaries if you think about Border Patrol, Bondi Rescue and Bondi Vet. They're very successful, long-running series and audiences love them.”

Read more about the different genres that have emerged in documentary in Part 2.

Another significant change for Australian documentary-makers came about in 2011/12, with the introduction of the Producer Equity Program (PEP). PEP provides a direct payment to producers of low-budget Australian documentaries, equal to 20% of the approved budget. And producers can access PEP regardless of whether they have Screen Australia funding or not.

“We kept hearing about producers who were taking out bank loans or putting mortgages on their houses to make low-budget documentaries with the Producer Offset.”

“We kept hearing about producers who were taking out bank loans or putting mortgages on their houses to make low-budget documentaries with the Producer Offset,” Stevens says.

This is because the Producer Offset is seen as a component of the production budget.

“Any producer who gets the Offset needs to find a way of funding that component while they’re waiting for that final certificate to take to the tax department,” Stevens says.

Usually this is a loan – from a cash flow provider (who will charge interest) or a bank – that they can get with a provisional certificate in hand.

But PEP, unlike the Offset, isn’t administered by the Producer Offset and Co-production Unit (POCU) at Screen Australia, or handled by the Australian Taxation Office. It comes directly from the Documentary Unit and provides much more flexibility to producers that have projects with budgets less than $500,000.  

“They can apply before they start filming, or at any stage up until six months after they’ve completed their project... But if they get PEP, they can't get Offset.”

In 2011/12, the first financial year PEP was available, Screen Australia provided $2.73 million to 42 projects. In 2017/18 it provided $3.36 million to 54 titles.

This increase can be attributed to opening up the eligibility guidelines for projects that could access PEP in August 2016.

“It’s been a really popular program, particularly for producers who for whatever reason may not be eligible for other Screen Australia support. At least they can guarantee 20% of their budget without the complexities of the Producer Offset,” Stevens says.

Originally, only linear documentary programs of 30 minutes or longer were able to access PEP. But this was revised because it didn’t support short form or online documentaries. Now, documentaries – as defined in Part 2 – can be of any length as long as the budget is a minimum of $125,000 and they can prove a strong pathway to audience (among other guidelines).

“That resulted in an increase in applications. To counter that over time we've had to reduce what we're prepared to give PEP to. For instance if you've come through Screen Australia for an initiative you can't apply for PEP anymore.”

PEP does provide the Documentary Unit with challenges though. On one hand, it’s enabled them to support low-budget documentaries and new voices, but on the other, it is not creatively assessed, nor is it capped.

“It's purely on a business basis as a substitute for the Offset.”

And because it comes out of the Documentary Unit’s budget, as the Producer Equity Program has grown, they need to fit that within the total budget allocated for the financial year.

In 17/18, that was $3.36 million of a total $15.59 million budget, so approximately 22%.

Then there are the projects that fall between the gap – those that have a production budget over $500,000, so can’t access PEP, but also don’t have a QAPEable budget of more than $500,000. “There is a bit of a gap there because you probably need to be sitting at $580,000 production budget before you can sit comfortably at a QAPEable budget of $500,000.”

But overall, PEP has been a significant change for the industry in the past 15 years. Projects that benefitted from PEP in 17/18 include Hotel Coolgardie, PACmen and A Stargazer's Guide to the Cosmos.

“There's a lot of good projects that are funded through PEP and what it enables people to do is to go off and make their own documentary with the knowledge that they can have – if it's under $500,000 – 20% of the budget directly from us.”

* The finalised 2017/18 documentary data will be publicly available in Screen Australia's 2017/18 Annual Report, released in the second half of the year