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Part 2: form

Social impact, feature docs, evolving genres and factual entertainment.

In the past 15 years documentary has continued to evolve to the point where now the industry is seeing the rise of the feature documentary and of social impact documentaries that ask far more from their producers than ever before.

At Film Australia, Liz Stevens remembers producers having a more hands-off role after the project was complete.

“With Film Australia the producers would make films for broadcast and then, for the most part, step away. Film Australia would give it to a sales agent and get on with the next project,” she says.

“But now you're seeing producers who want to carry their projects as far as they possibly can themselves. They might have a sales agent on board or a distributor but they are really driving that."

While there will be examples in the past of producers taking their documentary out on the road to screenings, “the difference here is the amount of people doing it. And the inroads to audiences that the internet has allowed is remarkable.”

Stevens says it’s most evident in social impact documentaries and their subsequent campaigns.

And these documentaries are finding their audiences: through Q&A screenings, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing local screenings, social media, and word-of-mouth.

On television, two series that aired in 2016/17 – ABC’s War on Waste and SBS’s Filthy Rich and Homeless – ignited a national conversation on their respective issues. Episode one of War on Waste alone generated 15,400 interactions on social media during its broadcast week[1] and in the months after airing, supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths announced they would phase out single-use plastic bags. Both titles were funded for series 2 in 17/18 through the Commissioned Program.*

In feature film, three of the top five-earning, non-IMAX Australian documentaries of all time at the local box office have an element of outreach – That Sugar Film, Sherpa and Embrace. And all three are Screen Australia-supported films that released in cinemas during or after 2015. With Embrace, body image activist Taryn Brumfitt began a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign (raising $331,000 in 54 days) that not only raised awareness about the feature, but supplemented their budget. It had a conventional theatrical release as well as a cinema on demand approach that resulted in $1.18 million at the local box office.

"Now you're seeing producers who want to carry their projects as far as they possibly can themselves."

“We see more applications for those kind of documentaries, where the distribution is really driven by the filmmakers themselves, surrounded by people who want to use the film for change,” Stevens says.

It’s expanded the requirements placed on filmmakers, who “have quite an extraordinary range in their skill set anyway, but I think this has added to it.”

“And it's seen the rise of the impact producer whose entire job is committed to getting that film out in as many possible ways they can.”

Stevens acknowledges some of this is just zeitgeist and what’s happening in the rest of the world, and some of it is driven by the emergence of Good Pitch² Australia in 2014, which connects filmmakers with NGOs, philanthropists and media on social issues they’re exploring in their work (That Sugar Film was in the inaugural round).

“From my point of view a lot of that has also been driven by need – the need of those filmmakers to tell that story. Combine that with the shrinking slots on television, the TV slots for documentary targeted towards more series and factual entertainment, and probably more producers in the market as well,” she says.

“They're not going to stop telling these stories and they need avenues and outlets for them. So the rise of the niche audience has in some ways echoed the whole rise of digital media, because you don't need a 35mm film to project your film in a theatre anymore.”

" … distribution is really driven by the filmmakers themselves."

The other trend the Australian industry is seeing, is the rise of the feature doc.

In 17/18, there were 49 feature documentaries that received development or production funding out of 130 successful applicants (excluding PEP recipients).

“I think generally you're seeing a resurgence of feature docs across the world and they're doing well at the box office. And I think that is being echoed here in Australia,” she says.

In 2017, a total of 19 Australian documentaries were released in cinemas – this was the easily highest number since 1988, when 22 documentaries released, and the data first began to be captured.

Mountain by director Jennifer Peedom – and made in collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) – was one of those 19, and earned $2.03 million to become the all-time highest-grossing non-IMAX Australian documentary at the local box office. The film had a unique release strategy. It made its world premiere at the 2017 Sydney Film Festival with a screening at the Sydney Opera House with live accompaniment from the ACO. A theatrical release followed, as well as a Mountain tour with the ACO.

Virtual Reality (VR) is something else that hadn’t entered the mainstream in 03/04. Compare this to the 17/18 data, where a total of eight VR projects were funded (five were supported through development, and three through production funding).

As for genre, Stevens says there are trends, but they’re constantly in flux.

“The genres themselves have shrunk. Arts documentaries are an endangered species. And the drama part of docudramas has really evolved from being less literal and more impressionistic. For example Australia on Trial was a fantastic series and really illuminating, but it was wall-to-wall drama.

“Then of course you've got Kitty Green's Casting JonBenet, which really takes it to another level on how to get to the truth.

“And I think that's the thing documentary filmmakers want is to get to the truth. They’re thinking about how to do that. What form do you use? What skills can you employ? What effects can you use that takes the audience on a journey to arrive at a truth?”

As for historical documentaries, Stevens says there aren’t as many being made now as there was previously. “They come and go,” she says, and as with many of these genres, the numbers will likely increase again in the future.

There’s actually a connecting theme between two historical series in 03/04 and 17/18 data. In 03/04, one of the highlights of the year for Film Australia was a Nine Network series called Colour of War – The Anzacs. (“That was fairly unusual because it was mostly ABC and SBS commissioning series,” Stevens notes.)

Narrated by Russell Crowe, the three-part series was driven by a nationwide call-out for colour films and home movies of any war, which was pieced together with diary and letter extracts to build a never-before-seen colour picture of the ANZACs, from the build-up to WWII to the end of the Vietnam War.

Interestingly, in 17/18 the documentary Australia in Colour was funded through the Documentary Commissioned Program. This documentary series will look at pivotal moments in Australian history from 1900-1970 and instead of sourcing colour footage – as was with Colour of War – The Anzacs – it’s instead implementing cutting-edge technology to colourise black and white archival footage.

When looking at what's changed in documentary over the past 15 years, one of the biggest disruptors was still emerging in 2003/04: reality TV.

At that time, reality TV was still in its infancy in Australia.

Some of the early Australian iterations to hit local screens included Sylvania Waters in 1992, Big Brother in 2001, Australian Survivor in 2002, and the 2003 debut series of Australian Idol and The Block.

“The form of documentary has never been static. It’s always changing and evolving,” Stevens acknowledges.

“And so some of those spinoffs to that evolution has been reality TV.”

Reality TV, which is a significant staple of many Australian households, is regarded as a spin-off to documentary, as are the factual or light entertainment genres. None of these are supported by Screen Australia, which details on its guidelines that it “does not invest in programs such as reality or magazine television, light entertainment, panel or travel shows, infotainment, current affairs, cooking, ‘how to’, sports, corporate, training, games, extensions to film or TV, or community access programs or projects whose primary market is the education sector.”

Additionally, Screen Australia defines documentary by the guidelines set out by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

These parameters were put in place to enable investment managers and development executives, or even those working in Producer Offset, with language to help them ascertain if a project fits into the definition of documentary Screen Australia supports.

Some documentaries have borrowed elements of reality TV for their programs, but Stevens says there is a point of difference in their purpose.

“There are aspects of reality TV in Filthy Rich and Homeless or First Contact, but the twist to those is that there is a socially-driven reason for it to be presented like that, so those heavy-duty topics can not just be accessible, but highly watchable.”

[1] Nielsen Social Content Ratings

* 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