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Part 3: going forward

The challenge of online, building international partnerships, and streaming service commissions and acquisitions.

With audiences fragmenting, broadcasters searching for specific titles, and the emergence of streaming services, there are a number of challenges – and opportunities – facing the documentary sector in Australia.

Stevens says online in all its forms – whether that be Video On Demand (VOD), streaming services, or YouTube – present a major challenge around how filmmakers can build successful business models and monetise online content.

“How to crack the online world so that Australian documentary has a voice? That's the challenge for Australia because we participate in the English speaking world, but so does North America and the UK, so we're always going to be on the back foot,” she says.

To encourage and support online storytellers, Screen Australia made a point to prioritise online documentary content in the remaining rounds of the Producer Program in 17/18.

The other major challenge, and opportunity, online presents is through streaming services.

Stevens says while Netflix has acquired projects, it has yet to commission a documentary that Screen Australia has funded.

Netflix bought the exclusive worldwide rights to Casting JonBenet, which received development and production support from Screen Australia, and announced the acquisition ahead of its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2017.

Meanwhile Barbecue’s acquisition was announced in July 2017, and previously acquired titles include Tyke Elephant Outlaw, Mother with a Gun and Aim High in Creation. Their most recent acquisition was Have You Seen the Listers?

“But we’re yet to see an actual Netflix commission,” Stevens says. “And we haven't seen any deals with Amazon Prime yet, or Stan. Although there are a number of Australian production companies that are dealing with these platforms.”

However a newer and documentary-only streaming service called CuriousityStream has already directly commissioned several Australian titles – The Kingdom: How Fungi Made our World, Living Universe and Sonya Pemberton’s Vitamania (which is also airing on SBS).

“It’s run out of America and founded by John Hendricks who was one of the originators of the Discovery Channel. These are three really unique projects that have forged creative distribution opportunities,” Stevens says. (It's not the only documentary-exclusive streaming platform in Australia, with DocPlay providing a catalogue of local and international content – although it doesn't commission).

Looking outside of just commissions from streaming services and more broadly at global opportunities, Australian documentary makers have had success in recent years with formats such as the International Emmy-winning Go Back to Where You Came From by production house CJZ and Eight Weeks to Happiness from Heiress Films selling internationally.

"Each year there's a consistent number of Australian productions nominated and winning signficant international awards," Stevens says. Some recent highlights include Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa being nominated for a BAFTA in 2016, the team from CJZ winning an International Emmy in 2013 for Go Back to Where You Came From, and Sonya Pemberton from Genepool ProductionsImmortal winning an Emmy Award in 2012.

International partnerships are vitally important for documentary-makers, says Stevens.

“From my position here at Screen Australia I'm seeing more treaty-based Official Co-productions coming through than I ever have before."

In the past three financial years, two documentaries per year have taken advantage of the Official Co-production program. This list has included Spookers (Australia/New Zealand) in 15/16 and The Kingdom: How Fungi Made our World (Australia/Canada) in 16/17, and 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War Was Won (Australia/Canada) in 17/18. 

“Bringing in international finance is always hard for producers. They've really got to get out there and talk to people at markets and form those relationships that may take years to pay off. But when they pay off, it benefits everyone.”

And while experienced producers may already have a network of contacts overseas, Stevens says it’s particularly difficult for new and emerging voices to build those international relationships.

“With the emerging producers we've been trying to open up pathways for them to find those international relationships in new and online platforms,” Stevens says.

“That’s done generally through initiatives.”

In 16/17, Screen Australia provided $312,500 on six different initiatives with companies including VICE Australia, the Guardian, ABC, ABC Arts and With Her in Mind Network (www.whimn.com.au).*

Several of the initiatives were also designed to also try and combat another issue facing the documentary sector – the lack of diverse voices.

Recent data from Screen Australia showed documentary fares far better than feature film in terms of the representation of women behind the camera, with producers in particular nearly at parity (47%), but Stevens acknowledges it’s still an issue.

The initiative with News Ltd’s whimn, titled Doco180, went into its second round in 17/18 and funded projects that make the viewer ‘do a 180’ in 180 seconds on a topic relevant to Australian women.

Meanwhile Love Bites – an initiative between Screen Australian and the ABC – funded 10 x 5-minute documentary short film from filmmakers in the LGBTQI community to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

If anything, these recent steps toward change only foster Stevens’ sense of excitement about what the future holds.  

“Screen Australia has supported some impressive documentaries over the last 10 years, and it’s been an honour to have played some small part in their journey,” she says.

“The one thing I know for sure is that documentary storytelling is a vital part of Australian culture and the agency will continue to support documentary into the future.”

* 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​