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Part 2: COVID-19 Budget Support Fund

Screen Australia’s Head of Content Sally Caplan talks through a new fund to help get the Australian industry running.

Why was the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund launched?

We felt that it was important to get the industry back to work. Thus far we'd been dealing with our own funded projects, because obviously we have the detail and understanding of those projects. But we felt it should be extended to projects that don’t have Screen Australia support because our main objective is to get the sector back to work regardless of whether or not we have provided funding. It is fairer to look at the wider industry and particularly at projects that might have a big impact in terms of the scale and number of people they could get back to work.

Where has the money for the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund come from?

It’s come from within Screen Australia’s budget and it’s a juggle. We anticipated that while many of the funds are being oversubscribed – as mentioned, particularly Story Development, which at one stage was getting almost triple the number of normal applications – there are other areas where we are expecting less applications. We anticipate by the end of the calendar year the fund will be exhausted. But we are closely monitoring how long we can sustain this without prejudicing new applications for production investment.

What are some of the criteria?

We've had to limit it to certain criteria because this fund has not come out of additional funding, and we don’t have the resources to do full creative assessments.

So firstly we’re asking that productions be greenlit, and intending to begin production within six months of application – because the purpose of the fund is to get the sector back to work relatively quickly.

Secondly, it has to be something that would already be eligible for funding through one of our existing programs. So we can't suddenly start supporting, say, reality TV, even though they have the scale we would be after. And we can’t support a project that may have come in for an initiative we had in place two years ago. However if it’s a documentary, feature, online project or TV drama that would qualify for a current funding program, we could potentially support that.

Thirdly, the project can’t currently be in physical production because if that’s the case it's clearly managed to go on without support, although we would make some exceptions for documentaries and for animation because the production period is more protracted by nature, so they might still be in production, even if going slower than normal. Also if a production had to shut down because of COVID and they need the money to resume, we’d look at that.

What are some of the things being assessed in an application?

We can't do a creative assessment, as we don’t have the resources internally. However there are still elements that are being assessed. You have to submit a synopsis, so we can make a very high-level assessment of  the content and then assuming there's no red flags there, the criteria is around: how strong your COVID-19 Safety and Risk Assessment Plan is; the accuracy of your COVID-19 budget; the likelihood the project can realistically be in physical production within six months of the application; the impact of the project going to production on employment; the scale, again subject to potential exceptions for documentary and online; and whether it contributes to our policy of supporting gender equity and diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera.

Does the fund cover post-production?

No, again because of lack of funds, it covers “COVID Costs” up to end of principle photography. What's critically important right now is getting the project shot, because if you haven't got the money to cover your safety compliance costs and you have to shut down, you may not get those actors back, you may not get those crews back. Once filming is complete, yes there could still be COVID-related costs in post-production, but you're not going to potentially have your project abandoned or in danger of abandonment. Also, our experience is that it’s easier for people to work remotely and safely during post.

In terms of the scale of the projects, do they need to have hit a certain budget threshold to be eligible?

The guidelines mention prioritising projects of scale. This is because we ideally want the funding to result in a significant number of cast, crew, screen sector workers and suppliers benefiting in the near term. But while these projects are a priority, we don't wish to exclude documentary or online projects which historically operate on a much smaller scale, so we don't specify a figure or budget threshold you need to hit. If you can identify that your online project or documentary will be getting a reasonable number of people back to work, it will be considered.

Sally Caplan Sally Caplan
I keep stressing to everybody, this is not a $50 million fund – that is the TIF. So it's not because we don't admire things that are not of scale, but the priority has to be for projects that will get 100s of people back to work, rather than two or three people.

Any common mistakes in applications so far?

Generally the Safety and Risk Assessment Plans we've been getting have been very good, but I want to stress it is not one size fits all. Every production is different and therefore just cutting and pasting the safety protocols from the website, or presenting a generic plan, is not the right thing to do. Not only because every project is different, but also because safety is paramount. We want to know you've really thought it through. What is different about this from another project? How is the plan you have, bespoke to this project? That said, most of the safety plans have been very good.

Do people also need to keep in mind what their state or territory is asking?

Yes, the protocols on our website are general and the states and territories all have their own requirements that will need to go into your safety plan. They each have protocols specific to that state or territory, which might be about quarantine or people coming in or going out, and they're constantly changing as the impact of COVID-19 changes too. So don’t just rely on those one set of protocols.

What happens if you underspend the COVID-19 costs you ask for?

Firstly, the COVID-19 costs that you ask for must be reasonable. Things are going to change, but in terms of reporting there has to be separate “contingency” for COVID-19 costs. This is all stated in the guidelines. But let’s say Screen Australia has looked over the application, seen the COVID-19 Safety Plan, agrees with the budget and approves a cost of $200,000. If something changes, and you only spend $150,000, you will need to return the remaining $50,000 within 30 days of the Final Cost Report. So you will need to have a separate cost report category against the COVID-19 contingency. And the reason we're doing that, is a) it's a simple process and b) it was never meant to be a bonus, and with limited funds that $50,000 could help us support another project.

Can you claim the 1% fee for the Temporary Interruption Fund (TIF) through the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund?

No, this is not something producers or productions can claim through the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund.

Again, I’m stressing that we don't have extra funding for COVID-19 and have limited resources. The idea is that the 1%, which the government suggested, will help us cover the additional hard costs to administer TIF and the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund.

Funding under $500,000 from Screen Australia is considered a grant. If you don’t already have Screen Australia production funding, how are any “COVID costs” treated? If you already have production funding from Screen Australia, and the additional COVID-19 Budget Support takes this above the threshold, will it become equity?

If you're not a Screen Australia-funded project then the money we give you through the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund (which is capped at $300,000) will be treated as a grant.

If you already have Screen Australia funding, then we will add this additional funding to the total and at our discretion, we may change it to equity if it is substantially more than $500,000. For example, if we recently funded a project for $450,000 and they are going to get an additional $300,000 in COVID-19 costs from us, we will probably say that’s now equity, because that’s a three quarter of a million dollars in total from us. But if it's a project we funded at, say, $400,000 and the COVID-19 costs only take it to $520,000, we're probably not going to unpick things and make it equity.

Any further advice?

Please read the guidelines before you call or e-mail!  The answer you’re after might already be in there and our staff are struggling with a hugely increased volume of calls and emails, about things which should be clear from the guidelines. If not, then please do feel free to call or email.