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Podcast – Screen Australia: Advice before you apply

Representatives from the various departments at Screen Australia share their top tips for anyone putting together an application.

Splice of Lee Naimo, Bernadine Lim and Sally Caplan's headshots

Lee Naimo, Bernadine Lim, Sally Caplan

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

Thinking of applying to Screen Australia?

Before you set about building your application, hear from a number of people from across the agency who give their top pieces of advice. These include Head of Content Sally Caplan, Senior Manager of Program Operations Susie Cortez, and the Indigenous Department’s Laurrie Brannigan-Onato, who works across both development and production investment. Joining them are three previous guests of the podcast – Head of Documentary Bernadine Lim (Documentary Funding podcast), Head of Development Nerida Moore (Screen Story Development Guidelines podcast), and Senior Online Investment Manager Lee Naimo (Everything you need to know about Online Funding podcast).

Each share their insights and thoughts on the application process and things to keep in mind, whether that’s practicing your pitch to camera skills, or getting in touch with an investment manager before you apply for production investment funding.

While each provide advice that can be applied no matter what program you’re submitting to, for specific timecodes see below:

  • Senior Manager of Program Operations Susie Cortez: 1 minute 39 seconds
  • Head of Content Sally Caplan: 5 minutes 46 seconds
  • Head of Development Nerida Moore: 10 minutes 33 seconds
  • Indigenous Department Production and Investment Manager Laurrie Brannigan-Onato: 14 minutes 9 seconds
  • Senior Online Investment Manager Lee Naimo: 18 minutes 13 seconds
  • Head of Documentary Bernadine Lim: 20 minutes 37 seconds

You can find more information about each fund and their guidelines on the following funding and support pages on the Screen Australia website:

  • Funding and support homepage here
  • Development funding here
  • Indigenous funding here
  • Documentary funding here
  • Feature film funding here
  • TV and online funding here

For feedback about this episode, please email [email protected]

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast, I’m Caris Bizzaca a journalist with Screen Australia’s online publication, Screen News. 

So we’ve got something a bit different today on the podcast. This episode is all about tips for creating and submitting an application to Screen Australia. 

Throughout the episode we’ll be joined by a number of people from the agency who give their top pieces of advice, including from Head of Content Sally Caplan, Senior Manager of Program Operations Susie Cortez, and the Indigenous Department’s Laurrie Brannigan-Onato, who works across both development and production investment. Joining them are three previous guests of the podcast – that is Head of Documentary Bernadine Lim, Head of Development Nerida Moore, and Senior Online Investment Manager Lee Naimo (so feel free to go back and check out their individual episodes as well).

We’ll jump into all of that in just a moment, but before we do remember you can subscribe to this podcast through Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also leave us a rating or review, or send any feedback to [email protected] We’ve also got our fortnightly e-News, which you can subscribe to for all the latest funding announcements, videos, articles and more. 

So starting off, let’s say you’re applying to Screen Australia. When you hit that submit button, the first people who will be looking at your application are in the Program Operations team, who you might also hear referred as the PROPS team. So PROPS process all the applications for every funding program at Screen Australia, which is well over 2,000 a year. Here’s Susie Cortez, the Senior Manager of Program Operations (or PROPS) to explain:

[00:01:46] Caris Bizzaca What happens then when someone applies to Screen Australia, they apply through a program called SmartyGrants, is that right? 

[00:01:53] Susie Cortez Absolutely. SmartyGrants is the online portal that Screen Australia uses for all funding programs. You'll find it on our website. Once you hit that submit button and you've uploaded all your documents, a member of the Program Operations team will go through your application, make sure that you or your team or your project meet all the eligibility requirements and that, as I've said, you've uploaded all your documents in the correct order and there's no missing materials. 

[00:02:18] Caris Bizzaca OK, great. And so PROPS is also the place, though, that if someone has a question about their application or about a funding round and they call that 1800 [213 099] number, that's where it goes to. Is that right? 

[00:02:30] Susie Cortez Absolutely. The 1800 [213 099] number does go to props and we can answer questions about particular funding programs, the eligibility requirements, if you have any issues with the application form. We can't help you creatively or give you any tips on how to apply or make your application stronger. But yes, we are here to help you. Also, the inboxes that you'll find on any of the funding landing pages like [email protected] or [email protected] or [email protected], they all come to Program Operations as well, and we will answer your enquiries via email.

[00:03:13] Caris Bizzaca And so you would see a wealth of applications come in and I'm sure there are some common mistakes that people make or things like that. If you were giving anyone advice on how to apply to Screen Australia, what would be some key things to keep in mind? 

[00:03:30] Susie Cortez Well, the first thing is read the guidelines. Yes, they might seem long, but they're very clear. They have everything you need to know within them. If there is a program where we feel you might need a little more guidance, we do have FAQs or support materials attached to those funding programs. When you do go through your application form, read what is needed. If a pitch video needs to be made downloadable, make sure it's downloadable. If something needs to be three pages, don't make it 10. So the application forms have help text there for you, to help you out. When we do go through your application and we are logging it, if we find missing materials or we find any issues, we will get back in contact with you by email and you'll then have 48 hours to rectify that issue. 

[00:04:20] Caris Bizzaca But you are kind of delaying the process as well if you want to have an answer faster. 

[00:04:25] Susie Cortez Absolutely. I mean, we say to everyone, please just submit when you're ready, especially for the open round programs. There's no deadline. So submit when you have all your material in place and ready to go. That gives you the best chance of just getting through the system faster. Some of the programs that you're applying for specifically mention that you need to get in touch with an investment manager before applying. Or they might say, please check with PROPS for eligibility before applying. I suggest you do so because it might save you a lot of time down the track if you apply anyway and then we find out that you, in fact, were not eligible, then that's just a big headache for you. 

[00:05:01] Caris Bizzaca Any other things to keep in mind? 

[00:05:03] Susie Cortez Just, you know, the funding programs at Screen Australia are highly competitive. We get a lot more applications than we can fund or approve. So just put your best foot forward. Once again, read through the guidelines, read through the submission materials. Make sure your project meets the aims of the fund you're applying for and take the time to really have a look at the website. Everything you need to know is there. 

[00:05:27] Caris Bizzaca There's a lot of different departments and units at Screen Australia, but the biggest one is called the Content Department. It includes the development, documentary and production investment teams, including online funding. However, it's worth noting it doesn't include the Indigenous Department, which functions independently. The Head of Content is Sally Caplan, who explains her key pieces of advice for anyone putting together an application. 

[00:05:52] Sally Caplan Fairly basically, I'd say, please, please, please read the guidelines, because there's a lot of help and clues in there so you can make the best possible application. So that's a really fun thing to do of an evening. Thoroughly recommend it. And then look at the assessment criteria and say, 'but what are they looking for?' So all the different programs have different assessment criteria. There are similarities and common themes amongst that. But just be aware what we're looking for so that when you're making your application, it speaks to those. And if it doesn't, that might be a concern. And you might think, ah, perhaps I'm not on the right track here. 

[00:06:29] Caris Bizzaca Mm hmm. You've got some more work to do. 

[00:06:31] Sally Caplan Yes, indeed. 

[00:06:32] Caris Bizzaca Any others that come to mind? 

[00:06:34] Sally Caplan We're looking for something that - we're not talking about development here at this stage - but even with development, we're looking for something that knows what its audience is, who the audience is, and that the project that's submitted, it clearly knows where they are, what they're watching and where. We do get a number of applications when we ask the audience question and they say, 'oh, it's four quadrant', and that's highly unlikely unless you're making the next James Bond or Pixar movie. So it's really important that when you're preparing your project, you know who the audience is, where they are, and it's very clearly targeted to them. 

[00:07:10] Caris Bizzaca And in that respect, is it also like pathway to audience? 

[00:07:13] Sally Caplan Yes. So where are they? How will I get there? And how will you get noticed? What can you do around that to make sure that you stand a decent chance? Because it may be a wonderful project, but if you're not getting through, no one's going to see it to know that. So you have to think about that a lot. 

[00:07:31] Caris Bizzaca Any other tips? 

[00:07:33] Sally Caplan We are really looking for new voices and bold, distinctive stories that stand out that have a clear hook. Obviously, we have a big push for gender equity and for culture and diversity. So that's a big thing for us. We think it's very important and so do a lot of Australians, they want to see themselves on the screen. And it's not just being PC. It actually makes commercial sense. People like to watch things where they can see people like themselves. And it doesn't have to be about their background. 

[00:08:04] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, great. Any final thoughts? 

[00:08:08] Sally Caplan Another thing is always sound enthusiastic. We forgive people for being nervous, and that doesn't necessarily prejudice you at all, because a lot of the time it's like 'this is my big chance'. But do sound excited. I know when you've pitched something - particularly if you go to a market or somewhere - and you've pitched your project 20 times that day, you can get to the end of the day and be like, 'oh, well, it's like this......'. But just get that adrenaline going, because if you don't sound excited, it's unlikely that whoever you're pitching to will feel excited by your project. And my other advice to you would be that more and more agencies are looking for video pitches and most people hate them, but they're really important because in the real world, that's what you have to do. Once you get out there, you have to pitch to, whether it's commissioners or financiers or distributors. You have to pitch to them. And unlike our four-minute video pitch that we use in development, if you stuff it up in real life, you can't go back and say, can we just start all over again, please? So it's it's a really useful skill. And I know some people love it, but a lot of people get really nervous and just don't know quite how to put it across and make it sound exciting and interesting. 

[00:09:16] Caris Bizzaca So kind of practice on that. 

[00:09:18] Sally Caplan Practice in the mirror. And it's actually a very good test because I find that things are hard to pitch quite succinctly. Usually because there's something not quite right about it. So a good test is like when I pitch it, whether it's four minutes, two minutes, or prepare for the big meetings where you might get 20 minutes, half an hour or a meeting with us would generally be an hour or so. Prepare yourself. What's going to excite them? What are they looking for? What's different? What's interesting? Do the characters have proper journeys and arcs. And, you know, is the story clear? 

[00:09:50] Caris Bizzaca That pitch to camera that Sally refers to is one of the materials that you need to supply when applying for development funding. Now, development refers to anything that occurs before production, and there are two program strands for story development: the generate fund and the premium fund. The generate fund is for lower budget projects with an emphasis on new and emerging talent or experienced talent wanting to take creative risks. While the premium fund is for higher budget projects of ambition and scale from successful screen content makers. Development also assess applications for enterprise funding and for international finance funding, which is for the creation of things like marketing and pitching materials. Here, the Head of Development Nerida Moore, explains how applicants should think about the ways their project is assessed. 

[00:10:40] Nerida Moore So I would really urge everybody to think strategically about the elements of their project. You know, is the story distinctive and is it going to cut through? Do the team have the craft knowledge to be able to move a project or a concept? And if they don't, they should definitely think about bringing on people who know more or different things then them. They should also consider who their audience is, and then the budget level. So budget level, you know, is it commensurate with the audience? So if you're making a 10 million dollar project but your audience is only going to be 10,000 people, then that doesn't make a lot of sense, and you're going to have to reconsider. Within all of that, we are looking at the talent and obviously the experience of the teams and what they want to do. We really do ask why you, why this story, why now? And we're asking who is it around you that can elevate your voice, who can navigate financing, who can help you to get the best development process in place possible to be able to achieve what you want to do in terms of your creative vision? 

[00:11:50] Caris Bizzaca Great. Can we break down the I think you said why you, why now? Can we break that down a little bit further? 

[00:11:59] Sure, absolutely. When we're saying, 'why you? Why this? Why now?' It applies to quite a few things. We're looking at 'why you?' Like what is it that special about you being attached to this story? Why is it imperative that you are telling this story in the way that you want to do that? If you peeled yourself away from the story, why is it not as special? So what is it that you bring to it in terms of your authentic storytelling voice? And we're finding that that's particularly with a lot of the streamers overseas, that that's what they're looking for. They're looking for that particular authentic, distinctive voice of the storyteller behind the story. 'Why this?' Why are you so passionate to tell this particular story? And what is it in your experience that enables you to do so, again, authentically? And this might be, you know, a broad range of considerations, but something we're seeing more and more is that we find people wanting to tell the stories from other cultures that they are not necessarily experienced in. And so, again, we would ask them, why you and why this story? And indeed, we are encouraging people to really think about is this your story to tell in the first instance. And 'why now?' What are the big universal themes and meaning and questions that you're asking about the world within your story? And why is it relevant and why is that going to resonate with audiences now? 

[00:13:28] Caris Bizzaca Continuing on narrative's point and authenticity is Laurrie Brannigan-Onato, who is a development and investment manager in Screen Australia's Indigenous Department. Laurrie speaks to her advice for both Indigenous and then non-Indigenous practitioners and also talks to the significance of initiatives. Because applications to Screen Australia aren't just for program streams like story development and production investment. Teams such as online, development, documentary and the Indigenous Department all run targeted initiatives, things like the Skip Ahead initiative, the online documentary initiative with The Guardian and for the Indigenous Department, ones like the No Ordinary Black Short Films initiative. Laurie speaks to their significance and the broader advice here: 

[00:14:13] Laurrie Brannigan-Onato So firstly, I would say to Indigenous practitioners, absolutely know the worth of your cultural knowledge. We have the longest running culture on the planet and that comes with so much story instincts and so much story knowledge. I think in a lot of cases people will want to give over their cultural knowledge and their story ideas for the benefit of someone else's production. And I think it's really important for people coming with cultural knowledge and experience to really value that, because it's just as important, sometimes more important, than coming with the experience in the screen industry. And I think it really needs to be valued. And for Indigenous practitioners, I also think it's important to trust your instincts and to also lean on the many amazing people in the industry that have come before us. There's so many great mentors and amazing story people in the Indigenous sector who absolutely carved out a space for Indigenous practitioners to come through now. So I think it's an amazing time for the community to work together to get these stories out. And what I would say for non-Indigenous practitioners wanting to work with Indigenous people is collaborate as early as possible. And I would encourage collaboration over consultation where necessary and where possible and to always be led by Indigenous people. Lastly, always remember to put provisions in to pay Indigenous people for their time, labour and knowledge. I think it's really important to put Indigenous cultural knowledge as well as other cultural knowledge on the same level as experience in the screen sector, because it's knowledge that can't be learnt. It's lived experience. 

[00:16:13] Caris Bizzaca And any further pieces of advice? 

[00:16:17] Laurrie Brannigan-Onato Something that is also really important for Indigenous practitioners to know is that they are more than welcome to apply through the Indigenous door, but they are also more than welcome to apply through the Content door. More to this, both departments often run initiatives. In the Indigenous department we're really passionate about initiatives and what they can offer to emerging screen practitioners, and it's a really great way for you to stamp your style, to get experience and for us to get to know you. The Indigenous department has been running for over 26 years now and we have a long running history of great success in our in our initiatives. In particular, our short film initiatives have been super important for building the careers of some amazing Indigenous screen practitioners we have now. We run our short film initiative every year and a half aroundabout, but we also run a number of other initiatives and some of the careers that have been borne from these initiatives, the likes of the Warwick Thorntons, the Rachel Perkins, the Erica Glynns. They have created amazing career development pipelines. So I'd recommend being signed up to our news, if you're an Indigenous practitioner, please be in touch, ensure that we have your contact details and that you're on our mailing list. There are often initiatives and opportunities that come up through us and we want to hear from you. 

[00:17:55] Caris Bizzaca And now to a few other areas of funding that exist at Screen Australia, for people wanting to apply through the online or documentary streams, which have funding available for both development and production. While the advice here is sometimes specific to each there are also broader takeaways generally for any creative. Firstly here's Senior Online Investment Manager Lee Naimo talking through some very practical tips to keep in mind. 

[00:18:20] Lee Naimo Really simple one straight up, make sure your budget and your finance plan, the figures at the bottom of both of those documents match up 100 percent because you'd be amazed at how often they don't match. And that can really slow your application down. That means we have to go back to you and get you to re-submit. And it should just be something really straightforward to check off before you hit submit. 

[00:18:40] Caris Bizzaca Great, any others that come to mind? 

[00:18:43] Lee Naimo Absolutely, I would say it's worth thinking about how your project is relevant to the fund that you're applying for. For example, if you're applying for online production funding, how is this an online project? How does that differ from something that might be a TV series or a feature film or something suited to another medium? And even drilling down to that, how is this suitable to the release platform you're proposing? Is this something that would work on YouTube? It is something that would be better suited to a Facebook or an Instagram or some other platform release. And how does the creative of your project speak to that in your application? 

[00:19:13] Caris Bizzaca Fantastic. Any other top tips for online applicants to keep in mind? 

[00:19:18] Lee Naimo My next tip would be, while we don't require you to submit all of the scripts for your project when you apply for online production funding, we recommend you give us as many as you can because one of our most important assessment criteria is the creative strength of your project and the better idea that we can see of those creative elements, the more competitive your application is likely to be. It's also worth keeping in mind, try not to submit first draft scripts where possible. See if you can scrutinise and challenge those scripts, bring them to us in the second or third or onwards from that draft format or even production ready scripts is ideal so that we can see that this idea has been challenged. It's been picked apart and put back together again, and it's in the best form that it can be to make your application as competitive as possible. And finally, we covered this in a podcast that my colleague Alyce Adams and I recorded a little while ago 'Everything you need to know about online production funding', but it's worth talking to us before you submit an online production application. We don't need to chat about your development application, but we'd really like to know when you're coming in and your scripts and your project's production ready. Happy to have a chat about the amount you're asking for, the timing, making sure that your application is as competitive as possible. You can email us [email protected] 

[00:20:29] Caris Bizzaca As Lee said, and which Susie also said earlier, reach out to an investment manager before you put in an application for production investment. Here the Head of Documentary Bernadine Lim talks through the reasons why as well as her excellent pieces of advice, which can be applied to both documentary and drama applications. 

[00:20:47] Bernadine Lim No matter how experienced you are, call an investment manager before you submit. And the reason for that is that we're in a fast-moving industry and every round and what's happening and what Screen Australia has available and the diversity of slate and what we've commissioned in the last little while really changes. So having a chat to an investor manager gives you a very immediate lay of the land, which can help your application be more competitive in that particular round. 

[00:21:16] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, definitely. And is there anything documentary specific in terms of tips for applicants? 

[00:21:23] Bernadine Lim One of the best things that applicants can do is actually learn from trailers of documentaries that you love versus the full documentary. So try and find a documentary out there that has sympatico with what your vision is and what you're trying to do and really study how the distributor or the promoter tackled it. Because the trailer is really a short version of the final cut designed to get people to see the film. And I think people really struggle in an application sometimes to put the highlights in and really find what shines the best light on your project because you can't put everything in. And that's a mistake that a lot of people make is they try and put everything in. So study what's out there. Pull yourself out of your project to make your own project and application stronger.

[00:22:13] Caris Bizzaca Great. Any others that come to mind? 

[00:22:16] Bernadine Lim I think there's two other tests that you can do. We often get applications which try to be everything and try to jam everything in. So to get some guidance, especially speaking to the creative on the vision of your project, is make sure you do two tests. One of them is the pub test. So an often used phrase. But talk to people who are in the industry, or friends or family or foe, whoever it is, and make sure that you test and be very observant about where people lean in and where their eyes glaze over. And that can really help you develop your project to really stand out, because it comes back to that, sort of 500-600 applications that we get in every year. You sort of want to be standing out. There's so much information to be gained about how someone like Screen Australia might read your application from really road testing your idea with as many people as you can. And the other one is actually the simple Google test. We get a lot of applications that don't explain or talk to the research they may have done in that subject matter and making sure that you're not replicating something already in the marketplace. Ensure that your take, even if the content or the theme is something that has been done before, being clear in the application why it's fresh and why it stands out. And you also really want to talk in your application to why this is your story to tell. What is it that it is about you, about your team, about your approach that really makes the project stand out? 

[00:23:52] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, great. Anything else? Any final thoughts? 

[00:23:56] Bernadine Lim One other bit of advice I would have for people coming in to Screen Australia for funding is that we see a large volume of applications and on the whole, we fund around 20 per cent of what comes into the Screen Australia Documentary Unit. And so I think it's when you're writing your application, remember that you are up against that volume of projects. So one of the things that you absolutely want to nail is the clarity of your project: the clarity of the idea, the clarity of how you're going to do it, the clarity of where it's going to go. And also really ask yourself, are you the right person to be telling the story? And if you have a personal connection with it, if you've got a professional connection and by that, I mean is often you'll find out from an applicant that they did a PhD in the subject matter, but they didn't make that clear in the application. It can be even be worth in an application actually identifying what you're missing and what you're looking for, rather than writing a polished proposal that represents no problems, that acknowledges no production issues. When we actually get applications that say, 'hey, this is what I want to do and these are some of the obstacles that we think there are to getting it. But this is how we're going to hopefully overcome it.' That's giving us a lot of reassurance that you're coming at this, you're being realistic about it and your problem-solving as you go, as opposed to something that just presents something that is this perfect scenario that just elicits from us more questions about how you're going to do it. Your application needs to be and cover the best parts of your proposal, and it sounds really simple, but actually there's a real art to it and I think it's good to actually put your hand up and say, you know what, it can be difficult to write a strong application. So to road test it with people, to double check your application. Don't do it the hour before it needs to be submitted before deadline and just really make sure that you've actually covered everything that the program is asking you and speak to it in the strongest and best light that you can. 

[00:26:04] Caris Bizzaca Hopefully that's answered some of your questions if you want to apply for funding through Screen Australia. You can find more information about each fund and their guidelines on the funding and support page on the Screen Australia website - I've included a link in the show notes - and you can reach out to individual teams with specific questions via email as well. Thanks again to Susie Cortez, Sally Caplan, Nerida Moore, Laurrie Brannigan-Onato, Lee Naimo and Bernadine Lim for joining us on this episode. Remember to keep up to date with new initiatives or opportunities by subscribing to the Screen Australia newsletter. And you can also subscribe to this podcast through iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher. Thanks for listening.