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Podcast – (More) Advice Before You Apply

Hear from Screen Australia representatives with their top tips for applying for funding.

Joesph Meldrum, Grainne Brunsdon, Phoebe Willems

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

Applying for Screen Australia funding?

Before you press submit, hear key pieces of advice from the people who assess and oversee applications for Content, Development, Documentary, Online, First Nations and Games in this second Advice Before You Apply episode (find the first from 2020 here).

Head of Content Grainne Brunsdon says the funding rounds are very competitive, so to make your application stand out, make sure to utilise the resources that exist.

“Read the guidelines, look at the Screen Australia website, do your research,” she says. “There’s everything from a directory of sales agents that you can get in touch with… for production finance, there are checklists to use when negotiating agreements, there are templates and guides for applications, so there are budget templates, there are suggested script layouts, everything you could possibly want is on the Screen Australia website, so have a look there.”

Joining Brunsdon on the episode is Head of Development Bobby Romia, Documentary Lead Production and Investment Manager Jeni McMahon, First Nations Development and Investment Manager Joseph Meldrum, Online Development and Production Officer Phoebe Willems and Games Investment Manager Amelia Laughlan.

For the full episode, listen to the Screen Australia Podcast.

*Please note the Screen Australia Podcast will be taking a short break after this episode, but will return soon. In the meantime, you can catch up on all of the previous Screen Australia podcast episodes here.

Find links below to resources mentioned in the episode:

  • Glossary of Key Terms here.
  • Tools and insights for starting in the industry here. There are also Tools and Insights links on the left-hand side of every funding landing page (e.g. Online funding page), which you can find here.
  • Directory of sales agents here.

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.
  • First Nations funding here.
  • Documentary funding here.
  • Feature film funding here.
  • Television funding here.
  • Online funding here.
  • Games funding here.

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

Audio Transcript

Caris Bizzaca [00:00:05] Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, I'm a writer, content producer and creator of this podcast, which is part of Screen Australia's in-house publication, Screen News. I'd like to firstly acknowledge the various countries you are all listening in from - the Unceded lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This podcast is being created on the lands of the Gadigal people of the larger Eora Nation, and I've had the great privilege to be a visitor and be able to work on these lands for many years. Always was, always will be. For this episode of the podcast, we are talking to a number of Screen Australia representatives who are giving their top tips for anyone putting in an application. We'll be hearing from Head of Content Grainne Brunsdon, Head of Development Bobby Romia, The Documentary Lead Production and Investment Manager Jeni McMahon, First Nations Development and Investment Manager Joseph Meldrum, Online Development and Production Officer Phoebe Willems and Games Investment Manager Amelia Laughlan. Before we get to their advice, a bit of an announcement from me: this, the 120th episode of the Screen Australia podcast will also be my last, as after nearly eight years at Screen Australia, I am making the leap into freelance writing. The podcast will be on hiatus for a while, but it will be back with a new host soon. I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who has listened over the years, as well as those who have joined me for a chat and given up their time and insights. It's been a real highlight for me, making this podcast, so thank you. As always, remember you can subscribe to the podcast through places like Spotify and iTunes where you can leave a rating and review. Any feedback sent to [email protected] and don't forget, you can also subscribe to Screen Australia's Industry eNews for the latest funding announcements, opportunities, videos and more. Now first, here's Head of Content Grainne Brunsdon, with her key pieces of advice for anyone applying for Screen Australia funding.

Grainne Brunsdon [00:02:11] I guess the first thing I'd say is that, remember, it's really highly competitive. Every year we get hundreds more applications than we can possibly approve and hundreds of applications that we'd love to be able to approve, but because of budget, we just can't, which means that we end up turning down projects we'd like to be able to support, but it also means that anybody applying to us needs to be really competitive in their applications. It means you need to do a bit of homework, really. We appreciate that applications like this take a lot of time just in hours, but they also take a lot of labour in terms of the thinking about it and how are you going to best position you and your project to really take advantage of this opportunity. First thing I'd say is read the guidelines, look at the website, the Screen Australia website, do your research, look at some of the resources that are available there. There's everything from a directory of sales agents that you can get in touch with if that's what you're looking to do for production finance, there are checklists to use when negotiating agreements, there are templates and guides for applications, so there are budget templates, there are suggested script layouts. Everything you could possibly want is on the Screen Australia website, so have a look there. You [can] go into the funding part of the website, under tools and insights, there's a whole range of different tools that people can access. The next thing I'd say is get in touch and talk to the team, so if you're applying for story development, get in touch and talk to the Story Dev team. If you're applying for documentary, talk to one of the Doc team. People are very happy to talk on the phone, do a zoom, if you're in Sydney or Melbourne [we're] really happy to do in-person meetings as well and get in touch well before you're planning on applying. If you're planning on applying, you think, well I'd like to have a result and know the answer by the end of the calendar year, get in touch when it's still an idea and you haven't even fully formed it. Get in touch because people can give you an idea of what they would need to see to make your application competitive. We can't tell you what to put in your application or how to answer the question, but we can guide you in terms of what successful applications might look like and what they might include. Listen to the podcast that we've got, follow us on social media and get in touch. They're things that I would really emphasise for people, and when you get to the application and you're starting to fill in that form online and you're just thinking, 'oh my God, it's sixteen pages of questions, how am I going to get through this,' check that you've included the latest versions of your documents, whether that's a finance plan or a script, you'd be surprised at how many scripts that we get that are three drafts back and we look at it and think 'this might need a bit of work,' and then when we talk to the applicant, they realise they've sent us the wrong draft. You need to really be aware of what you're sending. It can be a really busy time, you've got lots of documents to upload and you've got lots of documents for your project, just make sure that you're really organised and you're sending us the most recent draft of everything to put yourself in the most competitive position. If you're not sure about something, you're not sure about what something is or what the terminology is, there's specific screen vocabulary, get in touch and ask us. We're really happy to answer those questions. Our Program Operations team are usually the ones who will answer the phone. There are email addresses and links on the website for all of the different teams, or just call the general number for the Sydney or the Melbourne office and ask to be put through to either the Documentary team, the Story Dev team, Online, whoever you're applying to, and somebody will come back to you and we can do a zoom with you and just talk you through what it looks like. We want to hear from new applicants. We recognise it can be a really daunting thing to apply for funding to screen agencies, whether it's a state body or the federal one like Screen Australia, but it can be really worth it, so do get in touch. Tell us about your project and best of luck.

Caris Bizzaca [00:06:01] Grainne mentioned some industry jargon that might be unfamiliar, and to help with that, we've put together a glossary of key terms, which I'll put a link to in the show notes along with that tools and insights page. Something Grainne referred to as well was the Program Operations team. When you're applying to Screen Australia, once you've filled out the application in the online portal called Smarty Grants and you hit that submit button, the first people looking at your application are in Program Operations, which you might sometimes hear referred to as PROPS, and which I'm making note of here, because when I started at Screen Australia, I spent too long thinking that the agency weirdly had a production design department. PROPS as in Program Operations process all the applications for every funding program at Screen Australia, as well as checking eligibility and making sure there's no missing documents. Here's Head of Development, Bobby Romia with more.

Bobby Romia [00:06:55] Always, always read the guidelines and FAQ's, speak with the PROPS team if you have any questions and if the questions are a little bit complex, it will naturally be escalated to the Development team if needed.

Caris Bizzaca [00:07:10] If you have particular questions about funding of any kind, not just development and you can't find the answer in the guidelines, you can call PROPS on 1800 507 901, or you can get in contact through the emails that are on the funding landing pages, which will be [email protected] or [email protected] or something similar. Here's Documentary Lead Production and Investment Manager Jeni McMahon talking more about why you should get in touch.

Jeni McMahon [00:07:40] It's just so important for us to get a sense of the project before you apply, but more importantly, it's [that] we know what's coming in, we're dealing with a lot of applications, we're dealing with lots of producers on a daily basis and I think that's probably one of the key things about speaking to us, particularly before a deadline, is that we can give you some really good feedback and advice about whether you're ready, whether the projects ready and what might be a realistic ask of Screen Australia.

Caris Bizzaca [00:08:18] Okay, so we're noticing a theme here. But here's First Nations Development and Investment Manager Joseph Meldrum with another take on reaching out before submitting, and it's to save you the time and effort of filling out an application for funding where you're maybe not eligible.

Joseph Meldrum [00:08:33] In those early conversations we'll be able to pinpoint certain things, like was the concept from a First Nations creative and then if you are not able to say that, then it's ineligible to come through our department. All of our eligibility criteria for our department is on our website so make sure you're having a good look at that because our criteria is quite specific to ensuring that First Nations projects remain in the hands of First Nations creatives. That means the director will need to be a First Nations director, the concept will need to be created by First Nations creative, the writer basically needs to be First Nations, but they can come in a team so if there's a First Nations writer teamed up with a couple of non-First Nations writers, that's fine. Then there's also requirements around the producer or director, they must have [for example] in the case of documentary, must have at least one documentary credit. There's quite clear guidelines around what a credit consists of. Some of our funds, for example, our production funding is invite-only, so in order to even submit an application, you'll have to have a chat with us to begin with anyway, and that's because with production funding, there's quite a lot more that you have to have ticked off before approaching us. There's a lot of these things that we take into consideration when an application comes in and so it's good to make sure that all of that is checked off by the time you're coming to our door.

Caris Bizzaca [00:10:11] The applications themselves require a lot of different information. Here's Games Investment Manager Amelia Laughlan with a simple hack.

Amelia Laughlan [00:10:19] Being organised is key to a clear and consistent application. We get a lot of applications where there are simple inconsistencies that really jeopardise a project's chance at success. This is simple things like not having consistent dates throughout your application or not having consistent information about who's working on the project. If organisation is not a strong skill for you, get someone to help you because it can make a huge world of difference.

Caris Bizzaca [00:10:50] There's different types of funding you can apply for at Screen Australia through the different departments. Phoebe Willems is a Development and Production Officer in the Online Department who can provide three different types of funding: development funding, production funding and completion funding. Here's Phoebe with more.

Phoebe Willems [00:11:08] Consider the stage that your project is at. With online production funding, we expect a project to be virtually ready to shoot. You need to have your team together; everything needs to be ready to go. Whereas with development funding, you don't need to be at that stage and while getting Screen Australia online development funding doesn't guarantee you for production funding, it can be a great step towards getting a project a bit further down the line and it can be an introduction to screen agency funding as well.

Caris Bizzaca [00:11:38] It's not just Online that offers development funding. You can also access development funding through First Nations Department, Documentary Unit, as well as through the Story Development Fund for feature films and television. Here's Head of Development Bobby Romia with tips on applying for story development funding that are applicable across the board.

Bobby Romia [00:11:58] Come in with a compelling application that you're really excited about. It should include distinctive and bold ideas and story, a clear understanding of your development process or methodology moving from one stage of development to the next, a logical pathway to audience strategy - who is specific to your audience - and your plan to reach them. Your strategy around who is your key creative team, generally (writer, producer, director) to help tell the story. The main thing is to be very clear about why you're telling the story: why now? Why you? Who is going to watch it? It's one of those questions to think about with any story construction, but it's certainly one that you should be thinking about in terms of putting your application through to Screen Australia.

Caris Bizzaca [00:12:50] This is not just for scripted ideas. Jeni McMahon from the Documentary team also says that idea of 'why you, why now' is important for factual too.

Jeni McMahon [00:12:59] Think about the authenticity of the storytelling. We're very familiar, particularly in the Doc space, with the protocols around First Nations content, and I think we're doing best practice in that area, but if you do bring in a project with First Nations content, you really need to have the right people on board from the get-go. It's not enough to put it in an application and say we will engage with First Nations participants, consultants. We want to see them attached to the project from the get-go and know that there has been genuine collaboration and we're moving into that space to where those protocols apply in all aspects of storytelling. Think about the communities that you might be filming in, the participants that you're working with, and whether cultural consultation is relevant for those kinds of projects as well. If they are, really engage with the right people before you come in, because it will be something that we will come back to you and interrogate.

Caris Bizzaca [00:14:18] On that point, here's Joseph Meldrum from the First Nations Department with more.

Joseph Meldrum [00:14:22] It's super important to understand whose story this is and are you the right person to tell it? This applies to applicants, both First Nations and non-First Nations, our First Nations community isn't just one homogenous culture. There's lots of different cultures and communities all around Australia. That's a really important thing to keep in mind, and understanding 'whose story is this?' Is there certain communities connected to that? If there is a particular community connected to that story, then you go into a little bit further detail, 'what are we showing on screen? What story are we telling? Does this have a level of cultural content in the story that we're going to be showing on screen and exploring?' With that comes coverage of ICIP, and for any listeners that aren't familiar with that term, that's Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property. That covers anything that's cultural-connected to a specific community, that can be song, music, art, dance, language, literature, even culturally sacred places and sites. It covers quite a broad range of things so if any of those things are being used, there's quite clear protocols around making sure that community gives consent for the use of those things, and then also looking at licensing the use of those things the same way that you would be licensing your standard music, for example. At the end of the day, it is considered intellectual property of that particular community, so making sure that community gets benefit from having their story told. As I mentioned earlier, this applies to our First Nations creatives as much as it does to our non-First Nations creators, and you'd go through the exact same process of licensing the ICIP, if it's Documentary, if it's Scripted, if it's Online, if it's Games, it's all the exact same.

Caris Bizzaca [00:16:30] Something that Bobby mentioned earlier was around creating a strategy for your pathway to audience and it's another point that came up multiple times during the interviews for this episode. Here's Jeni with more.

Jeni McMahon [00:16:41] I know you probably think, Screen Australia always says 'think about the audience, what's the pathway to audience?' But it's true, there's a reason. We want projects to succeed. We want your project to succeed and to be seen, more importantly. Everyone invests so much in getting a project up and why do it if you don't understand where it's going to find a home. This is particularly relevant with feature projects. We really want you to think 'is this concept strong enough for feature' in the first instance. A feature's not just a long story, it's not just an extended one hour. To be really thinking about the story elements and whether they will sustain a feature length in the first instance and then where your film might sit. It is often useful trying to think about other feature docs that might be similar and what path they've had to reach their audience. Every project is completely unique, but you really do need to give some thought about who the audience is and how you're going to reach them.

Caris Bizzaca [00:17:59] And as Joseph notes, it's about reaching the widest audience possible but say, for First Nations Department funding, reaching an audience is also linked to eligibility criteria.

Joseph Meldrum [00:18:11] That's something that's really critical, especially because quite a lot of our funds have certain requirements around distribution to be eligible to come through our door. I'll just use documentary as an example, if you are coming into our department, the First Nations Department for documentary, you have to have a domestic presale in order to be eligible to come through our door. That's something that's really critical for all of our funding streams, who is this for and how are you getting this project to that audience?

Caris Bizzaca [00:18:48] For Online funding, knowing your audience is also linked to knowing where you're going to launch a project. Here's Phoebe with more.

Phoebe Willems [00:18:55] One of the things that's really important in Online is platform. It's really central, so making sure that the creative aligns with the platform, consider how the project is written and how audiences typically consume content on that platform. For example, a TikTok episode is most likely going to be one to two minutes and needs to capture an audience within the first two seconds. A YouTube episode can be longer, but it still needs to be sharp and capture audiences early on. Another thing that's really important is the marketing and release plan, because usually these are self-released projects, but even if there is a broadcaster attached, it's still one of the most important aspects to an online production application. This is your chance to demonstrate to us that you know your platform and your audience. Who are they? How do they engage with content? How will you reach them? Be specific, include things like thumbnails for YouTube or the age demographic for your platform and the project. This isn't necessarily a document for broad data about online consumption. It really needs to be tailored to your project. Sometimes applicants lean a little bit too much towards information, like how many people are on a platform or what are the trends overall on those platforms, but what we really want to see is what do you know about how this platform and your project are going to work together.

Caris Bizzaca [00:20:17] Talking about trends, here's Amelia Laughlan from the Games team with a piece of advice that does relate to that.

Amelia Laughlan [00:20:23] I would say that you really need to find your 'weird', which is a bit of a weird one, but what I mean by that is that projects that have a high level of originality are much more likely to get funded. In games in particular, we see a fair amount of projects that are clearly attempts to jump on a trending mechanic or game or a genre that's out there and we really advise against trying to jump on those trends for this type of funding in particular. There's two reasons for that; it's not aligned with the goals of the fund, but also making those successful clones really comes down to a big company having a really big advertising budget that they can use to attract players who are already playing that popular game. That's best left to the studios. We'd rather that you make something that you love because it's much more likely to resonate with people and much more likely to stand out in the application pool.

Caris Bizzaca [00:21:18] We've talked about some ways to make your application stand out, but there's also some practical tips to keep in mind. Here's Jeni from Documentary with more.

Jeni McMahon [00:21:27] Make sure when you're putting in your application that you're realistic about the time frame for funding decisions and contracting. Don't apply in July and expect to be cash flowed in September. We like to be realistic about your timeframes and how long it takes to go through that process of assessment and then contracting and cash flow. I would also just remind everyone that funds are limited and the competition is really high, we get a really high standard of applications and strong projects coming in all the time, and it's one of the hardest parts of this role as an Investment Manager is that we can't fund everything and we do, unfortunately, have to, at times, decline projects that have merit and that are strong. It's just the competition is really high, so particularly in the producer program, a lot of people say, 'why do you focus so much on market, we don't necessarily need market to apply.' The reality is you're up against a lot of projects that will, at times, have strong market and so they will be more readily financed than something that's coming in the door with very little finance attached, so sometimes we will make decisions about a project's readiness to go into production.

Caris Bizzaca [00:23:02] As Jeni said, and as Grainne said at the beginning of this episode, it's very competitive but don't let that stop you from applying, because during my nearly eight years at Screen Australia, I've had the privilege of watching careers grow and flourish. I've seen people go from initiatives or from their very first project to taking major steps forward across all different types of formats and storytelling. With that in mind, I'm also going to leave you with Amelia's last piece of advice, which was said about games applicants, but really is for any creatives listening out there.

Amelia Laughlan [00:23:35] The final thing I would want to say to people is that, yes, this funding is for you. What I mean by that is there are a lot of people out there who feel like impostors, but imposter syndrome is really common in creative industries, especially in games. I suffer from it all the time. Everyone I know does, but I want to say please push through that and apply, especially if you're from an under-represented background. I often spend time wondering about all the people who start an application and never actually hit submit. I wonder about what they're working on and how we could help them feel confident enough to throw their hat in the ring. We really want you to apply and we want to see your game, so you can reach out to us if you have questions, if anything is unclear. We have funded a lot of projects from first timers, so that is not a reason to not apply. These are games like Moonlight in Garland by Violet Winters, The Master's Pupil from Pat Naoum and Copycat from the Spoonful of Wonder team. You can look these up. These are all really cool projects, but all of them were first-timers when they came to Screen Aus[tralia], so please don't think the funding isn't for you. It very well might be.

Caris Bizzaca [00:24:42] That was Amelia Laughlan and a big thanks to Amelia and to Grainne Brunsdon, Bobby Romia, Jeni McMahon, Joseph Meldrum and Phoebe Willems for joining me on the podcast. Also, a reminder that there are podcasts that drill down into applying for different funding, including episodes on Development, Documentary, the First Nations Department, Online and Games. If you enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe to this podcast through places like Spotify and iTunes, and you can also subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter to keep up to date with new initiatives, opportunities, videos, articles and more. As always, thanks for listening.