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Takeaways from AIDC: the future of Australian factual content

Screen Australia’s Head of Documentary Richard Huddleston shares the headline discussions and key takeaways from this year’s AIDC.

Fresh Cuts Pitch Panel at AIDC

With over 750 delegates, 117 speakers participating, 100-plus local and international decision makers, 40-plus sessions, and eight networking events – the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) is a significant date in the Australian screen industry calendar. Here, Screen Australia’s new Head of Documentary Richard Huddleston discusses his thoughts on this year’s recent AIDC, in his own words.

It’s the only time of the year when we come together as a documentary community, so first and foremost it’s brilliant and invigorating to have face to face meetings and conversations with everyone. From breakfast to dinner and through to late nights, we are talking, discussing, debating and just as importantly, listening.

The week gives us a chance to test the temperature of the documentary waters; what are the challenges producers and broadcasters, are facing, where are the opportunities, what are people excited about, what are the trends? The team take many meetings with producers who are pitching new ideas or wanting to catch up on active ones.

Across the conference Screen Australia is part of various panels and pitching forums, including AIDC-partnered initiative Fresh Cuts. The conference is a great chance to meet emerging producers, as well as introducing them to other people who can help them as they start out on their documentary careers. We connect with sales agents and distributors and draw their attention to great Australian content and producers and pick their brains about what they are shopping for, as well as finding out what stories resonate (or don’t) around the globe. Finally, we try to get to a session or two to get inspired and learn from the best of the best.

Stand out sessions

The big themes for discussion focused on not only the nuts and bolts of documentary making, but the value of documentary – and the meaning of truth – in an increasingly information-saturated world.

  • There was lots of chat at the opening night on the Brave New World – AI and Documentary session. Clearly a hot topic that will require ongoing investigation and response from industry as to the benefits and dangers. An interesting question that arose was whether there is a gender bias towards the uptake/ implementation of AI. For many, the session inspired people to attend the screening of Sophie Compton’s Another Body, which explored the topic in more depth.
  • A timely session was the one-on-one with Mstyslav Chernov talking about his incredible Oscar-winning film 20 Days in Mariupol. A sobering reminder of the importance of frontline filmmaking, the ongoing battle for “truth”, “trust” and the immense cost to lives both in front of, and behind the camera.
  • Rachel Perkins’ Truth to Power was an inspiring, insightful and confronting session that focused on Rachel’s significant and crucial contribution to the Australian documentary landscape. It concluded with Rachel issuing a rallying call for the importance of the documentaries in a “post-truth” world.
  • And, of course, the Fresh Cuts announcement! The Fresh Cuts initiative supports filmmakers seeking market interest and development funding for ideas that shine a spotlight on stories that appeal to younger audiences. Six teams pitched their short form documentary ideas to a global panel of industry decision makers. Three pitches were selected for development funding - Paradise Camp: Homecoming, In/Out, and Fridge Foraging. Read more about these fantastic projects here.

Key takeaways

Australian audiences love documentaries

  • 2023 was a great year for documentary features at the Australian box office. The biggest film in Australia was a documentary, Farnham: Finding the Voice, and what’s more there were three other documentaries in the Top Ten. Despite the cost-of-living crisis, and infinite viewing choices at home, there is an appetite for home grown documentary with broad appeal to resonate with cinema goers.

Changing revenue models

  • Subscription-based models are evolving as the market grows with a variety of new business models emerging over the past few years.  FAST channels (Free Ad-Supported TV) are leading the way, especially in the US, and as we move through 2024 into 2025 more revenue will come from advertising, much of which will be AI generated.  

New financing pressures

  • It’s the norm now that agents and distributors want to see a rough cut before committing to a film which is putting pressure on producers to cash flow much of the production cycle. This can result in producers’ fees being reinvested to plug holes in finance plans that consequently are taking longer to complete.
  • International Co-productions for documentaries are in, but they’re not easy and are currently the exception rather than the rule, and Australian documentaries face specific challenges on the global market.

Cracking the global market

  • A recent survey stated that when choosing a new platform one third of those questioned said foreign content was an important factor, so there is an opportunity for Australian producers. Many streamers are reaching saturation, (particularly with under 35s) so their attention is turning to creating growth in the over 55s, which is something for local producers to contemplate.
  • Importantly, for an Australian story to have international cut through it can’t be too inward looking. The current trend for local ‘celebrity’ or ‘expert’ fronted series can make ideas harder to sell globally. However, as can be seen by the plethora of international awards that Australian producers have won on the big and small screen in the past year, our local industry is globally respected.