“Adapt or die”, in Australia’s Documentary Industry

How you have to learn to stop worrying and love the new state of play in Australia's documentary industry - by Down Under Berlin Co-director Sabrina Wittmann

Header image - The Last Empresario by Gracie Otto. Opening night film at DocWeek 2014

Australia’s documentary and factual industry faces great challenges: the rapid increase of digital and online means of distribution and continuously changing financial and business models create fears and new opportunities at the same time. How Australia’s documentary industry can master these new challenges was the focus of DocWeek’s Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) 2014.

DocWeek and AIDC

Established in 1987 in Adelaide, as both a national conference and marketplace for professional film and television makers and broadcasters, the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) has developed into DOCWEEK. It is the international Australian documentary event that brings together network executives and screen industry professionals specializing in documentary and factual content production. Besides AIDC, DOCWEEK includes an international documentary festival with an extensive screening program, master classes, artist conversations, special events and several award ceremonies, e.g. for the F4 Award for New Australian Documentary Talent or the inaugural Asia Pacific New Documentary Awards for Outstanding New Asia Pacific Documentary Talent. DOCWEEK 2014 saw a record high attendance: 500 delegates attended over 40 sessions.

The future of DocWeek

Nevertheless, DocWeek 2015 will mark the last year of Adelaide-based Joost den Hartog as AIDC Executive Director. “Ten years is enough, I feel. We’ve really turned a corner with the event, making it a public event”,Hartog said in his speech at the conference. In due course of Hartog’s departure DocWeek will have to face another change – a new location: According to Hartog, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have expressed their interest, with Sydney being the favorite applicant “because that’s were 75 to 80 per cent of the industry actually is”. Although Hartog expressed the benefits of keeping the event in South Australia, at the end of the day, it’s a matter of money – and so it is the state that offers the highest bid that will win the race.

A different generation of creative entrepreneurs

Hartog calls for a reinvention of creative entrepreneurship by referring to Stephen Lambert’s keynote speech that “summed it up: adapt or die”. Here, the chairman of All3Media America and Chief Executive of Studio Lambert argues that creative professionals will have to define their specific markets and develop according business models. In other words: Filmmakers will need to look at themselves as businessmen and treat their creative work as a product. For Hartog, that implies the return of the multi-faceted content creator – the “true independent” but of “a different generation”, as he calls it. Whether or not one agrees with this point of view, enormous changes seem to be underway in the documentary and especially within the factual landscape. The rise of video-on-demand and factual entertainment exemplifies the importance of digital and online strategies for today’s content industry.

An appeal to embrace change and stay positive

Since any change provokes uncertainties, it is no wonder that there is a certain “level of negativity in our sector”, Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason pointed out during his opening address at AIDC. In his opinion, “the level of entitlement and the focus and chatter of perceived failure around local documentaries” have a negative effect on the current state of the Australian screen industry. He denounced the widespread yearning for days passed and the open reluctance to see and accept “the state of play and changes, good and bad, that have and are taking place for our industry generally and for documentary in particular”.

Instead, the new head of Screen Australia – Australia’s federal funding body for the national screen production industry – demanded to “look forward” and quoted recent statistics that show a dramatic increase of documentary productions between 2006/2007 and 2011/2012. He also underlined the worth of funding through Screen Australia and the Producer Offset, a refundable tax offset (rebate) for producers of Australian feature films, television and other projects, that summed up to about $40 million last year. Although hemade clear that these numbers are unlikely to increase, Mason offered to “consider new allocations of funds across programs, or start afresh with some new programs”. He invited all delegates to submit their views via a discussion paper, due four weeks from the conference’s end.

Yet, Mason’s plans have already suffered a setback when the National Commission of Audit issued a report that recommended that Screen Australia’s funding, among others, should be halved and the office merged with other arts bodies.

What now?

Whatever the future will bring for DOCWEEK or Australia’s documentary industry – continuous change seems inevitable. Since the emergence of digital content and online distribution, opportunities for filmmakers and audiences seem to be unlimited – as the newest form of interactive documentary (aka web documentary) is likely to prove. However, in order to keep the creative and artistic quality of documentary and factual entertainment, both film and television makers and broadcaster seem to have to work together. Perhaps Graeme Mason’s appeal to the conference’s delegates to “interact” is a first step into this direction.

Sabrina Wittmann is a member of Down Under Berlin – Australian Film Festival e.V.
Contact: sabrina.wittmann@downunderberlin.de

References:

“Australian International Documentary Conference”. Wikipedia. 5 May 2014. >http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_International_Documentary_Conference<.

Blatchford, Emily. “Mason talks negativity, entitlement during AIDC opening address”. if-Magazine online. 5 March 2014. Retrieved: 12 May 2014. >http://if.com.au/2014/03/04/article/Mason-talks-negativity-entitlement-during-AIDC-opening-address/LAPOXJEGTM.html<.

Bulbeck, Pip. “Australia’s National Film Agency Faces Steep Budget Cuts Under Audit Proposal”. The Hollywood Reporter. 1 May 2014. Retrieved: 27 May 2014. >http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/australias-national-film-agency-faces-700435<.

Gibbs, Ed. “DocWeek enjoys record attendance, looks for reinvention in 2016”. if-Magazine online. 13 March 2014. Retrieved: May 12, 2014. >http://if.com.au/2014/03/13/article/DocWeek-enjoys-record-attendance-looks-for-reinvention-in-2016/ESOLMKHRAA.html<.

Official website of DocWeek. Retrieved: 5 May 2014. >http://docweek.org.au/<.

“The Report of the National Commission of Audit”, and “Appendices to the Report of the National Commission of Audit .”, Australian Government – National Commission of Audit. Retrieved 27 May 2014. >http://www.ncoa.gov.au/report/index.html<.

 Update: On Thursday 20 November 2014 Screen Australia appointed Richard Harris – currently CEO of the South Australian Film Commission (SAFC) – as the Head of its newly formed Business and Audience Department. He will commence with Screen Australia in March 2015. 

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