Ratings chase pushes one-off documentaries aside
"Directors are storytellers, too. You have to have something to say. That’s lost as a gun for hire" ... documentary maker Jen Peedom. Photo: Danielle Smith
It was the 25th annual Australian International Documentary Conference in Adelaide. The programs were printed, the speakers had arrived. But where were all the filmmakers?
Bob Connolly, the self-confessed dinosaur of documentary and creator of last year's box-office hit Mrs Carey's Concert, was the one bold enough to address ''the elephant in the room''.
A panel discussion was pondering whether Lush House, a television series about housekeeping and stain removal, should be classified as a documentary, as ruled by the Federal Court.
''So,'' Connolly said, ''this is what our cherished art form has come to.''
In a passionate speech, he talked of documentary directors reduced to working as guns-for-hire on their own projects, individual filmmakers shown the door by broadcasters who want to deal only with corporate entities, directors locked out of edit suites and other dubious practices ''transforming our industry concerned with artistry and high endeavour … into a sausage factory turning out, with some very honourable exceptions, what can only be described as fodder''.
Documentary-making seems in robust health from the outside. The popularity of documentaries at film festivals has never been greater. In 1995, when the high-school basketball epic Hoop Dreams was released to acclaim in the US, 10 documentaries made it to the big screen. It was 122 in the US last year.
''Australia used to be at the forefront,'' Connolly says, ''and there are still good films being made, like Shut Up Little Man!, but at one point there was a regular string of them.''
Screen Australia's statistics support his view of an increasingly parochial and commercialised industry. Last year, only four of its documentaries were selected to screen at major international festivals - less than 7 per cent of their documentary slate.
What has gone wrong?
Probably the most dramatic change is the decline of one-off Australian documentaries on TV as broadcasters have moved to commission more series. Alan Erson, the ABC's head of documentaries, says: ''Three years ago, 50 per cent of the documentaries commissioned by the ABC were one-offs and 50 per cent were series.'' This year, series account for more than 70 per cent of commissions, which equates to less than 14 hours of one-offs. It is worse at SBS: in 2007, SBS screened 23 hours of series and 21 hours of one-offs. This year it will be just 18 hours of series and five one-offs.
This shift is global as markets fragment, online platforms and digital channels proliferate, and television audiences fall. Even public broadcasters have become averse to risk and prescriptive in the works they commission. With insufficient budgets stretched across more channels and platforms, the ABC and SBS need programming bang for their buck, and series deliver.
''A one-off is here today, gone tomorrow,'' Erson says. ''You have to publicise it every week and we compete internally for publicity resources. [With] a series, you build audiences week to week.''
One-off documentary has traditionally been the bread and butter of independent documentary-makers, auteurs and small companies that made films about a diverse range of subjects in a variety of styles and voices.
But broadcasters' preference for series favours larger production companies. Bigger bundles of broadcaster funds are being distributed to a smaller group of recipients. The funding model reinforces this divide as most Screen Australia documentary funding is triggered by pre-sale to a broadcaster.
Documentary-making has become industrialised, with a global consolidation of content-makers to secure a place in the market. In Australia, Cordell-Jigsaw and Andrew Denton's Zapruder merged recently to become the country's biggest independently-owned production company. These companies mainly make factual television series, which consume the bulk of airtime and funding.
''There's nothing wrong with factual television'' says Dr Rachel Landers, the head of documentary at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. ''A robust commercial sector is vital for a healthy industry. But factual television and documentary are very different things. I want to train my students to be able to work on a series for a big company, and if they have an original voice I want them to be able to make their own great documentaries and that needs to be supported too. We need to have a healthy range of product.''
The documentary-maker Jen Peedom is an example of the new breed. Having made award-winning films such as Solo, the story of Andrew McAuley's ill-fated attempt to cross the Tasman Sea in a kayak, she works mainly as a gun for hire for larger production companies.
''As soon as I finish one project, if I don't find another one, I'm going backward fast,'' she says. That leaves little or no time to develop ideas.
While working for large companies, Peedom has been excluded from edit suites, just one of the ways individual directors are being disempowered.
''You build trust with [your subjects]. If you're not in the edit, you can't ensure that trust is not being broken,'' she says.
''Directors are storytellers, too. You have to have something to say. That's lost as a gun for hire.''
Formerly a bulwark against market imperatives, the now defunct Film Australia used to have a mission to create an audio-visual record of Australian life, curating and commissioning works ''that illustrate or interpret aspects of Australian life or deal with matters of concern to the Australian people''. Many referred to this as ''the nation's photo album''.
Its successor, Screen Australia, funds documentaries through its National Documentary Program and Making History initiative. Last year, these programs did not fund any films about art and culture, science or the environment.
For Landers, documentary ''is too important to be left to the forces of commerce''.
''A documentary gets you 90 per cent more bang for your buck than 90 per cent of feature films in this country. Right now documentary is forced to punch way above its weight,'' she says.
''[Broadcasters] want the same ratings for a quarter of the budget. I don't think a rating of 400,000 on the ABC is a disaster. If a doco costs half a million, 400,000 watch here, 200,000 watch in France, 150,000 in the UK and it wins a number of prizes at festivals. That's about 50¢ per view, huge cultural kudos and it's there for good. No, it doesn't make money but is that its role? Should a film like Contact have to make money? Do museums make money? Does the Art Gallery of NSW make money? There's a value in this kind of material that's incalculable.''