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Australian Documentaries – Golden Age or Fool’s Gold?

‘When I started, documentaries were like the spinach of filmmaking. Nobody cared about them. Nobody wanted to pay for them. They weren’t sexy. Now, we’re in this amazing golden era of documentary and nonfiction storytelling, that just keeps getting more interesting.’

Director and producer Morgan Neville is US-based, but you hear the same in Australia.

So let’s explore the ‘golden era of documentary’. What’s behind it? And is it as golden as it seems?

Video on demand has changed viewing habits

On-demand has changed the viewing equation.

Consumers are no longer at the mercy of cinema screening times and TV schedules. They can pick and choose. What they want, when they want.

The streaming companies have more options too. They don’t have to guess which shows will be most popular and put them in prime time. They can offer a much deeper catalogue. Documentaries are part of that ‘long tail’.

Documentary as a standalone market

For Netflix and co, documentary will always be niche. But it’s a big niche. There are whole services built around factual content.

  • DocPlay is run by Melbourne-based Madman Entertainment.
  • iWonder, originally in emerging markets, now available in Australia.
  • Curiosity Stream launched by the founder of the Discovery Channel.
  • Docsville, led by the former head of BBC’s Storyville.

Streaming isn’t a mature market yet. These companies may not all survive. But right now, documentary is visible and accessible.

Which leads to the next question.

What is ‘documentary’ anyway? And how has it changed?

The legal definition of documentary in Australia is ‘a creative treatment of actuality other than a news, current affairs, sports coverage, magazine, infotainment or light entertainment program.’

But the balance between ‘creative treatment’ and ‘actuality’ has changed over time.

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger says scripted and unscripted filmmakers have been borrowing ideas from each other. The average documentary is now ‘much more creative’. Here he talks about his own work:

‘We pushed the form in a couple of ways. For example, evocative title sequences, the use of an original music score – all these things that a couple of decades ago, were unheard of in a documentary.

But I think the thing that we were most conscious of…  … we want to be very conscious of dramatic structure. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle, there’s an end; there’s an antagonist and protagonist.’

Documentary is no longer just sharing facts. It’s telling stories.

Reenactments. Animations. Special effects. Single point of view. Visual imagery. Modern documentary is easy to consume. And the ‘true story’ angle makes it enticing.

The ugly duckling of film and TV has transformed.

Is it really solid gold or just gold leaf?

So documentary is booming. Or is it?

Streaming networks mean more opportunities. But the same is true for fiction. And on the downside, streaming companies pick up projects more than they commission. Producers face higher risk.

What about the growth in Australian documentaries with theatrical release in 2017-8?

Australian documentary theatrical releases by year -graph shows steady growth

It looks good. But compare to feature film releases over the same time.

Australian documentary theatrical releases by year - compared to features

Now the surge into cinema looks less impressive.

Then there’s the traditional funders – ABC and SBS. They’re facing more competition, more pressure on budgets. They’re getting pickier.

So where is funding to come from?

Screen Australia’s Producer Equity Program supports low-budget documentaries. It ran out of funds earlier than ever this year. The recent discussion paper on documentary funding redistributes current funds. It doesn’t increase them.

The Australian Independent Documentary group (AID) formed earlier this year. They have sounded the alarm.

‘The funding available to Australian documentary makers has diminished, with the long-held cultural and legislative imperative to support films made in the “national interest” all but disappearing from screen agency and public broadcaster discourse.

This is despite the fact that Australian documentaries continue to perform competitively at box office, on free-to-air, pay TV and SVOD platforms; and on the international film festival circuit and feature-length SVOD and broadcaster slots – where documentary is experiencing a popularity boom.

We’re in a golden age for documentary – if you’re a streaming company. Sadly, the picture isn’t quite so rosy for producers.

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