The Stanley Hawes Address
By Ian Darling - Australian International Documentary Conference 2013
It is a great honour to be accepting the Stanley Hawes Award on behalf of everyone who has been a part of the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) since its inception.
The Documentary Australia Foundation was formally launched in 2008, and the seeds of the idea happened several years earlier. It was back in 2004 when I was living out of the back of a car with my family for a year. We were driving across the US at the time and taking a documentary I'd directed to a number of film festivals. I started to see some patterns emerging in the credits of the films I was watching - a significant number of the documentaries had received financial support by way of philanthropic grants from foundations, corporations and private individuals.
And it wasn't just the large foundations like Macarthur, Ford, Rockefeller, Soros, or huge corporations like General Motors or Bank of America - it was dozens of foundations, private donors and grant makers country-wide. In some instances, well before crowd-funding sites became popular, hundreds of donors were involved. I also observed the emergence of NGOs in the process who were part of the distribution model for many of the docs. Schools and community groups were increasingly important audiences too - and they were all getting involved.
These disparate groups were not only raising awareness and funds, but also promoting the particular documentary, to keep it alive long after the broadcast (if indeed it were lucky enough to have a broadcast), and creating new audiences outside the traditional streams of cinema and television.
I was relatively new to the documentary sector at the time, and what I saw in the US was quite a revelation. And this revelation was both from a funding perspective, and from the perspective of how documentary filmmakers were motivated to make a real and lasting impact with their films.
Documentary filmmakers across the US were discovering new private funding opportunities, from pre-production funding through to audience engagement.
Filmmakers were thinking outside the square regarding all aspects of the funding, the production and the distribution process. Whilst they had to work extremely hard to find the grants, this funding enabled them to be largely independent and preserve a higher degree of editorial control. It was a large market, with thousands of foundations and millions of potential donors.
This model also preserved and encouraged a diversity of voices, and was less dependent on funding cycles. And with the right audience engagement plan, the private funding extended to comprehensive outreach and education programs.
The philanthropic funding didn't require repayment, it was a grant, and in return filmmakers needed to show that their project had a high return on social capital, or in simple terms, that the documentary was making a measurable impact.
What a gift this seemed to be to the documentary industry.
Documentary filmmaking continues to be a financial struggle for filmmakers the world over, regardless of the system. The involvement of private foundations and donors, however, seemed to give filmmakers in the US enough hope that documentary filmmaking could be a sustainable industry, and one that could also make a meaningful social impact.
Well this was my experience in 2004, and these were my observations at the time.
Would this work in Australia? The future seemed exciting, and the model was certainly worth trying to put to the test.
I returned from the US in late 2004 and prepared myself for yet another of the excellent programs at AIDC. I love a bit of tradition. You know, Boxing Day at the MCG, the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, summer holidays at the beach, kids back to school in February, and then the annual brawl at the AIDC between the funding bodies, the broadcasters and the documentary sector. That year, more than ever, I sensed a real feeling of despair within the documentary community, as the same funding arguments and discussions were being tossed forwards and back across the floor. I guess they were the same ones that we will all probably be having again in Adelaide this week.
Each year the committed members of the government funding bodies are berated for the lack of funding given to the sector. The dedicated folks at the broadcasters get an ear bashing for their lack of commissioning and programming support. And us hard working documentary filmmakers feel threatened by diminishing television slots, reduced documentary funding, and now the threat of extinction from reality TV.
Feeling uncertain about the health of the documentary industry in Australia back then, it seemed really important to try and do something constructive, that one day may help the industry. A key motivation was the pure excitement of seeing a model that was growing in strength in the US, that could potentially be applied back here in Australia, that would provide an additional funding stream to documentaries, that would free up more government funding to spread amongst more films, that would enable filmmakers to create audience engagement programs, and one that would dramatically increase the impact and life of a documentary.
The key was finding the points of similarity between the US and the Australian documentary market, and to assess where the model could be applied and where it would differ.
To state the obvious, a key point of difference from the US was the degree of funding from the Federal and State funding bodies. We are all continually reminded by our international colleagues how lucky we are to have government support (and indeed we are), alongside production funding from the ABC and SBS and other broadcasters, in addition to the current producer offset scheme.
The US seemed to be a market where the economics would allow for both private investment and philanthropic grants into documentaries. However, despite the current levels of government support for documentaries in Australia, the private investor model just didn't seem to work. It was literally impossible to attract private investment to a sector where the economics were (and still are today) so unattractive in such a small market. Only a handful of documentaries in the country have ever broken even, and with an inability to attract meaningful private investment, alternative private funding streams needed to be found.
It is safe to say that private investment into films in Australia is a dangerous game. And it is equally safe to say that private investment into a single documentary is pure lunacy. I should know - I do it all the time!
I often say to documentary filmmakers, "never ever mortgage your home, please don't do it, you will lose your house, and never ever make a return on your investment!"
Passion is a wonderful thing for story telling purposes and for getting films made, but so often such a tragic thing in a pure investment sense. I'm not trying to be defeatist here, but we will never attract a culture of investing in documentaries in Australia under the current funding and broadcasting structure, with the size of the market we currently have.
We are often told that in comparison to the US we don't have a culture of giving in this country. I tend to disagree with this notion. Even back in 2005, one of the largest growth sectors in the country was the establishment of new private philanthropic foundations; PPFs, or PAFs as they are now known. More and more private foundations in Australia were being created every day.
The government had wisely made it easier to give, and this was dramatically increasing the size of the donation pool. The time was right to try and capture some of this growing donation pool for documentary. There needed to be a paradigm shift. We had been chasing the wrong pool of money. We were never going to attract meaningful or sustainable investment in documentary with the economics of the Australian market, but right under our noses was a hugely expanding philanthropic funding base, and this was the one we needed to go after.
The peak body for the sector, Philanthropy Australia, estimated that there were approximately 5000 foundations in Australia, giving between half a billion and one billion dollars per annum. The bulk of this went into the areas of social welfare, the arts, health, the environment, education, human rights and indigenous causes.
It's no coincidence that a significant number of the documentaries we all made were centered on the same topics of concern too.
We realised that we needed to shift our pitch a little, from -"Hi would you like to invest in my documentary. You will never get your money back." to "Hi, would you like to make a grant to our documentary. We are creating a significant education and outreach campaign, and we are looking to raise awareness around this important social issue, and to educate and entertain a generation of school kids, the return on social capital and impact will be extremely high, whilst also aiming to make an engaging film for television and cinema."
And that’s exactly where we started to place our energies at DAF.
The whole basis for setting up the Documentary Australia Foundation was built around the belief that we could attract philanthropic grants, and that over time this would build towards becoming a meaningful and sustainable form of funding for the entire sector.
In order to attract philanthropic funding, we needed to make it easy to give -we needed an organisation that had tax deductibility status, like the 501(c)(3) organisations in the US. After a lengthy process with DOCITA and the Australian Taxation Office, we were granted full charitable status. This enabled us to give tax deductibility to all grant makers, and these grants were then passed through directly to the documentary filmmakers or their production companies.
In order to establish a sense of legitimacy around the organisation, we also needed to create a strict control mechanism, so that only genuine documentaries would be eligible for philanthropic support -a quality standard or seal of approval, if you like - hence the creation of the Documentary Australia Approved List.
We then needed to create a mechanism to educate the entire sector on the process and merits of combining documentary with philanthropy, and set about establishing a series of comprehensive guides for the filmmakers, for the foundations and donors, and for the charities or NGOs, and did this by way of a comprehensive and interactive web site, and series of reports.
It took us a long time to get accepted, and the team is still facing pockets of resistance today. At times DAF was treated with great suspicion, and even contempt. I can understand this to a degree, as the concept was quite foreign to the industry. But that simply meant we needed to work even harder to educate the entire sector about the meaning, the merits and intent of philanthropic grants.
DAF wasn't a mysterious cult, or conspiracy coming from the big end of town.
Grants weren't marketing or advertising funds. Grants came without conditions or editorial control or influence. Grants aren't repaid -they are not investments, they are donations. They are motivated by social return, not investment return.
In Australia at the time, most foundations had film as an exclusion, so there was virtually no grant making towards documentaries at all. The argument had not been effectively communicated that a documentary could justify philanthropic support.
The team at DAF circled the country, talking with foundations and donors, providing case studies of effective examples, removing the mystery of documentary, identifying how to assess a budget, and measure impact and stating the case for the potential of extremely high returns on social capital.
As a result of DAF, together with some high profile Australian social impact documentaries, most foundations in the sector now understand and recognise the philanthropic qualities and merits of documentary as a part of their portfolio. This is a really significant development. The challenge over the next few years will be to try and attract a much higher number of foundations into the documentary space.
The DAF team also has worked closely with the charities and NGO sector, identifying how to embrace elements of a documentary’s community engagement program, how to host community screenings, and how to work collaboratively in a sector to bring about social change.
DAF has also spoken with broadcasters and funding bodies, highlighting that this funding comes without strings attached -it is not product placement and does not threaten editorial guidelines.
There has also been an ongoing requirement to extensively educate the filmmaking community -primarily about how to attract philanthropic funding, and what the grant maker expects from a filmmaker. With a grant comes a clear expectation to deliver a social return and create an impact with a documentary. It's as simple as that. There are no film stars or red carpets to attract donors into the documentary industry.
So the grant maker is making a simple decision here -'do I give to a homeless shelter, or do I give to a film about a homeless shelter that will raise awareness about the plight of the homeless' -so the potential for impact needs to be compelling, whatever the measurement may be.
It needs to be said that outreach and education and the development of sophisticated audience engagement campaigns add a great burden to the filmmaker. It's hard work and it requires additional investment, at a time when the filmmaker is exhausted from the last film and probably deeply in debt from the experience.
So going after philanthropic funding is not necessarily for everyone -but it is for those who aspire to live in a better Australia, it is for those who want to increase the impact of their film, it is for those who want to create a relationship with grant makers who may be able to provide recurring funding over the career of a filmmaker, it is for those who believe in the art and craft of storytelling and the preservation of the documentary, it is for those who believe that film is still the most powerful medium to reach mass audiences across the globe and influence groups from opinion makers to school students, and it is for those who hope that the funding bodies and broadcasters will increasingly embrace this model, for the strength and survival of the entire documentary film community.
It is interesting to note that since we started developing DAF, the real excitement, and the most innovative developments in the world of documentary (in the US and UK in particular) have all been around the areas of social impact documentary.
We have seen the emergence of foundations and NGOs working with broadcasters to create partnerships around key documentaries. This has been coupled with new funding streams, record levels of philanthropic support, the creation of new audiences, and a greater acknowledgement about the importance and power of documentary.
In effect, most of the action overseas has been in the areas that we have developed, and aim to support at DAF in the years ahead. These innovative developments overseas include:
- The launch of the BRITDOC Foundation in 2005
- The emergence of Participant Productions as a major player in social impact documentary
- The Ford Foundation's commitment of a $50 million fund towards next-generation documentary filmmakers with their JustFilms initiative
- Creation of organisations in the US such as Impact Partners, who are building
- New sustainable funding models for documentary
- Establishment of events like The Good Pitch, (a partnership between BRITDOC and the Sundance Institute, which brings specially selected foundations, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, broadcasters and potential corporate and brand partners to form powerful alliances around groundbreaking documentaries)
- The emergence of organisations such as The Fledgling Fund, providing grants specifically for outreach and audience engagement programs for documentary
- Skoll and Sundance's STORIES of Change initiative
- PUMA's leadership and support for documentary, including their creative impact awards.
- And the list goes on.
So whilst we are all heads down and working extremely hard on our own documentary projects in Australia, and while the funding bodies are doing their best to leverage their support for the sector (when faced with diminishing funding of their own), and while the broadcasters are shifting focus towards television series and reality TV (in search of higher ratings for their own sustainability), I can't help but feel that the rest of the world is running ahead of us in a long-term strategic sense. They are collectively embracing these new ways of attracting additional private funding and bringing greater levels of long term sustainability to the documentary sector.
The current model in Australia encourages filmmakers to create documentary factories, with a slate of films that cover series, reality television and the odd single documentary. Whilst this works for some, it doesn't and shouldn't work for all. Don't get me wrong, I think the focus on creating greater efficiency in the industry is an essential thing, and a lot of great work and progress has been made at Screen Australia and amongst the key broadcasters, but it would be a disaster if this rationalisation comes at the expense of the independent documentary filmmakers, who prefer to focus on one-off social impact stories.
DAF believes it is still important to support an industry that preserves the authored documentary and independent story telling, that supports the art and craft of documentary filmmaking, and one that encourages a diversity of voices.
If we are going to continue to tell important stories about our country, stories that highlight injustice, stories that reveal the horrors of child abuse, domestic violence, animal cruelty, stories about our treatment of asylum seekers, stories about mental health, stories about our artists, the homeless, our teachers, our prisons, our environment, important indigenous stories, stories about us - then we do need a healthy independent documentary sector, that is more focused on telling individual stories rather than building production slates to fit the new government and broadcaster funding paradigms.
We are realistic enough, however, to understand that we can only do this through creating new and innovative funding streams to the sector, and that if we do want to keep on making documentaries in this country, we can only do it if we aren't totally reliant on the government funding bodies or broadcasters. Hence the need for the establishment of the Documentary Australia Foundation, and hopefully a whole host of other relationships that will attract philanthropic or other private funding streams into the sector.
We are all in this together -government funding bodies, broadcasters, documentary filmmakers and the philanthropic community -and we must find the right balance and the right way forward. Government funding alone won't get us there, nor will private funding. If we can create an environment where we all share the responsibility for attracting more private funds to the sector, and embrace it, we will have a documentary industry that is the envy of the world.
At DAF, the team will continue to seek more philanthropic grants to documentary, but we will need additional support from the government funding bodies and the broadcasters to create the right environment to help get us there.
On top of the existing industry support, we invite the funding bodies and public broadcasters to consider the following:
From Screen Australia we would like all funding for documentaries to be delivered as a grant. Currently funding of $200k and below is a grant, and it would be a significant boost and statement to the sector if all documentary funding were without the need for recoupment. This would also have the advantage of reducing the administrative cost of the recovery process.
In addition we would like Screen Australia to establish a matching program, so that all private philanthropic grants are matched by the agency. This would have a significant multiplier effect, attracting considerably more private funders, as grant makers are always attracted to schemes where government organisations match their grant. We would also recommend that grants of $100k and above be recognised as being market place attachment.
And finally we invite Screen Australia to consider establishing an innovative Audience Engagement Fund, for outreach and education, where 20 films each year would receive amounts of $20k per film. Over 5 years, 100 films would have been supported, the social impact of the initiative would be profound, and this would encourage even more private funding to sit along side the Screen Australia Audience Engagement Initiative. It would highlight the importance of keeping many of these outstanding films funded by the agency alive, well beyond the broadcast, adding even greater value to the funding provided.
The impact and influence of the organisation would be felt in all corners of the industry and country, and highlight the importance of Screen Australia, as an integral part of not only the cultural landscape but also the social well being of our society.
With regard to our friends at ABC and SBS, the public broadcasters, the greatest additional impact they could make on the documentary sector is one that wouldn't require any additional funds.
We would like the broadcasters to create a new brand for a permanent and legendary documentary slot in prime time on ABC1 and SBS1 respectively. This would not only create an outstanding marketing opportunity, and a destination, but also a world wide brand for all of the networks documentaries -like Storyville, POV, Independent Lens and the Passionate Eye. It would be for documentaries, not reality television, and it would be quarantined as the public broadcasters "social responsibility slot", so ratings wouldn't drive the decision making process.
It would be an investment in the important stories of Australia and beyond, and would embrace social impact documentaries as well as Arts based films. Such a public commitment to documentary, with far greater visibility, would additionally attract new philanthropic grants to the sector, so the return on social capital would be enhanced even beyond the stories being told. And if our public broadcasters happen to be in a mood for showing even greater leadership in corporate and social responsibility, we would also encourage them to establish their own foundations, like BRITDOC Foundation, where they would be at the centre of social impact documentary, and would be able to direct additional funding to audience engagement programs. For relatively modest sums, the multiplier effect and leverage of the social investment would be extremely high for the networks.
We will be inviting Corporate Australia to also get involved with supporting documentary, ideally through their own corporate foundations to alleviate any perceived or potential conflicts of interest. This can be done extremely effectively with the right control mechanism, and this is something that DAF already controls and monitors. We have seen the impact that General Motors (and now Bank of America) has had on helping to fund the history films of Ken Burns, reportedly to the tune of more than $50m. Clearly this wasn't about product placement -not too many Chevrolets could be positioned at the Battle of Gettysberg -it was all about good corporate responsibility.
We also ask the operators from some of the major awards ceremonies in Australia to give documentary the prominence it deserves. It is quite unfortunate to think that the Best Documentary award at the Logies is one of the only two awards that are announced before the broadcast. Equally I feel it is time the AFI recognised that the Best Documentary award should be given on the night of the main AACTA Awards when the ceremony is broadcast. The producers of these key awards ceremonies have a responsibility to the health of the sector too, and as a single voice, we need to help promote documentary to the private sector at every opportunity.
To the documentary filmmakers in the sector, we ask you not to lose heart, to embrace this exciting new world, to work harder at finding new and entertaining ways of telling these important stories. Social policy films and art films don't need to be dry or alienating to an audience. The US experience has shown us that they can serve many masters, get snapped up by an HBO, have a cinema release, stay alive for many years with extensive audience and community engagement programs, and ultimately make an impact.
DAF's main focus will continue to be on the wider philanthropic community in Australia. The team aims to direct additional resources towards attracting more grants, regardless of any new support from the government or corporate sector. We are confident that foundations and individual donors will increasingly realise the importance of supporting documentary, and if used effectively, how it can be a vital and recurring part of their grant making portfolio, and potentially have the highest return on social capital of any of the grants in their portfolio.
The Documentary Australia Foundation team have worked tirelessly over the last few years, never giving up, showing great persistence, operating the organisation off the smell of an oily rag -and now there is more hope than ever.
It is still early days, but we're pleased to report that over the last 4 years, grants of approximately $5 million have been received or committed to the Documentary Australia Foundation. DAF has formally approved over 530 films as being eligible for philanthropic support, 148 of these films have received grants from 543 separate donors, with 23 donors specifically giving to the organisation. It has been a solid start, far tougher than expected, and we all believe that DAF is now at the cusp of greater success - but the organisation still has so much work to do.
So yes, I am extremely optimistic about the future of documentary in Australia, but a shift in our collective strategic thinking is required, where we all need to work collaboratively and all share a sense of responsibility for attracting more private funds to the sector.
Documentaries are such an important resource to the wider community, and worth supporting at every level. Documentary filmmakers are the real storytellers, the shifters and shapers, and reformers -providing not only the photo albums, but also the archives, the camp fire stories, and the kitchen table conversations of this country.
Tonight I'm really proud to call myself a documentary filmmaker, and I'm especially proud to be accepting the Stanley Hawes Award on behalf of the extraordinary team at the Documentary Australia Foundation. Our thanks to everyone at the AIDC, and our thanks to you all for giving us this very special honour.
Founder and Patron
Documentary Australia Foundation
Shark Island Productions
February 25, 2013