AIDC 2005 reflections

So what did I make of the 2005 AIDC just held in Adelaide?

The general vibe was remarkably upbeat and positive. There was a feeling of energy and purpose in the hallways. Several of the sidebar sessions on the last day were inspirational: listening to Denis Poncet describe how he made an eight part documentary series in North Carolina, and how two teams of largely Danish filmmakers made docs with multiple co-production partners which in once case involved 10 different broadcasters. Wow!

The difference in budget levels, compared to films made in Australia were enormous. Poncet’s series, The Staircase, was made for a budget of $3 million; and the work of the two Danish teams were single hour docs for around $2 million Australian apiece. One Dane casually mentioned that the average budget for European docs is around $500,000 AUD.

So how can Australian filmmakers compete on the world stage? That was the question burning a hole in our minds. There is obviously a market out there. How do we access it from the Antipodes?

I asked a few international guests what they thought of the local industry. Generally they were positive, although a common theme was that we need to be more global in our approach. “Make stories that are truly global,” said Mitchell Block of HBO. “Come over to the US to access the money available for filmmakers. We don’t care where you come from. If you have a truly global story the money will be there.”

As an example, Block quoted Denis Poncet, a French filmmaker who has managed to make high budget docs in the US. If he can do it, why can’t we? But how do you build bridges with US buyers? “Go to the markets where the US people are,” said Block. “Sundance and Hot Docs in Toronto are a good start.”

Pat Ferns was encouraging about the success of the AIDC in drawing overseas players to Australia. “This AIDC is now on track to attract overseas buyers. The season when you hold it is important. It’s good to rotate the cities AIDC is held in, as there is a tourist component to the appeal of coming out here.”

One international player I spoke to sounded a cautionary note. “Why can’t your SBS and ABC invest in our films,” she said (her name will be withheld for obvious reasons.) “You expect us to invest in your films but you can’t help us with ours. That’s not fair.”

But another international buyer, Wolter Braamhorst from The Netherlands’ AVRO, attests that the standard of the pitches at this year’s AIDC was high. “I picked up four or five projects this year,” he told me. “The pitches were very polished, they had obviously been trained. Even the first time filmmakers made a good fist of it.”

A number of issues bubbled under the surface. Perhaps the biggest was the future of the documentary industry. Peter Higgs is working on a five-year plan that hopes to address its problems. Perhaps the main one is how to build a viable model for the industry to follow. Producers need to be able to get ongoing returns from their work in order to fund new projects.

One initiative that was floated here was for Screenrights revenues to return to the production company. It’s only a few thousand dollars per title, but it’s a start in building a revenue flow. Peter Higgs is an impressive character with broad experience in analyzing industry problems; in his session he peppered us with ideas on how we can shift our focus onto new markets and revenue opportunities. Let’s hope he is able to work with us to deliver a viable ecological model for the documentary industry.

The AFC statistics presented at the Conference show a large percentage of people make only one documentary. Why is that? Andrew Ogilvie commented that too many resources are currently devoted to first timers, and not enough to established players.

AIDC is obviously market driven, and producer orientated. Craft issues get a guernsey here and there, but the main fare is pitches, markets, revenue opportunities and more pitches. The AIDC Board is dominated by producers from the big end of town, and sadly there is currently no academic representative, although at the AGM there was a suggestion that one will be co-opted. I hope it happens.

Where were the writers? By my reckoning, there were five present out of five hundred or so delegates. By writer I mean someone who is hired at least some of the time to write for another producer and director. I recalled the comment from Russell Porter years ago, before he left for Chicago: “I’m an extinct species, a documentary writer.”

There was constant talk over the Conference of story, structure. Isn’t that the writer’s expertise, I mused. Don’t writers do that? Apparently not. The current vogue seems to be to shoot hundreds of hours of footage and dump it on the editor’s desk. Call me hopelessly old fashioned, but I reckon the need for ramping up the writing expertise in our industry is plainly evident.

AIDC 2005: Reflections
by: Mark Poole

Screen Hub
Friday 25 February, 2005

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