Documentary success

Documentary Success: Numbers are cruel but the hearts are strong
by: Mark Poole

Panel gets down to the basics on he harsh arts of documentary production outside the presale system. A hundred people turned up – which says something about the passion for a beast which is ultimately not containable in traditional acquisition prices, as Mark Poole discovered.

How do you navigate for success in the changing documentary landscape?– clearly that’s a question all documentary filmmakers want answered. Accordingly around 100 people turned up to this Australian Directors Guild Victoria event held at RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication on Tuesday evening.

A trio of up and coming documentary filmmakers Lucy Palinska, Charlotte Roseby and Rhian Skirving shared with the audience what they’d discovered in the painstaking process of putting together their recent work – Charlotte’s In The End is just completed but yet to be screened, Lucy’s Alone In A Crowded Room was screened on ABC1 two weeks ago, and Rhian’s Rock N Roll Nerd is available on DVD via Madman, having premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival and screened on ABC1 as well.

Key takeaways were that it’s a scramble to get this kind of documentary up and completed. All three speakers told tales of shooting on development funding or no funding at all, keeping the cameras rolling through favours, downright begging or shooting themselves (as in operating the camera themselves), and wangling post-production deals.

As former VCA lecturer in documentary Steve Thomas pointed out from the audience, all three projects being described didn’t provide a living wage for the filmmakers, who had to pay the bills by other means.

And that raises the question of whether broadcasters are getting off too lightly by acquiring documentaries that clearly strike a chord with audiences and score acceptable ratings for the network, for the princely sum in the case of one of them of $15,000, instead of a presale figure of $100,000.

My own recent documentary, Julia Britton – Fearless, (co-produced with Rob George), was acquired by the ABC for $5,000 (since it had already aired on cable) yet the ABC charged us $3,000 for 30 seconds of archival footage used in the film. Currently they have screened the documentary three times for their licence fee on both ABC1 and 2, to excellent ratings. Yet they rejected to pick up the project as a presale as they felt it wouldn’t work for their audience – or was it a way of saving themselves $95,000?

I’m sure the ABC would defend themselves by explaining that they have limited funds for local films, and if everyone had to be provided a presale fee of $100,000 instead of an acquisition of around one tenth that, then the numbers of homegrown documentaries screened on the ABC would immediately plummet. And filmmakers want their films to be shown.

So, they make their films by hook or crook, asking crew and post-production houses to work for little if not nothing. Or, they do the lot themselves, reducing production values. But the downside is the impoverishment of the sector – particularly the filmmakers, who toil away for years for little return.

Despite this gloomy scenario, the evening was entertaining and interesting due to the speakers, as each filmmaker was generous in describing how each of their works was brought to life, in each case over a number of years.

Charlotte began with a clip from her forthcoming film In The End, about the current phenomenon where people live until their eighties with little or no health problems, and end up in intensive care, being kept alive by machines and anxious relatives who will do almost anything to prolong their lives, in some cases despite an almost totally absent quality of life. Charlotte heard about Dr Charlie who works with these patients, who wanted to make a training film. When she told him she didn’t make training films but did make broadcast documentaries, he was eager to assist her in making such a film. Charlotte told us she was very glad she was able to make the kind of film she wanted, even if it took her a great deal of time and effort. She filmed over around five years, and resisted suggestions from broadcasters that she enliven it by adding teary vox-pops from the relatives of dying patients, etc.

Charlotte explained how Dr Charlie won her over by rescuing a bird in a caf? that couldn’t escape; amongst screaming customers he calmly picked up the bird and took it outside.

“When he first took me to intensive care it was such a visual assault,” she said. “Over the next few years of filming I thought it was really important to hang onto my initial gut feeling that I had that day.”

For Charlotte, the process was a matter of drilling down to what is the core of the story. “It could have been about a lot of things,” she said. “It could have been following the families of these old people as they have to make difficult decisions, which are more complex than just deciding to turn off the machines. But I thought that Dr Charlie was the most interesting as he’s at the top of his field, and he has to make incredible decisions every day. He was a reluctant star but actually that’s what made it work on camera – finding a real character who genuinely had something to say.”

That approach gave Charlotte two strands to weave together, one around the families and the other around the doctor working with them. “There was a line in one of Dr Charlie’s papers –we’ve forgotten how to die,” she added. “That was really what I wanted to make the film about it. I wanted to make a poem about that. However trying to convince the broadcasters to make a film about the poetry of dying certainly wasn’t easy.”

Charlotte got initial script development for the project from Screen Australia, and that helped her refine the ideas and establish a visual basis for the story. “A lot of people don’t like writing scripts but I enjoy it.”

Charlotte found she scored praise from everyone when she put the paperwork in on deadline, as apparently many don’t. “I think that getting the paperwork in order is really important,” she said. “Getting the treatment in good shape, and having a script with as much detail as possible.”

She kept the ABC updated about the project the whole time, and they were interested but couldn’t commit. As well, at various times they suggested a more sensational approach, with screaming families and lots of tears, but Charlotte preferred a more restrained treatment of the subject matter.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get the full presale so it was a matter of piecing together the funding,” she said. “I managed to get the money to get the shoot done, and through Dr Charlie alternative channels of funding opened up. I got money from public health channels, for example.”

Explaining a theory that the after-meeting conversation in the car park can be more important than the meeting itself, she said that after one such meeting about funding the film Dr Charlie asked for a contact number for someone who could give them Federal funding, and that unlocked a door . “There are a lot of organisations out there with funding,” Charlotte explained.

Her final comments were to stick with your initial idea and keep going in that direction. “I’ve seen people pushed and pulled in all directions by broadcasters and funding agencies, and in the end the work doesn’t have the passion behind it that you do if you stick to your original idea. I’d put my ideas in a book and pick it up and look at those original ideas.”

Pressed by session chair Sophie Meyrick for details of the budget, Charlotte suggested that with their own labour included it would have been around $200,000, but they probably did it for around $80,00 all up. She got script funding at the beginning, a bit in the middle and post production funding at the end.

“I don’t shoot myself and it was a matter of coming up with a deal with the cinematographer, the editor, and composer that they were happy with. They’re used to being asked if they can work for free. My approach was to explain how much money we had, and asked what can we do with it.”

When Sophie asked how she dealt with the broadcaster when she got into an argument with them, Charlotte replied that she got in touch with her inner stubborn. “I laughed, to be honest. It was so ridiculous and we were talking completely at cross purposes. I thought naively that if I made the film the way I wanted to that the money would come.”

Lucy Palinska’s story was similar about the making of the one hour doco Alone In A Crowded Room,, about four adults with autism. She initially got development funding from SBS for the documentary, then was devastated when they decided they didn’t like it. Like Charlotte, Lucy also accessed her inner child. “I’’m very stubborn and I thought do I want to make the film or not, and I decided I did,” she told the audience. “I went to VCA and I know what a struggle it is to make a film, so I kept going.”

Lucy applied for all available funding, which was a long process. “In retrospect I think I should have skipped making applications and just shot the film,” she said. “I found I got really good at having conversations with broadcasters but I felt like I was getting better at that than actually making a film.”

She said she received a lot of bizarre reasons for not getting funding for the film, and it became apparent that they were reaching for excuses not to fund it. In the end they received funding from the Australian Film Commission and a couple of philanthropic funds, which helped to push the AFC application over the edge.

There was a glitch as they’d got initial funding from Film Victoria which had to be repaid from the AFC money, and the AFC didn’t want to do that. Eventually Lucy again accessed her inner stubborn and said stuff it, we’re going into production. She was in post when the AFC money came through. “It really helped with the post, but it felt anticlimactic really,” Lucy said.

Lucy had been trying to get a deal with Compass, and eventually received a call thanking her for her patience and agreeing to screen the film. “The screening rated really well, and we got tons of emails from people all over the world afterwards.” Lucy added that she believed there was a ready non-theatrical market for her film, which she will be vigorously exploring.

The third speaker was Rhian Skirving, who showed us a clip from Rock n Roll Nerd, about comic Tim Minchin, who lived practically next door. The film follows Tim’s struggle to achieve success as a comedian and also to deal with pressure from his partner to become a parent, something that resonated with Rhian.

“I knew this wouldn’t get a look into the development/commissioning process as Tim just wasn’t well enough known, even though I felt he was about to break through,” Rhian explained. “I just wanted to do it for fun and without anybody telling me what to do.”

“I decided to follow him to Edinburgh to see how he went at the Festival, so most of the film was funded by myself and my partner, and we still haven’t been paid back. But it was a hoot to do.”

Sure enough, the film shows Tim winning an award at Edinburgh and reigniting his career. Rock n Roll Nerd received funding via the MIFF Premiere Fund, also triggering a screening at MIFF for the feature length version of the film. The ABC also eventually screened the 50 minute version, via JTV docs. As well, Film Victoria gave Rhian some funding to make a trailer. Lizzette Atkins came on board initially as a mentor, and then as co-producer, but the film was made through Rhian’s company Letterbox Films.

Rhian shot the film and recorded sound at the same time with judicious use of a Sennheiser shotgun mike. However she needed assistance to record some of the live performances on stage, which are difficult to record live. “I filmed it myself because I couldn’t drag anyone else around,” she said. “I hadn’t picked up a camera since I left Uni, but I learnt a lot.”

She described how the film has an A and B narrative with the struggle for Tim to achieve recognition as a comic as the A narrative and his dilemma about having children the B story.

“If you want to do it properly it keeps you awake at night,” she concluded. But the film was picked up by distributor Madman for a DVD release and in the end it was a considerable success.

The evening’s host Sophie Meyrick summed up that the Australian Directors Guild would work to improve funding for documentary filmmakers, and urged all present to join up if they weren’t already members.

Mark Poole
Screen Hub
Wednesday 19 May, 2010

Leave a Reply