PUBLISHED16 Feb 2023

Facing The Factual – IF Magazine

Documentary Australia CEO, Mitzi Goldman comments on streaming services and their impact on documentary subject and style.

The proliferation of streaming services across the past few years has undoubtedly meant more choice for documentary lovers, but some argue it has not necessarily equated to greater opportunity for filmmakers. Sean Slatter speaks to those who suggest greater interest in the sector is shaping not only subject matter, but also style.

Then producer Gabriel Shipton set out to make documentary Ithaka in 2019, his objective was clear – detail the plight of his brother, Julian Assange, while focusing on his family’s side of a decade-long battle played out across the world’s media.

What proved harder to settle on was the project’s path to audience.

Shipton’s concept countered the narrative pushed by outlets such as the BBC and ABC, who instead focused Assange’s character and his behaviour while holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, making it a tough sell.

While he received positive feedback from the more than 50 pitch meetings he undertook in relation to the project, it did not translate to call backs.

“I think the funding bodies and streamers found it very hard to get on board with the fact we were telling this story from a perspective that wasn’t what was usually heard through the media,” Shipton tells IF.

“It was a personal story that gave the family’s perspective of this persecution, so I think there was a bit of resistance to that as well, even though that is our strength.”

Despite not securing financing, Shipton proceeded with the film, selling off most of his assets to keep the crew shooting and bring director Ben Lawrence onboard.

He also received crowdfunding support via the Documentary Australia website, through which he was able to raise almost $100,000.

It was a gamble that would end up paying off, with Ithaka having its US premiere in November at DOC NYC, following screenings at the Sydney Film Festival, Sheffield Doc/ Fest and Doc Edge NZ.

In Australia, the film had a limited theatrical release via Bonsai Films, before being broadcast on the ABC.

Shipton says although he is encouraged that more people have become receptive to the film’s subject matter over time, the risks involved in making it are not easy to repeat.

Richard Assange faces the press pack in ‘Ithaka’.
Richard Assange faces the press pack in ‘Ithaka’.

“If you’re an established filmmaker, do you go out and sell everything you own to make a documentary about a subject matter that you believe in and think other people need to know about?” he says.

“[Ithaka] was very personal for me, which is why I always had confidence it would happen, but if you’re a filmmaker, why would you do that?

“So you end up in a situation where there’ll be so many untold stories because there’s no uptake from the people who control the money.”

Shipton’s experience is symptomatic of what Documentary Australia co-founder and CEO Mitzi Goldman believes to be an increasingly risk-averse mentality when it comes to commissioning documentaries.

Ithaka was one of nearly 350 films approved to receive support from the not-for-profit organisation in the three years from 2019-2021, having come under its key impact areas of environment, youth, Indigenous, human rights/social justice, health and wellbeing, women and girls, and the arts.

The reporting period coincided with a surge in demand for documentaries globally, led largely by increased investment from streaming services. A 2021 analysis from data solutions company Diesel Labs found that documentaries and docuseries accounted for 19 per cent of Netflix’s catalog, 16 per cent of Amazon’s and 34 per cent of Disney+’s.

Domestically, Stan, Amazon and Disney all unveiled unscripted slates in 2022, each of which had a healthy presence of celebrity and sport-related stories.

Of the four new titles to come under Stan’s Revealed documentary strand, there were portraits of AFL player and coach Danielle Laidley and entertainment icon Barry Otto, while Amazon’s new commissions ranged from a second season of cricket docuseries The Test to a new series exploring Sydney dance institution Brent Street and Screen Australia-supported programs about children’s entertainers The Wiggles and footballer Hakeem al-Araibi.

Disney announced four new Australian docuseries in May, with women’s sports projects Fearless: The Inside Story of AFLW and Matildas: The World at Our Feet joining ocean culture explorations, Chasing Waves and Shipwreck Hunters.

Goldman, a previous head of documentary at AFTRS and executive director of documentary production company Looking Glass Pictures, compares the streamers commissioning patterns with what has happened previously with broadcasters becoming more rigid with what they commission.

“What happens is you get this prescription from the broadcasters or the platforms and then you get the documentary filmmakers that are very market-driven and are shaping what they put their resources and their interest into depending on what the market is going to buy. ,” she tells IF.

According to Goldman, the tendency of commissioners to favour a certain type of subject matter is already influencing the type of projects that are being submitted to Documentary Australia for support, with the organisation’s last round of quarterly funding drawing five sport film concepts.

“You have filmmakers all competing with each other to get the gig and once that cycle has ballooned, it then busts because then it becomes ‘Oh, we don’t need another sports or celebrity documentary’.

Documentary Australia co-founder and CEO Mitzi Goldman.

Documentary Australia co-founder and CEO Mitzi Goldman.

“It’s a bit of a shame because from where I sit, I see so many interesting stories that are quite unique and original that we haven’t seen very much of before.I think if there was a little bit more appetite to actually educate the audience and shape the tastes a little bit, there would be a much richer cultural conversation we could be having about the context of the society in which we live.”

It’s a trend Documentary Australia is hoping to counter through programs such as the newly announced Environmental Accelerator, which will support impact campaigns for up to 10 films across the next three years, using existing campaigns to amplify and grow causes with which they are associated.

The initiative is being delivered with the support of Madman Entertainment, distributor of docos such as The Australian Dream, Mystify: Micahel Hutchence, and Gurrumul.

Speaking about the current landscape, Madman Entertainment co-founder and CEO Paul Wiegard says increased investment is creating a healthier ecosystem for documentary production companies, which may led to better resourced enterprises. However, he is not convinced major streaming platforms are ultimately aligned with all documentary filmmakers.

“Those wishing to speak truth to power will likely be compromised, those that need extended production timelines may not be accommodated and stories travelling beyond Australian shores an essential criteria,” he tells IF.

“Big streaming platforms require a big number of eyeballs, and not all projects will generate the requisite numbers. I’d like to think documentarians will continue to be creative, finding the balance of both making films on their own terms, alongside the commissioned projects.”

The impact of new platforms on the documentary sector was previously discussed by filmmaker Tom Zubrycki in his 2019 platform paper, The Changing Landscape of Australian Documentary, which refers to “the transition from a rapidly outdated broadcast model to a digital future made up of many platforms” as an historical moment for factual.

In introducing the paper, Zubrycki said that “despite the digital era presenting new opportunities, most of us working in the sector are facing a grim and uncertain future”, but noted that the entry of Netflix and Amazon into the Australian market gave “hope of change on the way” if they were regulated to fund Australian content.

More than four years later and with content quotas still being determined by the government, the director says there has only been a been only “very marginal improvement” in documentary investment, adding that while there may be greater opportunities for independent producers, it could come at a cost of “a Faustian bargain with the powerful platforms”.

“The indications from the major streamers in sessions that I recently attended at [MIFF] 37° South is that, like their parent companies in the US, the stories they favour are definitely at the commercial end –i.e. they need to have broad appeal and ideally a built-in fan base,” he tells IF.

“Plus, it’s not only the subject matter, but it’s the actual formula of presentation that streamers prescribe – often based on algorithms they’ve developed to keep audiences from drifting to other programs or other platforms.”

On the flipside, the new players in the market offer their Australian collaborators high-end production values and reach, as seen in the case of Netflix’s first Australian original documentary Puff: Wonders of the Reef, a co-production between Wild Pacific Media and Port Douglasbased BioQuest Studios.

Released in December 2021, the film follows a baby puffer fish through the Great Barrier Reef as he learns to survive and thrive through his first year of life, with director Nick Robinson and cinematographer Pete West developing super-macro camera techniques for the project, designed to immerse viewers in the world of the reef’s tiny inhabitants.

‘Puff: Wonders of the Reef’.

‘Puff: Wonders of the Reef’ (Photo: Netflix)

The creative team was recognised at the 2022 News & Documentary Emmy Awards, taking home the award for Outstanding Nature Documentary.

In an interview with IF following the win, director Robinson said he had wanted to tell the story for a while, but said it wasn’t the sort of film he could make on the budgets his company usually worked with, having cost in the realm of $3-5 million.

He credits Netflix, whom Wild Pacific Media pitched the idea to at a conference in 2020, with helping to achieve a reach “well beyond” any Australian project he has previously been involved with, describing the company’s entry to the documentary space as a “gamechanger”.

“We had been trying to break into the high-end blue-chip natural history space for a long time and to be able to do it with Puff: Wonders of the Reef is amazing,” he said.

“Hopefully, it leads to more.” Streamers have allowed audiences access to high-end documentaries they would otherwise have to go film festivals or cinemas to see, according to Paramount ANZ head of popular factual Sarah Thornton.

In her role, Thornton has not only overseen the production of Network 10 documentaries, Claremont: A Killer Among Us, Lindy Chamberlain: The True Story and Todd Sampson’s Mirror Mirror, but also Paramount+ unscripted titles, including Couples Therapy and The Bridge.

She says the network does not take its documentary commissions lightly, noting the younger audience comes with an expectation of premium factual.

“When we commission a doc, we want whatever we bring in to tend to feel premium,” she says.

“We want people to have access to something that’s really been curated and cared for and in general it has worked for us.”

Having previously worked across multiple factual entertainment and documentary series for Sky, C4, Channel 5 and the BBC, she is philosophical about how the sector has been impacted by streaming, suggesting that the “documentary landscape is constantly changing, regardless of who the influences are”.

“Documentary filmmakers are, by nature, curious and self-critical and always looking to do things better,” she says.

“What Netflix has done has allowed us to view feature docs, which have always existed, in the comfort of our own home and I think also highlighted the fact that there is a finance model that works.”

For Goldman, greater scrutiny of the financial model used by the broadcasters in relation to documentary programming may provide the key to “more fertile soil for experimentation in different forms and different voices” amid the algorithm-driven streaming companies.

“What I would like to see is greater scrutiny on how the documentary budget is divided between the one-off feature docs, the television hours, as compared to the factual entertainment reality TV formats that might have been created overseas but made in Australia by a local production company,” she says.

“Some of them are very good, don’t get me wrong, but what’s the division of that lot of funding between factual entertainment reality shows that can be quite expensive to make and are semiscripted, compared to what goes into a genuine documentary, which I would call not scripted in that way.

“I’d just like to see it shaken up a bit because it’s become very conservative and predictable.”

Article by Sean Slatter from IF Magazine – January 2023.