Documentary: the great multiplatform adventure

Dan Edwards

Selwyn Anderson, Ishmael Palmer, Gibson Turner, UsMob

Selwyn Anderson, Ishmael Palmer, Gibson Turner, UsMob

Perhaps it was the sunny Adelaide weather, the film festival up the road or the post-election sense that serious work is required if the film industry is to survive the Howard era, but in marked contrast to the “air of gloom” reportedly hanging over last year’s Australian International Documentary Conference (RT60, p16), a generally optimistic tone was maintained throughout this year’s event. South Australian Premier Mike Rann kicked off proceedings in an up-beat fashion by announcing an extra $750,000 in state funding for the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) and a $600,000 deal between the SAFC and SBSi to fund documentaries with a significant broadband component. The initiative reflects an interest in the multi-platform possibilities of documentaries that dominated AIDC 2005.

Premier Rann’s launch was followed by an identity-affirming keynote address by American writer and academic Richard Florida. His thesis, as detailed in his 2002 best-seller The Rise of the Creative Class, is that the West is currently undergoing a transition to a ‘creative economy’, as significant and far-reaching as the 19th century shift from agrarian to industrial society. Prowling the AIDC stage like a slick self-help guru, complete with head-set microphone and well crafted off-the-cuff comments, Florida argued that the creative class flourished under the Clinton Administration in urban centres such as San Francisco, New York and Washington. In the process, however, blue collar workers in those cities and other parts of the United States felt increasingly threatened by, and alienated from, the new economic order. The Bush Administration is the manifestation of their resentment. Florida argued passionately that the creative class must regain the initiative, but to do so we must work towards a more inclusive creative economy that has a place for everyone.

Not having read Florida’s book, I’m not sure to what extent his speech represented a distillation of ideas more fully developed in print. In broad terms his description of the rise of the creative class and the associated political shifts of the past 15 years contains some truth, but he failed to acknowledge that the concurrent process of economic liberalisation has had as negative an impact on many ‘creatives’ as those in more traditional industries. Many Australian academics, researchers and arts workers of all kinds suffer exactly the same forms of economic disempowerment, instability and exploitation as blue collar workers–as many of those at the AIDC could testify. The so-called creative class is in fact a sector comprising several economic classes, some of whom are a good deal worse off than they were 15 years ago.

Figures cited by the AFC’s Rosemary Curtis later in the conference demonstrated that the kind of creative economy described by Florida is precisely what is missing from Australia’s cultural landscape. Only 36% of Australian documentary directors in the past 13 years have made more than one film. Wages and fees have remained static or declined, and most filmmakers lack stable employment. It wasn’t news to anyone at the AIDC when industry researcher Peter Higgs stated his recent study of the local documentary sector revealed an extremely fragile ecosystem with a tiny capital base rendering it highly susceptible to shocks. But Higgs also reaffirmed a point that recurred throughout the conference, and provided a glimmer of hope for Australia’s struggling sector: online platforms will shortly revolutionise the way we produce, distribute and consume audio-visual material. The Australian media industries need to seize the opportunity to create a sustainable production sector in the new environment or risk being permanently excluded from the 21st century media landscape.

New distribution models

In her AIDC 2004 report for RealTime, Carmela Baranowska identified the off-stage discussions between younger filmmakers about alternative modes of production and distribution as one of the event’s key points of interest. In 2005 some of these filmmakers moved centre stage. The story of how Time to Go John (TTGJ) came about in the lead up to last year’s federal election has already been related in RT65 (p18). The team behind the film conducted an inspiring panel session at the AIDC highlighting how much can be achieved by a motivated group committed to change.

The session was enhanced by the on-screen presence of US filmmaker Robert Greenwald whose internet and DVD-distributed documentaries Outfoxed and Uncovered were key inspirations for the TTGJ project. Greenwald’s real-time image was transmitted from New York via the internet using ultra cheap i-chat technology, allowing him to listen, take questions from the audience and reply with a delay of just seconds. The set up was further evidence of the pan-national lines of communication opened by accessible digital technologies such as those employed by Greenwald and the TTGJ team in making and distributing their films. The session’s encouraging tone was rounded off by Melbourne’s OPENChannel Executive Producer Liz Burke announcing the launch of a Political Film Fund created with the profits from TTGJ. The fund will allocate grants of up to $2,000 towards the completion of political film projects.

Canadian inspiration

In terms of new technologies, the real buzz at the AIDC centred on a series of presentations by representatives of Canadian production companies specialising in interactive content. In marked contrast to Australia, where independent producers lurch from project to project and find it almost impossible to build an ongoing capital base, many Canadian production companies are able to function as viable small businesses with a salaried staff of 2 to 5 people.

This situation has been made possible by regulations introduced a decade ago aimed at creating an economic base for Canada’s creative industries. Whenever a broadcaster changes hands, 10% of the price has to be contributed by the purchaser to the Canadian industry through production funds, investment in training or funding of community-based media. Over 10 years this has created several massive monetary injections. Additionally, all TV channels in Canada must meet quotas of locally produced content and cable channels have to contribute 5% of their gross revenue to the local industry. Generally, 4% goes to the Canadian Television Fund, a private-public initiative with an annual budget of around $237 million (all figures are given in Australian dollars), while the other 1% is usually put into private funds established by the broadcasters themselves. The broadcast company is permitted minority representation on the fund board, but essentially the fund must operate at arm’s length from the parent company.

There are now about 20 private funds which have invested approximately $65 million in the industry. One of the most successful is the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund, which receives around $5 million annually from the Cable TV company Bell ExpressVu. The fund primarily backs interactive projects associated with a broadcast property (usually a television series) through grants covering up to 75% of production costs. The interactive content generally operates on an online platform. The budget for interactive components of TV series in Canada is typically the equivalent of one broadcast episode.

A range of innovative documentary-related projects underwritten by Bell Fund grants were presented at the AIDC, several of which were aimed at the youth market. Online audiences in this demographic frequently outnumber those tuning into broadcasts. Nathon Gunn of Bitcasters Inc discussed a project in which the website actually generated a broadcast component. Bitcasters were initially commissioned by Canada’s Family Cable Channel to create a site through which children could join a ‘kids’ club.’ Bitcasters created a game-based website that managed to generate a membership of 100,000 with no on-air promotion. Recognising the immense potential of this audience, Bitcasters developed the site with Bell Fund money into an online chat service featuring animated characters who will also feature in a broadcast series.

Patrick Crowe of Xenophile Media discussed 2 projects illustrating the diversity of work backed by the Bell Fund and the flow-on effects created by a funding arrangement that fosters a complementary relationship between television and interactive media production. Toronto’s Rhombus Media, who specialise in music and performance films, required extra funds for a documentary about a lock of Beethoven’s hair. The lock has gone through many hands and had a surprising influence on various people’s lives since it was snipped from the composer’s head on his deathbed. Adding an interactive component allowed Rhombus to apply for Bell Fund money. Xenophile Media were commissioned to create the interactive content and they in turn employed new media artist Alex Mayhew to design an interactive website containing a wealth of material unable to be included in the one hour documentary.

Xenophile Media also received a Bell Fund grant to create an interactive element for the broadcast of the Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the AFI’s). This took the form of a live quiz tied to the content of the broadcast and extra information on award nominees. Interaction took place via the viewer’s television using a window similar to that used in Sky TV satellite services. The interactive component could also be accessed online.

Bell Fund Executive Director Andra Sheffer made the point that projects such as the Genie Awards interactive broadcast attract relatively small audiences and are primarily experiments. The Bell Fund’s mandate is to advance the Canadian broadcasting system, which includes funding untested innovations in interactive media, so that when these experiments evolve into viable revenue streams Canadian practitioners have the expertise, experience and technical infrastructure to become world leaders in providing interactive media content.

Instructive comparisons

The effect of Canada’s funding structures on production activity is starkly revealed by a comparison with Australia, especially on the documentary front. Funding for Australian documentaries represent 3% of the total amount spent locally on audio-visual production; in Canada it’s 12%. Even more telling are the amounts involved: 3% of Australian production spending represents $38 million, while 12% in Canadian represents $416 million. And while domestic box office returns for Canadian feature films in recent years have been even worse than those in Australia, Canada is now the second biggest exporter of television in the world after the United States. They are also positioned to become a world leader in providing interactive content for convergent technology platforms.

UsMob

There was an abundance of Australian talent and innovation on display at the AIDC, and one of the major failings of last year’s conference was remedied with an extensive screening program. Typically, Indigenous filmmaking shone with films like Dhakiyarr vs the King (directors Allan Collins, Tim Murray, RT61, p22) and Rosalie’s Journey (director Warwick Thornton, RT62, p23). Indigenous media was represented by the Warlpiri Media Association and the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). Veteran filmmaker Bob Connolly was also on hand, reading excepts from his new book about the making of Black Harvest (1991), a fitting tribute to his late partner and fellow filmmaker Robin Anderson. Dennis O’Rourke confirmed his role as everyone’s favourite agent provocateur, appearing on several panels and making fellow speakers nervous with every question. O’Rourke’s Landmines–A Love Story and several other local documentaries premiered at the concurrent Adelaide Film Festival (see p21).

One of the most interesting panels on new Australian content focused on the fruits of the AFC-ABC Broadband Initiative. Several practitioners previewed interactive web-based works which will be rolled out over the next few months, the most outstanding of which was David Vadiveloo’s UsMob (usmob.com.au). This project is based around 7 short films, each with 3 different endings exploring the consequences of particular choices. The films were created and shot by Vadiveloo in collaboration with Indigenous children living in a township on the edge of Alice Springs. Vadiveloo has worked in the area intermittently for a decade, initially as a lawyer on a Native Title claim, then as a filmmaker. His documentary Beyond Sorry (RT63, p17) screened at the Adelaide Film Festival.

UsMob emerged from a request by local Indigenous elders for Vadiveloo to create an online space where Aboriginal kids could see their lives represented. The elders also wanted to encourage engagement with digital technologies, as they fear that the digital revolution will simply represent another barrier for Indigenous kids. The UsMob films were developed from the children’s own stories, with the actual shoots largely improvised on location around pre-planned ideas. The cast comprised the kids and members of their community. Every stage of the project’s development and production was vetted by the community.

The UsMob films are to appear on the web over 7 weeks from late February. The site also contains games, scrap books compiled by the kids during the shoot, and an interactive feedback area where users can respond to the films and upload their own stories and images. The site will not only provide a space for Indigenous kids online, but also link them with children outside their own environment, forging what Vadiveloo calls a virtual “community of consequence.”

The challenge

Unfortunately, the AFC-ABC Broadband Initiative was a one-off round of grants. The projects showcased at the AIDC were as impressive as anything the Canadians had to offer, but it’s difficult to see how the groundbreaking work of our interactive media producers can continue and develop without serious, ongoing investment. This extends into infrastructure: apart from their innovative funding models, Canadians have a major advantage over Australian producers in the area of broadband take-up rates. Nearly 70% of Canadian households have the broadband connections required to carry advanced interactive content; the figure in Australia is around 14%.

There was much talk at the AIDC of campaigning for the establishment of a private fund based on the Canadian model with profits from the Telstra sale. Given the depressing trajectory of the Australian film industry, and the financial strangulation of our traditional funding bodies by the Howard government, structures which provide a degree of long term economic stability for small producers are desperately needed. For all the stimulating talks and great films, for many delegates the AIDC boiled down to one thing–money. I got the distinct impression that the real action was taking place off stage in the lunches and tea breaks, with frenzied card swapping, desperate attempts to solicit broadcaster representatives’ time and nervous corridor pitches to sceptical commissioning editors.

A week after the AIDC, the Canadian delegation appeared at a Sydney forum organised by X|Media|Lab and the Australian Writer’s Guild, focussing on new funding models for Australia’s media industries. Federal Liberal MPs Bruce Baird and Bronwyn Bishop were in attendance, and in his summing up Baird expressed a keen interest in the Canadian models. His positive tone was somewhat undercut by a frank admission that Treasury is determined that all profits from the Telstra sale will go towards servicing debt. Long term investment in creative, informational and educational industries is essential if Australia is to become an exporter of 21st century commodities. The alternative is to become an increasingly irrelevant old economy based on natural resource exports and consumption of overseas goods, generating an ever-growing current account deficit.

The way forward

The insights provided by the Bell Fund delegation provide some working models around which discussion and long-term lobbying of the federal government can coalesce. As Domenic Friguglietti of ABC New Media and Digital Services commented at the AIDC, Australia’s existing funding structures generate tension between an interactive media community and film industry competing for the same scarce resources. The Bell Fund model fosters an artistically and financially complementary relationship between interactive media and traditional film and television production.

The primary message to emerge from the discussions at the AIDC and the Sydney forum was the need for a long term industry strategy and a united voice when lobbying government. The cultural justification for subsidised media production is valid, but holds no sway with those in Canberra. However, the Canadian experience demonstrates that well planned economic structuring by government can create a viable domestic and export media industry not reliant on a constant stream of individual government grants. The Free Trade Agreement with the US is already in effect and there is only a tiny window of opportunity left before the Coalition’s takeover of the Senate and the consequent Telstra sale. It remains to be seen whether Australian documentary makers, and media producers in general, have left it too late to persuade the government to create the necessary economic structures that might allow an Australian creative economy to flourish in the 21st century.

AIDC 2005, Adelaide Hilton, Feb 21-24

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 19-

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005