Making and distributing from the grassroots up

Dan Edwards: Documentary distribution in the digital era

It was living in a dictatorship that cemented my love of documentaries. Thankfully, we don’t suffer under such a system, so documentaries in Australia will perhaps never carry quite the same charge they possess in some countries. But ruminations on the stark differences between the documentary world I encountered in China and Australia’s more staid factual realm have been bubbling away at the back of my mind since I returned home in 2011.

Independent Chinese documentaries are cheaply made and technically rough, but the best of this work is infused with a passion that held me transfixed. When I watched these films in cafes, galleries and studios in Beijing, I knew others in the audience felt the same way. So why don’t I get the same feelings here? Digital technologies were supposed to liberate filmmaking, but local documentaries feel like they’re getting less challenging and certainly more formulaic. These thoughts returned to the front of my mind recently with a debate initiated by Australian filmmaking legend Bob Connolly and the publication of Lauren Carroll Harris’ Platform Paper, Not at a Cinema Near You (Currency House). Both offered some provocative views on the structural problems besetting Australia’s documentary scene.

Back in August, Connolly used the occasion of a private screening of Sophia Turkiewicz’s new film, On My Mother, to make a speech problematising the state of Australian documentary funding. Connolly pointed out that almost all forms of Screen Australia funding are now contingent on broadcaster presales—with the result that a pair of commissioning editors at the ABC and SBS exercise enormous power over what documentaries are made. This situation is hardly conducive to diversity, and has been dire for the production of stand-alone feature-length documentaries.

Connolly’s comments are so self evident that the response of the ABC’s Head of Factual Programming, Phil Craig, was somewhat surprising. In an email, later published by Screen Hub, he told Connolly his speech was “utter bollocks” and challenged the veteran director to a head-to-head session at the next AIDC from which “only one of us walks out alive.” For Craig’s sake, I wouldn’t like to lay odds on who would emerge from such an encounter. He later backed down from this rather childish and belligerent stance, but his initial reaction is indicative of the profound resistance of some broadcast personnel to having their assumptions challenged.

The point of Connolly’s speech, as he himself later pointed out, was not to criticise the programming decisions of particular commissioning editors. It was to highlight the fact that broadcaster presales now represent virtually the only funding pathway for Australian documentary makers. Since the ABC and SBS are usually the only broadcasters in this country awarding such presales, this places enormous power in the hands of very few individuals and forces almost every project into the television template.

Breaking distribution barriers

Which brings me to Lauren Carroll Harris’ Platform Paper, Not at a Cinema Near You. Harris’ essay focuses on the similarly constricted realm of Australian theatrical distribution, although in this instance the restrictions are more related to commercial oligopolies. Like Connolly, she identifies the necessity of having a theatrical distributor attached to a film to garner Screen Australia funds as a problem for most Australian features. The nature of distribution in Australia means very few local features get any chance to compete fairly against the Hollywood fare dominating cinemas. Harris suggests some innovative ideas for diversifying distribution strategies, mainly revolving around the game-changing nature of digital technologies. Like Connolly, she suggests decoupling film funding from the severely limited distribution options prescribed under Screen Australia guidelines, and cites one of Connolly’s films, co-directed with Sophie Raymond, as an instructive example of how distribution can be done differently.

After their feature-length documentary Mrs Carey’s Concert successfully debuted at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2011, Palace offered Connolly and Raymond a distribution deal. As Harris details, even when these rare deals are forthcoming for Australian work, the terms mean that filmmakers are virtually guaranteed to see no returns, no matter how successful their theatrical run. So Connolly and Raymond rejected Palace’s offer, and organised their own release, initially through nine cinemas, which gradually grew to 70 nationwide.

Self-distribution

Self-distribution is a realistic option in an age when the prohibitive cost of making film prints is no longer necessary. Connolly and Raymond personally worked their screenings, conducting Q&As and selling DVDs. They spread the word among the education and classical music communities in which the film is set, and utilised the Australian Teachers of Media mailing list. They put together a soundtrack CD. They carefully and painstakingly cultivated their audience. The result was one of the most financially successful Australian documentaries in history. That still doesn’t add up to a whole lot of money, but maximising even minimal earnings is important if you’re a documentarian trying to make a living.

In this example, Harris also sees something potentially more empowering in the long run for both filmmakers and audiences. She writes:

“The filmmakers saw distribution as a way of creating the film culture they regard as possible and necessary…active audiences were encouraged to contribute to the kind of film culture they desired.”

To me this is the most exciting—and least realised—possibility afforded by the digital revolution. These technologies allow the possibility of bypassing some of the traditional gatekeepers of public culture to forge an audience more actively invested in what they are seeing. Admittedly, Mrs Carey’s Concert relied on an ABC presale to actually get made, but the filmmakers chose to bypass the oligopoly dominating Australian theatrical distribution to get their work into cinemas. And they took control of building their audience, rather than simply handing their work over to a major distributor with little financial incentive to promote Australian cinema of any kind, let alone documentaries.

Diversifying screen culture

If we’re truly passionate about documentaries as public stories, and not just television “content,” we should not only be making these films by whatever means necessary, but also building events and spaces—both physical and virtual —in which we can share them. Connolly’s arguments about diversifying funding channels for production are important, but any changes to funding criteria should work hand in hand with a more diversified and grassroots screening culture, vital to nurturing a more vibrant and engaged documentary culture. It’s no coincidence that one of the key publicists who helped Connolly and Raymond distribute Mrs Carey’s Concert was Kim Lewis, a veteran of the Filmmaker Co-ops that distributed documentaries and experimental films in most Australian capitals in the 1970s and 80s. The co-ops represent an example of grassroots, filmmaker-led distribution that is sadly lacking in contemporary times.

In fact, in our commercially driven and individualistic era, initiatives like the film co-ops seem like a distant dream. Yet within this history—our history—there lies a whole other way of making, distributing and thinking about films that has largely been forgotten. When I lived in China, Western filmmakers would sometimes smugly tell me that Chinese independents had a lot to learn about tailoring their films to the international environment. It seems to me we could learn—or perhaps relearn—more from them: about why we make documentaries, about building a culture from the ground up, and most importantly, about how our film culture can be so much more than a market. Connolly and Harris have ignited the debate—may it continue to smoulder in 2014.

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 21

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

9 December 2013