Defunding feature documentaries – the numbers behind the rage

How many feature docs are made each year? What do they cost? How much tax subsidy do they use? Here are the actual numbers.

The Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) has been working out the total impact of the changes of the Producer Offset threshold from $500,000 to $1 million which the Federal Government is introducing on July 1.

The figures are difficult to assemble. The rebate system is run by the Producer Offset and Co-production Unit (POCU), which sits inside Screen Australia. The general data on the Offset does not separate out feature documentaries from dramas, even though they are different beasts. 

READ: Feature doc makers fight back against new funding disaster

DAF knows the total number of features which are supported, and how much money is provided. CEO Mitzi Goldman and Impact and Education Director Clara Williams Roldan have combed Annual Reports and other announcements to estimate the number of feature documentaries receiving the Offset each year, and the average budgets. 

This enables them to work out the total budgets of these documentaries for each year from 2015/16 to 2019/20. From that, suing the 40% figure, they can work out the amount of money provided by the Offset system, and the total percentage of that amount compared to the Offset for feature films in total. 

Over the last five years, 251 feature films have been supported, collectively receiving an offset of $621 million. Of these, 112 have been feature documentaries, but their budgets are significantly lower. The total feature documentary budget is just $70 million, and the Offset provided comes to $27.5 million. 

Feature doc makers are not being squeezed – they are being heaved out. 

Nearly half of the total number of titles are feature documentaries, which cost between 3% and 7% of the annual feature film rebate. That is a tiny percentage, caused by the simple fact that feature documentary budgets are so low.

Screenhub is being firmly told the feature documentary sector cannot afford to lose that 40%. Don’t forget that we are not talking about the 10% gained or lost by the feature and television sectors, but the entire amount because this is an argument about thresholds, which control access to the whole system. 

Feature doc makers are not being squeezed – they are being heaved out. 

The Documentary Australia Foundation is a central way of funnelling donor or partnership money into the sector. Over the last ten years, DAF has overseen close to $30m in funding, over more than 500 films, most of which are not feature docs. A lot of these are supported by Screen Australia, and are run on government broadcasters. 

It is important to emphasise that the businesses working in the feature documentary sector are viable. That is, they do what is on the tin when they sign their contracts, they reach the audiences they seek, and they engage internationally. These businesses are also making 50 minute documentaries which will receive the 30% Offset, and may also survive on other non-broadcast low budget strands. 

The low budget drama sector caught by the same exclusion does not pass this test of general viability, and we should not confuse them.

Generally speaking, the feature documentary sector passes the government’s pub test as significant small businesses. The sector is a poster child for the argument that the cultural sector should create sponsorship opportunities. 

And the whole thing costs the Offset less than $7 million per year.

Here is the DAF chart:

DAF is also circulating some case studies of key feature documentaries with an advocacy dimension. They are as follows:

In My Blood It Runs

In My Blood It Runs was directed by Maya Newell and produced by Sophie Hyde in 2019.

Telling the story of Arrertne child-healer Dujuan, In My Blood it Runs cost $1.131 million to make and market through its impact campaign. It grossed $373,000 in cinemas and was shown on a total of 40 screens, to around 260,000 people. The ABC screened it to 458,000 people. 

READ: Syd Film Fest Documentaries Reviewed: In My Blood it Runs and Martha A Picture Story

There were over 50 impact screenings, 400+ workplace events, and a minimum of 2500 school lessons. More than 80 Q&A screenings were held in over 30 countries.

The work raised $127,000 to build a school at Mpweringke Anapipe, $75,000 for immediate Covid relief to Aboriginal communities included $7,000 from ticket sales and $68,000 from a GoFundMe co-presented by the film.

Ghosthunter

Ghosthunter was directed by Ben Lawrence and produced by Rebecca Bennett.

In 2018, Ghosthunter told the story of childhood trauma survivor, Jason King, a western Sydney security guard and part-time ghost hunter. The documentary explores the two decades searching for his absent father. The film received $893,000 through DAF. 150,000 people saw it on SBS, and 1,433 tickets were sold in the cinema release, grossing $20,000 on three screens.

The social impact campaign allowed it to be used as a tool to understand childhood trauma and the effect on adults. The educational screening guide was downloaded 311 times while supporting partners like the Blue Knot Foundation, the Survivors and Mates Support Work and expert Julie Blyth. It was a key element of the 2019 Family and Community Services Practice Conference. 

Embrace

Embrace was written and directed by Taryn Brumfitt, and produced by her and Anna Vincent.

Synopsis: Embrace is a social impact documentary that explores the serious issue of body loathing, inspiring us to change the way we feel about ourselves and think about our bodies. Released in 2016, this film is relevant, relatable, highly engaging – but above all life changing.

Embrace is a 2016 documentary that explored the sensitive issue of body image. 

DAF contributed $33,175 to the production of Embrace and $132,391 for Embrace Kids. Transmission distributed the film into cinemas, to gross $1.184 million off 27 screens, which reached a total of 84,500 people. It did very well in Germany.

According to DAF, ‘A worldwide peer-reviewed research project by Flinders and Victoria Universities of more than 1500 adult women has proven the social impact of the embrace documentary, finding that viewing the film significantly changed women’s lives for the better. Women who saw Embrace reported much higher body appreciation, lower levels of body shame, self-objectification, and dieting and were less likely to treat their body as an object, to believe that they should be thin or be ashamed of their body.’

The film was calculated to be five times as effective at changing perceptions compared to a long session of conventional education. It has been used effectively in school, while the movement behind the film has been running around the world for more than five years.

Backtrack Boys

Backtrack Boys was directed, produced and brought to audiences by Catherine Scott.

Synopsis: A group of troubled boys are on a perilous course towards jail until they meet up with the free-wheeling jackaroo, Bernie Shakeshaft, and hit the road with his legendary dog jumping team. This observational documentary, follows boys in a youth program BackTrack that Bernie runs from a shed on the outskirts of Armidale, Australia.

This observational documentary, follows boys in a youth program BackTrack that Bernie runs from a shed on the outskirts of Armidale, Australia.

DAF raised $412,000 to make the film. It generated considerable affection, particularly in regional communities.  25,000 people saw it through 220 community screenings and 20 events.

Umbrella released it into conventional cinema screenings, which were seen by 12,300 people on 40 screens, to take $171,000 at the box office. 

Backtrack Boys also screened on SBS and NITV to at least 200,000 people.

Film screenings raised over $500,000 for the Backtrack Youthworks Program, while it inspired 150 new donors and a multi-year major sponsor. And, says DAF, ‘Community screenings have already inspired the establishment of new programs based on the Backtrack Youthworks model including ‘RuffTrack’, ‘Down The Track’, and ‘Making Tracks’ in other regional towns, and 120+ communities expressing interest in Backtrack style programs.

In further good news for the team, Backtrack Boys won the Best Documentary Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival, at Canberra’s Stronger than Fiction Festival,  Byron Bay and the Film Critics Circle of Australia. 

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.