The Holy Grail: Making Money from the Education Sector

Lots of questions and a couple of answers at this AIDC session. The takeaway: employ an education consultant right from the start.

The title of this session was enticing, encompassing a simple dream: to capture a built-in audience of teachers and students engaging with your documentary as part of the curriculum. Your work lives on in bright young minds, and has real impact in the world, while you’re able to sit back, collect screen rights fees, make a living and produce more work.

The reality is tricky, of course, and success is very much a mix of trial, error, public broadcaster support and zeitgeisty good luck. But there are things you can do to give your project its best chance in the classroom, mainly by thinking about this as early as possible in the conception, fundraising and writing. And also by employing an expert education consultant right from the start to produce materials that will tap in to specific year level and subject requirements.

Fighting post-lunch lull at the RMIT Kaleide Theatre on Tuesday 3 March, the panel consisted of: Kim Dalton, Screenrights Chair of board of directors; Toni Malone, director of production at CJZ Worldwide;  Elissa McKeand an executive factual producer from Foxtel; and Jason Kimberley, the founder and CEO of Cool Australia, an organisation that develops and produces education resources for documentary productions, and then makes these available for free to students and teachers.

The session was chaired by education specialist Anne Chesher, from SAE Creative Media Institute, whose PhD is entitled ‘TV and the 21st Century Classroom’. She began by saying that children these days are learning by screen, and prefer pictures that move. She foreshadowed we’d be looking at several case studies, all with different business models. The goal, was ‘to make sure that the market was getting what it wanted, and that content creators were able to repurpose their material in ways that were going to be rewarding, whether that was measured in revenue or social currency.’

Go Back to Where You Came From and the holy grail

The first case studies came from Toni Malone from Sydney-based CJZ, whose groundbreaking SBS factual series Go Back to Where You came From was a roaring success and brought in ‘considerable’ revenues across the four series. She said SBS were very ‘incredibly proactive in creating strong impact campaigns right from first series in 2012’, a time before such campaigns were standard.. The show was released during Refugee Week and was part of a national conversation and social media storm. It had huge ratings and this impact then flowed down to the educational sector.

Malone said SBS ‘basically organised for study kits to be sent into every single secondary school in Australia. They created their own guide around refugee issues. And we created a guide with ATOM, which was the requirement of the Screen Australia funding that we had at the time, and was more about the actual series. And we partnered with Amnesty Australia and had partner organisation viewings. Those study guides triggered schools to go and download the show and that made a lot of money upfront for us and set the project up over the years, and now that particular series (Series 1) is part of the NSW curriculum – which is of course the holy grail in both money and recognition of the refugee issue we were dealing with.’

By contrast, Malone discussed the difficulties of CJZ animated kids’ sex ed documentary series The Amazing True Story of How Babies are Made, a 3×7 minutes (or 21 minutes standalone) product.

Malone said this project had been an uphill battle from the start, despite being ‘the cutest thing we’ve ever made’ and absolutely necessary in a world where sex ed is grossly inadequate, and being adapted from an internationally successful book by Fiona Katauskas.

CJZ were unable to get funding, so self-funded the project, struggled to find a broadcaster, and eventually went with community television. (A broadcast was essential to trigger the screenrights.) CJZ created a really detailed classroom kit and family resource kit. The series and its associated materials are all available for sale online in lots of different ways that are ‘all competing against each other, because ideally we’d just love people to come directly to our website,’ but it’s also available on iTunes, Google Play, Enhance TV and others.

Malone said that despite putting lots of money into promotion, marketing and a US campaign, ‘it’s really perplexing why Amazing Babies was so hard to sell. It’s taught us quite a few things about distribution and getting your product out there and how hard it can be. We’re from TV so we’re very impatient and this has been a very long process.’

Screenrights and what they do and don’t do

There seemed some confusion in the panel around exactly how Screenrights works and its level of authority. Each of the participants had been told to pose a question for Dalton.

Malone’s question was: Can Screenrights look to umbrella the other educational platforms – Clickview, Enhance, the ABC or SBS, for a more simplified experience for schools and teachers, and also to be inclusive of all content from the networks?

Dalton answered that it was important to understand what Screenrights actually was and did; that it provides licenses around the copying of content off free to air services. And that Screenrights has no coverage or relationship with agencies like iTunes or that whole other online ecosystem. 

‘One of the things that Screenrights does, and it’s become increasingly important over the last 5 or 6 years, is license what we call resource centres like Clickview, and it also operates its own resource centre, Enhance TV, which has a focus particularly on the primary sector. There are other resource centres around, Clickview being the dominant one particularly in the secondary area. Those resource centres all have a different offering. Some of them generate their own content as well as the content they’re copying off air from broadcasters. I wouldn’t like you to think that Screenrights can in any way determine or influence the nature of the offering that those resource centres are offering, but certainly I think there’s room for a conversation that involves the resource centres and the producers who are making this content, to talk about opportunities for coordination.’

Dalton’s advice to Malone was to look at Amazing Babies as a very long slow burn, which over a long period of time with Clickview and Enhance, could eventually recoup some investments.

Dalton also cautioned any producer against being driven by the goal of having an education audience as its primary target or goal. ‘If it happens to click and fit and serve its purpose and has a secondary ongoing existence in the education context then you will receive some royalties appropriately rolled out.’

Case Study: The Aussie Inventions that Changed the World – hitting the curriculum points

Next up was Elissa McKeand’s 8-hour history series (History Channel, Foxtel), tracing some of the unsung heroes in Australian science and technology. With four inventions profiled per episode, McKeand said that although the show was made for adults, ‘from the time I was developing it back in 2015, I sent it to a curriculum consultant to say that I thought it could work well in the education sector, and what did they think?’

The answer she got was that it would work for years 5 and 6, and 9 and 10, in History, and in Design and Technology. ‘So I went on and made the show I wanted to make, but was always aware that there were key curriculum points that would be exciting for teachers if they wanted to use it because it’s the only thing in this area that takes a historical view on science and technology, and also challenges the idea that Australians aren’t clever, inventive and innovative.’

McKeand felt a passion for the project, and ‘wanted students and future leaders to be inspired as problem solvers facing the enormous challenges ahead of us.’ She worked with Enhance TV and Clickview and educators to create resources, but the very fractured marketplace was difficult.

‘We’re at a time where there’s still a fair bit of experimentation about the process and what’s the right amount of material to give – is it clips or whole shows that teachers want to use? Do we want teachers clipping themselves or do we want to deliver them ourselves? Who’s building the website and where does the responsibility sit?’

She said there were a lot of learnings, and that it would be good if there was some sort of ideal process or clear path to market, and ‘some generalised wisdom about what’s worth investing in and what isn’t, and what’s fruitful, not just economically but for the teachers.’

She said it’s still a waiting game to see if there’s money to made from the educational side of Aussie Inventions, as there’s significant lag time and teachers are still becoming aware of it. How teachers find the material if it’s not specifically on the curriculum is another issue, as Clickview along has 40,000 projects in it.

‘I guess I’m still fumbling through some of the kinds of challenges of that landscape that is new territory to producers who think they have a project that is going to hit a bulls eye in the education market.’

She said she’d love some kind of feedback system to know whether teachers liked the resources and were as excited by them as the producers hoped they were. Her question to Dalton was: Is there a model or a possible platform that would give us access to some kind of backend or metrics to see how our show is being used, and also how we might tweak or improve it?

The answer: Not really. ‘The numbers of times things get copied for their ongoing usage in education are enormous. The amount of pure data is huge, and the purpose of that data is to provide royalties, but getting that feedback loop is very difficult, and maybe we can try to think about how to look at that.’

Social Currency, social change, Cool Australia and The Final Quarter

While previous case studies looked more at a royalty and revenue model (though no real numbers were mentioned), next up Jason Kimberley explained how his ten-year-old company, Cool Australia worked with teachers on a national basis to deliver curriculum outside their comfort zones with a strong social justice agenda. They’ve been working with documentary film and TV for around 6 years, and a key success story was Damon Gameau’s 2040.

Kimberley and Gameau met right at the start before filming to talk about the possibilities. ‘We literally sat down at a restaurant and talked about what we thought was important and how we could work into the curriculum. We had a plan about how the outreach was going to go, and what money was going to be spent

‘We asked teachers what was important to them, and the idea of showing a feature documentary of 90 minutes and wiping out a couple of periods would be too much for them, but what they were excited about was looking at vignettes from the documentaries highlighting the key character arcs, the important moments and key messages of the film. Also the possibility of behind-the-scenes material that might have ended up on the cutting room floor, but helped the audience understand more.’

The case study Kimberley used here was Ian Darling’s Adam Goodes documentary The Final Quarter. Cool Australia offers a wealth of education resources tailored to specific subjects and using the film as a reference. 

‘A lot of teachers are very apprehensive about talking about racism and how they might get a reaction from parents and students, so we wanted to give them some ways to have these conversations.’

The film is used to look at everything from ‘the power of words, to racism, to community response, and how you can slot it in to a media lesson, an English lesson, PE, Civics and Maths is a challenge for our curriculum team who are very creative in identifying the particular content to create specific classroom lessons, in partnership with the people at Shark Island to made the movie.’

Kimberley said that in the case of The Final Quarter these conversations were had at a very early stage, right from the beginning with the filmmaker and this wouldn’t be a process suited for every film.

When they’re working on a project like this, they create between 30-60 lessons, that might cover from Year 5 to Year 12 across six different subject areas, ‘so that every teacher in that school has an opportunity to teach kids in an ongoing basis, year after year.’

Once a teacher has downloaded and taught a lesson, they’re likely to add it to their portfolio and teach it again.

‘We’ve got 2.1 million lessons out there in teacher land.’

Kimberley strikes a deal with the producer on their IP for a specific time period. At the end of that agreement the IP reverts to original owners. 

Producers pay Cool Australia to create the lessons. It costs between $60 – 200,000 for a package, and they evaluate and report back on the three to five years of the project.

‘While it sounds like a large amount of money, it actually averages out to about 45c a student.’ The lessons are free to teachers and students, so the producers are paying to have their film supported and taught. It’s a definite outreach model, with philanthropy generally funding this part of the budget right up front. 

According to Cool Australia’s website, 89 per cent of all Australian schools use its resources, with 1,520,000 students engaged in their learning activities, and 102,540 teacher members supporting the programs. That’s a pretty wide reach, to say the least. ‘Turning the dial’ on social issues is the goal for the investment here, and although producers can hope to get some kind of dollar return, that’s not the primary measure here.

‘It’s not for everyone but if you have a big story you want told, and you have financial backers who want it told, then this can magically drop a film into around 90 per cent of schools. That’s what we can achieve.’

While this sounds exciting, one does hope the films that choose this model are good ones, that the philanthropists funding them have the right politics, and that education specialists like Cool Australia are driving a sound and honest agenda, which they certainly seem to be doing.

Final Takeaways

  • Start early at conception stage thinking about the education sector.
  • Ask how appropriate your project is to the market. 
  • Determine how much energy and resources you’ve got to devote to this outreach
  • Don’t pigeonhole yourselves in thinking what kind of project might be suitable for education. CJZ’s Gruen franchise has been very successful in terms of educational revenue royalty, despite being an odd or ‘risky’ program.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram