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Doc Edge 2011: meet the money

The opening session of this year’s Forum offered up a rogue’s gallery of international and domestic panel members, commissioners, funders and one producer. Returning MC Pat Ferns did the honours, keeping his introductions brief and witty, and throwing in pertinent questions.

In order of appearance, Peter Newman (SBS, Australia), Outi Saarikovski-Schimberg (YLE, Finland), Jenny Ross (Al Jazeera), Sue Woodfield (TV3), Julia Overton (Screen Australia), Mladen Ivancic (NZFC) and Carmel Travers (Essential Media, Aus.) introduced themselves, their place and role in the process of getting an idea to a screen and, in some cases, gave a little information on what they are seeking.

The point of the session was to introduce them to Forum participants early on, so they would know who to buttonhole in the extended breaks built into this year’s programme to allow for better networking opportunities.

Peter Newman (SBS, Australia) is one of two documentary commissioners for SBS, which has a specific multi-cultural broadcasting remit. He told the audience that SBS was in rude health, coming off the back of a strong 2009 and new ratings records for some of its programming.

SBS has roughly an 85:15% split in acquisitions and commissions in its documentary programming. He considered their budgets modest but, after speaking to some people at last night’s Doc Edge Gala, said, “We’re totally cashed up.”

SBS can only commission from Australian production companies, but Peter was happy to receive pitches and, if interested, to assist overseas producers to find suitable Aussie production partners.

Pat Ferns introduced YLE as Finland’s major broadcaster and a major player in the international co-production game. Commissioner Outi Saarikovski-Schimberg said that what they paid was “peanuts”, but that they were well-connected across Europe and adept at accessing European funding through entering into arrangements with broadcasters in other countries. YLE is mostly not a co-production partner in the true sense, but pre-buys programming, which can unlock money elsewhere for producers who need international commitments to trigger domestic funding.

In this way YLE has been able to have a small slice of some very large documentaries, including Waltz with Bashir, Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison and Into Eternity (screening in the current Doc Edge Festival).

Outi identified a current trend of diminishing interest in arts and culture documentaries against more journalistic/current affairs product. She wasn’t able to be specific about what sort of projects YLE might be seeking involvement with in 2011, as there is currently a new broom sweeping its way through the broadcaster in the form of a recently-appointed new CEO.

Al-Jazeera English’s Jenny Ross was, until recently, London-based but is currently working from Auckland. AJE operates out of four hubs: London, Doha, Washington and Kuala Lumpur. Her geographical remit covers Asia and Australasia, in the current absence of a KL-based commissioner.

AJE is a 100% factual channel (although Fox News would probably disagree), with around 50% of its programming news-based.

As with YLE, some of AJE’s documentary and factual plans for 2011 are fluid under a newly-installed Director of Programmes, but retains a continuing commitment to its long-running Witness strand, which screens 1×60′ and 1×30′ each week. Witness focuses on individual’s stories with universal themes that will resonate with a broad audience.

TV3’s Head of Factual Sue Woodfield also looks to serve a broad audience, and was – naturally enough – the most familiar of the broadcasters laying out their stall in the opening session.

Sue was keen to draw attention to The Story, for which TV3 and NZ On Air have recently issued a call for proposals for 4×90′ observational, access-based documentaries on delivery of policy in NZ.

She also drew attention to ongoing commissioning for the 60′ Inside New Zealand strand and her responsibility for broader factual programming and fact-ent programming.

Julia Overton, Screen Australia’s Development and Investment Manager, is well-used to Kiwis, now having one as the Scroz’ boss and having been a regular panel speaker at previous Doc Edge Forums.

Screen Australia is, simplistically, the equivalent of the NZFC and NZ On Air rolled into one, having responsibility for state-funding both theatrical and television content. The level of funding is around 65% of production budget for projects over $1 million and includes the Producer Offset (equivalent scheme to SPIF.) Last year Screen Australia put AU16.5 million into documentaries for TV.

Like SBS, the agency is only permitted to put money into Australian or Australian co-production content.

The NZFC was represented by Mladen Ivancic, who spoke of the changes in documentary funding at the Commission to offer greater support, including the ability now to offer small amounts of development funding. He also noted the recent expectation-busting performances of Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls and docu-drama Home By Christmas.

The gradual opening up to documentary funding from the NZFC will be welcome but, starting from such a low base, will be a topic of ongoing discussion between documentary filmmakers and the Commission for a while yet.

Mladen did note that the NZFC was a funder, not a studio, and was therefore played a reactive rather than proactive road. While that is true, there are commissioning initiatives which come out of the TV funding body, New Zealand On Air, to fill perceived gaps in provision.

Last but not least came the odd one out, Essential Media’s Carmel Travers, the only producer on the panel. Her nefarious hidden motive for participation had earlier been alluded to Julia Overton. As the only Aussie producer on offer, she could pick up all the Kiwis needing co-pro partners to access Australian funding.

Carmel was one of the founders of Beyond, which has grown from being a small production company to a multi-faceted organisation offering production, co-production and international distribution services. She’s also worked on developing proprietary software for the company and has created, built and sold a publicly-listed animation house.

Given recent events in Christchurch, it was surprising that nobody bolted for the exit when the venue’s alarm went off part way through the session. Happily, it turned out to be a test. Unhappily, the alarm repeated intermittently throughout the remainder of the session.

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