DAN EDWARDS, Managing Editor of the AFC's Communications branch, attended the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) 2007 in Adelaide at the end of February.
AIDC this year was the usual high-energy confab of ideas, hand wringing, frantic meetings, official on-stage pitches and unofficial pitches in the corridors of the Hilton. The AFC had representation on several panels, covering everything from an initiative launch to discussion of philosophical issues like 'who owns our history' in relation to audiovisual archives. The AFC also worked hard behind the scenes, maintaining an information stand throughout the conference stocked with AFC publications (including the just-published Documentary Production in Australia report). We also ran MeetMarket jointly with the AIDC to facilitate meetings between Australian documentary makers and buyers from around the globe.
Having attended AIDC in Adelaide two years ago, it was fascinating to see how rapidly many of the radical changes to the documentary sector predicted at that event have already come to fruition. Almost every project pitched at AIDC 2007 took an online component for granted; the more savvy producers were talking in terms of multi-platform extravaganzas involving films, websites, games, real-world components and viral marketing campaigns.
UK rights revolution
AIDC wouldn't be AIDC without some controversy, and things got off to a heated start with this year's keynote by PACT Chair Alex Graham (PACT is the UK equivalent of SPAA). His speech focused on the massive changes to the terms of trade between broadcasters and independent producers that have underpinned a boom in UK factual program-making since 2004. Rather than giving broadcasters ownership of programs they finance, the new terms of trade simply give broadcasters UK television rights for 5 years. Further rights must be purchased on a commercial basis. This arrangement, argues Graham, potentially provides producers with an ongoing revenue stream, and gives those with the most to gain from a program's widespread exposure (the producers) a financial incentive to make sure sales are maximised across different platforms and territories. It also gives producers the incentive to pursue spin-off products such as books. This is in marked contrast to the terms of trade employed by funding bodies and broadcasters in Australia, where producers are generally required to assign all rights in exchange for finance that rarely covers the entire cost of production.
Graham's speech generated considerable interest and debate among delegates, and earned a rebuke from the ABC Head of Television Kim Dalton during his own speech at the conference's opening night drinks. No doubt the discussion will continue well beyond the confines of AIDC. Perhaps the most useful point to emerge from Graham's keynote was that the changes to the UK industry were the result of years of patient, unified lobbying of government by the UK production sector.
After the debates around funding structures and terms of trade on day one, it was refreshing to open the second day by hearing from some filmmakers. The Podlove launch saw 5 five-minute documentaries unveiled that look at how technology has affected our lives and relationships in the first years of the 21st century. The films were funded through a joint AFC-SBSi initiative and have been screened on SBS TV. They are also available on the Podlove website.
All the projects are gems in miniature, ranging from an amusing tale of obsessional, slightly deluded romantic love in Sarah-Jane Woulahan's I Love Like Blood, to the deeply moving tale of a Burmese dissident whose only contact with his homeland is through Google Earth in Gef Senz's Virtual Freedom. Three of the five filmmakers were present to discuss the process of creating their mini-docs with the SBSi team. Series producer Beth Frey, SBSi Commissioning Editors Trevor Graham and Warwick Burton, and AFC Acting Head of Film Development Lori Flekser were on hand to provide background on the initiative and announce Podlove 2, which will see two half-hour documentaries funded for production (see the AFC website for details).
As usual, many American and European broadcaster representatives were present at the conference, with Jan Younghusband from the UK's Channel 4 particularly prominent on several panels and at various pitching sessions. There were also numerous representatives from Asia, notably Vikram Channa, Vice President of Production and Development for Discovery Networks Asia, and Tony Chow, President of Singapore's Association of Independent TV Production Companies. At a panel on producing in Asia they outlined the measures the Singaporean government has introduced in recent years to foster Singapore's position as a regional production centre, and the potential co-production opportunities this presents for Australian filmmakers making documentaries with an Asian focus.
More unusually, there was also a large delegation of broadcaster representatives from China, who appeared on a panel discussing the Chinese broadcast system on the conference's final day. While China's recent astronomical rates of economic growth are widely known, the country itself remains a mystery to many Australians, so the discussion provided a fascinating and rare insight into the vast market to our north. The scale of the Chinese television industry is staggering. There are over 3000 stations, with broadcasters ranging from national giants such as CCTV to small provincial-level operations. The Chinese commissioning editors casually spoke of documentary series with over 100 episodes, eliciting audible gasps from those in the audience. In many ways the discussion highlighted how little Australians know about China's inner workings, but sessions such as these are an important step in building relations between the two industries. On the same weekend as AIDC, the Adelaide Film Festival (AFF) screened Sweet and Sour, the first (unofficial from the Australian side, official from the Chinese side) Australia-China co-production. The film is a 15-minute animation and three-way collaboration between South Australia's People's Republic of Animation, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio and the Shanghai-based Reckless Moments. Judging by the number of films from and about China at the AFF this year, the People's Republic is a zone of growing activity for producers around the world.
Balancing industry and art
AIDC has become increasingly market-orientated in recent years, making it a valuable resource in an industry where funds are always scarce. But the sessions involving filmmakers discussing their craft are also vital, not only for breaking up the often-heated debates in the industry-orientated sessions, but for maintaining and stimulating the artistic health of the local documentary sector. Hopefully future years will see the difficult balance between these two aspects maintained in the invigorating, passionate, sometimes amusing and always fiery maelstrom that is AIDC.
This article was updated slightly on 15 June 2007.