July 1, 2008

A Funder Down Under: Documentary Australia Foundation Opens Its Doors

In 2007, Australian independent filmmaker Ian Darling launched the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) as "a private philanthropic initiative to inspire and nurture partnerships between philanthropic grantmakers and documentary filmmakers." While many American documentary makers are familiar with securing grants--either directly or through fiscal sponsorship entities such as IDA--from foundations, nonprofits, government agencies, for-profit corporations or individuals, until the creation of DAF Australian filmmakers could not directly receive grant funds from Australian entities. (Australian filmmakers can apply for fiscal sponsorship with the IDA; at least one project director would need to have some type of IRS registration in order to do so.) With the exception of the government agencies and public television that fund independent documentaries at about A$20 million a year (approximately US $18.4 million), tax-deductible grants could not be made to independent filmmakers by Australian businesses, foundations or individuals.

The DAF website (www.documentaryaustralia.com.au) is a great resource of information, sample works and data to incorporate into grant applications and business plans. DAF can also serve as a conduit for funding non-Australian filmmakers, which would allow a tax deduction for Australian funders who have a registered Australian Business Number (ABN). An ABN can be easily obtained if one partners with an Australian filmmaker.

"In Australia, donations by private foundations can only be made through registered charities such as the Salvation Army, or the Foundation of a Gallery," Darling says. "Given that these foundations can only give to registered charitable organizations, we needed to establish the Documentary Australia Foundation as a registered charitable entity, which provides a vehicle that enables foundations to give a bit like American 501(c)(3) foundations. It also provides a tax deduction for individuals or corporations who want to make a grant to a documentary. Foundations cannot give directly to documentary films or filmmakers; they need to do it through a tax-approved organization like DAF. With the appropriate vehicle, the write-off is preserved for foundations, and individuals or corporations who will receive a full deduction at their tax rate." The DAF does not charge filmmakers a fee for its services, so the pass-through is 100 percent, compared to American conduit charges of five to 20 percent or more.

Darling, a veteran documentary producer and director (Woodstock for Capitalists; Alone Across Australia; In the Company of Actors; The Oasis) hopes the Australian private sector can supply an additional A$20 million in grants to Australian filmmakers, doubling funding. The DAF website provides numerous detailed case studies of Australian films that many filmmakers, regardless of their geographical location, will find helpful. With manuals for filmmakers, corporations and foundations, moreover, the site offers a rich trove of assets for anyone raising funds or considering supporting documentaries.

The DAF website has detailed resources for its three constituents: grantmakers, charities and filmmakers. DAF's executive directors--Dr. Mitzi Goldman, Susan MacKinnon and Penny Richards--are extremely knowledgeable about documentaries and bring a great deal of expertise to the foundation. Goldman is a senior academic and Head of the Documentary Department at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). MacKinnon is a board member of the South Australian Film Corporation and, until recently, the Australian International Documentary Conference. Prior to that, she was the Documentary Investment Manager at the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). She has executive produced a number of high-profile documentaries, most recently 4. Richards has an extensive background in managing social issue foundations and is the former manager of the Australian Earthwatch Institute.

One of the website's most useful sections looks at social issues as an intersection between the interests of grantmakers and filmmakers. The index includes the following topics: Aged, Arts, Community, Disability, Education, Environment, Health and Well Being, Human Rights, Indigenous, Refugees, Rural, Social Justice, Sports/Adventure, Welfare and Youth. The listing of case studies includes films from America, Canada, Europe and the Pacific Rim. 

The Australian Film Institute News asked MacKinnon, "How does the foundation review the applications from filmmakers?" Her response should be reassuring to any applicant: "We're not making creative judgment on the film, but we do have some qualifying questions: Why is this film suitable for philanthropic support? What is the issue? How is this film going to advance and benefit that issue or improve the situation? The other pertinent question is, What is the outreach or education value of the film? How are you going to make sure that the film reaches the intended audience? In the film world, they talk about primetime audiences and ratings. That is not of key importance in a philanthropic world. They do not care about that so much as what kind of impact it will have on people. It is a ‘social investment,' rather than a television or ratings reach or festival prize, which filmmakers usually use as benchmarks. We also make sure it's a legitimate film, not a home movie that someone's uncle wants to donate to so he can get a tax deduction."

DAF is a first-rate global resource for documentary filmmakers. Darling and his colleagues should be congratulated for their vision, dedication and foresight in creating a structure that will allow hundreds of new works to be funded and made.

 

Mitchell W. Block is an executive producer of CARRIER, an 11½-hour documentary series and companion feature he conceived and co-created. Financed by Icon Productions, the series airs on PBS in April and May. His distribution company, Direct Cinema Limited, has handled many documentaries and shorts, including over 60 Oscar nominees and winners. He has been teaching independent producing in the Peter Stark Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1992.  He can be reached at mwblock@aol.com.

©2008 All Rights Reserved, MWB

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