Sue Maslin Talks Producing Some of Australia’s Best Documentaries, the Australian International Documentary Conference, and More in This Interview

Sue Maslin is one of Australia’s finest producers, helping bring to life films like The Dressmaker, Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible, Brazen Hussies, and the upcoming Anonymous Club.

At the 2022 Australian International Documentary Conference, Sue will host a panel with independent film producer and former Co-Head of Movies at Amazon Studios, Ted Hope, where the two will discuss the world of global streaming and more.

In this interview, Sue talks about her career, her work as a producer, and what to expect from the upcoming conference.

Register for passes at the conference here.


My journey to Australian film started very young and then in the late Nineties, early 2000s, I was certainly getting more into it. Living in Perth, watching films like Japanese Story, and getting to see the middle of Perth onscreen for however short period of time it was meant the world. And then watching your films and (seeing them) evolve through your career with The Dressmaker, Jill Bilcock: Dancing The Invisible, and now I’ve just watched Anonymous Club two days ago and was stunned by it. You produce some really great work.

Yeah, it’s a really great film.

You must be proud.

To be honest, for me, it only makes sense to work on those film ideas. And let’s face it, there are so many ideas out there, everybody can come up with a good idea. But if there are ideas that have something to really genuinely say to people and connect with people and hopefully empower them in some way, that’s what I get excited about. You just have to be able to fall in love with an idea and fall in love with a team. Otherwise, it’s just way, way too hard.

And it’s clear that there’s no shortness of great stories that can be told in Australia. There is really a lot to be excited about and it’s really being clear with the films that you’ve helped produce and bring into the world that you’re highlighting great stories and additionally great women who are part of Australian film history and Australian music history as well. And Australian history as a whole — is that something that you really like to circle out, pointing out where these great people are in Australian history?

I’ve always been interested in Australian history because that was something I missed out on at school. I did a sort of science stream so I didn’t really get that background. And what happened to me is I went to university and this was back in the late Seventies. And I was a country kid, arrived in Canberra, went to ANU, and I just went through a complete and utter culture shock because I discovered a whole lot of things about Australia that I just wasn’t made aware of, growing up in the country, not the least of which was our Indigenous history.

And then of course, I became really open to what was happening with the women’s movement and women’s history and more importantly, what was missing in women’s history. So, I guess what happened was that excitement of falling in love with making films at the same time I was discovering something about the culture and the history and the politics, the land on which we lived, and it just all came together and has informed the work ever since.

Yeah, I think that’s one of the things as well that I’ve really appreciated is the revealing of Australian history through cinema in a way that I — you know, when I was at high school, we had maybe — I think it was one term on Australian history and then spent a whole year on American history and it’s like–

Wow.

It was just a little bit crazy. And now I’m getting to understand Australia even more and appreciate it through films. Like I watched Ablaze last year and that is a really powerful documentary that tells a story that has been hidden for so long that feels like we should have been more aware of this a long, long time ago.

That was one I was really proud of being involved as an EP and working with Alec Morgan and Tom Zubrycki because I had the privilege of working with Lin Onus who was the son of William T Onus. I understood snippets about his story, but to see what Alec does in terms of the deep level of research required to bring all the threads together to tell a story that has such complexity and so many layers of how that man lived his life, what he was up against, both in terms of institutional racism through to just the personal story of his family. Those stories cannot be told unless you’ve got filmmakers like Alec Morgan with the passion and the dedication to spend hours upon hours upon hours researching and getting to the underbelly of those stories.

And of course, who pays for that? Who values it? You know, we live in an age where forty characters is the new norms of communication. We’ve seen journalism gradually become more and more impoverished as a result of people not valuing this level of research required. But the documentary filmmakers — we still stick at it because we just have this desire that we want these untold stories out there.

Very much so. And having a look at what has been produced over the years — I’m currently in the midst of writing a book about the Australian films that were released last year. And, Australian filmmakers made a whole bunch of great feature films, non-fiction and fiction feature films. And then I look at the documentaries and that’s the field that we’re working more. There are more documentaries being made in both feature and short and TV, and they outweigh the non-documentary filmmaking completely. It’s amazing how much of an output that we have. There are so many different stories to be told. Why do you think that there is a desire for filmmakers to lean into making a documentary rather than making a feature film?

Well, the obvious one is budget. Because a feature documentary can be made often for a fraction of the cost of a full feature film that is narrative or fiction based. Not always, of course. There are some very high-concept documentary films that are made for well over a million. But here in this country, we’ve got this situation where if you make a feature documentary, it’s automatically compared with the performance of narrative feature films and you get a disparaging view that why are we making so many? They don’t perform at the box office. Rarely do they ever make more than $100,000 at the box office. Therefore, they must not be a success.

Which is actually a very, very limited way of looking at the value of these films. I’ve been involved in a number of feature documentaries, both as a producer and executive producer, but also as a distributor. And I know perfectly well that the real value of these films lies in the long tail. So you have the release in cinemas which gets you the editorial and engagement and the visibility, but it’s actually the ongoing impact strategies often associated with these films, or the television followed by perhaps pay TV or streaming platforms, of which there are many, many niche platforms. And then of course, the educational sector as well. We have a whole business at Film Art Media built around the long tail of documentaries, and the feature documentaries perform over time.

So you can’t just sort of say, oh well, they don’t make a lot of money at the box office as some kind of performance indicator. It’s ludicrous.

Very much so. And certainly, even for narrative films I found that in this whole new world where we have streaming services and things like that, it’s so different and it’s quite reductive to just look at the opening weekend and mark a film as a successful film or a failure based on how much money it’s made in the opening weekend. It’s bizarre. I know it’s an important thing to discuss, but it kind of nullifies the actual film itself and works to silence the actual impact of the film itself. Which is it’s sad because we make great films here. We shouldn’t just be focusing on the box office of them.

Definitely. We’ve shifted the paradigm completely from say ten years ago where everybody – whether it’s television broadcast or the exhibition sector -, everybody was going for the mass audience, trying to get as many bums on seats or as many eyeballs as possible on any given title. And that was the measurement of success. Now, what streamers have done is just blown that apart on one level. Well, it’s not even so much as streamers, it’s actually the technology of streaming (that) has blown that apart because now we have the option – and this works extremely well for documentaries – to go after not the mass audiences but multiple niche audiences anywhere in the world.

And this is why in addition to the major platforms and streaming platforms, you have a plethora of specialised platforms. And in any given title that we distribute, we’ve probably got about six platforms that we’re marketing our films to at the moment. Probably the most important of those would be in the educational sphere which is Kanopy in particular, and to a certain extent Australian Teachers Of Media or Contemporary Arts Media. But then when you drill down into really specialist documentary platforms (like) DocPlay.

To me, that’s really exciting. Because once you start doing that, then you can get into specialised platforms that curate content, and you just have to find the people who share your passion about the story and the content. And those people are dotted all over the world in surprising places. And if you can build a revenue model about that, then you’ve got a business possibility.

That’s a good transition to talking about your session that you will be running with Ted Hope at the Documentary Conference. I’m so excited for this conference. I’m just thrilled by it. What’s it like for you being part of this?

I’ve always been a big supporter of the Documentary Conference. I think it’s one of the really exciting calendar events every year because it’s so much more than an opportunity for the market to get together and for filmmakers to pitch their ideas in, all of which is incredibly important. But where I think it’s most exciting and under the current direction of the AIDC is that it’s really interested in thought leadership. It’s really interested in challenging the way that we go about making our films, the way we’re thinking about the kinds of stories we want to tell, and the way that we hopefully build a sustainable practice or a sustainable business around the making of documentaries, which has always been the holy grail of what we do.

You can just keep on doing it over time and there’s many ways of doing that, of course. Some companies have gone down the path of building a business around factual content and there’s certainly an international market for that. But the real challenge for independent documentary filmmakers [is] how do we keep making the films that we care passionately about and that are unique and that have real impact on people’s lives? How can we keep doing that in a sustainable way?

Very much so. And that’s the thing that I find so fascinating is that looking at the variety of the different films that are being made here in Australia, there are the bigger budget ones – your Jennifer Peedom films, for want of a better term. And then you have your micro-budget films that are people who have a video camera and are going out there and telling activist stories for themselves and then hosting screenings in their local community. And we get to see that kind of thing in a narrative sense for other filmmakers, but it’s not in the same level as it is for documentaries where funding of all sizes, no funding whatsoever, to millions of dollars are able to tell stories and do it well, which is really exciting. I like that kind of accessibility for anybody being able to tell their own stories.

I’m really excited about being able to have a conversation with Ted about all of this because he is one of those thought leaders and I have enormous respect for him. I first dealt with Ted probably back in about 2015 when we actually sold The Dressmaker to him when he was the co-head at the time of Amazon Studios. And everybody at the time thought this was a very strange move because who are these Amazon Studios? I mean, what were they doing buying feature films? And Netflix hadn’t even started really buying feature films at that point, certainly not producing them. And the model back then was still very much the traditional model of theatrical distributors for each territory.

But we really, really were kind of blown out by Ted’s vision for what he saw as the future of streaming and the fact that they would be increasingly get more and more involved in content that was not just being produced out of the US but from around the world. He had hoped that there would be, if you like, curated content within the streamers that could have really quality content [and] he wanted The Dressmaker to be part of that brand. So we went with that. And we’re very happy to have the film with him.

But over time, I’ve kept in touch with Ted and he’s been involved in speaking to other workshops that I’ve been involved in, because he’s just one of these guys who’s always thinking about new ways to either find audiences or to make films or to connect ideas with audiences. And he’s done it through his work as a producer, as a teacher, and as a distributor and as the head of the streamers. But what’s great is he’s now left the streaming business. So he’s got all the dirt but he’s thinking like an independent again and thinking now about how to help others innovate and find a business in this sort of new world order we all live in.

I think that’s one of the things which I found really great about having The Dressmaker on a platform like Amazon. At the time, here in Australia, we loved it. It was a huge success. And me being able to tell my American friends, “Hey, you’ve got to go and watch The Dressmaker,” and then it appears and they’re able to watch it and the accessibility of that is so important, because then they can – obviously Australian films don’t get to go to the midwest. They don’t get to go to the middle States of America in the same way that a lot of American films do. So that accessibility of streaming is so vitally important. How big is the market in America for Australian films, and particularly Australian docs?

I wouldn’t say it’s a really big market in the sense of we occasionally will make a film that will really break out and speak to American audiences. But our framing story, our vernacular, our humour, and our accent often – despite the fact that our films are in English – are often a barrier for American audiences. But it’s a solid audience. It’s one that, whether it’s documentaries that are about more universal themes, they can be quite idiosyncratic and quite location-specific, but they do need to have a very universal theme in order to attract an American audience.

What we find though is if we make films that are kind of about the specific Australian political or historical stories, they don’t travel too well, the simple reason being – like for instance, we released Brazen Hussies last year, and it did extremely well here in Australia. But in marketing it around the world, the different countries we sent it to, including the US, loved the film and they said, “Look, audiences want to see that story, but they wanted to see it in relation to their own culture, their own history.” So that’s the challenge that you have which is why other formats such as natural history perhaps works extremely well, or the kind of ethic work that Jen Peedom is doing travels extremely well because it’s not really tied so much to a local history or politics.

With that in mind, then how do we get the Australian identity out there to a wider audience outside of Australia?

Well, again, I keep going back to this thing of I don’t think the global streamers are necessarily going to help us because they just want to go for mass audiences. But there’s plenty of opportunity in those specialised platforms. With our films, what we tend to do is get onto the festival circuit in the first instance. This is exactly what’s happening with Anonymous Club, for instance. So a film like Anonymous Club has just been selected in South by Southwest, and there’ll be more announcements of international festivals coming up. That gets the initial notice. And then it makes it possible to start finding specialised local distributors because there’s no doubt if you can just find those niche audiences and find the right distributing to deliver the niche audience to you, then you actually really can have a market and have those films travel.

I think with a film like Anonymous Club, I was moved by it. I’m a huge Courtney Barnett fan. So watching it, I was already hooked. But it’s still a really powerful important film in a lot of ways. And I hope that the audience that it finds in the US is as receptive as it should be here in Australia, because I just found it really fantastic. It’s one of the better films that I’ve seen in a long time. Congratulations.

Thank you, Andrew. I’ll certainly pass it on to Danny Cohen the director, and also Philippa Campney and Sam Dinning, the producers. I have to confess I was not a Courtney Barnett fan. Not because I didn’t like her music, I just wasn’t familiar with her music. And so I was introduced to her music by the film. But like you, when I watched the film, I realised it was so much more. This was not a rock biography in any normal shape or form of the genre itself. It was actually a film, for me, about somebody who was brave enough and honest enough to take us on her personal journey and creative process into the abyss and to take us through that and to somehow show the power of creativity to help give her a sense of purpose and help her find her way out of that darkness. I was just utterly compelled and transfixed by the story when I saw it. And I’ve started listening to her music now.

It’s good music, isn’t it?

I think that there will be an audience like me who will be introduced to her music now.

Definitely. I know that there is going to be a lot of people who will head along and go and see it and not know what it might be about and then be swept along for the ride. And that’s the joy and the pleasure of films and especially for me. A lot of the time I try and avoid reading too much about it and go into the film without having any preconceived notion so I allow the film to sweep me along on it to ride. But I think that Anonymous Club will do that for a lot of people.

I hope so.

We’re gearing up now for the 17 March theatrical release. We’ll be doing screenings at the Luna Cinema in Perth, which we have had all of our movies screened actually, our theatrical movie screenings with Ingrid at the cinema there. We love her, the Luna Leederville.

She does a great job, doesn’t she? I love Luna. That’s my local cinema. That’s the place that I go. It’s my church. Which cinema is your church? Which is the place that you like to go and see films around your neck of the woods?

Cinema Nova in Carlton – it is sort of like a church really, isn’t it? In fact, it’s the destination of the cinema and you go along and because you know perfectly well. You don’t even have to know what’s in the directory, you just turn up and you’re going to find something that will – you’ll either find its timing confronting or you’ll be utterly engaged by it, because it’s a curated space that’s dedicated to people who love movies and love cinematic storytelling.

Speaking of rich cinematic storytelling, I think the other thing that’s really special about documentary is that really, really good documentary all revolves around trust and revolves around access. And I think the thing that’s so striking and what Danny Cohen has achieved with Anonymous Club is that he actually has a trusting relationship with Courtney over some time. They’ve made many movie clips, video clips etc, together over the years. But Courtney was deeply distrustful of the biography process because she’s had such a bad time with doing interviews over the past. She was really distrustful of the process so much so she said, “Look, Danny, I’ll do this on the condition. I don’t have to do a filmed interview.” Interesting challenge for a filmmaker and one was brilliantly responded to by Danny who just said, “Okay, well, let’s not do that. How about I give it to you digitally.’ [sound cuts out]

It’s a beautiful relationship on film as well, just hearing her voice. I loved that.

That’s what makes it so powerful, but it comes out of a process around that question of trust and because of access, the relationship you have with the subject of your film. And to me, that’s what is that magic at the heart of any documentary, and Danny’s captured that so beautifully.

It’s a film which I know I’m going to revisit a lot so I’m grateful that it exists. Films are miracles, they come into our world and they then find a place in your heart that you can’t detach. Now I’ve got Anonymous Club with me. It’s never leaving. And it’s exciting. I love when you encounter a film like that, that becomes part of you. What was the last film that that happened with you that kind of just swept you away in an unexpected manner?

One of the recent films I saw and loved was The Power of The Dog. It is everything that cinema should be – masterful storytelling, complete understanding of the creation of meaning in every frame through composition, lighting, performance, costume – all in the service of emotion and delivering surprise and spectacle. The tension was there from the first act and did not let up until the end. Loved it.

It really is a masterful film. Again, I love documentaries and I love being able to talk about them. I’m sure that you’re super excited about the conference too.

Very much so. The lineup that has come together this time round I think is incredibly strong. But I just got to go back to Ted Hope again, because I think that really will be a highlight because he has had the insight of having worked inside the streamers to really, really understand the business model there. And he wants to try and help filmmakers get over this idealised notion that somehow the streamers are there to help us get to our audience on the strength of our films. Because actually they’re not terribly interested necessarily in our films in relation to the content or the genre itself. It’s nothing to do about the individual stories that are of interest to them. The only thing that’s interesting is the eyeballs and the data that comes with it.

The streamer’s turned the business model on its head because we are actually the currency. Our data is the currency for the streamers, not the content. Ted is able to grapple with that and start to look at – he knows as we independent filmmakers – because he’s just as passionate about film as any one of us – he knows what our motivation is. He knows what the motivation of the streamers are, and his interest in this session I really want to tease this out – how can we, as filmmakers, best work with those platforms and have the best chance of getting our content onto those platforms without having to make these kind of high concept targeting rubbish? There has to be other ways of doing it. I’m really hoping that Ted’s going to share some of that knowledge and insights and strategy with us. That’s how I’m going to pin him down in the session.

I’m really excited to see what you do there because, it’s going to be an exciting conversation, that’s for sure. As a lot of the sessions – you know, there are people here who I admire greatly for doing – who are part of the sessions who I’m really excited to hear what they have to say. Cody Greenwood is one of my favourite producers that’s working at the moment and I’m really excited to hear what she has to say and talk about in her particular session. Throw a dart and you’re going to hit a great name that’s on there. There’s so many excellent people there talking about films and talking about how to improve the industry and how to support artists.

I think a lot of that is down to Natasha Gadd’s leadership as well. Because Natasha herself comes from a really strong background as a filmmaker and her level of curiosity and her level of kind of interrogation of the process on both the creative as well as the business level you can see it all through the program.

Very much so. I had a great chat with her the other week and just hearing the excitement and the enthusiasm in her voice that she has for this – it’s a personal thing. It’s part of who she is, and it’s part of what she wants to do. And it’s really comforting to be able to hear people like yourself, like Natasha, talking about films and documentaries like they matter like nothing else in the world. And that’s really heartwarming to hear. It shows that there are people who care about this a lot, which shouldn’t be a surprise. I mean, it’s clear, but it’s just nice to know that you exist.

It’s nice to know that it’s the heart of the conference and not on the margins.

Exactly.

I think there’s been a number of years where the market and the emphasis on factual entertainment, factual content has been very much the kind of center point of the conference. And really the content discussions and the kind of leadership has really been hived off to the edges, whereas now I think it’s back in the center. I’m really, really pleased about that.

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