Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

An Aussie / ABBA Love Doc is a Case Study in ‘How Local Can Trump Global.’ PLUS: Screen Australia’s $15+ Million for Docs

“Australian viewers have gone local.”

That was the big message from programmers at AIDC.

  • They want Aussie stories, Aussie characters and Aussie talent.
  • By and large, imports just don’t hit the hot buttons any more.

That’s all well and good.  But there’s a commercial sweet spot for programs that appeal locally AND are exportable.

  • What if Aussie viewers want such intensely local stories that they draw little-to-no interest in the international market??
  • And how do such Aussie-only docs get funded?

Those are the issues underlying this week’s Case Study, where we cover the ABC’s #1 documentary hit of recent years, ABBA Bang a Boomerang from Gulliver Media & Bright Film.

First, here is the ABC promo for ABBA Bang a Boomerang:


According to Executive Producer Larry Zetlin, the story can be boiled down to: “How Australians saved ABBA’s gravlax – not once, but twice!”

Saving ABBA #1

  • The star of the Swedish glam rock band was fading when they toured Australia in the mid-Seventies.
  • Their Eurovision Song Contest victory was losing its lustre.
  • Their arrival Down Under coincided with Australia’s switch in 1975 from B&W to Color TV.
  • The public broadcaster ABC had launched the teen-targeted Countdown: It was a pop music show hosted by Ian “Molly” Meldrum that mixed live studio performances and video clips.
  • Meldrum’s Countdown was an early programmer of the music video format.
  • ABBA was also a pioneer of the directed music video. The band’s inventive glitter rock videos were a perfect match for both Australia’s new color TVs and Meldrum’s format.
  • Meldrum also loved the song ‘Mama Mia’ which had been released on an LP. He persuaded his teenage audience to flood EMI with petitions to release the song as a single.
  • EMI relented, released the single, and ‘Mama Mia’ shot to #1 on the Aussie charts and stayed there for 11 weeks.
  • EMI drew inspiration from the Australian experience, and released ‘Mama Mia’ as a single worldwide. It went Gold, and thanks to Molly Meldrum and the ABC’s Countdown ABBA enjoyed several more years in the glitter-sphere.

Saving ABBA #2

  • A whole new generation of Aussies discovered ABBA in P.J. Hogan’s 1994 romantic/sad comedy Muriel’s Wedding.
  • Here is the clip that nailed it for Muriel’s.
  • Muriel’s was a uniquely beloved hit in Australia where it drew movie-goers of all ages.
  • It also launched the careers of two wonderful actors who went on to earn Oscar nominations for their future work. They were Rachel Griffiths, who is one of my gorgeous nieces, and Toni Collette who we most recently enjoyed in Hitchcock as the great man’s personal assistant.
  • Muriel’s box office was respectable outside Australia. More importantly, the movie enjoyed a cult following that helped solidify ABBA as a music act for the ages.


Directors Matthew Crocker & Rebecca McElroy had worked on their ABBA-in-Australia doc for 5 years:

Matthew Crocker –

“Originally when ABBA The Movie was being remastered for DVD, I pitched a doco on Abbamania as a DVD extra in Australia. This idea was tossed around but in the end an interview with Lasse Hallstrom, Benny and Bjorn was deemed easier and probably cheaper.”

“A while later I realized it was a strong standalone story that we should pursue. The hard part even before approaching a broadcaster was to get Universal and Benny and Bjorn to give us access to the music of ABBA and their music videos. Luckily after a while they tentatively gave in. My partner in Bright Films Rebecca McElroy had just started to work for Larry Zetlin, and he became convinced that the documentary could be a hit.”


  • According to Larry Zetlin: “The conventional wisdom in Australia is that if you throw the words ‘Aussie’ and ‘boomerang’ in a title, you’ll double your audience.”
  • “And ’Bang a Boomerang’ is actually the title of an ABBA song written before their 1st Australian tour.”


  • Zetlin says: “Bjorn and Benny systematically control their archive. They only approve the use of their works in positive stories. They say ‘Yes’ to 1 in 100 requests.”
  • “We only bought Aussie broadcast rights, and no DVD rights. ABBA management never releases DVD rights to their vision and music.”
  • “The cost:  A$130,000 (approx) for 20 minutes.”


The budget for ABBA Bang a Boomerang was A$500,000.

Sources of Funds (A$)

Screen Australia PEP Grant

 $        100,000

ABC Australia Licence fee

 $        135,000

Screen Queensland Investment

 $          50,000

Screen Australia Investment

 $        135,000

ABC Archive:  Investment

 $          30,000

Private Investors

 $          50,000


 $        500,000


  • ABBA’s 2+ million audience was the highest-rated ABC program in 2+ years.
  • Initially broadcast at primetime on Wednesday, it was repeated 2 days later to very respectable ratings.


  • Zetlin’s answer was a theme at AIDC from both commercial and private broadcasters: “Australians want Aussie stories! They want a uniquely Aussie tapestry of characters, stories and context.”

 International Market

  • “The stories about Meldrum, Countdown, and ABBA’s unwanted insertion into Australia’s cultural wars in the Seventies are what made it a big hit at home, but they limit its appeal elsewhere. “
  • “Our doc is not easily exportable, except as a DVD for the many hardcore Abba fans.  We are hoping that Universal picks up worldwide DVD rights.”


  • SVT Sweden has produced a 3-part ABBA doc.
  • It’s in English for worldwide distribution.


Why Does It Matter?

  • The issue of local versus global is relevant in every market that is balanced between its viewers’ appetite for original, local programs and the economics of cheaper imports.
  • That’s true for established markets like the UK, Canada, Germany and many others.
  • But true also for numerous emerging markets where global brands like Nat Geo, A+E and Discovery are striving to bring local content into their programming mix.
  • National or regional funding programs are critical to the mix. The model may work in Australia and Canada due to an array of grants and tax benefits. The model doesn’t work in the comparably-sized Taiwan market because of the absence of such funding programs.



After AIDC, Screen Australia’s Liz Stevens kindly shared a summary of programs that fund docs. 

  • Screen Australia’s client is the Australian producer.
  • Treaty and unofficial co-pros must be arranged through an Australian production company.
  • Screen Australia does not invest in programs such as reality or magazine television, infotainment, current affairs, cooking, ‘how to’, sports programs, or projects whose primary market is the education sector.

Development Support

  • Up to $600,000
  • Limited funds for the development of documentary projects by experienced practitioners.

National Documentary Program

  • Up to $7m
  • Investment in diverse projects with heritage value and themes of national and cultural significance.
  • Projects will have a sense of cultural ambition and higher budget scale.

General Documentary Program

  • Up to $3.5m
  • Funding for quality, audience-engaging projects that have cultural relevance, based on matched funding with a domestic broadcaster’s licence fee.

International Program

  • Up to $3.5m
  • Investment in Australian projects which have international finance as well as a domestic broadcaster licence fee

Signature Documentary Program

  • Up to $2.0m
  • Focused on projects which are bold in form and/or content, with a strong creative vision.
  • Broadcast presales, while acceptable, are not a prerequisite.
  • Includes interactive and multiplatform projects.
  • Limited to $200,000 per project.

Other Programs

  • Special initiatives may be offered from time to time, such as Opening Shot.
  • “In addition there is the Producer Equity Program which enables producers to apply for 20% of their budget for projects with a threshold of between $250,000 and $500,000 per hour. And of course the Producer offset for projects above this threshold.”



  • Australian states and territories also fund docs.
  • Wikipedia’s profile of Countdown is a good read, particularly in recognizing the show’s cultural importance in showcasing local acts.
  • And don’t miss our copro Case Study from West Australia: Dino Stampede – An ABC Commission Triggers a Cascade of Tax Benefits and International Licenses.


Speaking Engagements

Saturday, April 6, Cannes

Do’s & Don’ts of Getting the Right Partners on Board

David Royle, EVP Programming and Production, Smithsonian Networks, USA
Peter Hamilton, Founder, Editor & Publisher,, USA.
Twitter: @doctvdotcom


Tom Jennings, Executive Producer & Founder, 1895 Films, USA @1895films
David Royle, EVP Programming and Production, Smithsonian Networks, USA
Moderator: Peter Hamilton


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