Shine on in Oz

Shine on in Oz

Don Groves
By Don Groves
February 18, 2016

In production

The Australian arm of the Endemol Shine Group is ramping up its drama output for broadcasters and emerging platforms, partly in league with indie producers.

High production costs, a relatively small number of buyers in the domestic market, generally modest revenues from international sales – there are a number of reasons why producing Australian drama is not a high-margin business.

Yet the Australian outpost of the recently merged Endemol Shine Group is determined to ramp up its fiction output.

The union of Shine and Endemol down under strengthened the roster of in-house drama producers as John Edwards, Imogen Banks and Mimi Butler transferred from Endemol.

And the production company is also looking to work with third-party producers for the first time.

Lingo Pictures – a prodco launched in July 2015 by Helen Bowden, a co-founder and former MD of NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, and Jason Stephens, who was creative director and director of development at FremantleMedia Australia for 10 years – is developing several projects with Endemol Shine Australia (ESA).

“The combination of Endemol Australia’s successful heritage together with Shine’s young scripted team, in addition to some brilliant new projects with third-party creators, makes for a pretty potent mix,” says Mark Fennessy, who is co-CEO of ESA with his brother Carl.

“The merging of contemporary, talented teams with complementary skill sets and culture really delivers a case of one and one makes three. Drama is an absolute primary focus for us. We’re very much committed to building a diverse and exciting slate comprising both long- and short-form projects for all broadcasters and emerging platforms.”

Offspring's Asher Keddie and Kat Stewart
Offspring’s Asher Keddie and Kat Stewart

In November last year, Edwards announced he would depart the company and its predecessor Southern Star Group after 27 years to return to independent production. But he retains his ties with ESA as creative consultant on the sixth season of relationship drama Offspring for Network Ten (produced by Banks) and at least two other projects. One is a miniseries on Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan, which is in development with the Nine Network.

The three Australian free-to-air (FTA) networks have become increasingly risk-averse in their commissioning, relying chiefly on returning dramas and reality shows to stave off competition from Netflix and other streaming services. That conservative mentality is both an opportunity and a challenge for drama producers.

“We are in the midst of real disruption for an already risk-averse market that is fragmenting and yet expanding at the same time – it’s a bit uncertain but it’s certainly exciting. In such an environment, programmers and commissioners are under enormous pressure where there is simply no appetite for failure,” says Fennessy.

“As a result, new commissions become fewer and harder to come by. In such a turbulent environment, content producers and creators are often confined to the equivalent of ‘development purgatory.’”

Drama production budgets have doubled over the past 10 years and now range from A$1m (US$722,000) to A$1.2m an hour, driven by escalating fees for cast, crew, post houses and locations.

That increase is in line with other markets, Fennessy observes, but it does make financing more difficult. “In a crowded market with a finite number of buyers, there is always pressure on funding,” he says. “The licence fee from a broadcaster is proportional to its (55% local) drama quota and only represents one piece of the funding pie required to meet any given project. Producers are always chasing their tail to make the numbers work, which is why it’s important to have a mix of longer-form projects among the miniseries and telemovies.

“If a first-run series of six or eight episodes bites with the audience and the concept is strong enough to open out then it’s potentially an ideal bridge to longform. Miniseries, telemovies and biopics, while great fun to make, are closed-ended, financially limiting for producers and expensive and equally limiting for broadcasters.”

International sales are rarely a pot of gold for Australian dramas. The relatively modest returns from foreign TV sales were revealed for the first time in research released recently by Screen Australia. The highest prices per territory for Screen Australia-supported series and miniseries between January 2013 and October 2015 were A$137,600 per hour for the US, A$99,500 for the UK, A$78,300 for French-speaking markets, A$59,200 for the Netherlands and A$49,800 for Italy.

Further down the table the highest prices reported were A$36,000 for German-speaking markets, A$35,000 for Latin America, A$31,800 for Scandinavia, A$13,700 for Eastern Europe, A$10,000 for pan-Asia and A$9,900 for Japan.

INXS: Never Tear Us Apart
INXS: Never Tear Us Apart

The market for scripted content in the US is challenging but robust in the rest of the world, according to Endemol Shine International (ESI) CEO Cathy Payne.

“The international market for scripted product has never been as buoyant with many new linear and non-linear channels, particularly in the US where the subscription platforms have successfully found an audience for non-US product,” she says.

“At the same time, the market for US scripted product has changed. As new US channels move into scripted, increased competition has seen channels target specific audiences with more US domestic fare and/or US-centric stories. Success in the US market does not guarantee success internationally for much of this product. In addition, international markets have matured and domestic scripted product dominates in a home market.

“So there are more outlets than ever with the caution that the bar is high. We have all seen the migration of theatrical talent behind and on camera to premium television where they can tell longform stories with the freedom of not being locked to multiple-season options or restrictions in areas like episode length. UK scripted continues its renaissance with its well-packaged, innovative storytelling.

“Australian scripted needs to compete in this landscape and, as such, there will be pressure to secure that level of creative and writing talent and to invest in scripts to a higher level. Strong shows from Australia will find homes, in particular genre pieces such as crime, thriller and family saga. We are currently enjoying success with (Seven Productions’) A Place to Call Home.”

In the lead-up to the merger, Carl and Mark Fennessy (pictured in that order above), who had launched Shine Australia in 2009, turned down the offer of running ESA last April. The brothers were considering returning to their roots as independent producers, having founded comedy and factual specialist Crackerjack, which was acquired by FremantleMedia in 2003.

But after Martha Brass, CEO of international operations at Endemol Shine Group, began an international search for a new CEO, the brothers changed their minds. “It was simply a case of not getting there on the first pass,” Fennessy explains. “We had a period to serve out on the existing Shine deal so, amid the process of sourcing replacements, there was sufficient goodwill on both sides to explore a landing point to continue. Beyond that, we’re loyal to our super-talented team, which has been with us for some years, so this was also a consideration.”

Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door
Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door

Shine Australia’s first venture into drama was INXS: Never Tear Us Apart. The untold story of the pop band, led by the late Michael Hutchence, was made for the Seven Network and exec produced by Mark Fennessy plus former Southern Star executives Rory Callaghan and Kerrie Mainwaring. The two-part miniseries was the most popular drama of 2014 and gave the firm the credibility it was seeking in the drama space.

“The strategy was to start small and earn our stripes,” says Fennessy. “We needed the right projects that would generate enough noise and hopefully success to put us on the map; this was easier to do with shortform miniseries. In achieving that objective, we’ve created a strong foundation on which to build so it’s time to wade into the deeper waters.”

Momentum built in 2015 as the company created two of the year’s most watched dramas, both produced by Mainwaring. Catching Milat, the saga of the police investigation that led to the arrest of Sydney serial killer Ivan Milat, aired on Seven and drew 2.55 million viewers.

For the same network, Peter Allen – Not the Boy Next Door, which starred newcomer Joel Jackson as the singer/songwriter from New South Wales who was the first Australian to win an Oscar (for Arthur’s Theme) as well as a Grammy (I Honestly Love You, sung by Olivia Newton-John), attracted 2.23 million.

ESI sold INXS: Never Tear Us Apart to more than 121 countries, including the US (Showtime), France (MTV), Benelux (AMC/Sundance Channels), pan-Asia (AMC/Sundance Channels), Africa/South Africa (MNet), Latin America (DirecTV), Globosat (Brazil), Sweden (SVT), Spain (Telefonica) and Bell Media in Canada for SVoD.

ESI closed deals for Catching Milat in 83 countries, including pan-Latin America (A&E), Italy (Discovery), Poland (ITI Neovision), France (NBCUniversal and NRJ) and Japan (NHK).

Catching Milat
Catching Milat

Network Ten’s first drama commission for ESA was Brock, a telemovie starring Matthew Le Nevez as Peter Brock, the Australian motor racing champion who was plagued by self-doubt. He died in 2006, aged 61, when his car hit a tree during a rally in Western Australia.

Asked why Ten was attracted to the project, the broadcaster’s head of drama Rick Maier says: “It’s a great story, and a great production team. Australians love heroes and underdogs. Brock was both. To use a bad analogy, he really did start a long way back on the grid – he was not entitled to be as successful as he was. Nor was he Peter Perfect. Yet he still went on to become arguably the greatest driver we have ever seen.

“The idea had been pitched before, but not with this level of significant production talent attached. Kerrie Mainwaring produced, Adam Todd and Justin Monjo were the writers and Geoff Bennett directed. In this genre, that’s pretty much the A-team. Shine (now ESA) has always put the money on screen.”

Alice Bell and Shirley Barrett have been added to the writing team for Offspring, joining returning writers Jonathan Gavin, Leon Ford and Christine Bartlett. “Imogen is one of the best,” Maier says. “John, as he puts it, is a great alchemist and he’s done it again by assembling such a talented team. There is a genuine excitement both in the writers room and among the cast.”

Banks and Edwards produced The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, for pubcaster ABC. Scripted by Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin, the six-part drama starred Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Daniel Henshall, Celia Pacquola, Sophie Lowe and Alexander England.

The tale of adultery and scandal involving three enmeshed families across three generations screened on Sunday nights and resonated strongly with the targeted 35- to 49-year-olds, but less so with older viewers.

“We did appear to lose a segment of the 50-plus audience who traditionally watch the ABC on Sunday nights. However, that does not tell the whole story and definitely does not capture the incredible popularity of The Beautiful Lie on (catch-up platform) iview,” says ABC TV head of programming Brendan Dahill.

“With almost one million plays, it was one of the most popular series on iview in 2015, which points to a very different way that viewers are now choosing to consume their drama. We know that for years drama has been the most time-shifted genre and now, with the convenience of iview, that ability to watch a show when you want and also to choose exactly how many episodes of it you watch has been heightened.”

Edwards has long been critical of the Australian FTA broadcasters’ increasing focus on telepics, miniseries and short-run series. Speaking at Screen Producers Australia’s annual conference in November last year, he likened the state of the Australian TV drama production industry to a “stagnant billabong,” marked by fewer series, the same writers, inflated costs for no apparent quality gain, shrinking audiences and an increasing reliance on subsidy.

The Beautiful Lie
The Beautiful Lie

“All the openness and excitement and bringing through of new talent, of new work, has certainly dissipated and the area that has historically been the largest and most productive sector of the broadcast industry has all but disappeared,” he said. He lamented the demise of 40- and 22-part series and said 13-parters are almost an anachronism.

Ten’s Maier welcomed Edwards’ speech and believes some sections of the media misunderstood his message. “He was being inclusive, not laying blame,” he says. “His last three series were shortform, so he knows what he’s talking about. There’s no doubt TV drama is in an incredibly competitive space, and attention spans ain’t what they used to be in the binge-viewing landscape.

“I don’t necessarily agree longform is the answer because viewing tastes appear to have changed so much, but I do agree the training ground for emerging writers, producers and directors needs attention. Neighbours and Home and Away play their part, but the next rung of the ladder is missing or at least significantly harder to attain.

“John has always led the way with blooding new writers, directors and producers and he’s done that with 13-part series. It is obviously much harder with a shorter run. When it comes to costs, our dramas are expensive relative to those from other countries. If we can bring the costs down, we will be more competitive and more ideas can be developed.”

ABC exec Dahill adds: “John’s speech was great and touched on many areas that we as an industry should be discussing more often. Australian talent is rightly being recognised as world class and thus being courted by broadcasters and producers from all over the world – from actors and writers to directors and producers. You can also see that global recognition in the recent acquisition of many Aussie drama producers by big internationals. The downside is that this is leading to a drain on the current talent pool here at home.

“We are focused on our audience and their tastes. We live in a global marketplace and internationally there has definitely been a drift, driven by Netflix/premium US cable and Nordic noir, towards eight-part, high-impact and highly serialised drama and away from the longer-running and more soapy drama.”

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