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Biopic boom

True-life stories of the famous and infamous continue to win commissions in Australia – but for how long? DQ investigates.

Australian TV dramas inspired by real people, living and dead, have been consistently popular with audiences over the past four or five years – but is that boom about to bust?

Although four biographically based miniseries are in the can or due to go into production this year, and another has already gone to air, some producers and broadcasters believe the cycle is exhausting itself. Others still see plenty of potential for the genre.

Mark Fennessy

“The biopic genre is tired and the subject matter is running thin,” says Endemol Shine Australia (ESA) CEO Mark Fennessy, whose firm produced the top-rating minis Never Tear Us Apart: The Untold Story of INXS, Catching Milat and Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door for the Seven Network and Brock for Network Ten.

“In recent times we’ve seen a definite trend towards more contemporary subjects where the primary audience has an emotional connection – often to their younger days,” Fennessy continues. “As often happens in Australia, everyone quickly jumps on the bandwagon and so it’s largely eating itself now.”

Australia’s Nine Network has ridden the true-life wave with CJZ’s House of Hancock, Southern Star Entertainment’s Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War and, less successfully, the FremantleMedia Australia (FMA) telepic Schapelle, about the conviction of Schapelle Coby for drug trafficking – which came off second best against the INXS mini. Later this year Nine will launch CJZ’s House of Bond, the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond, the flamboyant English immigrant who helped engineer Australia’s famous America’s Cup yacht race victory, bought the Nine network from Kerry Packer and was later declared bankrupt, convicted of fraud
and imprisoned.

“The challenge with biopics is to find a subject matter with broad audience appeal, a riveting story and contemporary relevance,” says Andy Ryan, Nine’s co-head of drama. “But there is definitely a limit to the genre.”

CJZ MD Nick Murray contends shows such as House of Bond go much further than linear biopics. “It’s the rise and fall of the house of Bond – the influence of both wives, the business advisors and Bond’s ability to talk or con people and banks into doing what he wanted. What on earth motivated them all?” he says.

House of Bond tells the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond

Ryan concurs: “House of Bond is very much like the man himself – colourful, outrageous and always entertaining. Bond’s life was a roller coaster of excitement and emotion, and we think we’ve captured that in the drama.”

Rebecca Heap, head of programming and digital at Australian pubcaster the ABC, sees a bright future for drama based on real people: “Audiences love Australian stories, and bios have the ability to capture our imagination on two levels – telling the story of the subject and the story of our society at that point in time. There will continue to be room for well-written and well-executed stories about extraordinary Australians, both famous and infamous.”

The ABC has commissioned The Easybeats from Sony-owned Playmaker Media, the saga of five young immigrants who met in a Sydney migrant hostel in 1964 and went on to create Australia’s first truly international rock group. On paper, the project may have seemed more suited to a commercial network, but Heap says: “The Easybeats is a great Australian success story with a killer soundtrack. What’s not to love? It maps the beginning of a new Australian identity, one that places us on the world music stage and celebrates the role of diversity in getting us there, making it a perfect fit for
the ABC.”

Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door centres on the Australian singer-songwriter and entertainer

FMA director of drama Jo Porter says: “We are in the midst of a cycle of biopics that reflects the appetite of audiences to celebrate significant individuals who have helped define how Australians feel about themselves both locally and globally. We would consider another biopic; the challenge is they need to also have international audience resonance to get the support of distribution.”

Porter oversaw the production of Hoges (pictured top), the saga of Paul Hogan, the former Sydney Harbour Bridge worker who found fame and fortune as the host of his own TV show and as the creator and star of the Crocodile Dundee movies. The two-parter, which featured Josh Lawson as Hogan, Ryan Corr as his manager/on-air sidekick John ‘Strop’ Cornell and Justine Clarke as Noelene Hogan, screened on Seven in February, winning its 21.00 and 20.30 timeslots, each drawing a consolidated audience of 1.5 million – but the broadcaster was hoping for more. “I don’t put the numbers in the fail category, more the underwhelming category. You can’t win them all,” says Angus Ross, Seven’s director of network programming.

Distributor FremantleMedia International is an investor in Hoges and will sell the project internationally. Porter says: “We’re so pleased international buyers who loved our larrikin hero in Crocodile Dundee will have the chance to see the story behind the man.”

Catching Milat focuses on backpacker murderer Ivan Milat

Perhaps reflecting a limited pool of subjects, Nine originally intended to commission minis on Hogan (from ESA) and Olivia Newton-John (Screentime), but Seven got in first on both occasions.

Seven’s Newton-John drama is produced by FMA and directed by Shawn Seet. It stars Delta Goodrem as the actor and singer who blazed a trail in Hollywood as the star of Grease and Xanadu, recording five number-one hits and winning four Grammy Awards.

“We are delighted with the strength of Shawn Seet’s creative vision and realisation of this story. It’s fantastic to celebrate a female Australian legend,” says Porter.

Seven has also commissioned Banijay-owned Screentime to produce Warnie, which will explore the paradox of former champion cricketer Shane Warne, widely regarded as the most admired, criticised and publicised Australian sportsman of the modern era.

Matt Ford (creator of Playmaker Media’s ABC drama Hiding) is writing the scripts and Kerrie Mainwaring will produce with investment from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

“Warnie’s story is not only the story of one of the world’s greatest cricketers but his off-field antics have kept tabloids in business for years. He is so compelling on and off the field, you can’t look away,” Ross says.

Richard Roxburgh as Roger Rogerson in Blue Murder

In a similar vein, true-crime dramas have long been reliable ratings performers, most notably Screentime’s Underbelly franchise, which started on Nine in 2008. The latest iteration, Underbelly Files: Chopper, will tell the story of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, one of Australia’s most notorious gangsters. Read, whose exploits were dramatised in the 2000 Australian movie Chopper, starring Eric Bana, died from liver cancer in 2013, aged 58.

ESA, meanwhile, has produced Blue Murder: Killer Cop, which stars Richard Roxburgh as notorious former detective Roger Rogerson, now serving a life sentence for the murder of a drug dealer. A sequel to Blue Murder, which aired on the ABC in 1995, it will premiere on Seven this autumn.

Toni Collette, Matt Nable, Dan Wyllie, Emma Booth, Justin Smith, Damian Walshe-Howling, Steve Le Marquand, Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Jeffery co-star in the show. It has been directed by Michael Jenkins and executive produced by John Edwards, who collaborated on the original series.

Ross says: “The powerful performances will give a no-holds-barred look at the downfall of Roger Rogerson. It is not for the faint-hearted.”

Opinions are divided over whether producers need the co-operation of their subjects – an issue that flared when billionaire Gina Rinehart sued Nine and CJZ, claiming the 2015 drama House of Hancock defamed her.

The programme focused on the feud between the late Lang Hancock (played by Sam Neill), his wife Rose Lacson (Peta Sergeant) and his daughter Gina (Mandy McElhinney).

The case was settled out of court in February, with Nine agreeing not to rebroadcast or stream the show and the broadcaster and producers publicly apologising to Rinehart and her family for any hurt or offence caused by the broadcast and its promotion.

Despite that, Murray says: “Personally, I think these stories are told better without the co-operation of the subjects. Imagine how different House of Hancock would have been if Gina Rinehart had script approval.”

CJZ head of drama Paul Bennett adds: “We do a huge amount of research on these productions and talk to as many people as we can, including the subjects if they are open to it. However, it is not essential at all to have their co-operation; in fact, having them on board has the potential to skew the process, as it can tend to make the piece more of a love letter to the subject rather than a more honest and probing investigation of their lives and what makes them tick.”

Newton-John was supportive of FMA’s mini, while Hoges’ producers obtained permission from Hogan and Cornell to recreate scenes from their TV shows and films. Both savvy businessmen, they own all rights to their content.

ESA’s Fennessy says: “If the subject is still living, it’s absolutely preferable to have their endorsement and support. If the subject is deceased, it’s just as important to have such from immediate family or the estate.”

While subjects who are internationally known are an advantage for producers in securing international distribution, this isn’t critical to the funding process. According to Ross, having a name who can help offshore sales is a bonus but that does not make or break the viability of a project, based on the current funding model.

However, Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne notes that bios’ international potential hinges on their relevance to international audiences.

Crime sagas such as Catching Milat often travel more successfully than generic stories, she says, while Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door struggled because Allen is not widely known outside Australia, despite his 1981 Academy Award for the theme song to the movie Arthur, his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli and the Broadway hit The Boy from Oz, which starred Hugh Jackman.

While biopics have the potential to be big hits at home and abroad, finding a star name or story worthy of the television treatment is the key to success – but the reliance on public awareness or curiosity over the topic may also prove to be the limitation for the genre.

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Film producers flock to TV

Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady
Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady

Number 9 Films is teaming up with Red Production Company on a TV adaptation of Henry James’ seminal 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady. This is the third time the novel will have been adapted for the screen, following a 1968 BBC miniseries and a 1996 feature film directed by Jane Campion and starring Nicole Kidman.

The story focuses on Isabel Archer, a vivacious New World ingénue who leaves America for Old World Europe, keen to experience all that life has to offer. She rejects a series of marriage proposals from eager but safe lovers for a life of independence, but when she inherits an unexpected fortune that will grant her desires, she falls prey to two American ex-pat schemers, the elegant Madame Merle and the charming but cruel and calculating Gilbert Osmond. She is then lured into a marriage with unfortunate consequences.

Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films will executive produce alongside Red’s Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley). StudioCanal will handle worldwide distribution.

Elizabeth Karlsen
Elizabeth Karlsen

Karlsen said: “We have long been admirers of Nicola’s groundbreaking work in television. She has built an extraordinary company and creative team that we feel privileged to be collaborating with on our first outing into TV. We believe we share a sensibility with Nicola of being drawn towards material with complex and compelling female lead characters, which is one of the defining elements of Portrait of a Lady.”

Shindler added: “Elizabeth and Stephen have produced some of the most acclaimed and engaging feature films of recent years and I am delighted to be working with them on their first television project. Having been originally published as a monthly serial, and addressing themes of personal freedom, betrayal and modernisation, Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady lends itself perfectly to the longform storytelling that only TV can offer.”

No broadcast partners have been named yet, but with the story set against the backdrop of New York, Boston, London, Florence and Rome, it lends itself to international coproduction.

James’ works have a track record of being adapted for TV and film – with The Bostonians, The Europeans, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove and The Turn of the Screw having also been reimagined for the screen. However, Turn of the Screw is the only one of his novels to have been adapted in recent times.

Maigret-Sets-A-Trap-3FEAT
Rowan Atkinson as Maigret

Also this week, UK broadcaster ITV commissioned two further Maigret films with Rowan Atkinson again in the title role.

ITV said: “Following huge audience appreciation and critical acclaim for Maigret Sets a Trap, which aired on ITV earlier this year and achieved a consolidated rating of 7.2 million viewers and a 28% share of the audience, writer Stewart Harcourt will adapt Night at the Crossroads from Georges Simenon’s novel. Simenon’s son, John, returns as an executive producer of the new films. The second of the new films will be Maigret in Montmartre – set, once again, against the backdrop of 1950s Paris.”

The 120-minute films will go into production in November 2016 until February 2017, and will be produced by Thompson & Thompson Productions and Georges Simenon Limited.

The films have been commissioned by controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “It’s an absolute privilege to commission two further Maigret films for ITV. We were thrilled to welcome Rowan Atkinson to the channel as Maigret. His superb performance, and the filmic execution from the production team ensured the audience greatly appreciated the first Maigret film which aired earlier this year.”

The two new films are actually the third and fourth in ITV’s Maigret series. Maigret’s Dead Man, based on Maigret et son mort, has already been filmed and will air on ITV later this year.

George Clooney (photo by Georges Biard)
George Clooney (photo by Georges Biard)

The recommission is also good news for BBC Worldwide, the show’s international distributor. Broadcasters including France 3, ARD Germany and TV4 Sweden have picked up the first two films.

In other news, Sonar Entertainment has entered into a first-look deal with Smokehouse Pictures, the independent production company founded by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

The first project under the new arrangement is America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker, based on a serialised Huffington Post article by Steven Brill. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos (Making a Murderer) will adapt alongside Nicki Paluga, with Ricciardi and Demos directing.

America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker is the true story of a venerable pharmaceutical company that created a powerful drug and marketed it aggressively to children and the elderly while allegedly manipulating and hiding data about its terrible side effects. The drug company was investigated and agreed to pay more than US$2bn in penalties and settlements, but made a reported US$30bn from sales of the drug worldwide.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be in business with George and Grant and their talented team at Smokehouse,” said Sonar Entertainment CEO Thomas Lesinski. “Smokehouse has a stellar track record of delivering commercial and critically acclaimed content. It will be a great partner for Sonar Entertainment, as the two companies align perfectly in our approaches to premium TV programming.”

The deal is another significant step into the TV business for Smokehouse Pictures, which is better-known for its movie output (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Monuments Men, Argo, Money Monster). Other television titles coming out of Smokehouse include Ms, a miniseries about Gloria Steinem and the founding of Ms Magazine, set up at HBO, and The Studio, an ongoing series about a movie studio in the 1990s, set up at Showtime.

Richard Roxburgh in the original Blue Murder
Richard Roxburgh in the original Blue Murder

The deal is also a coup for Sonar, which already has a number of hotly anticipated series coming through. Current series on air, in production or slated to commence production include season two of The Shannara Chronicles, for MTV; Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, for FX and BBC One; The Son, for AMC; and Mr Mercedes with AT&T’s Audience Network for DirecTV and AT&T U-verse.

Meanwhile, Seven Network in Australia has begun production on a sequel to Blue Murder, a miniseries that aired way back in 1995 on public broadcaster ABC.

The original miniseries starred Richard Roxburgh as real-life disgraced policeman Roger ‘The Dodger’ Rogerson. Roxburgh will again play Rogerson, who was convicted of killing university student Jamie Gao just last week. That ruling is reported to have triggered production of the sequel, which had been sitting in development for two years.

In further interesting news this week, the BBC is poised to debut its supernatural drama The Living and the Dead on its on-demand platform iPlayer. All six episodes of the show, created by Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), have been available to watch since Friday (June 17). The episodes will then receive a weekly airing starting from Tuesday, June 28 at 21.00. The BBC has rolled out a similar release for Anthony Horowitz’s new drama New Blood, which became the first BBC primetime drama  to debut episodes online.

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