Playmaker, the latest addition to Sony Pictures TV’s international production empire, is on a hot streak in its home market. Co-founders David Taylor and David Maher tell DQ what they’re doing right.
There is no better time to be producing Australian TV drama for both local and international networks than right now, according to Playmaker Media co-founders David Taylor and David Maher.
The former Fox Television Studios Australia production executives cashed in on the worldwide boom in demand for quality drama by selling their Sydney-based prodco to Sony Pictures Television (SPT) in December.
The deal, which will see Taylor and Maher remain at the helm of the banner they founded in 2009, gives their company access to SPT’s worldwide distribution machine and increased funds for development.
“We had been talking to Sony for a while. We liked what they had to say and it’s a good opportunity,” Taylor tells DQ, interviewed with his business partner in their offices adjoining Fox Studios.
“The opportunities for producing TV drama have increased exponentially in the past five years,” says Maher. “There has been a tonal shift among the networks, reflecting the great drama being produced in the US and the UK.”
Typifying the Oz broadcasters’ more adventurous spirit, the Playmaker duo doubt that Love Child, the most-watched drama series on Australian TV in 2014, would have been commissioned five years ago.
Set in 1969 at a home for unwed mothers adjacent to a maternity hospital in Sydney’s red-light district Kings Cross, the show was ordered by Nine Network and drew an average national audience of 2.087 million.
Just as the first episodes went to air, the broadcaster committed to a second season, which follows the doctors, midwives and expectant mothers in 1970, launching this year.
“Love Child was definitely a risky commission,” according to Nine’s co-heads of drama Andy Ryan and Jo Rooney. “The lead characters are all deeply flawed and the subject matter of forced adoption is not typical of network drama. It was crucial to get the tone right, and we all worked hard to marry the story material with the exuberance, music and fashion of 1969 Kings Cross. The ratings definitely proved that commercial drama can be adventurous and have mass appeal.”
Maher adds: “The definition of what is commercial has undergone a complete metamorphosis in the past five years.”
Playmaker had entrusted international sales of its shows to DCD Rights, All3Media International, ZDF Enterprises and ITV Studios Global Entertainment since a first-look deal with Fremantle Media Enterprises expired in 2013.
SPT will handle all future Playmaker productions and the format rights to Love Child, which were not included in the deal with All3Media. “Having one point of call for international for the shows we create will be a big advantage,” Taylor says.
While the company’s primary focus has been, and remains, the Australian market, it aims to ensure every project it develops has export potential, both for finished series and as formats.
That strategy looks like paying off for House Husbands, the fourth season of which debuts on Nine in 2015. Producers in France and Italy have bought remake rights to the drama, which looks at the relationships between four stay-at-home dads and their families. The French version will be produced by Paris-based Made in PM while the Italian remake will be produced by Rome-based Publispei. Both companies will adapt scripts from the first season.
The Australian government’s producer offset for TV series, miniseries, telemovies and non-feature documentaries, which gives producers a 20% rebate, is pivotal to the bottom line of prodcos such as Playmaker.
Playmaker’s conspiracy thriller The Code performed strongly enough on pubcaster ABC this year to be renewed for a further six episodes. DirecTV bought US rights to the show, created by Shelley Birse, and it aired on the UK’s BBC4 in October last year.
Filmed in Canberra and the Outback, the drama stars Dan Spielman (An Accidental Soldier, Offspring) as Ned Banks, a young internet journalist desperate for a break. Ashley Zuckerman (The Slap, Rush) plays his troubled hacker brother Jesse. After the siblings post online a blurry video of an Outback accident, they are plunged into the darkest heart of politics, the world of black marketeers and international agencies who monitor and manipulate them.
The second series follows the brothers as they face the prospect of being extradited to the US unless they agree to entrap one of the most elusive players in the darknet, who hosts an online bazaar of illegal weapons, drugs and dangerous ideas.
Created by Matt Ford, Hiding (8 x 60’) which premieres on ABC this year, follows a Gold Coast family who are forced into witness protection and must build a new life in a strange city, knowing that any contact with friends or relatives could lead a killer to their door. The ensemble cast includes James Stewart (Packed to the Rafters), Kate Jenkinson (House Husbands), Lincoln Younes (Tangle), Stephen Curry (The Time of Our Lives), Nathan Page (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), Jodi Gordon (Underbelly: Badness), Kim Gyngell (Lowdown), and Jacqueline McKenzie (The Water Diviner).
All four shows were created by writer-producers who were nurtured by the Screen Australia-funded showrunner development initiative dubbed Scribe. The three-year programme was a potent catalyst for the careers of Drew Proffitt (who co-created House Husbands with Ellie Beaumont), Ford, Birse and Sarah Lambert (Love Child). The initiative was so successful that it continues in 2015 as a self-funded enterprise at Playmaker.
“The unbroken authorial voice is what we strive for, and that guarantees the quality of the end product,” says Taylor. “One person oversees a project from the start to the end so there is a consistency.”
Birse recalls: “I was travelling in the Middle East when Playmaker called to see if I would be interested in joining the first round of their Scribe project. At the time, the Arab Spring was starting to escalate and I was surprised to find Australians playing a pivotal role in getting the truth of what was happening in countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia out to the rest of the world.
“They were helping the voices of ordinary men and women be heard against the express wishes of extraordinarily powerful government and military forces, and they were doing this not with firepower, wealth or strength, but with their brains and their digital prowess. At the same time, the act of whistleblowing was attracting seemingly unprecedented punishment, and to have Australians operating on the world stage in both these areas was story territory too rich to resist.”
Birse sold the concept to Playmaker, playing up the fresh angle of freedom of speech in the digital age, combined with a commitment to prioritise character over plot whenever possible. Taylor, Maher and Birse felt the ambitious project would best suit ABC and did a verbal pitch to the pubcaster’s head of programming Brendan Dahill, head of drama Carole Sklan and commissioning editor David Ogilvy, and got the nod to start developing in earnest.
“What attracted us to the project the Davids pitched with Shelley Birse was the central relationship of the brothers, the complicated bond between the responsible older brother, Ned, and the brilliant Asperger’s brother, Jess,” Sklan explains. “It wasn’t simply a generic political thriller; it had this fascinating, heartfelt relationship at its heart. It was a groundbreaking contemporary thriller with big ideas and enthralling storytelling.
“The series faced tough competition but did particularly well with catch-up viewing on iView. There was also extraordinary critical and audience acclaim for the show.”
As for Hiding, Sklan says: “It was a bold and fresh approach to a crime story and a story of a family under exceptional pressure. It was also a fish-out-of-water story with the crim working undercover in the criminology department of an elite university. Matt [Ford] brought a great deal of verve, humour and astute observation to the drama.”
Birse had been writing scripts for nearly 20 years before she was selected for the Playmaker Scribe initiative. “I felt ready to develop projects of my own, but without the creative and financial support of a production company, it was just too easy for the demands of ‘writing to meet the mortgage’ to consume all my writing time,” she reflects.
“Scribe delivered a dedicated ‘creative breath’ – two days a fortnight carved out to devote purely to development – and was set up to move creators into a producorial role once shows headed towards production. It was in this area that the greatest learning curve took place. Far from pressing send at the end of the scripting process and looking out for a DVD in the mail some months down the track, I was at the table for every creative and logistical discussion for the whole six months of production – from the first day of casting until the final international copies were signed off.
“It was an extraordinary chance to learn on the job, and while there is so much more to learn, the opportunity increased my understanding of the production process tenfold. Perhaps more importantly, it’s made me acutely aware of the costs of failing to bridge the gap between script and production and the importance of keeping writers’ voices present long after the scripts have been finished.
“It’s no mystery that the finest-quality television being made in Australia and overseas has a showrunner at the wheel.”
Maher and Taylor brought complementary skills to the table when they launched Playmaker. Taylor got a part-time job on the studio floor at Channel 7 Sydney when he was 17 while embarking on a communications degree at Macquarie University. He quit uni after deciding TV was more fun and stayed at Seven for five years, rising to first AD on dramas including A Country Practice and Home and Away. He later spent four years at prodco Screentime, working on shows such as Popstars and the Bondi Beach-set drama Breakers.
Maher also did a communications degree at Macquarie, while working part-time for Beyond Films as a script assessor. He spent four years in the UK, initially as a runner with Tiger Aspect on Mr Bean, The Vicar of Dibley and other programmes, and later as an assistant floor manager at the BBC.
Back in Australia, Maher and Taylor teamed up at Fox Television Studios, where they spent 12 years producing scripted and unscripted programming for Australian and international broadcasters. They served under three regimes: Fox Studios Australia CEO Kim Williams (who later headed paynet Foxtel); David Martin, who was promoted to Fox Television Studios executive VP, production and development in Los Angeles and is now president of Avalon USA; and David Grant, the former FTS president.
While their output ranged from lifestyle, reality and game shows to drama series, serials and telemovies, drama was the Davids’ true passion. Among the shows they remember most fondly are Supernova, a comedy starring Rob Brydon, co-commissioned by the BBC and Australia’s UKTV and coproduced with Hartswood Films, and Crash Palace, a drama set in a Kings Cross backpackers’ hostel for Foxtel’s Fox8.
Their decision to launch Playmaker coincided with a change in strategy by the Fox TV brass in Los Angeles to focus their international efforts primarily on producing drama series in Latin America. It was an amicable parting, typified by the agreement that the pair could take with them their development slate. That led to Playmaker’s maiden productions. Wicked Love: The Maria Korp Story was a telemovie for Nine which starred Rebecca Gibney, based on the true story of a Melbourne woman who was left to die in the boot of a car in 2005.
Commissioned by Fox8, Slide was a multi-platform, 10-part series following five 17-year-olds making their way to adulthood in Brisbane. “The show merged the non-scripted and online worlds and was beautifully executed,” according to Ross Crowley, Foxtel director of programming.
Crowley adds: “Playmaker is one of the production units that understands the differentiation between cable and broadcast network dramas. We need a unique voice and they really get that. They started with a small team, wanting to specialise in shorter-run, more complex works, and they nailed it.”
When they launched Playmaker, neither founder saw it as a gamble. Apart from a ready-made development slate, they were encouraged to go solo by such peers as Goalpost Pictures’ Rosemary Blight, Screentime’s Bob Campbell and Endemol Southern Star’s John Edwards.
In their office the long-time colleagues display an amusing banter and repartee, “We bicker about the small stuff,” says Maher. “We don’t disagree about the big stuff.”
Nine’s Ryan and Rooney observe: “The Davids only pitch shows with a strong creative vision, but they are also very receptive to our input at every stage, from development through to production. The success of House Husbands and Love Child proves that local drama can have a unique voice and be commercially successful.”
Sklan concurs: “The Davids bring strong creative ambition and tremendous skill to the work. It’s not only the idea, it’s the creative realisation of the idea. They are wonderful creative collaborators who identify and inspire very talented people to work together to do their best work. They are also incredibly nice, self-deprecating people.”
Birse reflects: “I think part of the strength of the Playmaker team is that they bring a great marriage of pragmatism and possibility to the table. There’s a tremendous sense when you’re talking ideas with them that the sky is the limit, and yet it somehow remains grounded in the reality of how it’s going to get made.
“I think their track record is testament to a broad commercial palette, with Scribe spawning long-running commercial family dramas like House Husbands and Love Child and edgier works like Hiding for the ABC. At the base of all their productions is a commitment to stretch the boundaries wherever possible.
“When the Davids first rang four years ago to talk about wanting to do things differently, I was in Tel Aviv, and the line was pretty crackly. What I heard between that crackling were some half-phrases: ‘develop something you love’, ‘showrunner model’, ‘integrity of authorial voice’. I got off the phone thinking I was hearing things but, four years on, the promises of Scribe on The Code were delivered in full, and then some.”