Tag Archives: Playmaker Media

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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US studios extend int’l footprint

Gone is a 12-part series adapted from Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick
Gone is a 12-part series adapted from Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick

About two years ago, the international scripted TV business started to express its concern that there was a shortage of US procedural dramas coming on to the market. With the trend towards limited series and increased emphasis on superhero/sci-fi, buyers in markets like France and Germany feared a gap.

A number of companies said they would address the shortfall, including NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS), which formed a partnership with RTL (Germany) and TF1 (France) with the intention of creating US-style procedural dramas. This week, they delivered on their promise by greenlighting Gone, a 12-part series based on Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick.

Gone, which will be broadcast in late 2017/early 2018, tells the story of Kit Lannigan, survivor of a child abduction case and Frank Booth, the FBI agent who rescued her. Determined never to fall victim again, Kick trains in martial arts and the use of firearms.

She finds her calling when Booth persuades her to join a task force dedicated to solving abductions and missing persons cases. Paired with former army intelligence officer John Bishop, Kick brings her unique understanding of the mind of a predator to the team.

Gone will be executive produced by Matt Lopez, JoAnn Alfano and Sara Colleton. All episodes will be written, cast and produced in the US.

Hilary Bevan Jones
Hilary Bevan Jones

RTL and TF1 will broadcast and distribute the series in their territories (German and French respectively) and NBCUniversal International Distribution will license rights for the US and the rest of the world on behalf of the partnership.

Michael Edelstein, president of NBCUIS, said: “We are all delighted to be moving forward so quickly on our first series. In Gone, Matt Lopez has created a fascinating character who we believe will connect with procedural audiences around the world. We are assembling a first-rate production team and look forward to future series with our partners.”

Fabrice Bailly, head of programmes and acquisition TF1 Group, said: “The collaborative relationship represents a new way of working, for both studios and European broadcasters, to achieve high-quality procedural dramas.”

Joerg Graf, exec VP of production and acquisition at RTL Deutschland, added: “TF1 and NBCUniversal International Studios share our view that tailor-made formats will meet the need of our viewers for high-quality crime dramas.”

While the project is a welcome development, one point of interest is that Gone’s 12-episode run is still shorter than a standard US procedural. The first season of Fox’s Lethal Weapon, for example, is 18 episodes, while ABC’s Quantico has received 22-episode orders in seasons one and two. So a 12-episode order still leaves open a questions over the volume of new procedural episodes such cross-border alliances can bring to market.

Crackle original Chosen has aired for four seasons
Crackle original Chosen has aired for four seasons

Another interesting story this week is the announcement that Fox Networks Group (FNG) Europe and Africa has commissioned its first original drama in the region. While it isn’t a procedural like Gone, it does illustrate the increasing level of US studio engagement in the international market (in our last column, we also reported how HBO Europe is increasing its slate of original dramas).

Called The Nine, the new FNG show is created by Matthew Parkhill and Simon Maxwell (American Odyssey) and produced by Hilary Bevan Jones (Close To The Enemy, State of Play). An eight-hour drama, it tells the story of an ex-spy “who is brought back into the game to avenge the death of his son, only to find himself at the heart of a covert intelligence war and a conspiracy to profit from spreading chaos throughout the Middle East.”

Maxwell and Parkhill said: “We wanted to tell a story set against the backdrop of our dangerous and uncertain times. The Nine unfolds through the eyes of a man caught between two versions of himself, the past and the present. The genre of an espionage thriller gives us the perfect opportunity to mix his personal story with the turbulence of an ever-changing geo-political landscape.”

UK indie Big Talk Productions is rebooting1970s sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel
UK indie Big Talk Productions is rebooting1970s sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel

The project was commissioned by Jeff Ford, senior VP of content development, and Sara Johnson, VP scripted drama for FNG, Europe and Africa, and will go into pre-production in the new year.

“Following the success we’ve had with our Fox global content, we made a commitment to develop drama for this region that has the potential to be a success worldwide,” said Ford.

Another story that showcases the increasing international clout of the US studios’ production operations is the news that Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with Chinese streaming service iQIYI on a three-part Mandarin-language drama. The partners will create a new version of Chosen, a Crackle original that has aired for four seasons.

SPT’s Playmaker Media is producing with support from Screen NSW and the show will be shot entirely in Australia. Production begins in the spring with a launch due at the end of 2017.

The Ritual Bath is the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series
The Ritual Bath is the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series

The past week has also seen a number of production and development announcements flowing out of C21’s Content London event. For example, ITV Studios-owned indie Big Talk Productions confirmed that it is remaking sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, with Luther creator Neil Cross attached to the project.

Also, screenwriter/director Tony Grisoni revealed that he is developing a drama set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development.

In the US, meanwhile, Thunderbird Entertainment has teamed up with David Salzman (Dallas) to develop a TV series based on Faye Kellerman’s Decker-Lazarus series of mystery novels.

The initial development process will focus on The Ritual Bath, the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series. The story follows a tough LAPD detective and a widowed mother of two who witnesses a brutal crime and becomes embroiled in solving it.

Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie
Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie

Also in the US, Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, a tween/teen series based on the 2003 cult movie of the same name. Originally ordered straight-to-series, the show was given a rapid second season order of 13 episodes and has been attracting an average of around 1.4 million viewers.

The third season, which will go into production in 2017, will have 20 episodes, suggesting Nickelodeon is very happy with the show. School of Rock was the first series order for Paramount TV and is the first to go to a third season. The studio has also enjoyed success with Epix show Berlin Station and USA Network’s Shooter.

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Australian drama: Short and sweet wins the day

Australian viewers have embraced short-run dramas but are less receptive to new local series this year. DQ investigates the drama landscape down under.

In the increasingly competitive world of television drama, broadcasters and producers are working harder than ever to retain viewers over the course of a series.

Nowhere is that more true than in Australia, where ratings have shown miniseries to be the most popular form of drama on air this year, to the cost of longer-running dramas.

Miniseries House of Hancock averaged 2.17 million viewers on Nine Network
Miniseries House of Hancock averaged 2.17 million viewers on Nine Network

Audiences are also relating to homegrown stories, both across free-to-air channels and on pay TV.

The top-rating Oz dramas in the first eight months of this year were both miniseries. Shine Australia’s Catching Milat, which follows the police hunt that led to the arrest of serial killer Ivan Milat, attracted an average national consolidated audience of 2.46 million on the Seven Network.

Meanwhile, CJZ’s House of Hancock, starring Mandy McElhinney as Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart and Sam Neill as her husband Lang Hancock, averaged 2.17 million for Nine Network.

Some broadcasting executives acknowledge it is increasingly difficult to launch long-running dramas. Yet despite an apparent shift in audience tastes towards shorter-run fare, Seven Network director of production Brad Lyons tells DQ: “In the end, good stories well told will win out. We firmly believe there’s a place for long-running drama and will continue to pursue it with vigour as we always have.”

Budget cuts imposed by the federal government have forced commissioning changes at public broadcaster ABC, which is continuing to back longer-running dramas, if only due to the cost of producing and promoting miniseries that may only be on air for two or three weeks.

ABC commissioned several original dramas, including Matchbox Pictures’ six-hour series Glitch, a paranormal mystery about a small-town cop who discovers six naked people at a graveyard. Sony Pictures Television-owned prodco Playmaker Media’s eight-part Hiding, meanwhile, follows a Queensland family who are placed in witness protection.

Although neither scored big overnight numbers, the consolidated figures including catch-up viewing were encouraging, particularly for Glitch, which was available on the ABC’s iview platform concurrent with the broadcast premiere.

Elsewhere on the ABC, season three of December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan as a country doctor and police surgeon, achieved an average national consolidated audience of nearly 1.6 million.

Matchbox Pictures' Glitch aired on ABC
Matchbox Pictures’ Glitch aired on ABC

The third season of Every Cloud’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, featuring Essie Davis as the glamorous 1920s private detective, averaged 1.4 million on the channel.

And prodco Ruby Entertainment’s two-part The Secret River (main image), with Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Mr Selfridge) as an English convict who is transported to colonial New South Wales in 1805 and Sarah Snook as his free-settler wife, drew more than one million viewers on the ABC.

“We have had to pull back on miniseries as they are very expensive and we can now only support the occasional mini or telemovie,” says ABC head of fiction Carole Sklan.

“This is unfortunate, as ABC fiction has had tremendous success in recent years with miniseries telling stories of remarkable Australians – such as Paper Giants, ANZAC Girls, Carlotta, Cliffy, Mabo and Devil’s Dust – and literary adaptations like The Slap. Also, when we return successful series such as Rake, Janet King and Jack Irish, there are fewer opportunities for new shows.”

The Nine Network enjoyed strong ratings with two Playmaker productions, including the second season of Love Child, set in 1970 at a Kings Cross home for unwed mothers and the adjacent maternity hospital. The fourth run of House Husbands, which stars Gary Sweet, Firass Dirani, Rhys Muldoon and Gyton Grantley as stay-at-home dads, launched in August, with the premiere attracting a consolidated average of 1.381 million viewers.

Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan says: “Audiences have so much choice now that dramas have to work harder to capture and retain the public’s imagination. True stories have worked extremely well for all the networks, as have series like Love Child and House Husbands that tap into a broader social conversation.

“There is a thirst for novelty in drama, but the ratings prove there is also a big audience for stories that reflect and explore Australian life. It’s crucial that dramas start strongly and boldly. It will always be a challenge to sustain this intensity over a long-running series, but shows like House Husbands prove it is possible.

Shine Australia's Catching Milat
Shine Australia’s Catching Milat

“A major change over the past few years has been the growth in time-shifting. Our consolidated audience is consistently more than 250,000 higher than the overnight figure, which can be a 20% or more increase on an already dominant show. But as a commercial network, we also want to maximise our overnight audience.”

Love Child’s second run averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode, with the overnight national audience of 1.228 million accounting for 76% of viewing and the remainder coming from time-shifted, encore and longform video viewing. Its third season recently wrapped.

At Network Ten, romantic comedy-drama Wonderland drew an average capital-city consolidated audience of 537,000. Due to premiere on Ten later this year is FremantleMedia’s telemovie Mary: The Making of a Princess. The show chronicles the real-life fairytale romance of a Sydney real-estate agent and Crown Prince Frederik Andre Henrik Christian of Denmark, and stars Emma Hamilton and Ryan O’Kane.

Also coming to Ten is Shine Australia’s telepic Brock (working title), which will dramatise the life of Australian motor-racing champion Peter Brock, a complex man plagued by self-doubt who died when his car crashed during a rally in Western Australia in 2006.

Network head of drama Rick Maier says: “Wonderland was generally well received and we were happy with the production, but we just failed to find a sufficient audience. Longform series are now without doubt the hardest to launch successfully.”

However, Maier adds: “The strength of the idea drives commissioning at Ten. Shortform and event dramas are not necessarily a focus. As always, we have plenty of options and our planning is usually 12 to 18 months ahead.”

Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan
Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan

ABC’s Sklan is enthused about Endemol Australia’s upcoming six-hour series The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. The sprawling saga of adultery, scandal, manners and mayhem involving three enmeshed families across three generations stars Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Daniel Henshall, Sophie Lowe, Alexander England, Catherine McClements, Dan Wyllie and Gina Riley.

The exec feels vindicated by her decision to greenlight Glitch and Hiding, viewing both as groundbreaking for Australian TV. “It’s extremely important for the national public broadcaster to showcase a mix of a dramas and to support a diverse quality slate of stories, storytellers, styles and genres,” she says.

“Every commission is risky; it’s a leap into the unknown. There are no safe shows. Sometimes they defy expectations; sometimes everything coheres and the show is better than the individual parts.

“Hiding was a bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama that explored the everyday parental challenges of raising teenagers but in a high-stakes world. Glitch was the first Australian paranormal drama series.

“We took an additional risk for Glitch with our binge strategy on iview, which audiences responded to very positively. In fact, Glitch has become the most popular iview title so far this year, recording more than one million plays to date. Consolidated national figures plus iview make a huge difference and better represent the way people choose to enjoy drama anywhere and anytime. Drama is consistently iview’s most popular genre.

“The ABC is not driven by ratings alone. It’s not only about broadest possible reach but also the deepest possible engagement. Critical acclaim and awards, social media and audience feedback for our edgier shows can be intensely appreciative. The compelling, original political thriller The Code (of which Playmaker is shooting a second season) and the exuberant, satirical legal drama Rake (Essential Media and Entertainment is making a fourth season) are also great examples.”

Hiding, a 'bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama'
Hiding, a ‘bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama’

Chris Oliver-Taylor, MD of Glitch producer Matchbox, says: “If you take the overall results, the huge iview numbers, the critical acclaim and the quality of the work, we think Glitch is an incredibly successful show and one that we expect to have future series and strong international appeal.”

Playmaker Media co-founder David Taylor says the brief for Hiding was to attract a younger audience to the ABC. The show ranked as the number one scripted series for the 16-24 demographic and second overall on the channel across all slots.

“There is obviously more competition in the scripted space with audiences now having so many on-demand options for viewing drama,” Taylor adds. “As producers, it’s our job to create a must-watch experience that taps into the zeitgeist. All shows can be binge-watched six months after telecast. We strive to create dramas that have a water-cooler element that get people talking week after week.”

Seven’s Winners & Losers, which follows the lives of a group of best friends as they deal with life’s ups and downs, drew a combined average audience of 1.56 million in 2014. This year the ratings dropped but Lyons says the “consolidated figures are really good, often hitting 900,000. That’s a great result.” Last December the network commissioned a fifth season.

Lyons was also delighted with the ratings for Seven Productions’ Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field, which featured Rebecca Gibney as a detective who investigates the murder of a 23-year-old woman in a fishing town south of Sydney.

One local story to feature heavily in the last year was that of Gallipoli, the First World War campaign that took place 100 years ago in April. Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli, which covered the bloody eight-month battle of Australian and New Zealand troops against those from Turkey, launched with more than one million viewers on Nine but went into a steep decline.

Ryan says: “There is no denying that audience numbers were lower than expected, but this was a phenomenon repeated around the world with First World War-themed dramas and documentaries. The centenary of the First World War hasn’t captured the public imagination as much as we thought it would four years ago when we embarked on the series. Even so, Gallipoli was a superb production about a story of enormous national significance.”

By comparison, Deadline Gallipoli, a coproduction between Matchbox Pictures and actor Sam Worthington’s Full Clip, which explores the campaign through the eyes
of four war correspondents, drew a consolidated average audience of 203,000 on pay TV platform Foxtel’s drama channel Showcase. That ranked as the third largest consolidated audience ever in the channel’s history, trailing Game of Thrones and Screentime’s 2011 Australian miniseries Cloudstreet.

Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field
Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field

Those ratings marked Deadline Gallopoli out as one of the best-performing local dramas on pay TV, alongside the third season of FremantleMedia Australia’s prison drama Wentworth (on Foxtel’s SoHo) and Banished, a coproduction between Jimmy McGovern and Sita Williams’ RSJ Films and See Saw Films that aired on BBC First.

Banished, co-commissioned with the UK’s BBC2, marked the debut local production for BBC First. It chronicled the lives, loves, relationships and battle for survival in penal colony Sydney and starred David Wenham, Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Ryan Corr.

The first episode reached a gross audience of 293,000, the highest ever launch title on BBC First, according to BBC Worldwide (BBCWW). The seven episodes pulled in a cumulative gross audience of 1.8 million, the highest-rating BBC First title to date.

Tim Christlieb, BBCWW director of channels for Australia and New Zealand, says: “We are delighted by how Banished has been embraced by audiences on BBC First. The show delivered audiences well above the primetime and timeslot averages for the channel.”

On SoHo, Wentworth season three achieved a consolidated average of 313,000 viewers per episode, up 8% on season two’s average of 290,000. FremantleMedia Australia head of drama Jo Porter says: “Wentworth has proven to be a wonderful critical and ratings success both locally and globally, and can now be seen in 89 territories worldwide. It was voted the most outstanding drama at the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association Awards in 2014 and 2015. We have started production on season four, which will see Wentworth become Foxtel’s longest-running Australian drama series.”

Asked about the long- versus short-form drama issue, Porter agrees that the current appetite among viewers is for miniseries and telemoves “based on noisy, strong stories that stand out in a crowded schedule.”

She concludes: “As we have seen with Wentworth, there is absolutely still a market for ongoing series. Our job is to ensure we hold the audience from the first frame and give them enough reasons, through character and plot, to keep coming back week after week.”

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Oz inferiority complex

Gallipoli has been called 'must-see TV', but this wasn't reflected in viewing figures
Gallipoli has been called ‘must-see TV,’ but this wasn’t reflected in viewing figures

Australia could really do with a domestic drama hit. While 2014 saw success for public broadcaster ABC with Playmaker Media’s six-part thriller The Code, 2015 has witnessed a disastrous outing for Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli and a lacklustre response to Hiding, another scripted series from the Playmaker/ABC alliance.

Gallipoli is a seven-part drama that ran on Nine Network in February and March. Produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the famous Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, it saw its ratings slide from 1.1 million for episode one to a meagre 0.35 million for episode seven.

An obvious assumption would be that the show wasn’t very good, but that view is rejected by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), which called it a “benchmark Australian television drama that captures the horror of a nation-defining moment with evocative writing, artful direction, strong performances and accomplished production values. This actually is must-see TV, but the public doesn’t appear to be responding.”

The SMH, among others, suggested that a poor slot in the schedule (Mondays at 21.00) did Gallipoli no favours. But it went on to argue that there is perhaps a deeper problem. “Australians have been eager adopters of prestigious American cable drama series, with laudatory debates about whether The Sopranos is better than Breaking Bad and aficionados proudly boasting about being an early adopter of The Wire. But while those shows are among the medium’s very best, there’s also a part of us that bows down to imported acclaim and refuses to believe that we can make truly great television drama in this country. Presented with a worthy Australian programme, some television consumers prefer to wait online in case a new Game of Thrones trailer drops.”

Hiding, which also aired earlier this spring, followed a Gold Coast family forced to enter witness protection in Sydney. After Playmaker’s success with The Code, there were high expectations for the show, which – like Gallipoli – met good reviews from sections of the media. The Australian Newspaper said: “Creator Matt Ford’s show is imaginative, clever and mordantly funny, and the ABC deserves a round of applause for giving him the stage.”

Hiding also failed to attracted audiences despite critical acclaim
Hiding also failed to attracted audiences despite critical acclaim

Unfortunately, the audience didn’t bite. In February and March, Hiding was attracting around 330,000 viewers in Australian’s top five cities (a standard ratings measure from ratings panel OzTam) – having debuted with around 730,000 for its opening episode. While this was similar in scale to Fortitude (also airing on ABC), it was around half the audience pulled in by UK crime series Broadchurch (634,000 on ABC). Even further ahead were Grantchester and Downton Abbey (both ABC), underlining the fact that UK and US imports both tend to outperform domestic drama.

There’s another angle to this debate worth noting: ABC, the main investor in original Australian drama, has an ageing audience, with a median viewer age of 63. What it would like to do is use its drama budget to bring this age down (hence Hiding). But the existing audience is perfectly content with the likes of Downton Abbey.

This age issue created a conundrum for ABC regarding Mrs Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a beautifully crafted period drama that attracted audiences of around one million in its first two series. Despite the high ratings, the show attracts an older audience – so ABC decided not to commission a third series last year. However, viewer outcry forced a change of heart, and a third run begins this week.

For ABC it will be a mixed blessing if the show draws barnstorming ratings because it will run counter to the bigger ambition of bringing the network age down (though All3Media International will be happy because it sells the show to international markets).

It’s not obvious where the next Aussie hit will come from, but at least there is one quality drama to look forward to. Coming soon to ABC is The Secret River, a two-part series based on the novel by Kate Grenville. It follows the story of young couple, William and Sal Thornhill, who are transported to the new colony of New South Wales in 1805. The show will explore the colonisation of Australia and the escalating conflict between the Indigenous inhabitants and the newly arrived white convicts and settlers.

The Secret River is likely to make uncomfortable viewing for many Aussies, so don’t expect huge ratings. Ironically, however, it will probably do well if it travels as far as the UK, where Jimmy McGovern’s Aussie convict period drama Banished recently finished a successful run on BBC2. The show’s debut episode attracted 3.4 million, giving BBC2 an unlikely ratings victory over BBC1 and ITV. It then went on to average a respectable 2.9 million over seven weeks. The Guardian’s assessment of Banished was that it was “historically fascinating… romantic, sentimental. Funny too.”

No Offence's debut drew 2.5 million viewers
No Offence’s debut drew 2.5 million viewers

Also in the UK, the big drama ratings story of the week was the launch of Paul Abbott’s provocative police procedural No Offence on Channel 4. With an opening episode rating of 2.5 million, the show was well ahead of the slot average (1.5 million) and marginally ahead of the debut audience for Shameless (2.3 million), Abbot’s biggest hit to date. Given the success of Shameless (which spawned 11 series in the UK and gave birth to a successful US remake on Showtime), C4 will be hoping No Offence has the same staying power.

No Offence’s strong opening is also good news for FremantleMedia International (FMI), which is selling it internationally. So far it has done deals with DR in Denmark and – wait for it – ABC in Australia. Perhaps this is the show (albeit British) that will help give the broadcaster the younger profile it is seeking. After No Offence’s opening, FMI will be confident of further sales, with CEO Jens Richter saying: “No Offence is crime on steroids – it’s gripping, daring and a great reflection of Paul Abbott’s remarkable talents.”

As we’ve noted in other columns, this time of year is also important for US networks in terms of renewals, cancellations and the decision to take shows from pilot to series. We’ll look at this subject again on Monday in our Greenlight column.

For now, though, congratulations to Nashville, which has just secured a fourth season on ABC. With consolidated ratings in the 6.5-7 million range, the show is not a standout performer, but it does have two things on its side: firstly, it’s extremely popular with women aged 18 to 49; secondly, it’s reached the tipping point in terms of appealing to the lucrative US syndication market.

The general rule is that scripted shows that get to four seasons have enough episodes (85-100) to be attractive to syndication. So it is virtually unheard of for shows to be cancelled after three seasons. However, the issue might not be so clear-cut next year – ABC’s Revenge has just been cancelled after four seasons. So May 2016 is more likely to be the moment of truth for Nashville.

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Game on

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 (web)
Love Child

“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.

House Husband
House Husbands

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.

The Code
The Code

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.”

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