Tag Archives: SBS

Short trip home

Australian series Homecoming Queens is among the shortform dramas being screened at this week’s Berlinale event. Series producer Katia Nizic tells DQ about the origins of SBS On-demand’s first ever commission and the challenge of producing shortform content.

While shortform web series have traditionally struggled to break out among the sheer volume of longform dramas, there are many signs that this is about to change. Fuelled by the success of series such as vampire-themed Carmila and teen dramas such as Skam –both the Norwegian original on NRK and the US remake for Facebook Watch – more money than ever is being poured into the medium, with writers, directors and producers viewing the format as a way to bring their stories to the screen while showcasing their talents.

That was certainly the inspiration behind Homecoming Queens, a seven-part series commissioned by Australia’s SBS that launched in April 2018. Such is the growing interest around shortform that the drama is now among five chosen to be screened this week as part of Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event. Others include Fat (Argentina), Gender Derby (France), Hotel Paradise (Denmark) and Stateless (Turkey/Germany).

The story of Homecoming Queens begins when, after discovering she has alopecia, children’s television presenter Michelle goes home to Brisbane and arrives on her best friend Chloë’s doorstep. Chloë, who has had her own struggle with breast cancer, welcomes her back openly at first and tries to enlist her help in ticking items off her ‘reverse bucket list,’ now that her chemotherapy has finished – but Michelle is nervous and far from ready to deal with her new illness.

L-R: Corrie Chen, Katia Nizic, Chloë Reeson and Michelle Law

Generator Pictures’ Katia Nizic was approached in February 2016 by director Corrie Chen with a two-page outline for the series created by writers Chloe Reeson and Michelle Law (who plays Michelle on screen). The idea was based on the pair’s own lives – Law suffered from alopecia, Reeson had breast cancer – and they were looking for a producer to take it on. Nizic was immediately drawn to the story and its Brisbane setting, so they got together and began workshopping the series.

By the end of that year, broadcaster SBS and Screen Australia had invested some development funding into the project. And with all seven episodes written, the pilot was shot in January 2017 in the middle of a sweltering heatwave.

“In terms of what [themes] ended up in the finished show, everything we shot in the pilot is in there,” Nizic says. “SBS really bought into it and I pushed them to make a decision in four weeks, which meant we could get on with financing the rest of the show and doing more script development with SBS.”

SBS gave the greenlight in April 2017 and pre-production began that October. “We basically ended up shooting a feature film – the whole series is 85 minutes – with about 18 months’ development. But in other ways, despite all having to work other jobs and do other writing gigs, we were working on it pretty intensely during that time. We had a lot of feedback because we had Screen Queensland, Screen Australia and SBS development support. We put the same level of care into the development as you would a film; we just knew we’d be shooting it with about half the money of a low-budget feature.”

Homecoming Queens’ episodes are between nine and 16 minutes long

Nizic says Homecoming Queens was always conceived as a shortform series, with self-contained episodes that each advanced the story to its conclusion. On a limited budget, it was also important not to cram too much story into each instalment, with episodes running between nine and 16 minutes.

“In terms of how we developed the show – the number of writers rooms and drafts and feedback we incorporated and how rigorous it was – it was no different from a television series development,” Nizic says. “In fact there may have been more scrutiny because we hadn’t done this before. We went through five or six drafts for each of our scripts in terms of feedback and rewriting. We really wanted this to be a calling card for whatever any of us wanted to do next. We also wanted to make something high quality that would look good if you put it on a TV screen.”

At the heart of the series is Chloe (Liv Hewson) and Michelle’s relationship, and how it changes over the course of the season as they learn about themselves and each other. “We had to get them to a point where their friendship had changed but potentially for the better,” Nizic says of building the story. “So in trying to reverse-engineer that, we were thinking in terms of what’s happening for them in each episode and asking how is it impacting their relationship and how is it moving it forwards or backwards, and figuring out the storylines based on that and giving each episode a beginning, middle and end. It did end up being extremely difficult, and maybe that’s why we had so many drafts.”

Yet despite the emotionally charged subject matter, Homecoming Queens delicately blends a mix of humour and drama, which Nizic credits to Reeson and Lee’s relationship as well as finding the comedy in some incredibly sad situations. “It’s not everyone’s reaction [to the situation] but it’s certainly theirs and I really liked that dark humour when I saw the initial outline for the series,” she adds. “I thought it was an interesting way to tell it and it really works, for Australian humour anyway.”

The show was the first online-only commission from SBS

In production, Nizic notes that SBS kept a keen interest in the series, owing to the fact it was its first online commission. With little room for error on a budget of A$690,000 (US$488,000), every single page of the shooting scripts was committed to film, despite the production one day facing a sudden thunderstorm that forced the crew to move locations after they were forced to evacuate the beach where they had been filming.

“Basically we had a crew of 20 to 25 on any given day and we had quite a few scenes with lots of extras,” Nizic says. “We did have small departments but we just had to choose wisely in terms of people like the art department. We had an art director who was doing all the financial stuff, was on set every day and then made us a ‘Harry Potter’ castle on the weekend. We chose people we’d all worked with before who are multi-talented and knew what kind of job it would be. It’s not that they were unpaid, it’s that they had to go above and beyond.

“There was a challenge getting what we wanted creatively because Brisbane doesn’t have a lot of studios. One of our biggest tasks was finding all the locations we needed. Mostly, we needed to film in houses, but we also got into a hospital training facility that looks like a hospital. We got into this huge bar for the drag show. If we hadn’t been able to get those locations locked down, it would have been a nightmare.”

Though a second season isn’t forthcoming, Nizic says Homecoming Queens turned out to be the show they wanted to make at the outset, pointing to shortform web series as a creative opportunity to take risks broadcasters may not want to stomach with a full-length commission.

“A web series gives an opportunity to people like me who previously just made shorts and want to show what they can do,” she adds. “We worked incredibly hard to make sure SBS were really happy with the finished project and everything went in on time. We over-delivered in terms of marketing materials. It was really important to us that this came out in the best possible light, and SBS have been really happy with it. I think they’d work with us again.”

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Gloves off

Australian miniseries On the Ropes packs a punch with its story of a female boxing trainer striving for equality and a chance to succeed in the sport she loves. DQ speaks to stars Nicole Chamoun and Keisha Castle-Hughes plus producer Courtney Wise about the SBS show.

Preparing for an audition might typically involve researching the series, learning some scenes and, if possible, reading the entire script. But for her latest role, Nicole Chamoun didn’t just want to speak the part, she wanted to look the part too.

This didn’t simply mean a change of outfit, however, as Chamoun was putting herself forward to play an aspiring boxing trainer in Australian network SBS’s four-part miniseries On the Ropes.

“I wanted it so much and I just wanted to do as much as I could to embody the character prior to the audition. So about a month before, I started training maybe once or twice a week,” she explains.

Her audition and her commitment impressed the show’s producers and she won the role. “Then once I was cast, I was doing boxing and weight training five days a week,” she continues. “And because I play a trainer, it was a whole other skill set to train and do pad work, learn the technique and the language, as well as learning how to throw a punch and to feel what it’s like to be hit. It was a lot but it’s awesome.”

On the Ropes — described as a “sexy, gritty drama that is fast-paced and full of heart” — stars Chamoun as Amirah Al-Amir, a wannabe trainer who has idolised her world-champion father Sami (Igal Naor) her entire life.

Nicole Chamoun’s Amirah gives Jess (Keisha Castle-Hughes) advice in the ring

Working in the family gym in Sydney’s western suburbs alongside her two brothers, she negotiates a professional debut match for her hardnosed fighter Jess O’Connor (Keisha Castle-Hughes) with Sami’s long-time promoter Strick (Jack Thompson). But when her furious father threatens to cut her off, Amirah must choose whether to chase her dream or choose her family.

Chamoun says the eight-week production — two weeks of prep and six of filming — was a “really special experience” and she fell in love with the sport.

“Boxing was all new to me,” she admits. “It was my first time experiencing a character from the physicality aspect of it, which was really interesting. The physical stuff of the boxing world was so important to who she was as a person and it coloured so much of her identity that we did a lot of the character work simply by turning up to boxing training. So that was cool, and watching my body transform and seeing myself get stronger and picking up a new skill set, it was great. I loved it.”

Producer Courtney Wise says she was sold on Chamoun from her first audition, impressed that she had nailed the character of Amirah. “But when we realised she’d gotten into boxing, that was a bonus that we discovered later. Seeing all these Instagram pictures of her boxing was exciting but we didn’t know that straightaway.”

Amirah grows to love boxing after being brought up in that world, but finds it’s only when she wants to step out on her own that she is confronted by opposition, most notably from her father.

Director Shannon Murphy (left) with producer Courtney Wise

“I think if Amirah were born a boy, it would have been a different situation,” says Wise. “She’s really talented in terms of boxing and would have been a natural heir but, because she’s not a boy, it’s that much harder for her. Sami’s responsible for nurturing her in this world but when it comes to making it her career, that’s where it becomes not for him because he does have that deeply entrenched, patriarchal view of the sport.

“When she decides to go pro, that’s when he and his wife start to panic and draw those lines in the sand. She knew he wouldn’t approve, but not how much it would tear the whole family apart.”

Chamoun says Amirah challenges traditional representations of men and women, in a story that tackles themes of gender inequality, multi-generational conflicts and the difficulties facing immigrant families. “The only reason she can challenge her family the way she does is because she knows they love her unconditionally. It’s not like he’s the big bad father who doesn’t respect women’s place in the world. She’s questioning all the things he’s grown up to know and believe in the boxing world and in the community. That’s where it’s coming from. He’s protecting her.

“But she’s a strong-ass woman. She knows what she wants and has the courage to fight for it. And they could be from any background – this story just happens to have an Iraqi-Australian family.”

Like Chamoun, Castle-Hughes (Game of Thrones, Whale Rider) went through a demanding regime to play boxer Jess, training for up to five hours a day for eight weeks before shooting began. “In boxing, you don’t have anywhere to hide. There’s nowhere to go,” the Oscar-nominated actor says. “You can build your strength up and get as strong as you can, but it really comes down to mental endurance.”

Four-episode miniseries On the Ropes is set to air later this year

Castle-Hughes admits she often felt “broken” on set, such was the demanding nature of the role and the fight sequences she had to perform. Body doubles were used, but the actors did the vast majority of the physical work themselves. “But I felt really supported,” she says. “Nicole and I had such a special relationship — it was very easy for us to be the trainer and the fighter.

“Jess and Amirah are closer than anyone else, especially when training. There’s a level of deep respect that was required. You see their relationship and they learn so much from each other.”

The idea for On the Ropes came from Wise, a self-proclaimed boxing fan, who wanted to set a drama in the world of sport. She devised the characters and the story before writing a series outline, bringing in writers including Tamara Asmar (Doctor Doctor), Adam Todd (Wentworth) and Ian Meadows (House Husbands).

Boxers such as Australian pro Bianca Elmir were also on hand to bring authenticity to the series, with Elmir also helping with the fight choreography. The series isn’t filled with boxing sequences, however, as Wise was keen to ensure viewers didn’t suffer from “fight fatigue.” When such scenes do appear, though, she says they are narratively driven and reflect the emotional relationships of the characters.

Barring a car-park brawl, Chamoun was largely on the sidelines for the fight sequences, as the trainer watching from behind the ropes, but she did climb into the ring for sparring scenes with Castle-Hughes and fellow actor Louis Hunter.

Star Nicole Chamoun also featured in fellow Australian series Safe Harbour

“Both Keisha and Louis worked so hard and it was so incredible. I have so much admiration for them,” Chamoun says. “I don’t even know how they did that as well as the acting and the character work on top of it. Also, I’m very clumsy so I feel like it wouldn’t have been good for anyone if I were in the ring. It’s best to have me on the sidelines — using my voice is my strength.”

Behind the camera is Shannon Murphy (Offspring), who directed all four episodes of the miniseries, produced for SBS by Lingo Pictures and distributed worldwide by DCD Rights. Wise says Murphy succeeded in getting grounded, authentic performances and a unique visual style that matches the unfamiliar setting for the story.

“When I took Shannon to one of her first fight nights, she instantly fell in love with it and then took all those visual elements and pushed it to a whole new level,” Wise explains. “She did that across the series and, when you look at it, it’s very visually distinct and that’s all credit to her embracing that and really giving it a push.”

Chamoun says the series pays respect to boxing, with many from the sport playing a part in the development and production of the drama. “I feel like that world’s going to be surprised about how authentically we have delivered it,” she says. “I’m just really honoured to have been part of a project where we’re putting on screen Arab-Australian characters that are not the victims or the terrorists. I hope there are women who see themselves in me being represented on screen.”

Having appeared recently in both Romper Stomper and Safe Harbour, the actor says she has enjoyed some “really beautiful, heartfelt, juicy roles and stories,” with On the Ropes following that same vein. It is due to air later this year.

“I just want to play bold, strong, powerful women,” she adds. “I feel like I’ve only had the opportunity to play Arab women so far, so I do think it’s important that we challenge that part of things. It would be nice to play some roles that are not based on my ethnic background, but then again it’s all about the story and the character. And if they’re strong women with something to say, I hope I have an opportunity to play them.”

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Hunt for a killer

Cops and criminals collide in Dead Lucky, a four-part drama that weaves several storylines around the hunt for a dangerous murderer. Muriel’s Wedding and Six Feet Under star Rachel Griffiths tells DQ more about the series and her ambitions behind the camera.

Sometimes it seems like actors have the best jobs in the world. Spending months filming in exotic locations such as Caribbean island Guadeloupe (Death in Paradise), Corfu (The Durrells) or Sri Lanka (The Good Karma Hospital) surely can’t seem like working at all.

For Australian actor Rachel Griffiths, however, paradise was much closer to home. “Shooting October and November in Sydney is heaven, really,” she says. “I felt guilty getting a pay packet. It’s so gorgeous.”

The state capital of New South Wales serves as the location of SBS crime drama Dead Lucky, with iconic backdrops such as the Sydney Opera House on show from the very beginning of the four-part miniseries. Created by Ellie Beaumont and Drew Proffitt, the show follows a number of interlinked storylines, centred around two feuding detectives and their hunt for a killer.

Grace Gibbs (Griffiths) is obsessed with catching the armed robber who murdered her junior officer. But Charlie Fung (Yoson An), her new trainee, blames Grace for the death of his best friend. Meanwhile, a group of international students living in a shared house think they have found paradise and a couple of greedy convenience store owners resort to deadly measures to defend their business, all while a violent fugitive is hiding on the outskirts of the city. Set across one week, Dead Lucky sees the paths of these characters collide, leaving two people dead and one missing.

Rachel Griffiths as Grace Gibbs

Directed by David Caesar, it is a Subtext Pictures production and will air on SBS in July. DRG is handing international distribution.

With so many Australian dramas mining classic IP – including remakes and spin-offs of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Romper Stomper, Mystery Road, Wolf Creek and Wake in Fright – Dead Lucky stands out as an original tale packed full of contemporary issues.

“I have worked with these writers before and we had that thing where we went, ‘It would be really good to do something else together,’” Griffiths says. “Well, that’s what I thought and thankfully they felt the same. I like to play on old tropes – who doesn’t like a buddy cop film? And then I loved that it’s a bit new Australia, old Australia, but it’s also within the context that this woman [Gibbs] has had to break the same perceptions, misconceptions and prejudices that this young guy will, in the same profession. It’s a great, interesting common ground.

“I also loved the idea of this girl in a mid-life crisis point. Her career is not where she thought it was and she’s at a critical moment. Does she hang in there until she gets to retirement, or does she find her mojo again and find a way to keep believing in what she’s doing? I found that great.”

Gibbs is also very angry. Grieving the loss of her partner, both personally and professionally, she is forced to attend anger-management sessions that only serve to fuel the fire within her. “For people who work on the front line, like ambulance drivers or first responders, they can go for years and then, one day, something sticks and they can’t move on,” Griffith says. “I guess it’s that whole PTSD thing where it’s so trite to be sent to a counsellor who has no idea what’s required to do those jobs. The fact is you can’t get all internal and ‘snowflakey’ because you’ve got to go back out into the war zone. And yet, if you don’t do the interior work and acknowledge you have experienced trauma, you will get to a point where that work is no longer possible.

“But she’s also angry because the guy she needs to catch is out there. At that point, it’s her motivator, so to reduce your anger would be demotivating. From the cops I talk to, they have open cases where they know who’s out there and justice hasn’t been served. Anger is a motivator.”

With so many TV serial killers on the loose, it’s also notable that the murderer in Dead Lucky has no motivation or back story. Put simply, he is a senseless maniac with no apparent reason for his crimes. “We thought it was interesting following not the arch serial killers of The Bridge or the noir shows but the ordinary drugged-up psychopath who just ruins so many lives with no masterplan, just his random acts of inhumane violence,” Griffiths explains. The showrunners learned from police that such criminals “impact on society much more than these clever serial killers we’ve all been following,” she adds.

Caesar previously directed Griffiths in 1993 TV movie The Feds, about the police hunt for a couple suspected of fraud. She describes him as a “great stylist and a real Aussie bloke, who has lovely insight and compassion yet he’s very ballsy.” The director oversaw two weeks of rehearsals for Dead Lucky, during which Griffiths was put through cop training, while she and her on-screen partner An spent time together to build up their ‘buddy’ relationship.

Griffiths alongside her Dead Lucky co-star Yoson An

“My very first job with this director was also as a cop,” she says. “I’m not a natural street cop but the detective stuff, as I’ve become a more mature actor, felt much more right.”

Griffiths also praises the collaborative nature of making Dead Lucky, revealing that the creators brought her into the fold a year before shooting. “They wanted my input at that point,” she says. “It wasn’t huge but I kept trying to nail the thesis of the show, and that’s where we got to this female mid-life crisis, which is not explored very much. Often it’s the man at the middle of his career and his drinking.”

Drama characters are now more layered and complex than ever, but it was Griffiths’ experience starring in HBO’s Six Feet Under that opened her eyes to the possibilities television offers.

“In the early days of quality premium cable, it was really illuminating to discover the joy of finding layers and layers, and to do that over several seasons was a privilege I never expected,” she explains. “The two casts that I did five years on [Six Feet Under and ABC drama Brothers & Sisters], coming back for the next season was so wonderful because you start with fresh storylines and fresh momentum but your relationships are much deeper. I’m loving that on Game of Thrones and The Crown and Broadchurch. There’s a certain comfort that comes over time, which is really great. We were just hitting that at the end of episode four [of Dead Lucky].”

Griffiths is also stepping up behind the camera. Having directed three episodes of Nowhere Boy season two, she is now in pre-production for Ride Like a Girl, a movie about Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

Griffiths is also well known for starring in HBO drama Six Feet Under

“I love the problem-solving and I love telling stories,” the actor says about her approach to directing. “I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller as much as an actor and I think we’re in a really exciting moment for the stories that are being told and the perspectives they’re being told from. And I love working with the crafts people in my industry and harnessing their collective brilliance.

“I don’t come from an auteur place; I’m very much about listening to the best idea in the room and I love problem-solving in real time. I’m not one of those directors who just gathers this stuff and discusses it in the editing room and can’t wait for the shoot to be over. I like being out there in the mud and dealing with the advancing Russian army. One hour at a time at the moment.”

But for a certain generation, Griffiths is still best known for starring as Rhonda in comedy-drama movie Muriel’s Wedding. The 1994 film maintains a cult following, with Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical opening in Sydney in November 2017.

“I couldn’t stop crying the whole way through the show,” she reveals of watching the musical. “It was kind of embarrassing because the audience kept turning to watch me crying. It was very emotional but it’s a fantastic show, it’s sold out down here. I’m hoping that, like Priscilla [Queen of the Desert, the hit musical], it will go global and I think it delivers everything people are going to want from it.”

Now 24 years on from its original release, Muriel’s Wedding still stands out as a story about female friendship, principally between Rhonda and Toni Collette’s Muriel, who dreams of being a bride. Griffiths credits its success to creator and director PJ Hogan, who chose not to view women through the male gaze.

“It was so much about women finding themselves and friendship being at the core, rather than romantic love,” she notes. “A bit like My Best Friend’s Wedding, which he went on to make, it shifted the object within that romantic comedy genre. When coming-of-age films really capture the torture and the joie de vivre, the audience can relate to that moment and carry the film with them as a personal reference.”

For Griffiths, stories about female relationships are sorely lacking, except for recent Oscar nomineee Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, which focuses on the relationship between a mother and daughter.

“It truly is a woman’s most significant relationship and it can ruin you and it can make you, and to see that explored on film is incredibly rare,” Griffiths adds. “Whereas father-son relationships have been seen since The Godfather because men know how important that relationship is for men. It’s only now women are making films that they think, ‘Well this is the most interesting relationship to make a film about.’”

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Choppy waters

Commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS, miniseries Safe Harbour offers a fresh perspective on the global refugee crisis. DQ sits down with the on- and off-screen talent behind the show to find out more about this ‘very cinematic’ piece of television.

Actors from a Middle Eastern background are usually cast in Australian TV shows for one of two reasons, according to director Glendyn Ivin – “To make us laugh or make us scared.”

Ivin seized the chance to avoid those caricatures when he was hired to direct Safe Harbour, a four-hour psychological thriller commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS.

Produced by NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, the miniseries tackles the controversial topic of asylum seekers and the moral dilemmas they pose to governments, societies and individuals, particularly in the West.

The plot follows five vacationing Australians who set sail on a yacht bound for Indonesia. En route they encounter a broken-down fishing boat full of desperate asylum seekers.

Despite concerns that the Aussies could face charges of people-smuggling, they agree to tow the stricken vessel back to Australia, but by the next morning it has vanished. Five years later they meet some of the refugees and discover someone had cut the tow rope, resulting in the loss of seven lives.

Safe Harbour’s diverse cast includes Nicole Chamoun as Zahra

The relatively unknown Nicole Chamoun and Hazem Shammas play Zahra and Ismail, an Iraqi couple whose nine-year-old daughter dies after the vessel sinks. Robert Rabiah is Ismail’s brother Bilal.

“When we were casting we had a lot of people come out of the woodwork who were great actors, often from the theatre,” Ivin says. “They saw this as an opportunity to explore Iraqi or Arabic characters who were neither good nor bad: they were very human. In the show, we don’t explore characters in terms of their race, religion or politics; we explore characters purely as human beings. It’s paid off because their performances are so rich and so beautiful.”

Australian-born Chamoun, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon during its civil war, made her screen debut in the SBS series Kick in 2007 and more recently appeared in December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Sticky Pictures’ Ronny Chieng: International Student, both for pubcaster the ABC.

“Nicole came in and did this screen test that had me in tears. It was in Arabic but there was a guttural panic and sadness behind what she was doing; the words seemed to force themselves out of her throat in a way I wasn’t expecting,” Ivin says. “She did something I’d never seen an actor do before in a screen test. She requested that she did not talk beforehand; she just wanted to come in and do the scene and then we would talk afterwards. When she arrived in the room, she was in a heightened emotional space. She delivered it twice, and then through tears we began the more familiar casting small talk. She is an incredibly passionate actor who puts everything on the line.”

Chamoun says of her audition: “I felt compelled and so connected to the story and this character I was not leaving that room without [getting the part].”

Director Glendyn Ivin says he sees ‘TV as the new cinema’

Of Zahra, she says: “She is a strong, hard-working woman, the glue in the family who is trying to keep everyone together when everyone around her is crumbling. She takes on the weight of everyone’s problems and comes out fighting. I don’t know if I would have been as strong and determined. It was gut-wrenching for me but this could have been real and has happened to many, many people.”

After a lot of hard work and perseverance, Chamoun’s star is rising: she also plays a Muslim university student who gets embroiled in race riots in Melbourne in Roadshow Rough Diamond’s Romper Stomper, an original series commissioned by streaming service Stan that debuted in Australia on January 1, 2018.

Ivin was similarly impressed with the performances of Shammas, an experienced stage actor whose screen credits include Screentime’s Underbelly and ABC comedy At Home with Julia, and Rabiah (Screentime’s Fat Tony & Co, Matchbox Pictures movie Ali’s Wedding).

The producers secured marquee names to play the Aussie holidaymakers. Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake: China Girl, Rake) plays Ryan, the boat’s captain, with Phoebe Tonkin (The Originals, The Vampire Diaries) as his sister Olivia and Leeanna Walsman (Seven Types of Ambiguity, Cleverman) as his wife Bree.

Joel Jackson (The Wrong Girl, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door) is Damien, Olivia’s boyfriend who disappears after the incident on the water and reappears at a group reunion five years later. Jacqueline McKenzie (Love Child, Hiding) is the fifth passenger, a lawyer named Helen.

The cast and crew faced the challenge of a week-long shoot on two boats and six support vessels off the coast of Brisbane

Filmed over six weeks in Brisbane and off the Queensland coast, Safe Harbour is co-funded by Screen Australia, Screen Queensland, SBS and NBCUniversal International Distribution, which has international rights. The series is due to premiere on SBS next Wednesday.

The concept was one of 300-plus ideas that flooded in after Matchbox Pictures opened an office in Brisbane in 2015 with the support of Screen Queensland and issued a general call-out for stories. Matchbox development executive and producer Stephen Corvini says the two-page treatment from neophyte writers Phil Enchelmaier and Simon Kennedy for the project, then titled Asylum, was the standout.

Corvini held a brainstorming session in Brisbane with Enchelmaier, Kennedy and experienced writers Beatrix Christian and Anthony Mullins, who runs Matchbox’s Brisbane office. Christian subsequently dropped out to co-write FremantleMedia Australia (FMA)’s Picnic at Hanging Rock for Foxtel, so Belinda Chayko and Kris Wyld came aboard and a series bible was written. Wyld then moved on to create and co-write medical drama Pulse for the ABC and Matt Cameron was hired.

Chayko had worked with Cameron on Matchbox’s miniseries Secret City for Foxtel and the prodco’s drama series Old School, which starred Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, for the ABC.

Corvini subsequently pitched the project to SBS head of drama Sue Masters, who readily agreed to fund the script development. After four scripts had been written, SBS gave the greenlight and Screen Australia and Screen Queensland provided production funding.

Safe Harbour launches in Australia next week

The international relevance of the subject was a big plus, as Corvini explains: “Shows that travel are very important to the company and, as storytellers, we want our stories to travel. We absolutely want to be successful in the domestic market foremost, and with NBCUniversal distributing they have a say in what we produce and give us some indication of how a show like this will perform internationally.”

Masters says: “We’re inordinately proud of the show. The fact it is a psychological thriller was very exciting. The great beauty of the SBS charter is that we won’t make anything that is unimportant. The challenge is always to make it engaging, compelling, fresh and bold. Four-part, one-hour series are dense and quite difficult.”

SBS adopted the four-hour drama template with FMA’s Better Man, which Corvini produced, followed by Essential Media and Entertainment’s The Principal, Blackfella Films’ Deep Water, Easy Tiger/Carver Films’ Sunshine and, also premiering in 2018, Subtext Pictures’ Dead Lucky.

“It’s creatively challenging – you feel like a start-up company every time you do one of these four-hours because they are all different. But we feel it is an efficient use of our money, and it’s important to have some marquee stars so that our projects can stand out,” Masters adds.

Chayko wrote episodes one and four and co-wrote episode three with Enchelmaier. Cameron did episode two. The plotting was a collaborative process involving all the writers plus Kennedy, Mullins and Corvini.

Glendyn (right) chats to actor Hazem Shammas

“The most difficult challenge in the writing was to get the delicate emotional balance of the characters right, particularly the Australians,” says Chayko. “The more we got into their stories and acknowledged the depth of their feelings once they realised what the consequences had been, that’s when it felt like it was all really coming together.”

Chayko sees one virtue of four-part dramas as the ability to tell stories that in the past might have been the subject of theatrical features.

Ivin, who directed Seven Types of Ambiguity and the US cable series Hunters for Matchbox as well as numerous other dramas including The Beautiful Lie, Gallipoli and Puberty Blues, heard about the project on the grapevine.

“It’s the first time in a long time that a project made me think, ‘I’d love to do that.’ I was jealous when I heard someone talking about it,” he admits. “Then I got a call from Matchbox when I had been day-dreaming about the project. I had been doing a run of commercials so I was really happy to jump back into longform drama. I see TV as the new cinema. This is four hours, one director and we’ve treated it as one film. It’s a piece of very cinematic television and the kind of thing I aspire to make.”

The director adds that the ambiguity of the moral dilemma at the heart of the story was the key to the drama. “I did not want it to be a for-or-against story,” he says. “We’re talking about the issue of asylum seekers, which could be anywhere in the world. From the outset, this felt like a way of contributing to and discussing this really important issue without it becoming a piece of advocacy.

“We as an audience expect a lot more from TV drama than in the past. As a director, the stories I’ve been drawn to in television, I know that if I had made them as feature films they would not have had the audiences they had on TV.”

The director frames a shot while out at sea

Tonkin jumped at the chance to come back to Australia to work on a grounded drama after spending years on the heightened-reality milieu of The Originals and The Vampire Diaries. The actor relished tackling her character’s arc from being a hopeful, happy young woman to someone who, five years later, harbours a lot of anger, guilt and sadness.

Working for the first time with veterans McKenzie, Leslie and Walsman, Tonkin says she was a bit intimidated initially but felt comfortable after the first day and enjoyed the collaborative effort. “It was incredibly inspiring to work with all those actors; I probably learned more than I did in the past 10 years,” she says.

Ivin notes: “[Tonkin] proved herself to be a much greater actor than we had been aware of. I think people will see her differently from now on because she delivers a stellar performance.”

Similarly, McKenzie marvelled at Tonkin’s temperament and technique as she persevered filming a scene in dying light after a camera malfunction, observing: “Phoebe is at the top of her game in the US and it was lovely to see her back in Australia doing a fabulously dramatic role that she could get her teeth into.”

McKenzie describes her character as an embittered, driven and ambitious woman who is nearly unhinged after the tragedy at sea. Thereafter, she sets out to save her soul.

Like most of the cast and crew, Leslie found the week-long shoot on two boats and six support vessels off the coast of Brisbane challenging, especially playing the boat’s captain with zero maritime expertise. He was cracking Jaws and Waterworld jokes before venturing out to sea but quickly desisted.

Leslie was attracted to the project because all the characters are complex and make bad decisions over the course of the four episodes, and by the chance to work with Ivin for the first time, having followed the director’s career since 2003 short film Cracker Bag. He also enjoyed teaming up again with Jackson after they collaborated on the Foxtel-commissioned First World War miniseries Deadline Gallipoli.

“What I really liked about Safe Harbour was that it’s very much a personal story about the inter-connected relationships, as opposed to being a political story,” Leslie says. “Because of the subject, people viewing at home are going to bring their own politics to it. But the show doesn’t make any attempt to push any agenda. I would not want to watch if it did. It sets up a very complicated dilemma and lets it play out as both sides make questionable decisions that have repercussions.”

Ivin is full of praise for the work of first-time cinematographer Sam Chiplin, who had been the B camera operator on The Beautiful Lie, a reimagining of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina produced by John Edwards and Imogen Banks for the ABC. Before that, Chiplin was a director’s assistant at TVC production house Exit Films, where Ivin met him.

“He created an amazing aesthetic on the show,” says the director, adding that he had only seen that level of enthusiasm and attitude in two other people: Australian DoPs Greig Fraser, whose movie credits include Lion, Mary Magdalene, Rogue One and Foxcatcher, and Adam Arkapaw, who shot the first series of Top of the Lake, True Detective and features including Assassin’s Creed and The Light Between Oceans.

Executive producer Debbie Lee, who is Matchbox’s director of scripted development, says the show is based on a key premise: what would viewers do if they were confronted with the moral dilemma the Aussies faced? “It is complicated and there is no simple answer to what is a unifying dramatic question,” Lee says. “It’s about the fantastic characters created by the writing team and their own dilemmas.”

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Diversity down under

Chris Irvine, head of production and commercial at SBS, takes DQ inside the Australian broadcaster to reveal its drama strategy, his thoughts on the scripted television business and how he is developing new series in partnership with head of drama Sue Masters.

How would you describe your current drama strategy?
Sue Masters, head of scripted, and I have been working together on SBS’s drama strategy for the past couple of years. SBS is one of the smaller commissioning networks in Australia and our ability to commission drama is limited by the size of our content budgets. However, we have made a commitment to commission three four-part drama series a year. Four-parters have worked really well for our schedule and we are likely to continue to develop to that model.
It’s also a model that makes economic sense for SBS, owing not simply to the production costs themselves but also to the associated increased marketing expenses that come with longer-running franchises.

Chris Irvine

What has been your biggest success?
We have enjoyed significant success with our four-part series strategy. The Principal (produced by Essential Media) was the progenitor of the model and we have since commissioned Deep Water (Blackfella Films), The Sunshine Kings (Easy Tiger), Safe Harbour (Matchbox Pictures, pictured top) and Dead Lucky (Subtext Pictures). They are all four-parters, and there are more on the horizon.

How would you describe the current state of the television drama industry?
Much has already been written of the fact we are living in a golden age of TV drama. Our ability to commission drama is fuelled by invaluable partnerships with Screen Australia – the federal government screen agency, which is also the custodian of Australia’s screen tax subsidy – and state agencies, plus increasingly competitive distribution advances made against the value of rest-of-world sales.

What’s the greatest challenge facing your business?
SBS has a charter mandate to explore, appreciate and celebrate diversity and showcase content that contributes to a cohesive society. That mandate provides a laser focus for our commissioning strategy, but it is sometimes a hard target to hit. We make a substantial investment in our development slate to make sure we’re always commissioning to that charter focus.

The Sunshine Kings has been commissioned as part of SBS’s four-part series strategy

What are the biggest changes affecting the drama business?
In Australia there is a shallow pool of experienced writing talent and directors, and the demand on their time is compounded by the lure of the big UK and US shows. We have a responsibility to develop the next generation of Australian creative talent, and through SBS’s diversity lens we have a responsibility to develop and escalate careers of writing and directing talent, and screen professionals generally, from underrepresented backgrounds.
SBS has implemented a diversity talent escalator programme to escalate the careers of diverse screen practitioners. Australia is an incredibly diverse society and we ultimately want to commission filmmakers to make shows that are representative of the Australian audience that watches them.

What’s your coproduction strategy and what obstacles do you face?
SBS is absolutely open to the possibility of co-commissioning with international networks. Given the increasing pressure on ‘traditional’ sources of drama funding in Australia – the pressures on the Screen Australia budgets, for example, have never been more acute – finding ways to co-commission and coproduce drama are likely to be paramount to the longevity of our commissioning strategy.
The challenge we face is that while we develop projects across a broad range of themes and genres, everything we make needs also to respond to our charter mandate. As such, we are looking for opportunities to develop as well as commission shows with international partners, so they can develop organically to fit both schedules.

Forthcoming drama Deep Water is being made by Blackfella Films

Tell us about your development process.
Development is a key pillar of our drama strategy and we have a policy of developing to a 3:1 ratio: for every three shows we develop, only one will be greenlit for production. Drama requires a substantial level of investment, both from a direct financial perspective and the weeks, months and sometimes years involved in realising a show’s potential.
For SBS, a drama series also has to hit a very specific tone and respond to our charter mandate to explore, celebrate and appreciate diversity; to shine a light on the fault lines of society and explore social cohesion in all its forms. And that’s a hard brief to execute without veering into worthy or didactic content. We will spend time and money on development to make sure we’re backing the very best projects – rather than the ones that might be ‘ready.’

How early do you join a producer or writer in development?
There is no hard-and-fast rule to this, but we generally board a project at the very beginning. For the most part, we will develop a production team to engage writers and so on, but we do have an in-house development team that will work directly with writers too.

Subtext Pictures’ Dead Lucky is another four-parter

What role do you play in development and into production?
We are very hands-on. For us, drama commissioning is a partnership in every sense of the word. Sue Masters executive produces all our drama commissions, and our development team will work with producers and writers across initial research, treatments and all draft scripts. We play an active role in the story room.

How has your development process changed over the last few years?
It’s much more structured that it was previously. We are constantly on the lookout for ideas and projects that can explore Australia’s multicultural society in new and engaging ways. Diversity is in our DNA so we naturally want the most diverse slate of projects possible. I cannot imagine SBS has ever enjoyed a more robust slate of drama projects in development than it currently has.

How will things be different five years from now?
We are already seeing the seismic contribution the on-demand platforms have made to the drama production landscape. Our hope is that the increased volume of drama content being produced continues its current trajectory and that we see a commensurate growth in the next generation of talented Australian writers, directors and producers from more diverse backgrounds.

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Korea opportunities

Korean dramas provided the basis for two US series this year, with ABC shows Somewhere Between and The Good Doctor both taking their inspiration from a country that is prolific in its output of scripted content. Here, DQ picks out some new Korean series that are also ripe for acquisition and adaptation.

Emergency Couple
A divorced couple reignite their feelings for each other when they become interns at the same hospital years later. Produced by Dragon Studio for tvN and distributed by CJ E&M.

Why were you interested in telling this story?
Director Chul-gyu Kim: I chose the story because it added a pleasant romantic comedy element to a medical drama genre that could turn out to be a heavy and serious story. The story seemed like one that could give audiences balanced enjoyment.

How was Emergency Couple developed for the network?
At the time, tvN was oriented mostly towards young and active people. The network was embarking on a strategy to broaden its demographic, and our story fitted in well with that strategy in that it can appeal to all audiences.

The show switches between two timelines – how did you tackle that?
For the scenes in the past when the couple were together, we focused on their emotions. For the present, social environments, roles and positions were added on top of their emotions and they were harmoniously depicted.

How would you describe the writing process?
We carried out thorough research and tried our best to reflect reality in the hospital. We collected as much medical information as possible and also gathered diverse ideas from people who work in the industry.

Why were Song Ji-Hyo and Choi Jin-Hyuk picked to star in the show?
Both are talents who can express earnestness and brightness, which are important to starring in a melodrama.

A thriller in which a prosecutor who is unable to feel emotion begins to uncover corruption within his office. Produced by Dragon Studio for tvN and distributed by CJ E&M.

Why did you want the lead character, Shi-Mok (Cho Seung-woo), to lack emotion?
Producer Jae-hyun So: Being unable to feel any sort of emotion is a big flaw and is abnormal. We wanted to contrast this with the other ‘normal’ characters in the story. Doctors who save lives, prosecutors who convict criminals – they need to have an underlying love for humanity. However, we set up a character without emotions because we wanted to portray someone who would pursue the truth and not be swayed by personal greed, not to mention justice or love for humanity.

Tell us about the show’s visual style.
In the development stage, our camera, art and casting teams came together and decided to make the show look cold and emotionless. We shot tight angles, getting very close to the actors to better capture their emotions. The actors’ expressions seemed much more real this way.

Where was Stranger filmed and what does this bring to the show?
We filmed the show in Incheon, South Korea, but the story was inspired by the Seobu District Prosecution Office. All the houses, bathrooms and crime scenes were all filmed on set. We tried our best to make it look real. The prosecution office on the set was built after tours of real-life offices and we referred to videos and documentaries about how the prosecution operates.

What were the biggest challenges in development or production?
As the whole drama was made before it began airing, there were limitations to receiving viewer feedback. However, we could elevate the perfection in post-production with editing, mixing, CGI and music.

How is K-drama evolving and what new stories are you able to tell?
Audiences now seem to prefer dramas with a unique concept – storylines that are different from any others, regardless of the genre. In addition, successful shows reflect Korean sentiment and social atmosphere.

Band of Sisters
A ‘womance’ that depicts the friendship between a group of women out for revenge after they each lose something following a car crash. Produced by SBS and FNC Add Culture for SBS and distributed by SBS International.

How would you describe the writing process?
Producer Younghoon Choi: Traditionally, Korean weekend drama series feature the story of an extended family. However, I wanted to introduce some fresh and dramatic devices and settings, with younger main characters and three villains. I emphasised the confrontation between good and evil and abandoned the clichés of a Cinderella story or a success story. I wanted to have characters attack each other and defend themselves in each episode, like a game, and I upgraded the clichés of a birth secret, false romance, betrayal and conspiracy, and utilised them colourfully.

How did you create the style of the series?
I wanted something between American soap operas and cinematic TV series. It was difficult to keep it low budget and high quality while producing and directing a 50-episode series. So for the first 10 episodes, I shot at 24fps to maintain the cinematic look and later I shot at 30fps. Also, I used three cameras for every episode to reduce the shooting time and capture various shots.

What were the biggest challenges in production?
The overwhelming volume – 50 70-minute episodes – was the most burdensome. It was challenging to control the rhythm of the story from the beginning until the end. I tried to make the scene transition quick, but at the same time tried to make the story flow naturally. I constantly interacted with the actors while shooting, and held enough rehearsals before shooting so they could act smoothly. I enjoyed experimenting with various genres – this series has elements of comedy, thriller, action, romance and even horror.

Why would this series appeal to international viewers?
Band of Sisters features a clear confrontation between good and evil. The story development is fast and the situation changes quickly, not allowing the viewers to feel bored. Moreover, romantic scenes and touching family stories are a bonus.

Questionable Victory
A wrongly convicted death row inmate escapes from prison to save the life of his friend’s sister. Produced by SBS and RaemongRaein for SBS and distributed by SBS International.

Where did the story come from?
Producer Kyungsoo Shin (pictured): I was interested in stories about people who waste their youth in prison after being falsely accused of a crime. In 2000, a taxi driver was stabbed to death and the first witness, a 15-year-old delivery boy, was accused of murder. He was recently released from prison at the age of 32, after his innocence was proved in a retrial and the real perpetrator emerged. Nothing can compensate the time such people spend in prison. I wanted to make a story where the wrongly charged individual solves the case by himself. The writing began in 2016 and the casting began this July. Pre-production kicked off in August and shooting is now underway.

How would you describe the show’s tone?
This is close to a serious drama, but I’m adding some humour at some points so it doesn’t become too serious. Unexpected, natural comedy or a funny situation will prevent the series from becoming too serious.

What makes Questionable Victory stand out from other Korean dramas?
I try not to make emotional scenes too deep or too long. Questionable Victory will stand out because it gives a light touch to such scenes. But to find out if this difference becomes a strength, I’ll have to wait until the editing finishes.

Why would this series appeal to international viewers?
The story is easily approachable even for foreign viewers. A story of a falsely charged man trying to solve his problem by himself, about jailbreak and a detective, is easy to understand. Also, the main character is humble and has his faults, so viewers will feel comfortable with him.

An action drama about two brothers and the ill-fated choices they make, due to air in November. Produced by Drama House and Kim Jong Hak Productions for JTBC and distributed by JTBC Content Hub.

What did you find appealing about Untouchable?
Producer Cho Jun Hyoung: It’s not just a tale of two brothers, but a complex family story. Initially, it may seem like [main character] Joon’s journey to avenge his wife’s death is the central plot, but his internal struggle is the real arc of the story. As he faces the disgraceful history of his family, his deep hatred for his monstrous father and brother grows. But he is conflicted by the desire to forgive them because they are his family. Audiences today can connect with this complicated and delicately told father-son conflict, magnified through dramatic settings. It is directed by the charismatic Cho Nam Gook and written by Choi Jin Won, known for his dense writing style.

Why would this series appeal to international viewers?
It may sound weird to say that this is a story about family when a brother is seeking revenge for his wife’s death and the plot includes a struggle against immense power. But as you get into the story, you will see that it’s something we can relate to, because we all experience life as a family in some way. We are telling a story that can draw the sympathy of not only people living in Korea but around the world.

How would you describe the state of Korean drama?
The K-drama industry is enjoying an increased number of networks and timeslots. Correspondingly, there is a flood of new shows being produced, and many of the major networks are preparing to open a new slot for drama. The result is a more competitive environment for us. JTBC is home to a diverse genre of stories such as Woman of Dignity, Strong Girl, Man X Man and Hello, My Twenties!. Our main priority is to discover and deliver fresh stories and subject matter.

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Asia awaits Korea’s Moon Lovers

The original version of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
The original Chinese version of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

Everybody in the TV business knows South Korea turns out some great scripted series, but the hotly anticipated launch of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo on SBS, scheduled for August 29, is especially interesting.

The first reason for this is that the show is based on a Chinese series, which itself is based on a Chinese novel. A time-travel romance that premiered on Hunan Broadcasting System in 2011, the original version tells the story of a 21st century woman who is propelled back in time to China’s Qing Dynasty after a near-fatal accident.

In the Korean version, the heroine will go back to the Goryeo Dynasty. The Chinese industry must be delighted to have exported a hit idea to Korea, having spent much of the past few years being on the receiving end of costly Korean content.

The second reason is that the Korean version of the show has been made with financial backing worth US$10m from NBCUniversal. On previous occasions, NBCU has acquired international rights to Korean dramas, but this is the first time the company has put up funding ahead of production, according to local press reports. All of which suggests increased demand for a brand of drama that was already doing phenomenally well in China and Japan.

The third reason is that Moon Lovers will be aired in China (Youku and Mango TV), Hong Kong (LeTV), Japan (KNTV), Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (all Sony’s ONE channel) at the same time as in Korea – an illustration of how day-and-date distribution is now as important in Asia as the rest of the scripted TV world.

Doctors has done well on SBS
Doctors has done well on SBS

The pickup by Sony’s ONE channel is notable, since it shows the extent of Korean drama’s appeal across Asia. ONE has enjoyed a lot of success airing K-drama across Southeast Asia. Recently, it scored strong ratings with Doctors, another SBS show.

The fourth reason why Moon Lovers is interesting is that it is part of a growing trend for Korean dramas to be produced completely before launch. Traditionally, Korean broadcasters have started to air scripted shows before the production has wrapped.

The advantages of this are a) they can get to market more quickly; b) they can make editorial changes as they go; c) they can keep the finale of shows secret from adoring K-drama audiences; and d) they can pull the plug on a show early if it is rating badly, thus saving the cost of production on a number of episodes.

There are, however, two downsides. The first is that this seat-of-the-pants-style production makes quality control more difficult. The second, more importantly, is that it can have a dampening effect on the international distribution value of a show. The reason for this is that many of K-drama’s key export markets – particularly China – are content censors. So broadcasters/platforms there are reluctant or unable to acquire shows until they have seen the entire run of episodes. Given the premium value that now exists for day-and-date distribution, this means Korean content creators need to produce all episodes pre-transmission to generate the maximum international returns on their shows.

Descendants of the Sun
Descendants of the Sun

There was another example of this in action earlier in 2016. KBS created a drama called Descendants of the Sun, about an army captain who is posted abroad, where he falls in love with a surgeon working with an NGO. The show was a big hit at home, but because it was entirely produced pre-broadcast, it was able to satisfy China’s censors and secure a lucrative deal with iQiyi. The result has been in excess of two billion views on iQiyi.

A final note on Moon Lovers: a second season of the Chinese original aired in 2014. So if the Korean version does well in the next few months there is more material to go back to. The two Chinese series are both 35 episodes, the Korean version is 20.

Separately, Sky Atlantic/Canal+ drama The Last Panthers recently finished airing on Sundance Channel in the US. As in the UK, it didn’t attract especially good ratings, finishing with around 38,000 viewers (having started its run at the 60-70,000 mark).

Nevertheless, the Haut et Court TV/Warp Films production has done pretty well in distribution for StudioCanal and Sky Vision, which share the international sales job. Today, for example, it was revealed that the six-part crime series has been acquired by DirecTV Latin America, the leading satellite television provider in the region.

The Last Panthers has sold around the world despite weak viewing figures
The Last Panthers has sold around the world despite weak viewing figures

Commenting on the deal, Willard Tressel, general manager of OnDirecTV, said: “We’re thrilled to bring The Last Panthers exclusively to our subscribers. The producers have brought together an amazing team of talented people to create this gripping series that feels closer to cinema than to television.”

This deal isn’t a fluke either. According to StudioCanal and Sky Vision, the show has sold to 122 territories in total. Other broadcasters to have come on board include SBS Australia, HBO Nordics and Fox Networks’ Crime channels in Eastern Europe.

The question, of course, is why buy a show that only attracted 38,000 viewers in a market of 116 million TV households? Well, it could be down to price or a favourable agreement in terms of windowing (box sets and so on). But, increasingly, pay TV platforms and channels also see value in securing shows that have achieved a certain amount of critical acclaim.

The Last Panthers hasn’t won any high-profile awards yet but it is on a few shortlists. And it does feature an excellent cast (Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, Goran Bogdan and John Hurt, for example). Factors like these – not to mention the fact it was written by the in-demand Jack Thorne – have an in-built brand value that can make a subscription service stand out in the eyes of potential and existing customers.

Pivot coproduced Fortitude with Sky
Pivot coproduced Fortitude with Sky

In other words, it’s almost possible to view the acquisition rights fee you pay as a kind of marketing investment in your business.

Of course, this thesis only works up to a point. At a certain stage, shows have to deliver audiences too. There was a good indicator of this point this week with the news that Participant Media is shutting down its cable channel Pivot.

Maybe this is the first indicator that the US scripted TV market is heading towards a contraction, since it removes a potential buyer from the market. In a neat link back to Sky Vision, Pivot aired the company’s Arctic thriller Fortitude in 2015. This means the distributor will now have to try to find a different home for the show’s second season.

In other news this week, USA Network has ordered a third season of its critically acclaimed hacker drama Mr Robot.

Mr Robot will return to USA Network
Mr Robot will return to USA Network

Elsewhere, Lifetime is piloting A Midsummer’s Nightmare, a psychological thriller based loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the show goes to series and is successful, the idea is to create an anthology-style scripted franchise in which each new season is a contemporary horror story based on a Shakespeare play.

There is no news yet on what title might come next but how about: MacDeath, otHELLo, The Vampest, Thirteenth Night, The Maiming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Terrors or All’s Well That Ends in Hell…?

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TV drama faces dilemma down under

ABC miniseries success The Secret River
ABC miniseries success The Secret River

Each year, Screen Australia releases a detailed report that analyses feature film and TV production levels in Australia. Entitled Drama Report, the 2014/15 edition came out last week.

When all elements are combined, the market is in pretty good shape. Total expenditure for the year in question was A$837m (US$597m), down just 1% on the previous year’s record high, and there is a positive trend in terms of inward investment.

All told, 16 foreign projects came to the country in 2014/15, generating a record expenditure of A$418m. These included the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, underlining the fact that the country can be relied on to deliver superb quality.

But the situation in domestically produced TV drama isn’t looking so good. According to Screen Australia, total spend on TV drama in 2014/15 was down 13% year-on-year to A$299m. And the situation is worse if you strip out children’s drama, which actually saw an increase last year.

Nine Network's hit House of Hancock was also a miniseries
Nine’s hit House of Hancock was also a miniseries

Looking specifically at adult drama titles, the decline is 19% – from A$291m to A$235m. Onscreen, this translated into 34 adult titles and 401 hours of production, compared with 40 titles and 472 hours last year and a 2012/13 peak of 40 titles and 502 hours.

The figures are a reminder that the ‘golden age of drama’ doesn’t benefit everyone in the value chain equally.

Explaining the figures, Screen Australia chief executive Graeme Mason said domestic drama is “very expensive to produce, especially when weighed against the cost of cheap American imports. With competition in subscription VoD further fragmenting audiences, government incentives to produce local content will be more important than ever.”

An additional problem for Australian TV producers is that the “cheap American imports” referred to by Mason actually rate pretty well down under. One of the key consequences of this is that domestic broadcasters tend to look abroad for longer-running series and ask the local production community to focus more on miniseries and shorter runs.

Glitch has been renewed by ABC
Glitch has been renewed by ABC

There are exceptions, of course, such as long-running soaps Home & Away and Neighbours, but it’s notable that the most popular domestic dramas of the past year have been miniseries like Catching Milat, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, House of Hancock and The Secret River.

Even Glitch, recently renewed by ABC, comes in batches of only six. All of the above are excellent shows that may earn their producers awards and acclaim, but it’s not easy to run a drama production business on the back of miniseries and serials.

The extent of the problem for Aussie producers is further underlined when you look at how reliant domestic drama funding is on public sources. According to Screen Australia, a significant share of funding comes from public broadcaster ABC, Screen Australia itself, state agencies and a refundable tax rebate known as the Producer Offset.

Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are coproducing Cleverman
Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are coproducing Cleverman

Commercial free-to-air networks provided only A$93m (across 21 titles) during the year in question – “the group’s lowest contribution to the slate since 2005/06.”

In other words, the health of the domestic drama business going forward will require continued goodwill from politicians.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The fact that Australian writers and producers have the craft and creativity to make great drama is clearly a blessing. And there are new trends emerging that may support the sector.

While the ABC, Seven and Ten Networks have been the biggest supporters of scripted production, public network SBS recently aired its first home-grown drama in two years (four-parter The Principal). Nine Network also used its Upfront presentation last week to say that it will be increasing its spend on local content significantly in the next three years.

Pay TV hit The Kettering Incident
Pay TV hit The Kettering Incident

Having recently ended an output deal with Warner Bros, it has invested some of the freed-up money in titles like Hide & Seek, an espionage thriller from Matchbox Pictures, and House of Bond, a miniseries about the colourful entrepreneur Alan Bond. Produced by Paul Bennett (House of Hancock), House of Bond is exactly the kind of project that is likely to set Nine’s ratings alight (for a day or two).

Screen Australia also cites new areas of activity that might support Aussie drama producers into the future. “Subscription TV had a very strong year with The Kettering Incident, Open Slather and A Place To Call Home. This year’s slate also featured four series made for broadcaster catch-up or subscription VoD services: Fresh Blood Pilot Season, SBS Comedy Runway, No Activity and Plank.”

Not to be overlooked either is the contribution from foreign investors, which presumably includes international distributors looking to pick up global rights to shows. Although Screen Australia’s 2014/15 figure of A$54m was down on the previous year, it’s still a potent reminder that Aussie shows have the ability to work well in a number of foreign TV markets.

Similarly, the state-supported body also picked out a trend towards international coproduction, with activity up “on last year and the five-year average.” While a lot of this is down to kids’ drama coproduction, Screen Australia said this was “the fourth consecutive year with at least one adult TV drama coproduction in the slate,” in this case Cleverman, a partnership between Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures in New Zealand.

A new season of ABC thriller The Code is on its way
A new season of ABC thriller The Code is on its way

Cleverman, which will air on ABC in 2016, is an interesting project that was launched to the international market at Mipcom last month. A six-hour sci-fi genre series, it has been picked up in the US by Sundance TV and is being distributed worldwide by Red Arrow International. If it does well, it will provide the kind of creative and business model that may help Australian producers ease the financial pressures they currently face.

In the meantime, what have Aussie viewers got to look forward to? Aside from shows like Cleverman, Hide & Seek and the next run of Glitch, Seven has just unveiled plans for Molly, Wanted and The Secret Daughter. The first two are miniseries, but the latter is a 10-parter from Screentime that will be distributed by Banijay International.

Also coming up is a new series of ABC thriller The Code, which did well at home and overseas. Ten has struggled with drama recently, with titles like Wonderland and Party Tricks failing to hold on to viewers (it announced on October 26 that Wonderland has been cancelled after three seasons). Perhaps that is why it has announced a sixth season of Offspring, its most popular drama in recent years.

Offspring was rested for a year, with some fans fearing it might never come back. But with Ten anxious for a drama hit, reviving the show clearly makes sense. As yet it’s not clear what else Ten is planning in terms of drama.

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Six of the best from Korea

International TV market Mipcom starts in a couple of weeks’ time and one of the hottest forms of content at the event will be Korean drama. Wildly popular across Asia, Korean scripted shows have also recently started to be picked up as formats in the US, with examples including Good Doctor, Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, Answer Me 1994 and My Love From Another Star.

For anyone interested in knowing the hot Korean shows to look out for, there is a handy tool known as the Contents Power Index (CPI). Released on a monthly basis, the CPI attempts to measure fan interest in a series – using factors such the number of articles written about a show, internet search popularity and activity on discussion boards to determine which shows are most popular. Consolidated data for the first half of 2015 puts the following shows out in front. So keep an eye out for them in Cannes…

producersThe Producers: Broadcast by KBS, this 12-part series aired on Friday and Saturday evenings in May and June. Popular in Korea, it tells the story of a group of young producers working in the variety department of – wait for it – KBS. The show, which stars the highly bankable Kim Soo-hyun, has already been sold to broadcasters and platforms in China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan, while digital streaming rights have also been licensed to parts of Europe, the Middle East and North America. Underlining the show’s appeal, China’s online network Sohu paid US$2.4m for rights to The Producers. The programme has been nominated for a number of Korean Drama Awards, but it didn’t escape criticism, with some entertainment insiders complaining of an inaccurate portrayal of the relationship between producers and celebrities.

sensorycouple2Sensory Couple: Also known as The Girl Who Sees Smells, Sensory Couple is a suspense/comedy/romance hybrid adapted from a webtoon of the same name. Broadcast by SBS, it has an elaborate plot that centres on a woman who sees her parents being murdered by a serial killer but is then hit by a car as she escapes from the killer. She wakes up from a coma six months later to discover that she has lost her memory – but has developed the ability to ‘see’ smells. The show, which aired in April and May, started with a modest 5-6% share but steadily rose to 12% by the end of its 16-episode run. It has been sold to channels in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia. Last week, Singapore-based distributor Bomanbridge Media acquired the Mongolian rights.

pinocchioPinocchio: Pinocchio started airing in late 2014, running through to January 2015. A 20-episode drama on SBS, it has a typically convoluted plotline based around a conflicted romance, a hidden identity and a young man’s desire for revenge. The Pinocchio title refers to a girl who wants to be a journalist but has a syndrome that makes her hiccup when she lies (not great for a journalist). Echoing Sensory Couple, ratings grew throughout the run, starting at a 7.8% share and ending at 13.6%. The show was sold for a record US$280,000 per episode to Chinese video-sharing website Youku Tudou, where it scored huge ratings. It also sold to seven other Asian territories, the US and Israel. It was named Outstanding Korean Drama at the 10th Seoul International Drama Awards.

killmehealme2Kill Me Heal Me: An MBC drama that aired from January to March, Kill Me Heal Me is about a third-generation chaebol (corporation boss) who has memory lapses due to a traumatic childhood experience. Eventually this causes his personality to fracture into seven different identities. He is treated secretly by psychiatrist Oh Ri-jin who (surprise surprise) falls in love with him. The 20-part series reunited actors Ji Sung and Hwang Jung-eum, who previously starred together in the 2013 hit Secret Love. While Kill Me Heal Me did fairly well, it failed to hit the heights of Secret Love – despite the entertaining sight of Ji Sung playing seven characters). Nevertheless, it was licensed to markets including China, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. In fact, local media reports claim it travelled from Korea to Japan faster than any other drama in history, airing in Japan as soon as the Korean run ended. It’s interesting to note that the market hasn’t yet moved to the kind of simultaneous transmission we now see with US shows.

Mask_(Korean_Drama)-p13Mask: A classic doppelganger story, Mask is about a sales clerk who looks identical to a congressman’s daughter. When the congressman’s daughter dies, nefarious forces blackmail the sales clerk into marrying the deceased woman’s fiancé – the heir to a huge fortune. The heir, who is unaware of the switch, had not been marrying for love, but because his family demanded it. He is pleasantly surprised by his new wife – who is nicer than he expected. The 20-part series first aired on SBS from May to July and was a consistently strong performer – airing in the same slot previously occupied by Sensory Couple. It was written by Choi Ho-chui, who had a previous hit with KBS’s Secret in 2013. International sales to date include ABS-CBN in the Philippines.

schoolWho Are You: School 2015: ‘School’ is an ongoing franchise that aired from 1999 to 2002 and was then revived in 2013. It depicts the struggles and dilemmas faced by Korean youngsters – though not in a Breakfast Club or Skins kind of way. In the latest season, for example, Lee Eun Bi (Kim So Hyun), a student at a top high school, mysteriously wakes up with amnesia. When she subsequently discovers she was once bullied, she decides to put things right by transforming herself into a popular and glamorous girl – but things aren’t as simple as they seem. Especially popular with young Koreans, this latest series of 16 episodes ran from May to June, finishing strongly with a 9.7% share. The show aired on KBS World with subtitles two weeks after its initial broadcast. It’s part of a lively genre of high-school K-dramas that stretches back years.

Other shows to appear on the CPI include Heard it Through the Grapevine; Angry Mom; Let’s Eat; Jeju Island Gatsby; Punch; Healer; Hyde, Jekyll and I; Orange Marmalade; and What’s with this Family?. One that doesn’t appear in the list but has generated a good response is tvN’s Ex-Girlfriend Club.

So what else is worth saying about Korean drama? Well, historically it has generated a lot of its international revenue from Japan. But, as the above examples show, China has become an important market. The interesting thing about China, however, is that foreign shows are banned from airing in primetime, which is why Korean dramas tend to be snapped up by online streaming services (which pay upwards of US$200,000 per episode).

In terms of staying on top of trends in the K-drama market, Drama Fever identifies the top trends in Korean drama this year. These include personality disorders, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, high-school bullying, exes and vampires – all of which sounds like the typical content of a Western drama too!

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