Tag Archives: Screentime

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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Songs and secrets: On location with The Secret Daughter

An Australian drama is breaking new ground with its cast and musical influences. DQ visits the set of The Secret Daughter.

Screentime CEO Rory Callaghan was watching House of Hancock, a miniseries about the troubled family dynasty of the late Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock, last year when he had an inspired idea for a TV drama.

Callaghan was impressed by scenes in the Nine Network drama that showed Hancock (Sam Neill) with Hilda Kickett (Leah Purcell), an Aboriginal woman who, in 2012, alleged DNA tests proved Hancock was her father, the result of an affair with a cook.

Wondering what might have happened to a woman like that, Callaghan came up with the idea of a series about an Aboriginal pub singer called Billie who claims to be the secret daughter of a wealthy publican. He had only one person in mind for the lead: Jessica Mauboy (pictured above), the singer-songwriter and actor who first came to fame as the runner-up in Australian Idol in 2006.

Darwin-born Mauboy had already proved her acting chops in Rachel Perkins’ 2009 feature Bran Nue Dae when she became part of the ensemble cast of The Sapphires, Wayne Blair’s 2012 movie based on Tony Briggs’ play about four young Indigenous singers who entertained the US troops in Vietnam.

Director Leah-Purcell-and-Jessica-Mauboy
Director Leah Purcell with star Jessica Mauboy

Callaghan met with Mauboy and her agent David Champion, she responded enthusiastically and, after months of script development, the Seven Network commissioned The Secret Daughter. The ground-breaking series is the first to feature an Indigenous actress in the lead and the first in Australia to weave the musical elements – a mix of original songs and covers – into the narrative.

“I loved the character, the riskiness, the danger, the mystery of it. That’s what attracted me. It was an exciting and bold script,” says Mauboy. “Billie is bold, she’s open-minded, has a kind heart and puts others before herself.”

It took Screentime executives some months to secure Seven’s support and to arrange financing from Screen Australia and state agency Screen NSW. Screentime parent Banijay put up a distribution advance for the international sales rights and the producers used the 20% producer tax offset.

Seven head of drama Julie McGauran says: “It all starts with story, and the original pitch felt fresh and different. Then you add Jessica Mauboy to the mix, so the big attraction was the combination of story and her incredible talent. Like every Seven drama, we had to ensure The Secret Daughter ticked all the boxes – broad appeal, good humour and a fantastic ensemble cast led by Jessica, David Field and Colin Friels. It’s a heartfelt and joyful drama full of warmth, humour and music.”

The timing was propitious because Mauboy was lined up to feature in the network’s coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics, which in turn served as a launch pad for the series. It debuts on Wednesday, October 3.

Screentime head of drama Greg Haddrick, also the script producer and one of the show’s writers, says: “The network is committing millions of dollars and you have to prove your credentials before they are willing to commit those funds. This was stylistically new ground. On the one hand, it is bold and exciting; on the other, it was a little scary. We had to show enough evolution of the idea to prove that it would be fresh and new and exciting. The network came on board after reading the scripts of the first four episodes.”

From left: Matt Levett, Rachel Gordon, Jordan Hare, Jared Turner and Jessica Mauboy
From left: Matt Levett, Rachel Gordon, Jordan Hare, Jared Turner and Jessica Mauboy

According to a recent Screen Australia report, the average production budget across 16 Australian TV dramas produced in the past four years – including Cleverman, The Code, The Principal, Rake, Top of the Lake, Deadline Gallipoli, INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, The Slap, Secrets & Lies and seasons one and two of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – was A$1.4m (US$1.05m) per hour. The federal agency contributes up to 40% of budgets, of which A$500,000 is a grant.

McGauran, drama consultant John Holmes and network script executive Louise Bowes worked closely with the producers on development, casting and scripts, and gave regular feedback on the rushes.

Mauboy plays Billie Carter, a part-time country pub singer who spends much of her time looking after her father Gus (David Field), who can’t stay out of trouble. Colin Friels plays Jack Norton, a self-made millionaire publican who is stricken with cancer and goes to Billie’s town to look for his long-lost daughter, born from an affair 26 years ago.

Billie and Jack spend one night talking under the stars, telling each other their dreams and regrets. The next morning Jack dies in a helicopter crash. His youngest son Jamie (Matt Levett) turns up, meets Billie and there is an instantaneous mutual attraction. That gets complicated when Jamie starts to believe Billie may be the daughter his dad was looking for.

To save Gus from town crook Bruno (Salvatore Coco), Billie poses as the secret daughter and drives to Sydney with Jamie. Rachel Gordon plays Susan, the ambitious, ruthless and younger wife of Jack Norton, and Bonnie Sveen is Billie’s best friend Layla.

At the outset, Callaghan and Haddrick spent several days brainstorming with multiple writers, including Justin Monjo, to flesh out the characters and main plot points. Subsequently Monjo wrote the first two episodes, Haddrick wrote two and Keith Thompson and Bowes each penned one.

“We chose writers who Rory or I had worked with and who we felt would suit the show,” explains Haddrick, speaking on the multi-level set in a converted north Sydney office building. “Yes, it’s a relationship show, but it’s operating in more traditional areas than standard, middle-class relationship shows. There is a lot of class imbalance, there is the music element and we weave the music into the drama in a fresh way. It took a few months to work through all that.

“We have the characters in Billie’s band to begin with, so you see the band playing some covers. You then see her in her normal life but, rather than break into a song like characters do in a musical, she often picks up on what is around her, phrases people say, sounds she hears in the street or from the pub. Before you know it, she is singing a few lines. Sometimes the emotional situation she finds herself in either sparks a memory of a song that was playing at a similar time earlier in her life, or it goes to a cover song, which actually informs the moment her character is thinking about. Her life is music, so that is the way she processes her emotions.”

The directors are Leah Purcell (lead director), Geoff Bennett and Paul Moloney. “The challenge for the directors is to keep an essentially dramatic storyline set up around loss and sorrow, but to maintain a sense of lightness and fun. It is a very delicate balancing act,” adds Haddrick.

The song-selection process entailed close collaboration between Mauboy, music producer Louis Schoorl – a Dutch-born songwriter, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist – Mauboy’s record label Sony Music, Screentime and Seven. Schoorl first worked with Mauboy when he co-wrote the song Gotcha with her and Ilan Kidron from Irish/Australian group The Potbelleez for The Sapphires soundtrack.

Most of the initial ideas for the songs came from the show’s creators and writers, the production team at Screentime, Mauboy, Sony Music and Seven. These suggestions were then evaluated and chosen by the network, Mauboy, Schoorl and Sony Music. There were at least two options for each scene because the cover songs had to be approved by the original songwriters and their publishers.

Using songs to drive the narrative differentiates The Secret Daughter from recent Australian music-based dramas such as Shine Australia’s Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door and the same prodco’s INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, both for the Seven Network.

“Jess is such a joy to work with,” says Schoorl. “The second she walks in the door you get a smile on your face from her brilliant energy. She’s motivated, hardworking, generous, fun and super talented. These sessions are always different; sometimes we start jamming on some beats I made, or sit behind the piano. Other times we listen to music that inspires us. Sometimes she walks in with a melody idea or a lyrical concept. We’ve done sessions with just the two of us, and we’ve worked on many with other co-writers involved. Either way we will find our way through many changes and unused ideas to a coherent song.”

The three original songs featured are Risk It, co-written by songwriting/production duo DNA; Closer, a collaboration between Emma Birdsall and Schoorl; and Home to Me (Mauboy, Birdsall and Schoorl).

Among more than a dozen covers performed by Mauboy are Rihanna’s Diamonds, Ed Sheeran’s Photograph, The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go and I Fought the Law, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love and Aussie artist Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees. Sony Music Enterprises Australia will release an album of music featured on the series.

While most of the music was pre-recorded, other songs were filmed live on set. “(Mauboy’s) voice and rhythm are so good that it works perfectly,” producer Karl Zwicky says. “Finding the time for her to write and record the music as well as being in nearly every scene is a stretch. Most actors would not dream of stretching themselves like this. It’s great working with Jess because she is so warm and giving.”

Asked about the importance of ensuring Australian dramas have international appeal, Zwicky says: “It is not the first thing we think about but it is going to look distinctive. Jess is a star. Having a lead actor who is Indigenous in a mainstream show on a commercial network is a new thing.”

Mauboy greatly enjoyed the experience of working in her first TV series, observing: “I learned so much from the directors, writers and the DOP. It excited me to do more television in the future.”

The network and producers are hopeful the show will resonate strongly enough to warrant a second season. McGauran says: “When we go into production on any show, it’s our job to do everything we can to ensure the audience will want another series.”

Piano
The show’s creators and writers were behind many of the initial song ideas

Haddrick concurs: “It’s designed to be a returning series. We hope that as the network sees completed episodes coming through, it will commit to script development for another series.”

Since Callaghan took the helm of Screentime last year after co-founder Bob Campbell was elevated to executive chairman, the former Shine Australia and Endemol Southern Star executive is increasing the focus on drama, hiring former Shine and Endemol colleague Kerrie Mainwaring as head of scripted production.

The firm coproduced the Wolf Creek TV series with Emu Creek Pictures, the production company from Greg McLean, who created the horror movies on which the show is based. Commissioned by Australian streaming service Stan, Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt (also the antagonist in the films) and Lucy Fry (11.22.63, Vampire Academy). It attracted a cumulative audience of more than 500,000, putting it among the most watched shows on the platform, which is co-owned by Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media. The show has been acquired by Fox in the UK and Pop TV in the US. Meanwhile, the third season of Screentime’s Janet King, a legal drama starring Marta Dusseldorp, is in production for pubcaster ABC.

Callaghan says: “Dramas need to pass the truth test. If you have two or three unbelievable things happening, viewers just give up. That’s one of the reasons fantasy does not work here. We like our drama to be very real. Jessica liked the idea that it was going to be real and she had to play a character that had done some dodgy things in the past but was fundamentally honest and a good person. She went into it with gusto, spending hours and hours practicing, and the result is a really good, assured piece from a young, confident woman.”

Screentime parent Banijay merged with Zodiak Media earlier this year and the enlarged group has more expertise in producing and selling drama, which Callaghan sees as a plus for Screentime.

Zodiak Rights CEO Tim Mutimer and head of scripted Caroline Torrance are “extremely excited about the show; they have nothing like this,” Callaghan says. “The Secret Daughter has romance, humour, open skies and wide spaces. The day after this goes out in Australia, it will have a big (ratings) number beside it and the international buyers will have a look at it.”

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