Tag Archives: The Kettering Incident

Reading between the lines

A trio of the world’s hottest television writers – Bill Gallagher, Victoria Madden and Sarah Phelps – discuss their latest projects and reveal how they find their voice for the small screen.


Bill Gallagher
Starting his career on British dramas such as Casualty, Soldier Soldier and a TV movie based on French detective Maigret, Bill Gallagher is best known for credits including Lark Rise to Candleford, Conviction, The Prisoner, The Paradise and Paranoid. His next project is frontier drama Jamestown (pictured above), which charts the early days of the first British settlers as they begin their new lives in America. It is produced by Carnival Films for Sky1 and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

Bill Gallagher

Gareth Neame [Carnival’s MD] asked if I would look at this period of the very first settlers who went to America from England. I said, “Ok, I’ll read some books.” So I was reading this stuff and it was terrific but I couldn’t see a show. Then I was reading one book, I was on page 300-and-something and suddenly it said, ‘And in 1619, when the men had been there for 12 years, the Virginia Company sent over a ship with 100 women on it’ – maids to make wives. And I fell in love with the whole notion of doing this. You have to fall in love with it.
That became the defining aspect of the show – to see the whole experience though the eyes of women. I was brought up on westerns on the TV so it really was my mythology as a kid, and I got to write for Native American actors. It was absolutely fantastic.
I wrote the whole thing myself. It’s not always the case but often is. I was instantly very clear about who the characters were and what the stories were. I wrote the pilot very quickly and Gareth gave it to Sky very quickly. I’ve been a writer for 30 years and that speed is a rarity rather than commonplace. Things just fell into place at the right time. Sky makes shows with scale, with issues driving them. It fitted what they wanted and they had a pilot script.
I worked with [exec producer] Richard Fell at Carnival and we went to Virginia together. One of the most joyful parts of being a writer is to find a simpatico partner to work with, somebody who challenged me all the time, who was as passionate as I was about it and who got me as a writer.
I allow myself to be clumsy. I love my craft, I love the craft of making a TV show but I work quickly and sometimes that’s clumsy – but I don’t mind that. I used to beat myself up about it when I was younger, I used to get in a real mess and then I had this realisation at some point that this was just my job and it’s my job to be better – so how do I make it better? I don’t mind being clumsy but I have to find someone who’s not panicked by that, and Richard was terrific. I love the craft of it. I work very hard at the composition and architecture of it all but I also give myself permission to get things wrong.
It’s a great time to be a writer because to write something like Jamestown now, which has Native American characters and slaves and English people who have been transported around the world, we can write anything and it’s doable.



Victoria Madden
Australian writer Victoria Madden’s early credits include The Flying Doctors and Heartbreak High, before she moved to the UK and worked on dramas including The Bill, Trial & Retribution and Irish series The Clinic. She then returned home to Tasmania to write and produce The Kettering Incident (pictured above), an eight-part mystery with supernatural overtones for pay TV broadcaster Foxtel that centres on a doctor who finds herself linked to the disappearance of two girls, 15 years apart. It is produced by Porchlight Films in association with Sweet Potato Films and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

Victoria Madden

I’ve written a lot of crime in my career and I love it as a base to work from. I was looking for other angles and when I was living in the UK, Life On Mars was being shot. I was hugely influenced by that show, the way they managed to make a fantastic crime show but with supernatural overtones that didn’t get in the way. It started to make me think that I wanted to explore the supernatural genre as well and to marry together some ideas.
Tasmania is a deeply gothic place with a horrific past – it’s right at the bottom of the world, it’s very isolated, very alone and suffers a lot from huge environmental wars – and I wanted to explore that, adding in the fact that Tasmania also has an abnormally high percentage of people who go missing. I was always fascinated by that.
That started the idea – then something else, something out there. That was the hardest part for me. I hadn’t done supernatural before. I didn’t want it to be a sci-fi show; I wanted it to be a metaphor and to build the supernatural into the story in a natural way. It’s also about a small town on the brink of destruction and that world I grew up in and that desperation. Also, in small worlds, what I find fascinating is the way you have to get on with your neighbours because it’s so small but everybody hates everybody. It builds this maelstrom of deceit and duplicity.
Anna Macy, the lead character [played by Elizabeth Debicki], is a girl who comes back, realises she doesn’t belong and so starts a journey. It really is a journey of unwinding a character and seeing why we need connection and why we need to call somewhere home. She’s a bit of an anti-hero – you don’t know whether to believe her, so that was fun to play with. Is she lying, is she connected to the missing girl story?
I was very influenced by Scandinavian drama and the importance of place. I wanted a story with a big landscape, so that meant a big budget and universal themes so it could travel. We were really lucky, it was a perfect storm. Foxtel was looking for something really different for Australia so it all came together for a world stage.
I don’t like dialogue a lot and I do anything to try not to write a lot of dialogue, but I knew the themes we were exploring were about disconnection, and so every character – even the smaller secondary characters – had a full journey through the show. When I know the themes I am exploring, I like to work in a mosaic way. I do small scenes between people, taking them out of the drama, and then I weave it together afterwards. I don’t like to do it linearly, I just like to do these moments and think about what these people would talk about. At the end, you hopefully get this coherent episode of characters who are lost and trying to find their way through their circumstances.



Sarah Phelps
Sarah Phelps started her writing career on long-running UK soap EastEnders and has since worked on shows including The Crimson Field, Dickensian and Hooten & The Lady. She is best known, however, for her skill at adaptations, among them Great Expectations and The Casual Vacancy. She is now reinventing Agatha Christie for the BBC, first with And Then There Were None and most recently with The Witness for the Prosecution (pictured above and at the top of this page). The two-part story about a man put on trial for the murder of a wealthy heiress is produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions, with A+E Networks distributing.

Sarah Phelps

I never read any Agatha Christie at all and I never watched any – I just thought it wasn’t for me. It was cosy, over there somewhere, just not what I’m interested in. But then Damien Timmer from Mammoth told me to read And Then There Were None and I was absolutely knocked sideways. It’s one of the most brutal, savage things I’ve ever read. It’s rather extraordinary. It just took fire in my head.
These 10 people on an island – a salt-scoured rock – in the middle of the sea, unable to reach the mainland and here comes this thing towards them, this bloody reckoning of all the things they’ve done, the lies they’ve told. You watch the veneer of etiquette, politesse, society, gender and status being stripped away from them to reveal the craven, brutish animals they are. They are all people who have perpetrated the most terrible crime – they’re all murderers.
That to me felt like, ‘Well, if this isn’t a story about what it’s like to live in 1939 as the world tips over again and the absolute cataclysm of the Second World War, then what the hell is?’ So that really excited me.
Then I came to The Witness for the Prosecution. It’s 20-odd pages, this story with a great twist, but it’s also the 1920s. We associate the period with people dancing on tables and drinking champagne; flappers and rackety, hedonistic, sexual and social excess, but it’s also a time of extreme depression. People came back from the First World War with terrible injuries, both seen and unseen, and terrible deformities.
In the middle of this is a story about sex, money and murder, about an older, very wealthy woman buying favours from a young man who is completely penniless, and you get a really different feeling from the story. Added to that is one of the main characters is a woman who is absolutely the epitome of alterity – she is a foreigner, an actress from Vienna. What we’re talking about is someone from somewhere else and Christie takes all those great icons of what we believe English and privilege are and just smashes them to absolute pieces. That feels so wildly subversive to me.
There’s always a key that unlocks the story and makes the whole thing explode. Suddenly there’s a tiny detail, it might even be a sub-clause in some long sentence, and it just unlocks everything and that’s when you start running wildly round your house with your jumper over your head like a kid. You know you’ve found your story.
From writing EastEnders to anything else, I’m the audience. Does the story excite me? Do I want to find out what happens next? Am I interested in this story? But if you want it to be universal, you have to be really specific because that’s where you get this emotional connection. Being able to write something that absolutely punches you in the heart from my ridiculously tiny study somewhere in England – if it can punch you in the heart there, it can punch you in the heart around the world.

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Discovery draws up its Manifesto

Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber
Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber

Series like The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story have proved there is a healthy market for well-told dramas based on real events. So it’s interesting to see that Discovery Channel is coming to market soon with Manifesto, a highly anticipated series that looks at the story of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.

This week, Discovery announced that actor Sam Worthington (Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge) will star in the show as FBI Agent Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, whose innovative new approach to intelligence gathering ultimately led to the capture of the Unabomber. Kaczynski himself will be played by British actor Paul Bettany.

The show, which is produced by Lionsgate and Trigger Street Productions, is being written by Andrew Sodroski, a former Harvard graduate. It has taken Sodroski a while to get a break in the TV business, but finally things look like they’re coming good. Aside from Manifesto, he is also working on a project for Amazon Studios entitled Holland, Michigan. This comedy-thriller centres on a schoolteacher who, suspecting that her husband is cheating on her, enlists the help of a fellow teacher she fancies.

Fact-based drama is a good fit for Discovery and is an area where it has already enjoyed significant success in. In September, it aired Harley & the Davidsons, which delivered 4.4 million viewers and became the most-watched single-network cable miniseries in three-and-a-half years. Echoing the OJ Simpson series, which aired on FX, Discovery wants Manifesto to be the first in an anthology series of dramas that focus on infamous criminal masterminds.

Tom Hardy at Content London
Tom Hardy at Content London

Another upcoming dramas attracting attention right now is actor Tom Hardy’s Taboo, which will air on BBC1 in the UK and FX in the US. A historical period drama, it follows an adventurer who returns to the UK from Africa to avenge the death of his father. Hardy created the idea with his father Chips Hardy and Steven Knight.

Knight, of course, has built up a loyal fanbase through his acclaimed gangster series Peaky Blinders. The new show, which focuses on the activities of the East India Company, will provide him with the same kind of complex political web that has made Peaky Blinders such an enjoyable romp.

Commenting on the show, he said that the East India Company will be depicted as a mix of “the CIA, NSA and the biggest, baddest multi-national corporation on Earth.”

Knight and Hardy Snr are credited as writers on the series – as is Emily Ballou, an Australian-American poet, novelist and screenwriter. Among Ballou’s high-profile TV credits are Channel 4’s Humans, ITV’s Scott & Bailey and The Slap from ABC in Australia.

Emily Ballou
Emily Ballou

Over the past couple of days, the Australian screen industry has gathered to announce the winners in the sixth Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards. On the scripted TV front, recipients in a range of categories have included Rake, No Activity, The Beautiful Lie, Cleverman, Secret City, Down Under, Molly, Mary: The Making of a Princess, The Kettering Incident, Wentworth and Wolf Creek.

There’s a lot of great drama in that list but it’s interesting to note that the award for Best Screenplay in Television went to Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell for ABC’s Comedy Showroom – The Letdown. To win the award they had to beat competition from The Beautiful Lie, The Kettering Incident and Upper Middle Bogan.

The Letdown is Alison Bell’s first writing credit
The Letdown is Alison Bell’s first writing credit

The Letdown tells the story of a struggling new mum (played by Bell) and the mother’s group she thinks she doesn’t need. Originally shot as a one-off as part of the Comedy Showroom strand of pilots, the show’s strong performance means it is set to reappear next year as a full series. The Letdown is Bell’s first writing credit, although she is well established as an actress. Scheller also has a bit of an acting track record and was a writer on the comedy No Activity.

Good news for Marvel fans this week following the news that Netflix has ordered a second season of its series Luke Cage. This follows previous second-season orders for other Netflix/Marvel collaborations Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Luke Cage was created for TV by Cheo Hodari Coker, who also leads a 12-strong writing room. A former music journalist with an intimate knowledge of the rap scene, Coker’s other TV credits include Southland, NCIS, Ray Donovan and Almost Human. He also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 biographical film Notorious.

Cheo Hodari Coker
Cheo Hodari Coker

With Luke Cage one of the few black male characters in the superhero comic book business, Coker’s track record has made him the perfect choice to bring Cage to life.

In a recent interview, he said: “The show is what I call ‘inclusively black.’ It’s an unadulterated hip-hop show. But it’s done in such a way that anyone from outside the culture – not just hip-hop culture, outside of geek culture – it can play against anything on television.” For more on Coker, click here.

C21’s Content London event last week included a wide array of top screenwriters in its line-up. One of the speakers was Tony Grisoni, whose numerous TV credits include acclaimed series Red Riding, The Unloved and Southcliffe.

Tony Grisoni speaking at Content London
Tony Grisoni speaking at Content London

During the event, Grisoni discussed a new drama he is working on with producer Andrea Calderwood. Called In the Wolf’s Mouth, it is set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development. The story is based on a novel by Adam Foulds published a couple of years ago.

Although C4 is paying for script development, Grisoni and Calderwood were also at Series Mania in Paris this year pitching the project in the hope of attracting international coproduction partners.

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A busy August in Edinburgh

Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None's star-studded cast
Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None’s star-studded cast

It’s been a busy end to August in terms of commissions and acquisitions. In the UK, the BBC has been especially active, taking advantage of the Edinburgh International Television Festival (EITF) as a platform for announcing or discussing new developments.

One of its most high-profile announcements is a deal with Agatha Christie Productions that will see seven Agatha Christie novels adapted for TV over the next four years. This follows an earlier announcement that it would be making The Witness for the Prosecution, with a cast led by Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall, David Haig, Billy Howle and Monica Dolan.

The first of the novels to be adapted under the seven-book deal will be Ordeal by Innocence. Other titles so far confirmed include Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders, which focuses a race against time to stop a serial killer who is on the loose in 1930s Britain.

Commenting on the deal, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “These new commissions continue BBC1’s special relationship as the home of Agatha Christie in the UK. Our combined creative ambition to reinvent Christie’s novels for a modern audience promises to bring event television of the highest quality to a new generation enjoyed by fans old and new.”

The decision to plan so far ahead came after the success of And Then There Were None for BBC1 in 2015. That adaptation was written by Sarah Phelps, who is also working on the next two Christie projects. Further writers will be announced in due course.

Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong
Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong

Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, said: “And Then There Were None was a highlight of the 2015 BBC1 Christmas schedule, and we are truly delighted to be building on the success of that show, first with The Witness for the Prosecution, and then with adaptations of seven more iconic Agatha Christie titles. What Sarah Phelps brought to And Then There Were None was a new way of interpreting Christie for a modern audience, and Agatha Christie Ltd is thrilled to be bringing this psychologically rich, visceral and contemporary sensibility to more classic Christie titles for a new generation of fans.”

The Witness for the Prosecution is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions’ drama for BBC1, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s development arm, Acorn Media Enterprises. RLJE’s streaming service, Acorn TV, is the US coproduction partner and will premiere the adaptation in the US. A+E Networks holds rest-of-world distribution rights to The Witness for the Prosecution, and will launch it at the Mipcom market in October.

Alongside the Christie announcement, the BBC’s Moore used the EITF to unveil a range of other dramas. These include an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed young-adult novel Noughts and Crosses and a new six-part drama from Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) entitled Bodyguard.

There is also an Edinburgh-set drama called Trust Me, written by Dan Sefton, and a new series from Abi Morgan called The Split. This one examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers, through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose.

The Luminaries
The Luminaries is being adapted for BBC2

Moore’s announcements for BBC1 were built upon by BBC2 controller Patrick Holland, who also announced plans for new scripted series at the festival. “I want BBC2 to be the place where the best creative talents can make their most original and exciting work, where authorship flourishes,” he commented.

Holland’s headline drama announcement was MotherFatherSon, from author and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). This is an eight-part thriller that “sits at the intersections of police, politics and the press,” according to the BBC. “It is as much a family saga as it is a savage, unflinching study of power and how even the mightiest of empires can be in peril when a family turns on each other.”

Holland also greenlit The Luminaries, a six-part drama from Working Title Television based on the novel by Eleanor Catton. A 19th-century tale of adventure, set on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, The Luminaries is a story of love, murder and revenge, as men and women travelled the world to make their fortunes.

Catton, who will adapt her own novel for television, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries. She said: “Learning to write for television has been a bit like learning a new musical instrument: the melody is more or less the same, but absolutely everything else is different. I’m having enormous fun, learning every day, and I’m just so excited to see the world of the novel created in the flesh.”

Filming on the six-parter will begin in 2017, taking place in and around New Zealand.

Anna Friel in Marcella
Anna Friel in Marcella

While the BBC dominated the drama announcements at the EITF, ITV also used the event to reveal that there will be a second season of crime drama Marcella, written by The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt and starring Anna Friel. Produced by Buccaneer Media, the first season of the show was a top-rated drama on ITV, achieving an average of 6.8 million viewers across its run.

Commenting on the recommission, Rosenfeldt said: “I was delighted at the reaction to the first season and am thrilled to be revisiting Marcella for ITV. In the second season, the audience will get the opportunity to spend more time in her world, exploring some of the characters and getting to know them better.”

Other interesting stories as the industry gears up for autumn include the news that Amazon has acquired Australian drama The Kettering Incident from BBC Worldwide for its Prime Video service. The show was co-created by writer Victoria Madden and producer Vincent Sheehan was shot entirely in Tasmania. The eight-episode series tells the story of a doctor who returns to her hometown years after the disappearance of one of her friends.

The Kettering Incident
The Kettering Incident has been picked up by Amazon

In mainland Europe, Telecinco Spain has ordered a local version of hit Turkish series The End. Produced originally by Ay Yapim, the new version will be called El Accidente and will be the third local version of the show in Europe after remakes in Russia and the Netherlands.

The show, which was also piloted in the US, tells the story of a woman investigating her husband’s death in a plane crash, only to discover that he wasn’t on the flight. It is distributed by Eccho Rights, which has also sold the original to 50 countries.

In the US, premium pay TV channel Starz has renewed Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season. The show has had a particularly strong third season having been paired in the schedule with Starz hit series Power. Across all platforms, it now draws around 2.9 million viewers per episode.

“We are thrilled to renew Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik. “Critics have consistently called it one of the smartest and funniest comedies on TV, and we are delighted to see audiences embracing the characters and the storyline with that same enthusiasm. Mike O’Malley and his tremendously talented team of writers and actors boldly tackle today’s most pressing issues, from race, class, sex and politics to love and loss, but with such a deft touch that nothing ever feels heavy-handed.”

The End has sold across the world
The End has sold across the world

In other news, ProSiebenSat.1-owned Studio71 is producing a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise that will launch on Verizon’s Go90 platform. Rush: Inspired by Battlefield will stream on the mobile service from September 20.

The Battlefield franchise, developed by EA Dice and published by Electronic Arts, has amassed more than 60 million players since launching in 2002. “Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today and there is a huge appetite for content inspired by video games,” said Studio 71 president Dan Weinstein.

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Oz drama enjoys upbeat year

The Kettering Incident
Tasmania-set The Kettering Incident debuts on Foxtel in the summer

Australian television dramas often struggle to compete against US imports in their domestic market. But there are some encouraging signs in terms of titles coming through. One series to watch out for is The Kettering Incident, which debuts on Foxtel on July 4.

Set in Tasmania, the show tells the story of Anna Macy (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who left Kettering when she was 14 years old, shortly after her best friend disappeared when they were playing in the forest. Anna returns 15 years later to find the town is struggling to survive. Then another young girl disappears.

The show was co-created by Victoria Madden and Vincent Sheehan. Madden is also part of the writing team, alongside Andrew Knight, Cate Shortland and Louise Fox. Her previous credits include Lynda La Plante’s Trial and Retribution, The Bill and Halifax FP – though what makes this title so interesting that she is from Tasmania. So, in fact, are most of the cast, crew and supporting industry, with an estimated 300 Tasmanians involved.

Overall, the eight-part production has cost A$14m (US$10m), with Tasmania expecting the local economy to benefit by around A$5m. In return for a Tasmanian government contribution there is also an attachment training initiative that has seen trainees work across various production areas, including screenwriting.

House of Hancock follows the life of iron ore magnate Lang Hancock
House of Hancock follows the life of iron ore magnate Lang Hancock

While The Kettering Incident is very much an Australia/Tasmania labour of love, there are strong indicators that it will do well internationally. One is that BBC Worldwide is handling international distribution – always a good sign. The other is that it won the Special Jury Prize at the Series Mania festival last month.

Another upcoming Australian show that promises to hit the headlines is Nine Network’s miniseries House of Bond, which stars Ben Mingay as flamboyant fraudster Alan Bond. Currently in production, the show follows the success of last year’s House of Hancock, which was a biopic of iron ore magnate Lang Hancock.

House of Bond is produced by Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, with the assistance of Screen Australia and Screen NSW. The writer is Sarah Smith, originally from Perth. Smith has been in the screenwriting business for more than 20 years as a writer and producer on shows like The Alice, All Saints, McLeod’s Daughters, Canal Road and Sea Patrol. She’s also the co-creator, producer and writer of Wild Boys and Rescue Special Ops as well as co-writer and producer of the telemovie, Dripping In Chocolate.

Her most recent project prior to House of Bond was six-part thriller Winter, a spin-off from the 2014 telemovie The Killing Field. Aired on Seven Network it averaged around one million viewers.

The Doctor Blake Mysteries
The Doctor Blake Mysteries has been commissioned for a fifth season

Another Aussie show in the news this week is ABC’s period drama The Doctor Blake Mysteries, which has been commissioned for a fifth season (due to air in 2017).

Starring Craig McLachlan as police surgeon Dr Lucien Blake and Nadine Garner as his devoted housekeeper Jean, the show has been a bit hit for the channel. “We are delighted to commission more Doctor Blake for our audience,” says ABC director of television Richard Finlayson. “Season four has been the most successful to date with an average audience of 1.67 million viewers across TV and iview. Doctor Blake satisfies an appetite for engaging, home grown stories.”

The series co-creator and showrunner is December Media’s George Adams, who added: “December Media is elated to be returning to 1960s Ballarat once again to bring our loyal audience more tales of murder, mystery, mayhem and a wee bit of love with Blake, Jean and all our favourite characters.”

So far the show has racked up a total of 36 episodes and draws on quite a large writing team. One key figure has been Stuart Page, who wrote seven episodes in the first series and has been heavily involved in the following three series.

David S Goyer
David S Goyer is behind Krypton

Other episode writers have included Chelsea Cassio, Chris Corbett, Tim Pye, Jane Allen, Peter McTighe, Marcia Gardner, Michael Harvey, Pino Amenta, Roger Monk, Jeff Truman, Paul Oliver, Paul Jenner and Sarah Lambert.

Of these, British writer McTighe is perhaps the best known, having written for several UK and Australia productions including EastEnders, Neighbours, Crownies and Nowhere Boys. He was also handed the task of reinventing Prisoner Cell Block H as Wentworth, a show that has proven to be a major hit. (Stuart Page also cropped up as a writer on Wentworth in season three.)

Elsewhere in the world of TV drama, Syfy in the US has ordered a pilot for a prequel to Superman from David S Goyer. Called Krypton, the show will explore the home of Superman before it is destroyed. Goyer, who has become the go-to guy for superhero stories in recent years, wrote the pilot with Ian Goldberg. Goyer’s other credits include The Dark Knight movies and Man of Steel.

Another interesting story brewing this week is that The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) wants a bigger share of the operating profits that it says Hollywood’s major media studios made last year. Those profits, which the WGA claims doubled in the last decade, are largely attributable to the content created by guild members, according to the organisation’s leadership. According to the WGA, the guild’s health plan is now running in the red and the average incomes of film and series TV writers have decreased while the Hollywood studios’ profits have risen.

The significance of this is that the last confrontation between the WGA and the studios resulted in a huge writers’ strike in 2007/08, with 12,000 writers laying down their pens for three months. Reports at the time suggested that the strike cost the economy of LA anywhere between US$500m and US$1.5bn. Nothing will happen straightaway but it will be worth watching negotiations towards a new contract over the coming year.

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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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Foxtel boosts drama down under

Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh
Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh

For fans of TV drama living down under, things are about to get very interesting indeed.

Pay TV platform Foxtel this week announced plans to “create the best in Australia” by doubling its investment in original content, including factual, lifestyle and entertainment programming by 2018.

The key point, however, came when it was revealed that in each of the next three years, Foxtel will commission at least five major drama series. Currently it averages two every 12 months.

And while other programming genres will get a boost in funding, the budget for scripted content, including comedy, will be tripled.

Viewers of prison drama Wentworth will be well aware of Foxtel’s push into local drama. The series, which debuted on the SoHo channel in 2013, is described as a contemporary reimagining of the classic drama Prisoner and has proved such a success that a fourth season was ordered earlier this year.

Other homegrown commissions include A Place to Call Home and The Kettering Incident. The former, created by Bevan Lee, is a 1950s period piece that follows one woman’s journey to heal her soul and a privileged family rocked by scandal. After two seasons, a landmark deal between Foxtel and Seven Productions last year saw a further two runs commissioned, with season three due to launch on SoHo later this year.

Foxtel's prison drama Wentworth
Foxtel’s prison drama Wentworth

The Kettering Incident, created by Victoria Madden and Vincent Sheehan, is an eight-part mystery thriller that sees a woman uncover terrifying secrets hidden in her town as she investigates a missing person case. Uniquely, it is also the first major TV drama to be filmed entirely in Tasmania.

Foxtel has already put other news series into development. The first to be announced is Secret City, a political thriller inspired by novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, both co-written by journalists Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlman.

The six-part series, produced by Matchbox Pictures, is set in the Australian capital Canberra where a journalist uncovers a web of interlocked conspiracies that are putting innocent lives – including her own – in danger. The cast includes Anna Torv (Fringe), Damon Herriman, and Dan Wyllie, and it is set to air in 2016.

Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh said Secret City “is further commitment by Foxtel to explore bold and interesting ideas for the screen and commission unique Australian storytelling to complement the best of the international series. We keep looking for inspiring and intelligent scripts and we think we’ve found one again with Secret City.”

The news of Foxtel’s original-content investment echoes similar plans by Sky in the UK. In 2011, its CEO Jeremy Darroch unveiled ambitions to invest more than £600m (US$944m) a year in fresh British programming by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its 2011 budget. This led to new dramas including The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful, while Darroch has since vowed that Sky will continue to raise its game towards £1bn a year.

Sky boss Jeremy Darroch
Sky boss Jeremy Darroch

However, whereas Sky’s plan was a proactive bid to attract more viewers who weren’t interested in its movie or sport channels, Foxtel’s own drama investment could not have come at a more critical time for its business. US VoD giant Netflix stepped up its international expansion earlier this year by landing in Australia, hoping to attract subscribers to its own original drama series and, in turn, possibly denting Foxtel’s numbers, while other online players including Stan are also up and running.

With drama series now commonly promoted as the flagship content for a television network or platform, the quality – and quantity – of shows is only going up, fuelled by extra investment. This growing competition, across free and pay TV and online, is great news for viewers, who can look forward to hours of new programmes – providing they are willing to pay for it.

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