About once a year the media reports that the Chinese government is planning to clamp down on the amount of foreign drama that appears on the country’s TV channels and streaming platforms. But developments in the past few months suggest that this is either inaccurate or isn’t having much of an impact.
This summer, for example, critically acclaimed BBC-AMC series The Night Manager generated an impressive 40 million views on streaming platform Youku Tudou. More recently, we reported Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group. And last week we reported how Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with another leading internet TV service, iQIYI, on a three-part Mandarin-language drama.
There’s more activity this week that suggests China is continuing to open up to outside influences. Firstly, in a deal announced at Asia Television Forum in Singapore, China’s Tencent Holdings picked up fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide. Secondly, UK producer/broadcaster ITV revealed that it has formed a partnership with Chinese producer Huace Film & TV that will see the latter remake an ITV scripted show for China. Discussions are still underway as to which show, but the deal is being heralded as a breakthrough by the UK company.
Commenting on the news, Mike Beale, executive VP of global development and formats for ITV Studios, said: “Much like the rest of the world, the demand for drama in Asia continues to grow, and our relationships with some of the world’s best producers and writers positions us perfectly to take advantage of this.”
Elsewhere, Sky1 in the UK and Cinemax in the US have announced that there is to be a new series of action-adventure drama Strike Back. As with previous series, the show will be produced by SPT-owned Left Bank Pictures, but there will be a largely new cast.
Based on a novel by Chris Ryan, Strike Back centres on the activities of Section 20, a secret branch of the UK defence forces that undertakes high-risk missions around the world. The show ran for five seasons until 2015 – a total of 46 episodes. It then had a hiatus, with production of the new series starting in 2017.
The previous series of the show did well on Sky1 and Cinemax and was also sold into markets like Australia, Canada and France. Commenting on the show’s comeback, Adam MacDonald, director of Sky1, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Cinemax again to deliver more edge-of-your-seat action-adventure. At such an interesting time in global politics, this series delivers a compelling take on world events and the murky world of espionage.”
Executive producer Andy Harries added: “Strike Back is the show that took Left Bank Pictures onto the international stage and we are thrilled to be back with such an exciting cast and a world-class team of writers, directors and producers. With a fan base spread over 150 countries, Strike Back is TV at its very best, where the military comes first. Our new stars have amazing physical skills, which, combined with their training, will make the show rock.”
Leaving aside the long-running success of Homeland on Showtime, Strike Back’s mix of action and espionage is something of a rarity in the international market right now, with broadcasters having moved in the direction of sci-fi, superheroes and fantasy. However, there are a few upcoming titles that suggest the market is shifting back in this direction. These include History Channel’s Navy Seal drama Six and Fox’s reboot of 24. There are also a few new shows coming out of Israel such as False Flag and Fauda, the latter having been picked up globally by Netflix.
In another interesting move, Fox is reported to have given a script commitment to Basket Case, a TV drama based on the 2002 novel by Carl Hiaasen. Although a terrific writer with around 15 novels and five children’s books to his name, Hiaasen’s work has rarely been adapted for film or TV. His 1993 novel Strip Tease was turned into a film in 1996 and his 2002 kids book Hoot received similar treatment in 2006. But other than that, there is little to report.
Basket Case centres on a former hotshot investigative reporter, Jack Tagger, who’s now an obituary writer. It will be adapted by White Collar and Graceland creator Jeff Eastin, and Life in Pieces executive producer Jason Winer. Presumably if it’s a hit we can expect Hiaasen novels to become another regular source of inspiration for the scripted TV trade.
Still in the US, Fox drama Pitch has just come to the end of its first season. The show, which tells the story of the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, was well received by critics but delivered pretty poor ratings – 4.23 million at the start falling to 2.89 million at the end of its 10-episode run. This puts it down among the weaker scripted performers on Fox, such as Scream Queens, The Exorcist and the rapidly-fading Rosewood.
With its low ratings, Pitch would be an easy cancellation for Fox. But the fact is that the channel doesn’t have many hits at the moment – with Empire and Lethal Weapon some way ahead of the pack. So it may decide to back a second season of Pitch.
If Pitch is cancelled, there is talk of it moving to another network. Of course, there is always talk of series moving network when they are dropped, but Pitch really does seem like a show that could do a job in a less ferocious competitive scenario. If the show doesn’t survive in any form, then it just goes to prove how hard it is to make dramas that have sports as their backdrop.
Finally, Australian pubcaster ABC and Screen Australia have teamed up again to uncover the next generation of home-grown comedy talent through their Fresh Blood talent initiative.
The first wave of Fresh Blood launched in 2013 with 72 comedy sketches created by 24 teams. Five of those teams were selected to make TV pilots for ABC and two of them were then launched as six-episode half-hour series: Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. A new wave of Fresh Blood sees 20 up-and-coming comedy teams each awarded US$15,000 to produce three sketches. During 2018, four of those teams will be selected to produce a TV comedy pilot.
Mike Cowap, investment manager at Screen Australia, said. “For new comedy writers, performers and directors, Fresh Blood is a launchpad like no other, providing opportunities and exposure that can set up ambitious creators for successful futures.”
London-based producer and financer Nevision has teamed up with Danish production company Good Company Films (GoodCo) to co-develop a new TV drama for the global audience.
The project in development is 10-part drama Midnights, which the partners describe as “a political thriller set in a present world that is both familiar and strange, about Nordic immortals who discover that they are dying amid the emerging Cold War in the Arctic.”
Midnights was created by Anna Reeves and will be produced by Stinna Lassen and Vibeke Windeløv. The executive producers are Ole Søndberg and Anni Faurbye Fernandez, who formed GoodCo in autumn 2014 along with Lassen and Windeløv. Søndberg is best known for starting Yellow Bird Films and for producing the Swedish and English versions of Wallander, the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels. Fernandez was previously CEO and executive producer of Yellow Bird.
Also involved in the project is Nevision-backed About Premium Content (APC). APC will help source pre-sales and will handle international distribution for the series outside Scandinavia. Laurent Boissel, APC’s CEO, said: “Nevision and APC together are able to offer a bespoke studio-like solution where the producer’s independence and creativity is fully preserved.”
Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne added: “GoodCo is a very exciting company with a team that has an amazing track record in producing quality drama that resonates with a global audience. The success of Wallander is testament to this and we are excited to be partnering with GoodCo on Midnights.”
Elsewhere in the world of drama, Australian pubcaster ABC has renewed legal drama Janet King for a third season. The new eight-part run from Screentime Australia will go into production this year for 2017. It focuses on the life of a female prosecutor who returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. DCD Rights distributes the series.
Sticking with the subject of drama distribution, there have been a few notable stories this week. BBC3 in the UK, for example, has acquired Cleverman, its first drama purchase since the channel moved from traditional broadcasting to online streaming.
A six-hour series from Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, Cleverman follows a group of non-humans battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, described the series as “incredibly original and ambitious.” The show, which is distributed by Red Arrow International, will be available first in the US (SundanceTV, June 1) and Australia (ABC, June 2). The UK screening of the show will come later in the year. Henrik Pabst, MD at Red Arrow International, said the series “is one of the biggest and most ambitious shows to come out of Australia and speaks to a growing world audience unafraid of adventurous TV.”
In Canada, meanwhile, public broadcaster CBC has just announced a summer schedule that includes UK political thriller Undercover (written by Peter Moffat) and Danish financial crime drama Follow The Money. The latter, which comes from the successful DRTV stable, is being aired at 21.00 on Saturdays. This seems like a bold move for a non-English-language drama, though it has already aired on BBC4 in the UK. Other non-Nordic markets to acquire the show include Belgium and the Netherlands.
Also significant is the news that Amazon Prime Video has acquired new AMC show Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan. The show is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has also sold it to Viaplay across the Nordics, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. AMC has an international channel of its own that could have acquired Preacher, but presumably SPT was able to extract more international revenue by putting together a multi-partner plan.
The news that US on-demand service Acorn TV has added two UK dramas to its programming line-up underlines the increased demand for scripted shows in the VoD space. They are police procedural Suspects, totalling 17 episodes, and Cilla, a three-part biopic about popular UK entertainer Cilla Black.
As we have noted in recent columns, this is a busy time of year for US channels as they unveil their plans for the summer and autumn seasons. Today’s headliner is Turner Broadcasting’s cable channel TNT, which has ordered a series about the life of a young William Shakespeare. It has also greenlit a pilot called Civil. Both are part of a wide-ranging channel overhaul that has involved a significant increase in scripted investment.
The Shakespeare series, Will, is written by Craig Pierce and follows the life of the young playwright in London. This being US television, the 10-part production will be a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life played against a modern soundtrack. The theatre scene in 16th century England will be treated as though it was the punk rock revolution of its time.
“Will has an energy and style that is unlike anything else on television today,” said Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming for TNT. “Shakespeare was a 16th century rock star, and Will captures what that must have felt like for the young writer and his fans. We are delighted to be working with such an extraordinary team of executive producers and cast in putting a fresh, bold spin on the story of Shakespeare.”
As for Civil, the backdrop is a fiercely fought presidential election that plunges the US into a modern-day Civil War. It is written by Oscar nominee Scott Smith (A Simple Plan) and directed by Emmy nominee Allen Coulter (Damages, Nurse Jackie). Other new dramas coming through at TNT include Animal Kingdom, Good Behaviour, The Alienist and Tales from the Crypt.
Also in the US this week, some cancellation news. First, A&E has shut down its Omen spin-off Damien after a single season of 10 episodes. The decision comes after poor ratings, with the show starting moderately and fading to around 400,000 by the end of its run.
Showrunner Glen Mazzara confirmed the cancellation on Twitter: “This hurts to say but #Damien will not be getting a second season. Thank you from all of us to our amazing fans.”
Bates Motel aside, A&E hasn’t been having much luck with original scripted content recently. The Returned was cancelled after one season while Unforgettable has also bitten the dust (though after a longer run). A&E cancelled Longmire after three seasons and then had to stand by and watch as Netflix picked up the show and commissioned a couple more seasons.
Also, Showtime has announced that the current season of House of Lies will be the last. Commenting on the show, which stars Don Cheadle, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “House of Lies is a comedy that has frequently been ahead of the curve. The core cast of Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson is one of the best comedy teams on television. They have brought the series to an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the historic final episode shot in Cuba.”
In ratings terms, the show is averaging around 350,000 – significantly down on season four and very poor in comparison with most other Showtime titles. The decision to cancel will have been made easier by the encouraging start made by Showtime’s new financial drama Billions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Australian prodco Essential – behind such shows as Rake and Jack Irish – is spreading its wings internationally. DQ looks at the company’s story so far and gets the inside track on its forthcoming content.
Australia’s Essential Media and Entertainment is going global. The prodco is developing a raft of dramas intended as coproductions with international broadcasters and distributors.
The list of potential partners is impressive – Ian Collie, partner and head of drama at the firm, is discussing numerous projects with the BBC, Channel 4, Lifetime, Sundance Channel, StudioCanal and other broadcasters and distributors.
“We are developing drama projects that are international in scope and would or could work more for those markets than for home broadcasters,” he says.
The plan is to expand the company’s slate from locally commissioned dramas such as Jack Irish (top) and Rake (both for Australian pubcaster ABC) and The Principal (for SBS).
The internationally targeted slate includes Trust and Arc of Fire. The former has Rake’s Richard Roxburgh attached to star as a charismatic cult leader, a former corporate high flyer who creates a grassroots movement of followers who are perceived as a threat to the established order.
Sarah Lambert (creator of Playmaker Media’s Love Child) came up with the concept and will write it alongside Blake Ayshford (Devil’s Playground, The Code, Nowhere Boys) and Kris Mrksa (Glitch, The Slap, Janet King).
Arc of Fire is being developed by Australian author Peter Temple (who wrote the Jack Irish novels and The Broken Shore, the latter adapted as a telemovie by Essential for the ABC) and Mrksa. It’s an international manhunt thriller set in a world where everyone is under surveillance, based on Temple’s novel In the Evil Day.
Two other projects being pitched to international broadcasters are Eden, an eco-thriller surrounding a biotech company in Tasmania, created by Brisbane-based writer Anthony Mullins and Collie; and Open Heart, a psychological thriller about organ transplantation, on which Collie is collaborating with producers Vicki Sugars and Claudia Karvan.
“Although the demand for TV drama in Australia is high, somewhat paradoxically it is harder to get shows away,” Collie says. “Broadcasters like the ABC and SBS are experiencing budgetary cutbacks, as are the federal and state financing agencies, and there are more players in the drama arena, so competition for slots is fierce.
“In essence we are reverse-engineering the process by going to an international player first with our stories and wonderful array of talent often attached, getting those players to drive the development and editorial, and then maybe later looking for an Australian co-financing partner, whether that be a terrestrial broadcaster or a subscription VoD platform.”
Essential’s scripted push in the US is headed by Simonne Overend, an Aussie who has worked for RGM Artist Group, the ABC, BBC4, Disney, Roadshow, Film Victoria and United International Pictures.
Overend, the Los Angeles-based VP of drama development, is working with Monumental Pictures’ Alison Owen and actress Natascha McElhone (Solaris) on a contemporary miniseries inspired by the classic novel Little Women. Scripted by Jordan Roberts (Disney’s Big Hero 6), the show will follow four sisters during a military scandal as their family loses its fortune and finds itself at odds with the conservative and traditional society.
The project was developed by Owen, director Julie Anne Robinson and Overend before McElhone came on board as a producer and the lead actress. The producers are looking for a pilot commission after the ABC network let its option lapse.
Essential’s exports to the US have not been without problems. The US remake of Rake wasn’t renewed last year when the legal drama’s ratings on Fox plummeted after the premiere drew 7.1 million viewers.
Peter Duncan, who co-created the original with Roxburgh, created the 12-episode US series, which was produced by Essential Media and Fedora Entertainment in association with Sony Pictures Television.
With the benefit of hindsight, Collie believes broadcast network viewers struggled to warm to Keegan Deane, the sleazy criminal lawyer played by Greg Kinnear, because the character had few redeeming qualities. He thinks the show would have been more suited to a cable network whose viewers have an appetite for edgier fare.
Duncan, who served as the showrunner with Pete Tolan, says “there were too many voices” involved in the production, typified by a casting meeting he attended where 23 people sat around the table.
Meanwhile, the Fox network opted not to proceed with a Jack Irish remake after ordering the script for a pilot adapted from Essential’s trio of telepics, which starred Guy Pearce as a former criminal lawyer turned private investigator and debt collector.
From that experience, Collie came to one conclusion: “We need to take a stronger role in driving US versions of our shows. The script for Jack Irish lacked spark and wit and freshness; it was a bit predictable.”
The plan now is to focus on the six-part Jack Irish series, which again stars Pearce with Marta Dusseldorp as Linda, Jack’s ex-wife, and is due to start shooting in August.
“That will give us a better template from which we can renew our efforts for a remake,” says Collie, a former lawyer who co-founded Essential in 2005 with Chris Hilton and Sonja Armstrong. Head of children’s entertainment Carmel Travers became a partner in 2009.
The series will introduce a love interest for Irish and see Linda, a journalist, sent to the Philippines on an assignment. Andrew Knight, Matt Cameron and Andrew Anastasios wrote the scripts, while the directors are Mark Joffe (House of Hancock, A Place to Call Home), Daniel Nettheim (Glue, Line of Duty) and Jonathan Teplitzky (Broadchurch). Knight is producing with Collie.
ABC head of drama Carole Sklan says: “The tele-features had huge appeal for our audience and did such tremendous work in reaching a broader viewership that we spoke with Ian about the possibility of Guy Pearce coming back for an extended run.
“We were thrilled that Guy enjoyed the collaboration so much and that he was able to take the time from his career in Hollywood. The world of Jack Irish – the pubs, clubs and horse racing – features an ensemble of such colourful regular characters that it lends itself to a returning drama series. The show is so distinctively Australian in what it says and how it says it. It showcases so many fabulous Australian talents in writing, directing, acting and production that this was the perfect opportunity to continue to deliver to the audience more of this idiosyncratic crime drama.”
Production of the fourth series of Rake, meanwhile, is due to start in Sydney on September 28. “The great challenge is to keep surprising even more and to keep the audience on their toes,” says Duncan.
From Essential’s origins as a producer of factual, which is still a mainstay of its business, the company has significantly expanded its drama slate, which started with Rake in 2010. One recent deal saw Stan, the subscription VoD platform co-owned by Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media, which launched in January, announce a development deal with Essential for Enemies of the State.
The six-part political drama is based on a controversial Australian High Court judge and attorney-general, the late Lionel Murphy, whose life was marked by assassination threats, scandal, police spies and charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice, of which he was acquitted.
The project is being developed by Collie with Duncan and writers Tony Jones (host of the ABC’s current-affairs show Q&A) and Robert Connolly (Paper Planes). Duncan says his research for the show uncovered many aspects of Murphy’s life that were “ridiculously bizarre and fascinating.”
The commissioning of local content on Stan is overseen by Nine Network’s drama heads Andy Ryan and Jo Rooney plus Stan director of content and product Nick Forward. Ryan says he was attracted to the Murphy project as “an epic, Shakespearian tragedy of a man.” Asked to define a Stan show, he says: “Daring, noisy, high quality and something that feels exclusive – above and beyond what you will see on free-to-air TV. We are not subject to the same constraints as FTA, which is liberating for producers and programmers.”
Stan is looking for international co-financiers for both Enemies of the State and a TV series based on Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek horror movies, produced by Screentime and Mclean’s Emu Creek Pictures. “There is a huge amount of interest from overseas producers, distributors and broadcasters in Australian drama,” Ryan says.
Meanwhile, the inspiration for Trust goes back some years to when creator Sarah Lambert was working in the US on a documentary about a quasi-scientific cult that was banned in France but had set up a base in Canada.
“What struck me the most during the filming was how bright and relatively normal their followers appeared to be, despite devoting their lives to a leader who professed to have been taken by aliens, tithing their incomes to him and buying into a pretty out-there philosophy,” she says.
“My fascination with what drives people to lose themselves in these groups has continued and, after years of collecting articles, reading books and watching docs on the subject, it seemed to me that there was so much great material to base a drama series on.
“But I wanted to take a very different approach, something that hadn’t been done before. So I started developing an idea and wrote up a three-page concept. Around that time, Ian Collie and I were looking for projects to work on together and I pitched the show. It turns out Ian has a similar fascination for the subject matter – we started batting the concept around, and out of it came Trust.”
Also on Essential’s development slate is Future Boy, a 6×30’ sitcom being developed with the assistance of state agency Screen NSW. The creator is Tristram Baumber, whose self-funded comedy series The Cleanists screened in 2013 on the UK-based cable channel Showcase. Baumber also created Timothy, a comedy special that aired on the ABC last October as part of a seven-day initiative in support of Mental Health Week.
Future Boy follows a 22-year-old party girl living in a shared house who finds her hedonistic lifestyle turned upside down when her 45-year-old son from the future turns up. Essential’s scripted development producer Rachael Turk, who is producing, likens the show to a cross between The Big Bang Theory and Girls.
Collie sees a favourable climate for producing drama for Australian and international broadcasters, despite budget cuts to the ABC and SBS and limited opportunities at the financially struggling Network Ten. The Seven Network, he acknowledges, is a “harder nut to crack” because much of its content comes from Seven Productions.
“TV drama is healthy and, with more players like Stan in the market, we see more openings for drama,” Collie continues. “We always look for projects that have broad international appeal. For example, The Principal is in the crime genre and should be able to travel. Formats can sell more widely than finished programmes.
“The Principal covers issues such as equality of education, tolerance, masculinity and violence, father-and-son relationships and diverse ethnic groups of Muslims, Pacific Islanders and Asians. Thematically it should resonate widely.”
Alex Dimitriades plays the title character in the series, produced by Collie, which revolves around a high school in Sydney’s tough, multicultural south west. The principal’s attempts at reform are making headway until a 17-year-old student is found dead on the school grounds. The screenplay is by Kristen Dunphy and Alice Addison, based on an idea by Collie, Turk and, later, Dunphy, inspired by several real-life principals of Sydney schools.
Director Kriv Stenders (who directed Red Dog and is now preparing sequel Blue Dog) relished the chance to work on his first TV drama. “Ian approached me last year and we developed the scripts with the writers,” he says. “I found working in TV is a far more fluid and democratic process and more creatively liberating than films. TV drama is essentially a longform movie.”
SBS executive producer of drama Sue Masters says: “Ian Collie is assuredly one of the world’s most outstanding producers so when he presented to us a drama inspired by the inspirational-teacher genre coupled with a murder mystery especially designed for an SBS broadcast, we were instantly engaged. Ian inspires and attracts first-class talent both in front of the camera and behind the scenes
“Kriv Stenders has used the stark, minimalist architecture of a high school to underpin a high-octane murder mystery that is both compelling and deeply appealing. He wanted to create an Australian ‘suburban noir look and feel,’ which is very on-brand for SBS with acquisitions such as The Bridge and The Killing and more recent international dramas that are yet to hit our screens.”
In February Essential opened an office in Queensland headed by screenwriter Roger Monk as a scripted development producer, funded by state agency Screen Queensland’s Enterprise program, which is also supporting Ludo Studio, Bunya Productions, Matchbox Pictures, Two Little Indians and Hoodlum.
Monk, whose credits include Matchbox Pictures’ Nowhere Boys, December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Every Cloud Productions’ East of Everything, is working with Essential’s Collie and Travers to source Queensland-originated stories and storytellers, develop and foster existing relationships with Queensland practitioners and provide a conduit to emerging talent.
Children’s head Travers is co-developing Camp Crazy with Brisbane-based Carbon Media, a teen comedy drama series set in northern Queensland that will follow the adventures of six misfit teens who are thrown together in a remote destination to solve the ultimate mystery.
On the feature film front, Collie is developing King of Thieves, a caper movie based on the true story of the infamous Australian ‘Kangaroo Gang,’ which fleeced millions of pounds worth of jewellery, fine clothes, linen and white goods from department stores in London in the 1960s and 1970s. It will be a coproduction with Trademark Films’ David Parfitt, whose credits include My Week with Marilyn, The Madness of King George, Shakespeare in Love and TV’s Parade’s End.
The script is by Andrew Knight (who co-wrote Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner and multiple episodes of Rake) and journalist Adam Shand, who authored the book King of Thieves: The Adventures of Arthur Delaney and the Kangaroo Gang. Federal funding agency Screen Australia has supported the development.
With Ruby Films’ Alison Owen, Collie produced Saving Mr Banks for the Walt Disney Co., which raked in US$83m in the US and US$112m at cinemas worldwide.
Collie believes a key part of Essential’s success in drama lies in collaborations with a group of talented producers and writers including Duncan, Roxburgh, Knight, Ayshford, Dunphy, Mrksa, Cameron, Addison, Lambert, Claudia Karvan and Liz Doran. “We like to work with people who have similar cultural sensibilities,” he says. “We give a lot of autonomy to our writers.”
That respect is warmly reciprocated by the creative community. “I think you only have to look at Essential’s shows to understand their approach to drama,” says Lambert. “Rake, Jack Irish, The Broken Shore and The Principal. They make shows that they would want to watch. They never talk down to their audiences. It’s sophisticated storytelling that’s brave, funny and smart. They’re not afraid to tackle complex subject matter and high-concept ideas. They’re really supportive of writers taking risks, always encouraging you to push the boundaries to produce your best work.
“Ian’s a great producer. He’s funny and smart and has strong story instincts. He’s very experienced and a real pleasure to work alongside. He’s attracted a brilliant development team around him who are a passionate and inspiring bunch. The bottom line is Essential is doing exciting work both here and overseas and it’s nice to be working with them – not to mention a lot of fun.”
Duncan’s association with Collie goes back to 2004 when he directed the ABC telemovie Hell Has Harbour Views, which starred Matt Day, Lisa McCune and Dusseldorp and was Collie’s first drama production.
When Duncan and Roxburgh came up with the idea for Rake, based on a brilliant but troubled guy whom Roxburgh knew at university, they turned to Collie, who by then had co-founded Essential. “We have both learnt a lot over the past 11 years,” says Duncan. “It’s so important to have the right people in front of and behind the camera. At Essential is a very fair and friendly group of people. When you go there you don’t feel you are dancing with the devil, which I could say about others.”
A former executive director of the Arts Law Centre of Australia and the Australian Directors Guild, Collie has a long list of factual credits including Australia on Trial, Whatever: The Science of Teens, The Making of Modern Australia, Rogue Nation, The Catalpa Rescue, A Case for the Coroner, Art House, The Shadow of Mary Poppins and The Original Mermaid.
Knight, another frequent collaborator, says: “Ian has a great creative eye and he trusts creative people. We do most of our deals with a handshake. We have never had a financial argument or a big creative argument.”
Broadcasters are similarly glowing in their assessment of Collie and his team. SBS’s Masters says: “As a former lawyer, for Ian there is no detail of the production that is too unimportant. However, his love for storytelling propels him to push the envelope creatively and he has unstoppable energy and vision in nurturing and showcasing the talents of the team he puts in place for a production.
“Moreover, he is not called ‘Jolly Collie’ without reason. Despite huge work stresses, Ian maximises every working moment to celebrate the craft with fun and enjoyment. On all of his productions, Ian draws the most inspiring and multi-award-winning team because he personifies what is the very best of the collaborative film and television industry.”
Nine’s Ryan observes: “Ian made a big impression with Rake and Jack Irish. He assembles talented people around him, which is the key to successful projects and a sustainable business.”
Sklan of ABC is similarly full of praise: “Ian and the Essential team are highly supportive of some of our most creative voices in television. Ian’s real skill is identifying highly creative and intelligent people and generating a process where they can do their best work.
“On Rake they’ve enabled creator, writer, producer and director Peter Duncan to express his vision across the life cycle of the project, and supported Peter, Richard Roxburgh and Andrew Knight in bringing us a highly entertaining television series that often dazzles with its wit and inventiveness.
“Ian’s personable nature is part of his very collegial approach to developing and producing drama. Drama is a complex, difficult and time-consuming art form – there are so many elements to get right. Ian is a highly effective problem solver. Being able to have positive and fruitful discussions at each stage is really critical to making the best programmes, and Ian is always a joy to work with for everyone involved.”
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.
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.
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.
Australia could really do with a domestic drama hit. While 2014 saw success for public broadcaster ABC with Playmaker Media’s six-part thriller The Code, 2015 has witnessed a disastrous outing for Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli and a lacklustre response to Hiding, another scripted series from the Playmaker/ABC alliance.
Gallipoli is a seven-part drama that ran on Nine Network in February and March. Produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the famous Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, it saw its ratings slide from 1.1 million for episode one to a meagre 0.35 million for episode seven.
An obvious assumption would be that the show wasn’t very good, but that view is rejected by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), which called it a “benchmark Australian television drama that captures the horror of a nation-defining moment with evocative writing, artful direction, strong performances and accomplished production values. This actually is must-see TV, but the public doesn’t appear to be responding.”
The SMH, among others, suggested that a poor slot in the schedule (Mondays at 21.00) did Gallipoli no favours. But it went on to argue that there is perhaps a deeper problem. “Australians have been eager adopters of prestigious American cable drama series, with laudatory debates about whether The Sopranos is better than Breaking Bad and aficionados proudly boasting about being an early adopter of The Wire. But while those shows are among the medium’s very best, there’s also a part of us that bows down to imported acclaim and refuses to believe that we can make truly great television drama in this country. Presented with a worthy Australian programme, some television consumers prefer to wait online in case a new Game of Thrones trailer drops.”
Hiding, which also aired earlier this spring, followed a Gold Coast family forced to enter witness protection in Sydney. After Playmaker’s success with The Code, there were high expectations for the show, which – like Gallipoli – met good reviews from sections of the media. The Australian Newspaper said: “Creator Matt Ford’s show is imaginative, clever and mordantly funny, and the ABC deserves a round of applause for giving him the stage.”
Unfortunately, the audience didn’t bite. In February and March, Hiding was attracting around 330,000 viewers in Australian’s top five cities (a standard ratings measure from ratings panel OzTam) – having debuted with around 730,000 for its opening episode. While this was similar in scale to Fortitude (also airing on ABC), it was around half the audience pulled in by UK crime series Broadchurch (634,000 on ABC). Even further ahead were Grantchester and Downton Abbey (both ABC), underlining the fact that UK and US imports both tend to outperform domestic drama.
There’s another angle to this debate worth noting: ABC, the main investor in original Australian drama, has an ageing audience, with a median viewer age of 63. What it would like to do is use its drama budget to bring this age down (hence Hiding). But the existing audience is perfectly content with the likes of Downton Abbey.
This age issue created a conundrum for ABC regarding Mrs Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a beautifully crafted period drama that attracted audiences of around one million in its first two series. Despite the high ratings, the show attracts an older audience – so ABC decided not to commission a third series last year. However, viewer outcry forced a change of heart, and a third run begins this week.
For ABC it will be a mixed blessing if the show draws barnstorming ratings because it will run counter to the bigger ambition of bringing the network age down (though All3Media International will be happy because it sells the show to international markets).
It’s not obvious where the next Aussie hit will come from, but at least there is one quality drama to look forward to. Coming soon to ABC is The Secret River, a two-part series based on the novel by Kate Grenville. It follows the story of young couple, William and Sal Thornhill, who are transported to the new colony of New South Wales in 1805. The show will explore the colonisation of Australia and the escalating conflict between the Indigenous inhabitants and the newly arrived white convicts and settlers.
The Secret River is likely to make uncomfortable viewing for many Aussies, so don’t expect huge ratings. Ironically, however, it will probably do well if it travels as far as the UK, where Jimmy McGovern’s Aussie convict period drama Banished recently finished a successful run on BBC2. The show’s debut episode attracted 3.4 million, giving BBC2 an unlikely ratings victory over BBC1 and ITV. It then went on to average a respectable 2.9 million over seven weeks. The Guardian’s assessment of Banished was that it was “historically fascinating… romantic, sentimental. Funny too.”
Also in the UK, the big drama ratings story of the week was the launch of Paul Abbott’s provocative police procedural No Offence on Channel 4. With an opening episode rating of 2.5 million, the show was well ahead of the slot average (1.5 million) and marginally ahead of the debut audience for Shameless (2.3 million), Abbot’s biggest hit to date. Given the success of Shameless (which spawned 11 series in the UK and gave birth to a successful US remake on Showtime), C4 will be hoping No Offence has the same staying power.
No Offence’s strong opening is also good news for FremantleMedia International (FMI), which is selling it internationally. So far it has done deals with DR in Denmark and – wait for it – ABC in Australia. Perhaps this is the show (albeit British) that will help give the broadcaster the younger profile it is seeking. After No Offence’s opening, FMI will be confident of further sales, with CEO Jens Richter saying: “No Offence is crime on steroids – it’s gripping, daring and a great reflection of Paul Abbott’s remarkable talents.”
As we’ve noted in other columns, this time of year is also important for US networks in terms of renewals, cancellations and the decision to take shows from pilot to series. We’ll look at this subject again on Monday in our Greenlight column.
For now, though, congratulations to Nashville, which has just secured a fourth season on ABC. With consolidated ratings in the 6.5-7 million range, the show is not a standout performer, but it does have two things on its side: firstly, it’s extremely popular with women aged 18 to 49; secondly, it’s reached the tipping point in terms of appealing to the lucrative US syndication market.
The general rule is that scripted shows that get to four seasons have enough episodes (85-100) to be attractive to syndication. So it is virtually unheard of for shows to be cancelled after three seasons. However, the issue might not be so clear-cut next year – ABC’s Revenge has just been cancelled after four seasons. So May 2016 is more likely to be the moment of truth for Nashville.
Playmaker, the latest addition to Sony Pictures TV’s international production empire, is on a hot streak in its home market. Co-founders David Taylor and David Maher tell DQ what they’re doing right.
There is no better time to be producing Australian TV drama for both local and international networks than right now, according to Playmaker Media co-founders David Taylor and David Maher.
The former Fox Television Studios Australia production executives cashed in on the worldwide boom in demand for quality drama by selling their Sydney-based prodco to Sony Pictures Television (SPT) in December.
The deal, which will see Taylor and Maher remain at the helm of the banner they founded in 2009, gives their company access to SPT’s worldwide distribution machine and increased funds for development.
“We had been talking to Sony for a while. We liked what they had to say and it’s a good opportunity,” Taylor tells DQ, interviewed with his business partner in their offices adjoining Fox Studios.
“The opportunities for producing TV drama have increased exponentially in the past five years,” says Maher. “There has been a tonal shift among the networks, reflecting the great drama being produced in the US and the UK.”
Typifying the Oz broadcasters’ more adventurous spirit, the Playmaker duo doubt that Love Child, the most-watched drama series on Australian TV in 2014, would have been commissioned five years ago.
Set in 1969 at a home for unwed mothers adjacent to a maternity hospital in Sydney’s red-light district Kings Cross, the show was ordered by Nine Network and drew an average national audience of 2.087 million.
Just as the first episodes went to air, the broadcaster committed to a second season, which follows the doctors, midwives and expectant mothers in 1970, launching this year.
“Love Child was definitely a risky commission,” according to Nine’s co-heads of drama Andy Ryan and Jo Rooney. “The lead characters are all deeply flawed and the subject matter of forced adoption is not typical of network drama. It was crucial to get the tone right, and we all worked hard to marry the story material with the exuberance, music and fashion of 1969 Kings Cross. The ratings definitely proved that commercial drama can be adventurous and have mass appeal.”
Maher adds: “The definition of what is commercial has undergone a complete metamorphosis in the past five years.”
Playmaker had entrusted international sales of its shows to DCD Rights, All3Media International, ZDF Enterprises and ITV Studios Global Entertainment since a first-look deal with Fremantle Media Enterprises expired in 2013.
SPT will handle all future Playmaker productions and the format rights to Love Child, which were not included in the deal with All3Media. “Having one point of call for international for the shows we create will be a big advantage,” Taylor says.
While the company’s primary focus has been, and remains, the Australian market, it aims to ensure every project it develops has export potential, both for finished series and as formats.
That strategy looks like paying off for House Husbands, the fourth season of which debuts on Nine in 2015. Producers in France and Italy have bought remake rights to the drama, which looks at the relationships between four stay-at-home dads and their families. The French version will be produced by Paris-based Made in PM while the Italian remake will be produced by Rome-based Publispei. Both companies will adapt scripts from the first season.
The Australian government’s producer offset for TV series, miniseries, telemovies and non-feature documentaries, which gives producers a 20% rebate, is pivotal to the bottom line of prodcos such as Playmaker.
Playmaker’s conspiracy thriller The Code performed strongly enough on pubcaster ABC this year to be renewed for a further six episodes. DirecTV bought US rights to the show, created by Shelley Birse, and it aired on the UK’s BBC4 in October last year.
Filmed in Canberra and the Outback, the drama stars Dan Spielman (An Accidental Soldier, Offspring) as Ned Banks, a young internet journalist desperate for a break. Ashley Zuckerman (The Slap, Rush) plays his troubled hacker brother Jesse. After the siblings post online a blurry video of an Outback accident, they are plunged into the darkest heart of politics, the world of black marketeers and international agencies who monitor and manipulate them.
The second series follows the brothers as they face the prospect of being extradited to the US unless they agree to entrap one of the most elusive players in the darknet, who hosts an online bazaar of illegal weapons, drugs and dangerous ideas.
Created by Matt Ford, Hiding (8 x 60’) which premieres on ABC this year, follows a Gold Coast family who are forced into witness protection and must build a new life in a strange city, knowing that any contact with friends or relatives could lead a killer to their door. The ensemble cast includes James Stewart (Packed to the Rafters), Kate Jenkinson (House Husbands), Lincoln Younes (Tangle), Stephen Curry (The Time of Our Lives), Nathan Page (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), Jodi Gordon (Underbelly: Badness), Kim Gyngell (Lowdown), and Jacqueline McKenzie (The Water Diviner).
All four shows were created by writer-producers who were nurtured by the Screen Australia-funded showrunner development initiative dubbed Scribe. The three-year programme was a potent catalyst for the careers of Drew Proffitt (who co-created House Husbands with Ellie Beaumont), Ford, Birse and Sarah Lambert (Love Child). The initiative was so successful that it continues in 2015 as a self-funded enterprise at Playmaker.
“The unbroken authorial voice is what we strive for, and that guarantees the quality of the end product,” says Taylor. “One person oversees a project from the start to the end so there is a consistency.”
Birse recalls: “I was travelling in the Middle East when Playmaker called to see if I would be interested in joining the first round of their Scribe project. At the time, the Arab Spring was starting to escalate and I was surprised to find Australians playing a pivotal role in getting the truth of what was happening in countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia out to the rest of the world.
“They were helping the voices of ordinary men and women be heard against the express wishes of extraordinarily powerful government and military forces, and they were doing this not with firepower, wealth or strength, but with their brains and their digital prowess. At the same time, the act of whistleblowing was attracting seemingly unprecedented punishment, and to have Australians operating on the world stage in both these areas was story territory too rich to resist.”
Birse sold the concept to Playmaker, playing up the fresh angle of freedom of speech in the digital age, combined with a commitment to prioritise character over plot whenever possible. Taylor, Maher and Birse felt the ambitious project would best suit ABC and did a verbal pitch to the pubcaster’s head of programming Brendan Dahill, head of drama Carole Sklan and commissioning editor David Ogilvy, and got the nod to start developing in earnest.
“What attracted us to the project the Davids pitched with Shelley Birse was the central relationship of the brothers, the complicated bond between the responsible older brother, Ned, and the brilliant Asperger’s brother, Jess,” Sklan explains. “It wasn’t simply a generic political thriller; it had this fascinating, heartfelt relationship at its heart. It was a groundbreaking contemporary thriller with big ideas and enthralling storytelling.
“The series faced tough competition but did particularly well with catch-up viewing on iView. There was also extraordinary critical and audience acclaim for the show.”
As for Hiding, Sklan says: “It was a bold and fresh approach to a crime story and a story of a family under exceptional pressure. It was also a fish-out-of-water story with the crim working undercover in the criminology department of an elite university. Matt [Ford] brought a great deal of verve, humour and astute observation to the drama.”
Birse had been writing scripts for nearly 20 years before she was selected for the Playmaker Scribe initiative. “I felt ready to develop projects of my own, but without the creative and financial support of a production company, it was just too easy for the demands of ‘writing to meet the mortgage’ to consume all my writing time,” she reflects.
“Scribe delivered a dedicated ‘creative breath’ – two days a fortnight carved out to devote purely to development – and was set up to move creators into a producorial role once shows headed towards production. It was in this area that the greatest learning curve took place. Far from pressing send at the end of the scripting process and looking out for a DVD in the mail some months down the track, I was at the table for every creative and logistical discussion for the whole six months of production – from the first day of casting until the final international copies were signed off.
“It was an extraordinary chance to learn on the job, and while there is so much more to learn, the opportunity increased my understanding of the production process tenfold. Perhaps more importantly, it’s made me acutely aware of the costs of failing to bridge the gap between script and production and the importance of keeping writers’ voices present long after the scripts have been finished.
“It’s no mystery that the finest-quality television being made in Australia and overseas has a showrunner at the wheel.”
Maher and Taylor brought complementary skills to the table when they launched Playmaker. Taylor got a part-time job on the studio floor at Channel 7 Sydney when he was 17 while embarking on a communications degree at Macquarie University. He quit uni after deciding TV was more fun and stayed at Seven for five years, rising to first AD on dramas including A Country Practice and Home and Away. He later spent four years at prodco Screentime, working on shows such as Popstars and the Bondi Beach-set drama Breakers.
Maher also did a communications degree at Macquarie, while working part-time for Beyond Films as a script assessor. He spent four years in the UK, initially as a runner with Tiger Aspect on Mr Bean, The Vicar of Dibley and other programmes, and later as an assistant floor manager at the BBC.
Back in Australia, Maher and Taylor teamed up at Fox Television Studios, where they spent 12 years producing scripted and unscripted programming for Australian and international broadcasters. They served under three regimes: Fox Studios Australia CEO Kim Williams (who later headed paynet Foxtel); David Martin, who was promoted to Fox Television Studios executive VP, production and development in Los Angeles and is now president of Avalon USA; and David Grant, the former FTS president.
While their output ranged from lifestyle, reality and game shows to drama series, serials and telemovies, drama was the Davids’ true passion. Among the shows they remember most fondly are Supernova, a comedy starring Rob Brydon, co-commissioned by the BBC and Australia’s UKTV and coproduced with Hartswood Films, and Crash Palace, a drama set in a Kings Cross backpackers’ hostel for Foxtel’s Fox8.
Their decision to launch Playmaker coincided with a change in strategy by the Fox TV brass in Los Angeles to focus their international efforts primarily on producing drama series in Latin America. It was an amicable parting, typified by the agreement that the pair could take with them their development slate. That led to Playmaker’s maiden productions. Wicked Love: The Maria Korp Story was a telemovie for Nine which starred Rebecca Gibney, based on the true story of a Melbourne woman who was left to die in the boot of a car in 2005.
Commissioned by Fox8, Slide was a multi-platform, 10-part series following five 17-year-olds making their way to adulthood in Brisbane. “The show merged the non-scripted and online worlds and was beautifully executed,” according to Ross Crowley, Foxtel director of programming.
Crowley adds: “Playmaker is one of the production units that understands the differentiation between cable and broadcast network dramas. We need a unique voice and they really get that. They started with a small team, wanting to specialise in shorter-run, more complex works, and they nailed it.”
When they launched Playmaker, neither founder saw it as a gamble. Apart from a ready-made development slate, they were encouraged to go solo by such peers as Goalpost Pictures’ Rosemary Blight, Screentime’s Bob Campbell and Endemol Southern Star’s John Edwards.
In their office the long-time colleagues display an amusing banter and repartee, “We bicker about the small stuff,” says Maher. “We don’t disagree about the big stuff.”
Nine’s Ryan and Rooney observe: “The Davids only pitch shows with a strong creative vision, but they are also very receptive to our input at every stage, from development through to production. The success of House Husbands and Love Child proves that local drama can have a unique voice and be commercially successful.”
Sklan concurs: “The Davids bring strong creative ambition and tremendous skill to the work. It’s not only the idea, it’s the creative realisation of the idea. They are wonderful creative collaborators who identify and inspire very talented people to work together to do their best work. They are also incredibly nice, self-deprecating people.”
Birse reflects: “I think part of the strength of the Playmaker team is that they bring a great marriage of pragmatism and possibility to the table. There’s a tremendous sense when you’re talking ideas with them that the sky is the limit, and yet it somehow remains grounded in the reality of how it’s going to get made.
“I think their track record is testament to a broad commercial palette, with Scribe spawning long-running commercial family dramas like House Husbands and Love Child and edgier works like Hiding for the ABC. At the base of all their productions is a commitment to stretch the boundaries wherever possible.
“When the Davids first rang four years ago to talk about wanting to do things differently, I was in Tel Aviv, and the line was pretty crackly. What I heard between that crackling were some half-phrases: ‘develop something you love’, ‘showrunner model’, ‘integrity of authorial voice’. I got off the phone thinking I was hearing things but, four years on, the promises of Scribe on The Code were delivered in full, and then some.”