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Tracey Robertson, CEO and executive producer at Hoodlum, on optioning the rights for Secrets & Lies to US television network ABC.

Format activity in a nutshell

Format rights were optioned to ABC, the US television network. The US pilot was produced by Hoodlum, Kapital Entertainment and ABC Studios at the same time the original version went to air in Australia. A second US series is now in production, airing 2016.

Mitigating the risk of moving to the US

Doing the deal

Some background is needed to explain how the format deal on Secrets & Lies came to be signed. After Hoodlum’s 6 x 30mins The Strange Calls screened on ABC2 in late 2012, Hoodlum’s US agent ICM discussed the series with US producer Aaron Kaplan of Kapital Entertainment. With little input from Hoodlum executives, the paranormal comedy was optioned by production entity 20th Century Fox Studios with US network ABC attached. It did not go into production. It stayed with ABC and was given a put pilot commitment (a pilot that must air), then a cast contingent pilot order, but when no cast were attached the ABC passed in 2014. NBC Network then picked up the show and piloted it did not go to series.

<h6>Tracey Robertson</h6><p>CEO and Executive Producer, Hoodlum</p>
Tracey Robertson

CEO and Executive Producer, Hoodlum

“In 2013 the ABC enquired about our other shows, including Secrets & Lies and Fat Cow Motel. Negotiations began on Fat Cow soon after and now, two years later, deal terms for the format rights have been agreed and closed, with us producing for ABC Studios. We weren’t keen to sell Secrets & Lies before completing it (in Australia) but when it was coming to the end of production I told our agent Greg Lipstone at ICM that I wanted to move to the US with my family to produce a US version there. You don’t get the opportunity to pitch material into the US easily unless you have produced something on the ground, so Nathan (business partner Nahan Mayfield) and I pitched it to ABC, NBC and HBO (in each case to the broadcaster not the associated production business). ABC got on board very quickly. ICM and Kapital negotiated a penalty fee. A penalty is a ‘pay or play’ arrangement. It means we would be paid the equivalent of our executive producer fees whether the show was made or not. It’s easier to negotiate a penalty if the production is a show everyone wants. It allowed me to take the risk of moving my family to the US.”

“The big tick for me will be producing a show in America and getting it on TV.”

Making the show

“It was a straight-to-series order in the US so when it was decided to make a pilot it injected considerable uncertainty. The pilot was delivered on April 25, 2014 and it required the same effort as if you were making a film. The two weeks of waiting to see what shows went into series was too stressful for words. The good thing we had was the penalty. I believe ABC developed 64 dramas in 2013 and piloted ten in 2014 and we were the sixth to be picked up for series. Then the show develops its own life: writers and directors are hired, driven by the showrunner.” (The show is called Secrets and Lies in the US not Secrets & Lies.)

“We are now EPs on season two of Secrets and Lies (in the US) and are locked for the duration of the series. What I’ve learned from the experience has been incredible and I’m now on the ground living there. Our agent embraces working with us as they would with any US client. There’s now no push back to pitching brand new shows into the US and we are now working on US material with US writers. The big tick for me will be producing a show in America and getting it on TV.”

Martin Henderson and director Kate Dennis on the set of <em>Secrets & Lies</em> Martin Henderson and director Kate Dennis on the set of Secrets & Lies

Securing a first look deal

Hoodlum has worked closely with the development team at ITV Studios US, owned by UK-based ITV, since signing a 12-month POD (production overall deal) in February 2014. There is an option to extend this deal for 12 months. ITV owns all rights on Hoodlum’s newly developed shows under the deal unless it specifically passes, in which case Hoodlum can pitch without ITV attached. Hoodlum also has projects with other studios, set up before the ITV relationship was signed.

“Producers can’t be too precious. We have made some not-so-good deals: sometimes we regret it and other times the deals are revised. The focus is to keep it (the show) going forward. I couldn’t have known then (before moving to the US) what I know now. Our agent says ‘why didn’t you tell us what you wanted?’ but I didn’t even understand that there is a big difference between a studio and a network. ABC Studios, for example, is a production entity and operates separately to the commercial broadcast television network ABC. Studios can make shows for anyone and are prepared to deficit finance the gap between the licence fee and the cost of production. ABC Network, while owned by Disney and in the same group, can buy from NBC Studios or FOX Studios or ABC Studios. However, with more and more network and studio heads being the same person/persons, unofficial preference may be given to working within their own business. Studios make their revenue primarily through distribution and merchandise licensing ancillaries.

“Knowing that seems so basic now. That said, sometimes naivety is a good thing. It has at times paid off to go direct to the network not the studio first. If you don’t have any credentials then it’s very hard to sell an idea. (Under those circumstances) I highly recommend that people write scripts on spec (unpaid). Then they have something someone can buy.”

You have to be tough

“Everyone is scouting the world for formats. I’d be surprised if there were any shows in Australia that hadn’t come under the radar of agents. They all have format teams trying to sell formats into America. Distributors have contacts at the agencies; or you could find a writer and pitch the show yourself with them. But you want to be the least experienced person on the show. I’m much more valuable to the Australia production community now than I was two years ago because we’ve got a show in second series. Only now do I have the ability to successfully fight for an Australian creative team. It’s a jungle out there and you have to be tough.

“It’s a great time for Australians making shows in America. There are a lot of opportunities. I’m always thinking about what I can do to surprise my audience, to show them something they’ve not seen before, and the same can be said of surprising your buyer, be it a network or a studio.”

<em>Secrets & Lies</em> Secrets & Lies

Title Secrets & Lies
Production Company Hoodlum
Format  6 x 43 mins 
Genre Drama
Premiere 8.30pm, March 3, 2014, TEN
Distributor Cineflex
Synopsis Ben Gundelach becomes the prime suspect in a murder investigation after he finds the body of his neighbour’s son.


A format option is literally being negotiated now between UTA and The Tannenbaum Co for Laid according to producer Liz Watts of Porchlights Films. UTA “unofficially” represents Porchlight and represents Marieke Hardy, who co-wrote two series of Laid for Australia. An earlier option was sold four years ago via ICM to NBC who placed the pilot with Berman Braun. This was recommended through Laid’s sales agent DRG. “We didn’t really like the new script much and were not surprised when it wasn’t commissioned.” Laid is on Netflix and Hulu in the US. Porchlight now has the format rights back and has feature rights too and there has been some interest in perhaps pursuing Laid as a feature in the US, with the creators, Hardy and Kirsty Fisher, writing. “DRG also placed a deal with ITV in the UK and a pilot was produced but the series was not commissioned. More recently DRG approached Eric Tannenbaum. We are thinking this time it might be more fruitful. I will be an executive producer, and Marieke and Kirsty will be writing. It’s a much better position to have creative on the series this time around. It will be a cable or platform show.”

Watts believes the US is hungry for content and sets the base format fee for an episode of television at US$10K to $100K. “Everything is negotiable. Don’t rely on your distributor. You need a good agent. Everyone in the world should have a US agent! You can’t rely on a distributor or sales agent always doing the best deal for you or your creators because they obviously have different agendas. But you need to work closely with them anyway to avoid cannibalising the original format. Everyone has to work together. And don’t be seduced by network options: they option everything. I’m mindful that partnering with companies and making shows ourselves in the US is worth pursuing.” Neither she nor writer/director David Michôd – by choice – were creatively involved in the recently made television pilot based on the feature film Animal Kingdom, although they are executive producers. It was recently delivered to TNT by producer John Wells and Warner Television.