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Australian/UK company See-Saw Films and New Zealand’s Escapade Pictures produced Top of the Lake, which is represented by BBC Worldwide. Emile Sherman talks about its success and explains the value of co-commissioning.

Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake

From the producer

Top of the Lake: co-commissioning is the holy grail

<h6>Emile Sherman</h6><p>Joint managing director, See-Saw Films</p>
Emile Sherman

Joint managing director, See-Saw Films

“It had four channels attached before we’d made the show”

“We were overwhelmed by the success of Top of the Lake. It was as successful as we ever hoped it could be. It’s not about money; it’s more about being an Australian series reaching the top of the international domain.

“We measure success in many different ways. The first milestone for Top of the Lake was that (director) Jane Campion (The Piano) wanted to do television. She was drawn to the idea of telling a longer story. TV has become the new novel. It became a larger canvas as soon as changes to technology and broadcasting meant you could watch episodes in order, rather than having to catch whatever episode happened to be on. In TV you’re not hemmed in by the two-hour film constraint.

“The second milestone, for me as an Australian producer, was having the BBC commission and develop Top of the Lake. It positioned it in an international context. It was still an Australian production but it was international too.

“Thirdly, it had four channels attached before we’d made the show: the BBC, UKTV in Australia, SundanceTV in the US, and Arte for France and Germany. Netflix in the US also came on early, sitting behind Sundance. This level of support is unheard of in Australia and, at that time, was very unusual internationally – for independent television. In the last few years television has moved more and more towards co-commissioning. Getting all of them on board for Top of The Lake was entirely driven by Jane, her vision and the scripts. For them it meant getting a bigger show, putting up less money and sharing the risk. For us it meant being able to make something international with international partners, rather than what is normal in Australia, which is getting a local partner and then selling the show after completion.

“The final milestone of success was the support we got from festivals and the awards recognition. Sundance and Berlin both showed the entire series. Being in the Egyptian Theatre at Sundance watching six hours back to back with 1000 people was one of the highlights of my career. It won a 2013 Primetime Emmy for outstanding cinematography and a 2014 Golden Globe for Elisabeth’s performance. We also received a lot of other awards, seven other Emmy nominations and nominations in the BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild of America Awards.”

“The obvious territory to co-commission with is the US”

“It took a long time for me to get my head around the big price differential between a broadcaster commissioning a show and a broadcaster buying it after it’s completed. There is no inherent distinction between buying a film before or after it’s made – sometimes you pre-sell a film for more, other times you can sell it for more upon execution. It’s largely driven by how the film turns out. In TV if a broadcaster commissions a show then it is made for them. This gives them creative input as well as being able to brand it as their production. And so they pay substantially more. It was very exciting for us to have so many co-commissioners on Top of the Lake. It meant we didn’t need a big international television advance to close off the finance and that’s a key reason it has been so financially successful. Developing material that is co-commissionable is the holy grail of television.

“For the UK and Australia, the obvious territory to co-commission with is the US. It’s an English language territory and it’s very dynamic. There are a lot of non-traditional players looking for content from cable channels such as HBO, AMC, Showtime and Starz, to over-the-top services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. They are all looking for bold distinctive material. The issue five years ago was that they wanted it set in the US and the whole thing made in house, but now it can be set abroad and there is an increasing appetite to come on to shows as co-commissioners. The market is moving in our direction.

“The new wave of over-the-top players are still no doubt working through their business models, and I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs. But if you’re a broadcaster acquiring material it’s driven more by programming – the most important thing is getting the best show for your Sunday evening slot – whereas if you’re not restricted by slots, having a show that costs half as much can be very attractive. All that said, at the end of the day the show has to be fantastic.”

See-Saw’s growth is due to TV

“We now have nearly 20 people in the UK and Australia. Like a lot of film companies, we are actively developing a lot of TV series. It’s why we’ve grown significantly. Half our company is focused on TV.

Top of the Lake has helped us in a soft power way: having that poster on the wall is a nice thing when meeting with talent or approaching novelists about optioning their books. We’ve shown what we can do and how, although we happen to be based in Australia and in the UK and draw on creative talent from there, we are not limited by those markets. We recognize that our core strength has always been the relationships we have with high-level talent and that’s what we are carrying over into the TV world.

“The TV division is currently developing about 25 projects, both international event drama commissions like Top of the Lake alongside projects aimed at both the Australian and UK domestic markets that will sell internationally upon execution. We hope that a couple of the projects will be driven primarily out of a US streaming or cable service.

“One of the trickiest things is to make shows that appeal to two commissioning broadcasters, as they each need to feel like it has been made specifically for them and their audience. We spend a lot of time talking about this issue. You don’t want to make something that falls in between: not quite Australian enough to land a local broadcaster and not quite enticing enough for a US or UK broadcaster. All you can do is try to research and understand the market as much as possible, but in the end it’s a gut decision as to which projects to take on, which could hit multiple bull’s-eyes and which excite us personally.

“We’ve recently completed a comedy-drama for the BBC, Love, Nina, written by Nick Hornby, directed by SJ Clarkson and starring Faye Marsay and Helena Bonham Carter. It aired on the BBC in the UK on May 20. The Weinstein Company came on to co-finance the show as well, showing its international potential”

Elisabeth Moss and Nicole Kidman to star in Top of the Lake: China Doll (series 2)

Top of the Lake season two is underway

“Our background is in film. In film you license rights to a distributor and they release the film theatrically, and you can get huge upside. TV is a much more moderate model with a different level of upside. It helps to structure it well (a reference to co-commissioning) but you are also hoping for repeat seasons to be commissioned. That’s the other holy grail of TV. We didn’t envisage Top of the Lake being a returning series so weren’t set up contractually. Everyone’s deals were negotiated from scratch.”

(As of June 2016, the six-hour Top of the Lake – Season two was being filmed in Sydney with Elisabeth Moss reprising her role as detective Robin Griffin. It is, according to See-Saw’s media release, “produced by See-Saw Films for BBC Two in co-production with BBC First and Foxtel in Australia, BBC UKTV in New Zealand and Sundance TV in the US and in association with Hulu in the US, ARTE in France and BBC Worldwide.” This time, Ariel Kleiman is co-directing with Campion rather than Garth Davis. Campion again wrote the script with Gerard Lee. Philippa Campbell, who was a producer on the first series, and Libby Sharpe, are the producers. Emile Sherman, his See-Saw Films co-founder Iain Canning, as well as Jamie Laurenson and Lucy Richer, are the executive producers.)

“Selling format rights is a less obvious path when using the co-commissioning model because the show has already been commissioned and shown around the world. We were approached for format rights in a couple of smaller territories but ended up not pursuing them.

“In summary I’d say that the market is going through a period of change. New streaming and other services are coming into play and co-commissioning is growing. That said, the vast majority of shows are still driven solely through domestic broadcasters. We know our strategy is a challenging one and that the market is more and more competitive now.

“A nice paradox is that the exodus of talent to TV means there’s less high end independent film product. In a weird way our film business been helped by this worldwide move to TV. It’s one reason why our films Mary Magdalene and Lion are getting such a lot of interest.”