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Jo Porter: selling Aussie TV overseas

In an increasingly crowded marketplace Picnic at Hanging Rock producer Jo Porter is looking for ideas that are bold enough to cut through.

Wentworth series 1, Olivia and Picnic at Hanging Rock

In a time dubbed “Peak TV”, where the globe will be inundated with potentially 500-plus original English-language scripted series in 2018, producer Jo Porter says Australian content needs to be able to not just hold its own, but grab people’s attention – buyers and audiences.

“In this incredibly crowded marketplace of so much content, you need to consider how you can stand out in unique and distinct way so audiences find you and stay with your project,” says Porter, who’s EP/producer on Picnic at Hanging Rock and director of drama at FremantleMedia Australia.

She says it also can’t be manufactured. It has to come organically from the script rather than being driven by dollar signs - even though that’s something weighing on every producers mind.

“Authenticity in storytelling is essential, everyone's exposed to so much content they can tell when it just doesn't feel real,” she says.

“So when we're considering projects or ideas, it’s about the strength of the writer’s voice and is the idea both bold and unique enough to cut through and be fresh.”

Case in point: Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, it was adapted into a film directed by Peter Weir in 1975 during Australia’s ‘golden age’ of cinema. Fitting then, that the TV mini-series adaptation should come along during the global ‘golden age’ of TV. Porter says because the film is so iconic, they wanted to create something distinctive.

“One of the things we wanted to tackle when telling the story this time round was to really tell it through a female lens.”

FremantleMedia’s broadcast partner Foxtel, and its commissioning editor of drama Penny Win, felt the same way. Writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison were brought on to pen the series, with the directing team also majority female. The cast was organically female-driven with actors including Games of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer and Australians Yael Stone, Lily Sullivan, Madeleine Madden and Samara Weaving.

“Penny Win from Foxtel and I have a longstanding relationship through the many seasons of Wentworth we've done together – also a very female-skewed show,” Porter says.

“Our ambition was shared really from the get go and that just makes it so much easier. We're all striving to make the same programme.”

See how Porter views the current state of Australian television and how that feeds into the choices they made for Picnic at Hanging Rock

EXISTING IP

Jo Porter on one of the <em>Picnic at Hanging Rock</em> sets / FremantleMedia Australia Ben King Jo Porter on one of the Picnic at Hanging Rock sets / FremantleMedia Australia Ben King

Porter says existing ‘IP’ or Intellectual Property, such as book rights, can be advantageous when they’re brainstorming ideas for potential projects. In addition to Picnic at Hanging Rock, Porter was Executive Producer on series Wentworth, and mini-series Mary: The Making of a Princess, Hoges: The Paul Hogan Story, and upcoming Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted to You.

“Existing IP is always going to be attractive to a broadcast partner because it's something that they can leverage off in terms of marketing,” Porter says.

“Equally it could be broader awareness of the story you're telling.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of these examples.

“The idea of re-adapting the novel came from internal conversations that we had about trying to identify important pieces of IP that could lend themselves to an adaptation for a television series.”

But there can be challenges in obtaining those rights. When it came to Picnic, Porter says there was a complicated development process because they needed to make sure they approached Joan Lindsay’s estate with a take on the source material that matched their expectations.

“Like anything iconic, the rights holder is always going to be understandably protective of that. And so we had to talk Barbara Mobbs, who is the agent for Joan Lindsay's estate, through how we were proposing to tackle it. There were certain key things for the estate which were not negotiable about what they did and didn't want to be included in any adaption and organically that sat with how we wanted to approach the adaptation ourselves. So happily, she said yes.”

INVEST IN DEVELOPMENT

Porter says development is “crucial”. It may be expensive, but if done right, it will ease the costs once you’re in production.

“Just really make sure you've got those scripts right. If you don't have that bedrock of the program you're going to get into trouble. It's the time when you can really play and tease out and push an idea and experiment. It's also a time when you're bringing in the circle of creatives that are going to realise this project to make sure that you're all sharing a vision of where you want this project to go.”

For Picnic, they did some internal development once they had the rights.

“We funded our own Bible and we funded our own first hour (episode) because we wanted to prove the concept,” she says.

“[Because] everybody knew the film. And they were curious about how you could take this idea that they only knew of as being told over a two-hour film, into six hours of television content.

“So the onus of proof sat with us as producers.”

The writers dug into the source material, which Porter says might be a slim novel, but packs in so much.

“Within it Joan Lindsay has left behind all these tantalizing ideas and clues that the writers really could pull out and tease open. Outward would tumble all this fantastic potential and questions that they were able to explore within six hours,” she says.

“Why would there be this finishing school in the middle of the Australian bush? Why would this wealthy English woman leave her life behind to come to Australia to set it up?

“So many of the characters in the book, the more you questioned what were they doing there, it opened up delicious possibilities of what their backstory was that took them to this particular point.”

It was these scripts that attracted Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer to the part of Mrs Appleyard. Porter refers to the scripts as “the honey that brought everybody to this project” – something they would not have had without that development period.

PICNIC SALES

Before Picnic at Hanging Rock had even wrapped shooting, Porter says Amazon came on “as co-commissioners for Amazon Prime Video US.”

“Amazon had been tracking the project from early drafts of the scripts. They officially committed once they heard about the key pieces of casting and the vision of [set-up director] Larysa Kondracki in the sense of the scale and approach she and the other directors where they were going to take the realisation of the scripts,” she says.

Since then, it’s sold to a number of other key territories including the UK (on BBC), France (on Canal +), and Germany (on Deutsche Telekom).

But Porter says all those companies envision Picnic as being an integral part of their platform.

“FMI (FremantleMedia International), our distributors, did a great job,” Porter says.

“They found broadcast partners that were not only generous in what they wanted to pay for it, because that’s important, but more importantly, they really understood the project and were going to get behind it and market it.

“Because as a producer that’s super important – that it’s not just going to get forgotten, that they’re going to really help get that program out to audiences around the world.”

She says some of the territories are leveraging the press Picnic is receiving from film festival selections and premieres to their advantage.

“Deutsche Telekom in Germany were so thrilled when we were selected for the Berlinale in Berlin earlier this year and really used that as a platform to launch it for the German market. Equally Amazon are going to use our inclusion in the Tribeca Film Festival in April to also be the beginning of the US campaign.”

THE EVOLUTION OF AUSSIE TV

Porter says the main thing about the evolution of Australian TV is the speed that it’s happening. While exciting, she says it’s “quite a rollercoaster” and with that are the peaks and dips.

She says over the past 20 years the number of episodes that are being ordered has dropped from 42, to 26, to now, where you’re seeing 13-episode series and really high-quality six-part mini-series like Picnic cutting through.

There’s a flow-on effect. Firstly, these series are strong and getting noticed, which then leads to international partnership opportunities, which in turn raises the budgets.

“I think the biggest revolution we're seeing with Australian television at the moment is the success of our tape sales internationally [because] that's giving great confidence to international broadcast partners to come in early as co-commissioners. What that means is bigger budgets, which means our projects can be really scaled up and much more ambitious than perhaps a traditional Australian-only commissioning finance plan would look like.”

But she believes on the other hand, you’re also seeing more of these bespoke, smaller-budget projects told really authentically (think Please Like Me) connecting.

“So I think it's the big, scalable ambitious projects and then those more bespoke ideas of a very direct voice from the creator to the audience,” she says.

“What's so great is we're all riding on the success of each other. The more each of our programs sell internationally and we get international audiences used to Australian accents and our content that's going to make it easier for the next person coming along.”

There is, of course, the cons of this change.

“The upside in this change is ambition and scale. The downside though is it is such a high risk game in terms of the spend [so] how do you give opportunities for people coming in?

“So the big difference is risk and the ability to absorb risk. You have a lot less ability in six hours than you do in 42.”

It hits a personal chord with Porter, whose first big break was on one of those long-running serials – as was the case for many producers, directors, writers and crew.

Porter was brought onto All Saints as set-up producer by network executive Bevan Lee, who she met through a trainee producer scheme run by Screen Queensland and Village Roadshow Pictures.

“That was my really big first step,” she says.

“So a real challenge for us is how we find those opportunities for the next generation to get those chances.”

TAPE v FORMAT SALES

Porter says when you’re thinking about the life of a project outside of its local airdate, the sale of the ‘tape’ or finished program internationally is a priority.

She says “it’s a bonus” if you get a remake through a format sale – as was the case for Wentworth, which has sold into four territories (and counting).

“They can really personalize it, particularly in something like that that's got quite a lot of different cultural specificities around how a women's prison may play out in a different territory. But it still deals with a universal idea that they're interested in re-versioning in their own language 100%, as opposed to a dubbing as it perhaps more traditionally would have been done with a tape sale.”

But Porter thinks there will be less and less format sales in the future.

“Because what is great is that Australian tape is selling. It doesn't need to necessarily be remade in an American accent anymore. Our voices are cutting through and people are getting more and more used to hearing an Australian accent on their screen however they consume it.”


Picnic at Hanging Rock airs on Foxtel’s Showcase from 6 May.

It is also set to air in the US on Amazon Prime, the UK on BBC, France on Canal +, and Germany on Deutsche Telekom/Entertain TV Serien. It makes its North American premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.