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Advice for Australian producers in 2018

Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner discusses the opportunities and challenges for Australian producers in 2018.

Matthew Deaner at Screen Forever 2017 / Pulse Photography

The past decade has seen momentous change in the global screen industry, and Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner says local producers are continuously proving their ability to adapt and be flexible.

But with any change, there are positives and negatives.

Deaner says while animation is going through a period of strength thanks to commissioning platforms like the ABC, and feature documentaries such as Mountain are alive and kicking, there are some pieces of content where financing is very hard. “That’s probably some parts of the feature film model,” he says. “And it’s only really the ABC now commissioning live action children’s content.”

But he says there is some definite buoyancy in the market. In local drama, something that is becoming increasingly common across the broadcasters is high-end television.

“I think we're seeing some of the commercial networks starting to look for more high-end concepts to get cut-through on their broadcast services. And that it's a good strategy to be working with international financing as well with the local producers.”

And he says on the reverse, streaming services (much more on them later), have provided audiences with something broadcast television used to do.

Big-budget series such as Picnic at Hanging Rock have sold to services such as Amazon Prime in the US, but series that cater to specific audiences have also been popular on streaming services, such as Please Like Me on Pivot, and feature documentaries such as Tyke Elephant Outlaw on Netflix.

“What the streaming services have done is give us these windows into very specific, not generalist content, that used to be the commissioning structure for a lot of broadcast television,” he says.

“It's very specific, very well-made content that can travel with a global frame around it, because there's much more interest in what might be a small audience in Australia but a big audience internationally… It's actually really sensible, the business model's working.”

Here Deaner expands on the lay of the land for Australian producers – and some key pieces of advice going forward:

LOOK OUTWARD

The quantity of projects and number of opportunities in the Australian industry at the moment means that Deaner says the industry feels “really healthy.”

That’s especially the case for “producers who have got an eye on international relationships, which they’re able to build as part of the business models they’re making in Australia.”

“I think the difficulty at the moment is for businesses that are entirely relying on the domestic market to finance their content.”

That’s where he’s noticed a shift and seen some nervousness.

“Because the confidence of some of the local content platforms is a little bit subdued - not everyone, but some of them.”

He says some production companies have been able to manage that change by working with international partners.

“They've either got, by ownership structures, partnering arrangements, or some first-look deal, which gives them a security around probably some development and a stability.”

Deaner says there are a number of businesses that are doing this very well, such as Hoodlum Entertainment, Goalpost Pictures, Aquarius Films and Jungle Entertainment.

“There are others that may not necessarily have that baked into their business, but they're just being clever about the partnering that they're doing and the relationships they've built over time with other businesses or distributors.”

“So if they come up with a good idea they know a big chunk of change can come from a substantial resource overseas and that's giving them confidence to operate in this market at the moment.”

It’s allowing those producers to drive forward ideas with scale and ambition, which in turn grow their own company.

“So they can be on a global stage, but be able to do that from Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane or Adelaide or somewhere… that's been the absolute joyous thing I've seen with some of the people I'm working with,” he says.

“It capitalizes on some really good relationships that have been built over a number of years.”

RELATIONSHIPS DON’T HAPPEN OVERNIGHT

Deaner says a big part of producing is just “time on the field.”

“There's no shortcut to that careful methodical build of relationships and the trust that goes with that. And to do that, people have got to spend that time,” he says.

When visiting international markets, or even in Australia, he says it’s unlikely you will be able to develop those relationships in one visit.

“You've got to have had years on the ground where you've gradually built up the confidence of lots of people both domestically and internationally to put together these sorts of deals and the trust that comes with them, especially if you're dealing with international money,” he says.

“Those people are maybe taking more of a leap of faith in that they're running global businesses, so they haven't got capacity to spend all that time in the local market with you. So we're talking about some streaming services, some businesses like ABC USA (who worked with Hoodlum Entertainment on Secrets and Lies) and Sundance (who have worked with Goalpost Pictures on Cleverman).”

For some markets, such as China, he says it can take years and years to build that trust and it will mean a lot of travel to that country and fostering relationships. But in other countries it can be a shorter process – if you’re strategic about it.

“That does mean either picking your battles and going where there's a lot of people [for example] at a Cannes market, or maybe at MIPCOM,” he says.

“You've got to almost try to do a scattergun approach in some markets and then follow up at 'non market' times, because that will be where the real relationship gets built, from a much deeper exchange which would never probably happen in as crazy an environment that some of those markets are.”

SPA also offers support and networking opportunities.

“This gives me the opportunity to do a bit of a plug,” Deaner laughs. But he says SPA have set up events and exchanges to aid Australian producers wanting to build their relationships, both here and internationally, at Screen Forever – which occurs every November in Melbourne and through some of SPA's trade missions.

Register to attend the International and Domestic Partnerships Market to find out more.

DIVERSIFYING INTO TV

The globalization of television and the challenges around financing features, have meant production companies such as Bunya Productions are diversifying into television (this year they have released both Sweet Country and Mystery Road the series).

“Even if companies haven't already succeeded in doing it like Bunya, then they're wanting to do that,” he says. “I would imagine that most film producers that are producing one film every year or every couple of years have a slate of television that they're working on and trying to get a commission happening.”

He says veteran producer Antony Ginnane (Patrick, Turkey Shoot) is an example of a traditional feature filmmaker who built a relationship with a broadcaster and moved into television with the 2017 ABC medical drama Pulse. He says Porchlight Pictures (The Kettering Incident, Jasper Jones, Mary Magdalene) are another example.

“It's a sign of the fragility of the feature film market. It's also a sign of how audiences are responding and reacting to content, more importantly. Because the market is a function of what audience and technology are currently doing,” he says.

“We know that it's difficult for any platform to commission single things because the build-up, the brand exercise, the clutter of the market to get someone to focus on one hour of content and then go away and not have ongoing experiences is a really difficult thing for a platform to want to invest heavily in the branding or marketing of.

“So this is why ABC and SBS don't really commission single feature docs anymore, but they are looking for series. And why many feature films are difficult to get cut-through in a crowded marketplace, compared to the opportunities for drama series on streaming – because people want to build something that they've got a returning relationship with.”

He says it’s why existing intellectual property (IP) or star power is so attractive, because that relationship is already partly built with an audience.

“It's always been better to get that cut-through in feature film [with those elements], but it is increasingly difficult, so hats off to something like Peter Rabbit, which has done incredibly well globally from an Australian creation point of view. It uses international intellectual property that’s globally well known, so people understand what they're going to invest their time and energy in.”

The other way businesses are maintaining their overheads is through light entertainment and reality programming, which Deaner says yields a consistent amount of work. And having the rights to programs that are already popular overseas can be a real boon.

“If you are part of a business that has access to international formats, such as Dancing With the Stars, either through ownership or you cut a deal, or you've been quick to get hold of it, then you have a good opportunity in this market,” he says.

Why?

“You have your hands on something the broadcasters are going to want to partner with, because they know that those global formats are tried and tested, and we know commissioning content from the broadcasters is a difficult exercise because they usually make safer bets.”

He says if you’re trying to make your own original format, it’s an increasingly challenging environment to do so, but not impossible. He cites Working Dog’s Have You Been Paying Attention? as a good example of this.

“If you can get them made you possibly have a very big global opportunity to sell that format and do very well from the actual sale. That’s why CJZ talks about that their most successful export being Go Back to Where You Came From as a format.”

STREAMING SERVICES

Netflix first launched in the Australian market in early 2015 and acquired projects after or toward completion, including documentaries such as Tyke Elephant Outlaw and Barbecue, and their first Australian Netflix Original Feature Cargo. The streaming giant co-produced series such as Glitch season 2 (with ABC and Matchbox Pictures), Pine Gap (with the ABC), and The New Legends of Monkey (with the ABC and TVNZ, with Screen Australia involved), where “the domestic commissions happen and the domestic rights have been given to the ABC, but they've taken the global rights.”

Then in May 2017, it was announced Netflix had commissioned its first Australian original series Tidelands, to be produced by Hoodlum Entertainment. And in March 2018, it was announced that comedian Chris Lilley would be making a 10-part series for Netflix in Queensland.

“It suggests there is an appetite but the risk for anyone working here is not seeing that there's a continuity of engagement, not just in terms of dollars, but also a commitment from commissioning, and creatives that need to really be plugged into this market,” Deaner says.

“So one of the absolute obstacles we have is that we're an English speaking territory that operates outside of Los Angeles and London, but we have a centralised hub of production work that delivers competitive and comparable products,” he says.

“And we need to encourage those bigger commissioning brands and services to be absolutely committed to this market if we can have an ongoing and sustainable business.”

If we don’t have that, he says, Australian businesses will follow the work to Los Angeles.

“We don't want that. We know that we've got a great opportunity to build creatives and businesses here. So that's where we are positioned and I think gives a strong case for those global platforms to come under regulatory model in which there is an ongoing commitment in resourcing to this sector.”

Alluding to potential quotas for foreign streaming services working in Australia, Deaner says it would be a win-win - it would mean more production here, but also more Australian content for Netflix to add to their catalogue, which already boasts series that have been gobbled up by international audiences, such as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Dance Academy. Content obligations have been central to the current review into Australian content, and opinions vary widely in the industry (the submissions are public and available to be viewed here).

“One of the reasons they have a higher catalogue of Australian content on their global service than they do on the Australian service is they know Australian content is working well and has great reach,” he says.

Screen Forever runs 20-22 November 2018 in Melbourne.