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A tale of two Co-Pros

The Australian producers of Animals and The Australian Dream share their Official Co-production experience.

The Australian Dream, AnimalsThe Australian Dream, Animals

One is a film about female friendship that was set in Ireland, directed by an Australian and premiered at Sundance Film Festival. The other is a documentary with a British director that looks at race, identity and belonging through the story of AFL star Adam Goodes. These two features – Animals and The Australian Dream – couldn’t be more different. Yet both are Official Co-productions.

In this in-depth Q&A, Animals producer Rebecca Summerton from Closer Productions (Adelaide) and The Australian Dream producer Virginia Whitwell of Good Thing Productions (Melbourne) weigh in on the origins, challenges and opportunities they faced in making an Official Co-production. (Both of these projects also received production funding from Screen Australia).

For those new to Official Co-productions, they are film, television or online projects made under formal treaties or Memorandums of Understanding (MOU). Australia has arrangements with 12 countries to date and each treaty or MOU, while broadly similar, has its own unique requirements, such as the minimum creative and finance contribution. Depending on the finance contribution of each co-producer, a country can be a minority (less finance), or majority (more finance) partner in the film. For an overview, listen to the Official Co-production episode of the Screen Australia podcast, where representatives from the agency talk through the process.

PROJECT ORIGINS

Animals was never initially imagined as an Official Co-production. After making 52 Tuesdays, Sophie Hyde became attached as director to the adaptation of the Animals book. It had been optioned by UK producer Sarah Brocklehurst, and was being written for screen by the author Emma Jane Unsworth.

“It was intended to be financed out of the UK, [but] that just wasn't happening,” Summerton remembers. So Closer Productions came on board as co-producers and a little while later Brocklehurst brought Irish producer Cormac Fox of Vico Films into the team. Closer Productions brought with them a strong Australian creative team including frequent collaborators cinematographer/editor Bryan Mason, costume designer Renate Henschke and sound recordist Josh Williams.

At first, it looked like it could be an UK/Irish/Australian Official Co-production, but the balance wasn’t working out. However, in shifting the location of the story from the UK to Ireland, and the effect that had on cast and crew, it opened up the opportunity of an Irish/Australian Co-production.

“We just kept exploring options,” Summerton says. “It was about working out how we could finance this film.” Despite having Arrested Development actor Alia Shawkat on board, and being based on successful novel, it was more difficult to get off the ground than we expected.

 “And now it's the first feature film to be an Official Co-pro between those countries.”

Animals has already released in England and Ireland, with positive reviews and a strong marketing campaign. It releases in Australia through Bonsai Films on 12 September.

Meanwhile The Australian Dream started out from an idea at Passion Pictures – the Academy Award winning, independent UK production company behind documentaries such as Searching For Sugarman and Westwood.

“We had been in conversation with Passion Pictures about a story that could potentially be AFL related for years,” Whitwell said.

Passion Pictures’ producer Sarah Thomson, who is originally from Darwin, knew of Adam Goodes’ story and journalist Stan Grant’s speech at The Ethics Centre, and hoped that both might be interested in working on a film about the subject.

“So that initial contact was initiated out of the UK,” Whitwell says.

“Passion have a long working relationship with Daniel Gordon who is an extraordinary BAFTA-winning British director, [who] was very much drawn to the subject matter and working with Stan Grant. [We at] Good Thing came on board with them early in 2018, started talking to Screen Australia, and we worked out a way to bring together the Australian and British teams – to appropriately to bring together the talent on both sides and pull together the finance.”

With editor Matt Wyllie based in the UK, the edit commenced after the major shoot in July/August 2018, and ran concurrently to additional shooting in January and March 2019 to complete the film.

“This process worked really well [with] cuts coming through regularly and the team working out required interviews and photography. [It was the result of a] terrific collaboration between the Australian team, including Stan Grant (writer) and Dylan River (DOP), and the UK team of Daniel Gordon and editor Matt Wyllie driving best outcomes for the film.”

The Australian Dream opened in Australian cinemas through Madman Films on 22 August after a world premiere at Melbourne International Film Festival, with a UK release yet to be announced.

With that context established, here’s what Summerton and Whitwell had to say about the overall process:

THE DETAIL

Have you made an Official Co-production before?

Rebecca Summerton (RS): No, this is the first. I already had underway an unofficial co-pro with Canada (Teenage Jesus – Metal Messiah), but this is the first official one.

Virginia Whitwell (VW): Spookers is the only other Official Co-production I’ve done (a New Zealand/Australian Co-production). But we love doing them. I think once you've done one, you can appreciate that they are achievable and can bring a lot of benefit.

Who is your film an Official Co-production with?

RS: Animals is a minority Australian Official Co-production with Ireland.

VW: The Australia Dream is majority Australian Official Co-production with the UK.

Some stories naturally lend themselves to Official Co-productions. Was this the case?

RS: I think what made it work as a co-production was a very strong Australian creative vision and creative contribution. Sophie [Hyde] was attached to it [as director] and we had a very strong core creative team from Australia with the DoP, editor, director, two producers, costume designer, sound recordist and hair & make-up designer.

Stories that are innately about the two countries involved I suspect would be easier than just purely having the creative team [as Australian]. It's interesting with the Gallipoli clause, because you need to be able to justify a shoot in another country, so that by necessity rules out certain projects, where you just couldn’t make the numbers work.

VW: Excuse the pun, but The Australian Dream was a dream in terms of what the two sides brought to the project. It was a very natural fit for the subject matter and to be able to create the best version of this story. And it was very straightforward - because there was no third party countries, no non-party country people in the mix, it was an easier navigation with the eligibility criteria.

How was the spend split?

RS: We're the minority co-producer, so the post-production was done here and the shoot was done in Ireland.

VW: It's a majority Australian. And that would be largely driven by the fact that all the photography happened here and of course we had the creative elements being Stan Grant and our music composition and the heavy amount of archive in the film also drove the high Australian spend. [For the UK spend] it would be primarily director and editor [as] all the edit was over in the UK.

How did being an Official Co-production help with feature distribution, if at all?

RS: One of the benefits is having producers on the ground in Ireland, London and Australia to work with distributors very closely. It means we can support those campaigns meaningfully. Theatrical distribution is getting tougher for independent films and I certainly know as a producer once your film is being distributed it does still need love and attention, but you also have the imperative to keep your development slate alive, or maybe you're in production on something else. So it just means more brains on that end of the business. Also [each have] an intimate knowledge of those markets [and] the advantages of going with this distributor over that distributor. So having those relationships and that local knowledge in three different countries is great.

VW: The Australian Dream was always going to have an international perspective [and] having a global team can only make it stronger in the international marketplace. To work internationally is good to prevent a too-Australian focused approach to the marketing materials, and the marketing campaign. [And] it means we have an army of people behind this film in London now. Whereas if it was just purely an Australian production we'd be more distant to that relationship. International sales agents can be amazing in that capacity and we certainly had a fantastic experience, for instance, with our feature film Below, where we've been working with sales agent Anick Poirier at WaZabi, formerly of Seville, and having her perspective through the creative process as a French Canadian undoubtedly helped the project. But to actually have another production company who are as invested as you are in a key market place like London is fantastic in terms of the film's prospects. 

How often did you have to stay in touch with Screen Australia?

RS: Just like any project, there's a lot at the beginning to make sure that it's all set up correctly. And then [once you get Provisional Approval] those organisations leave you to your own devices until you deliver and show you did everything you said you were going to do. Screen Ireland and Screen Australia [were both] really engaged and flexible and helpful organisations on this project. Screen Australia were there whenever I needed them but they are certainly not looking over your shoulder making sure you're doing it right.

VW: [We would have first got in touch] early into 2018, to start laying the groundwork and working out how eligibility would work. But that was very straightforward. I think a key part of any process when you're doing an Official Co-production is making sure that you're working with accountants and lawyers who are familiar with Official Co-production because they're going to help guide you through the process. And also there are idiosyncrasies to different treaties, so handling a UK co-production is slightly different to a New Zealand co-production. So that was sort of a mixture of conversations with our accountants and POCU (Screen Australia’s Producer Offset and Co-production Unit). Our finance structure shifted a little during the process and POCU were extremely helpful in letting us know what they needed and how we could satisfy their requirements. We're just ramping up to put in for our Final Certification now for both co-production and tax offset – that happened as soon as we delivered by the end of the financial year, so that we could then get that process started straightaway. And then that process will be hopefully concluded around Christmas or just after.

What were the biggest challenges?

RS: It’s hard for me to say definitively because Animals was a step up in terms of budget and also the first time I had worked with a gap financier [and] a completion guarantor. So I was doing quite a few things for the first time. [For a] Co-production, there are more ‘t's’ to be crossed and ‘i's’ to be dotted to make sure the finance not only makes sense and is solid in terms of making the production, but it's very specific, and in our case there was very little room for error. The margins are very close in terms of the Australian money you bring into a project and the Australian money you need to spend. You have less flexibility. Because one of the things that a producer knows is that the best made plans [go awry]. Things happen and projects evolve and money needs to be shifted around and spent in different ways. But in a Co-production that flexibility is limited because you can only spend in a particular country. And so that's the trickiest part, is really making sure that you have factored that into your planning.

VW: Time difference definitely is a pain, but that's part of the business we're in. You're lucky if you're getting to make these international calls really. Other challenges... I think it's always in the back of your mind to make sure that you're honouring everything about the Official Co-production. So certainly in terms of where money's going and [the] balance [of finance and creative contribution between the countries] that you're going to have to deal with for final certification. But with Passion Pictures being so experienced it was great. And I had a good relationship with their line producer so we could keep on top of the cost reporting, and forecast all the way through to delivery. So if you keep those conversations around the financial balance going throughout the shoot you'll be okay, but it is something that adds a layer of complexity to cost reporting that you wouldn't have ordinarily.

Any advice?

RS: Have a really good accountant; and really make sure you know who you're going into business with. You need to be able to trust your Co-production partner and know they are on the same page creatively, financially and legally. We were really lucky with Animals that that was the case, because things will and can go wrong in any project and you need to know that when the going gets tough that you're working with someone you can problem solve with. And just to go for it. Ask advice of people who've done it before. It's not easy but it stretches your creativity and your skills as a producer and that can only be a good thing.

VW: Definitely talking through your plans with POCU and making sure you have proper legal and financial advice to get yourself well set up in how it's going to operate, because you're going to be running accounts in two different countries and there's lots of ways to simplify that. You'll be needing to keep an eye on your balance of the spend, the financial contributions and your points and making sure that they remain consistent. And if they shift, that you are communicating with all those parties to make sure you can keep on track and remain eligible. It’s certainly worth speaking to filmmakers who've been through the process before if you're a first timer. On the POCU website there's terrific resources to show you what's been made with which countries. Look for somebody who's done a Co-pro with a country you want to work with. It will probably save you a lot of time and help you interpret the treaties and the various requirements you're going to need, so that you don't make a mistake and think you can go and hire a German costume designer and not tell anyone – things like that. It's about understanding the limitations but once they become second nature it's all pretty easy to navigate.

Basically, if you're going to do an Official Co-production make sure it's in the interest of elevating the project on all levels, not just financial. Because there is a level of additional work associated with it but it can bring forth fantastic benefits financially, creatively and certainly within the marketplace.

Would you do an Official Co-production again?

RS: Yes. It is absolutely the way Australian producers need to be thinking about financing because we need to leverage money from outside of Australia as the funds are limited here. So with the right conditions, I think it can be fantastic. Closer [Productions] and myself get sent things that people want to partner with [us on]. They're looking to leverage money out of Australia basically. I'll always look at a project and assess it, but I'm personally a little bit more wary of that because for me filmmaking is all about relationships… I would be wary of just saying, ‘this is a perfect project, I'm going to do it regardless’. My instinct is to get out there and meet people, find people you think you can work with, and then brew up a project together that can work. The right people together can make something amazing whereas an amazing project in the wrong hands, can become [the opposite].

VW: If you can see a good creative collaboration and if the subject matter and its pathway to audience can be well served by the unity of two countries or possibly three, that would be the basis for wanting to go into a Co-production. We wouldn't approach a project to see how we could turn it into a Co-production. It’s about knowing you can work with people. Because you want to make sure that the lines of communication are always open and that you're operating as an entire team with trust because the project will flourish through that. Always look at the production as a whole rather than as two units operating side by side because the teamwork is essential to it for it to be a genuine success.

[With The Australian Dream] we were getting regular cuts from UK editor Matt Wyllie, and we'd always work as a team of producers giving feedback – not by giving the UK feedback and Australian feedback. That's where you need to make sure you have that strength of relationship with your producers where you're working together… not reporting back from different sides. And I think luckily that's how it operated on The Australian Dream and it made for a strong producing team.

For more information on Official Co-productions, visit the funding and support page on the Screen Australia website.

The Australian Dream is in cinemas now. Animals will release nationally from 12 September.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.