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Every Cloud: making a franchise with Miss Fisher

How executive producers Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox turned the Phryne Fisher book series into a global franchise.

Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears

When Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox first optioned the rights to Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher stories, they didn’t realise the decade-long adventure that lay ahead. One that included three seasons on the ABC, a spin-off series on Channel Seven, a format sale to China, and a feature film partially financed by a passionate global fanbase.

At the time, Eagger and Cox had co-founded a new company – called Every Cloud Productions – off the back of making the TV series East of Everything, and were looking to get a new television series idea into production quickly.

“We knew that if you start on a book series that is a known brand, it often gives the market confidence,” Eagger says. “So we started the hunt.”

They were also after something in the crime genre, which Eagger knew travelled well internationally, and they both wanted something female-led, which is when they happened upon Greenwood’s Australian mystery novels.

As Cox remembers: “We weren't interested in contemporary gritty crime. Most of the things we do have an edge of humour to them. We wanted it to be more playful and to say something about the world. And when we discovered Phryne Fisher as the heroine, we thought, she's perfect. She's out there. She's independent. She has an incredibly buoyant, optimistic attitude to the world and to life.

“That kind of set the tone of the series. And while we were very strategic [from the outset], it also feels like it's been a little bit blessed with luck along the way.”

It led to three successful seasons on ABC, and, as Eagger predicted, multiple international sales (Miss Fisher season 1 alone has sold into more than 73 territories).

In addition, Every Cloud made a spinoff series called Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries that aired on Channel Seven in 2019, and also extended the brand with a format sale of the original Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries to Shanghai 99 Visual Company.

“They're making 30 episodes with all Mandarin speaking actors,” Eagger says. “So it seems to be a brand that keeps on giving.”

But after the third season of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, there was a hiccup – the show’s star Essie Davis had moved to London and logistically Eagger couldn’t see how they could make another season work.

“We thought, oh my god, the series is done and dusted,” Eagger says. “But what we realised is if we could move into the feature film space, it was far more practical for Essie to be able to come back to Australia and work for a six or seven week period rather than a six month period.”

Cox, who wrote the Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears film and drives the scripting side of Every Cloud Productions, says initially the feature idea was “a bit of a folly”.

“Feature films are not our core business - we do primetime television,” she says.

“Also we've both done features before, separately to Every Cloud, and we know how long and frustrating they can be. So it began as a bit of a kind of 'wouldn't it be fun if we did this?' But when we realised it would work for Essie to do a feature film, we thought, well, let's keep pushing this and see how far we go.”

A crowdfunding campaign was launched in September 2017 to help with the financing and hit its $250,000 goal in less than 48 hours. In the end more than $800,000 was raised across two platforms by nearly 9,000 backers from across the world, including Australia, Sweden, Netherlands, France, Italy, Denmark, Canada, Germany and the United States (Every Cloud reported around 50% of the pledges were from the US, where Miss Fisher appeared on Netflix before moving to Acorn TV, who also have the US rights to the movie).

And it was actually freeing for Cox to tell a Phryne Fisher story over a 100 minute runtime.

“Every book we developed, we developed into one hour [of TV], which is incredibly challenging,” Cox says. “But to do a feature film it felt like we were releasing it. There was no challenge making it a bigger story…

“It wasn't like other television series that have to figure out how to become cinematic. We already had the scale. We already had the ambition with our protagonist. Those were already inherent in the concept.”

The result is Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tearswhich premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January​, and is out in Australian cinemas on 27 February through Roadshow Films, following a week of sold-out preview screenings. Set in 1929, like the series, it sees Phryne Fisher embark on a globe-trotting romp to – naturally – unravel a murder mystery.

Read on to hear more about what Phryne Fisher has done for Every Cloud, Eagger and Cox’s advice for filmmakers, when crowdfunding is a good idea, and how they leveraged the growing fanbase to be able to tell the Miss Fisher movie without compromise.

Miss FisherMiss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE INTERNATIONAL FANBASE?

Fiona Eagger: So the international success of Miss Fisher has helped enormously. When you go to do more than one or two series, you've got a gap often in your financing because Screen Australia does not typically fund multiple seasons. So the marketplace has to fill that gap. We were able to fill it with the international marketplace and our partners at all3media international. So it's done very well internationally and returned money to its investors, which is always a satisfying thing.

At the same time, we've got a very active fanbase all around the world. We had actually gone to some crowdfunding seminars in Sydney, and I can remember realising that because we were such a well-known brand, we had a captured audience on our social networking, that it was something we could leverage for the film. So part of the original finance plan was a modest amount from crowdfunding sources. But when we launched the campaign, we realised we would actually outstrip that, which we did in 24 hours, and we've raised almost a million dollars through crowdfunding. It meant we could actually finance the film without gap finance… It meant we could maintain the integrity of the original series. A lot of times when you have to go to gap financing, suddenly you need certain stars, directors, etc. That might have meant we couldn't carry on with our original team and our original cast - we didn't want to do that and the fans didn't want us to do that. So [the crowdfunding] meant we could keep the integrity of the show, it helped with our marketplace attachment and it gave the investors faith that this could be a big screen experience (Inside Film has reported Every Cloud raised $800,000 from private investors).

Because one of the big questions for when you go from television to feature is ‘why will people pay? If you've been in their television, in their lounge rooms, why are they going to part with their good earned cash and go to the cinema?’ And I think what the crowdfunding showed is that the fans were willing… They want to part of the experience and whether it's in the cinema or the television, they will come.

WHAT DO PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CROWDFUNDING?

Deb Cox: What we were very conscious of is that it's a two-way responsibility. You have to honour those fans. And around the time we did our crowdfunding launch there were some stories coming out about how not to do a crowdfunding campaign, which is that you promise things to your fans that you don't deliver on. So we were very careful to follow through right into production.

Fiona Eagger: I think you can only do a crowdfunding campaign when you've got a brand that fans connect to, and you've got a base. Crowdfunding isn't for every project and it's not for the light-hearted. You really have to know what you're doing. You have to plan it and put funds within the budget for how to manage it. We've had a very positive experience with it… we also had about 60 people from all over the world come in and be in the [movie], as part of one of the rewards. And having them attend and for the cast and crew to see how much the show meant to these people was a great morale booster. You really felt like what you were doing mattered. So we really respect our fans.

WHY DO YOU THINK PHRYNE FISHER HAS CONNECTED WITH AUDIENCES?

Fiona Eagger: She’s a superhero for an invisible audience – women over a certain age who are not necessarily seen onscreen. They don't see themselves in that way onscreen. She's glamorous. She's smart. She's got a social conscience. So it is very aspirational.

WHAT ARE SOME THINGS YOU CAN DO IN THE SCRIPT AND PRODUCING TO MINIMISE COSTS?

Deb Cox: There are so many things that you do almost subconsciously on these projects. And one of them is the time frame. Phryne Fisher changes her clothes a lot, even from the morning to the afternoon. So the more days you have in a story, the more costumes you're going to need to do. So it's always better to have fewer days and the latitude to use fewer great outfits and make them spectacular. So there are certain kind of restraints that you do without thinking very much about it.

Fiona Eagger: We try and find a fantastic location that's very evocative of the time period we're in and then set most of it in that location. So we're not necessarily trying to move from location to location. We try and maximise the schedule and the art department can spend as much time dressing that one location than sort of spreading themselves thin over lots and lots of locations. As Deb says, it starts with the script, so you don't limit yourself [but] then when you start honing it in, you start realising economies of scale. So whether it's number of characters, days, locations, you start realising where you can put your money. And we try and put as much money on screen as possible, as every producer would.

HOW HAS MISS FISHER AS A BRAND HELPED EVERY CLOUD?

Deb Cox: When we formed the company, we were very strategic about what kind of project we wanted to do. We wanted it to be something that had some travel in it, some distance, something that could last, something we could get a lot of story out of. And we also wanted it to be strategically something that the networks wanted. We had many boxes we had to tick, as well as just being inspired by the stories. And then part of what I want to do, because I live regionally, is continue to bring production to the Northern Rivers but you can't do that [with] Miss Fisher. It’s a very urban, very art deco 1929 series. So that series, that kind of monolith, has become a franchise for us that we can hang other things off that are challenging in other ways.

Fiona Eagger: During that time, we've been very fortunate to be able to do three series of Miss Fisher, Gods of Wheat Street, Deadlock, Newton's Law, Ms Fisher’s MODern Murder Mysteries, Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears feature film and the reimagining of the SeaChange 20 years later.

Deb Cox: And so our slate has become mixed - it's partly regional, it's partly urban. But that really strong spine of Miss Fisher has enabled us to have a mixed slate which reflects both of our passions.

HOW WAS THE JOURNEY FROM TV TO FILM?

Deb Cox: Being able to cut loose with the story and the scale has been the most enjoyable aspect, but also the things that we've learned about making that transition. There are certain assumptions [when] it's cinematic that it might need to be more serious. But it’s actually [about] balancing what's working about Miss Fisher, which is the playfulness, the banter, the humour. Even though you're transitioning to a bigger, more ambitious place, you have to be careful not to throw away what's fun about it and what the fans will love. So for us, I feel like it's been a really enjoyable but educational learning curve.

Fiona Eagger: Going to cinema doesn't mean you just use a wider lens. It's a whole lot of other things along the way. And I think if anyone's going to do that transition for television to film, they have to educate themselves in what that truly means.

Deb Cox: Then there's what we had to discover, because what we're doing is weird and it's unusual. It's not Indiana Jones and it's not a murder mystery - it lies somewhere in the middle. It's like a new recipe that we've been playing with, so that's been fun.

ADVICE?

Fiona Eagger: Find yourself a partner that doesn't necessary duplicate what you do. In the case of Every Cloud, Deb's very strong in the writing and creation of series where I'm strong as a producer. So we complement each other. We strategise well together. We're robust in our discussions. We have similar values in terms of storytelling and the stories we want to tell. We respect audiences. We're collegiate in terms of the people that we want to work with – the broadcasters, the platforms. So there's been a lot of alignment. You've also got someone to fight in the trenches with, which is really important.

The other advice I think that's really important is know your market and know whatever platform you're working in, whether it's the online space or broadcast or features, you have to have a relationship with your market. And I would try as soon as you can to have a partnership in your development [with a network or platform], so you're not developing in a vacuum and you know exactly where it's going to go. And then you've got a better chance of a better strike rate [going from development into production].

Deb Cox: From the development writing point of view, my advice is have something to say. Having worked with a lot of young creators, it's surprising how hard that is to define for people. It's usually lurking somewhere in their motivation. But to clarify what you’re trying to say is really important because then you can say it better, define it, and also work out your format and whether your idea is really suited to an episodic structure, to a feature, or something online or shorter. It's really important to find the form that best suits the idea, and then it's important to be strategic about how you get it up. If you have an incredibly ambitious idea, that's great, but you might need [other projects to be] stepping stones towards that. You might want to hold that idea rather than compromise and give it a less ambitious, smaller format. It's about having something you're passionate about saying that will help you last the distance.

Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears releases in Australia cinemas on February 27 through Roadshow Films.