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Advice from Isolation: Veronica Fury on building a business

The lessons learned journeying from a sole trader to partner in a company that produces 130 hours of TV and feature documentaries every year.

Hating Peter Tatchell, Veronica Fury, EllaHating Peter Tatchell, Veronica Fury, Ella

As we #StayHome to help combat COVID-19, members of the Australian screen sector share their career learnings in the Advice from Isolation series. Subscribe to Screen Australia’s newsletter for additions to the series.

As I sit at home now working in isolation – far away from the hustle of my Brisbane office – I am acutely aware that I have come full circle. That this is where it all began. It’s where in 2005, having just graduated from Griffith University after eight long years of studying as a mature age student, I made the fateful decision to be a home-based independent producer.

There were other opportunities around, with an offer for paid work as a researcher at Network Ten’s documentary department and a production assistant role at Big Island Pictures where I had interned. But back then I was a single mum of four (I’m now a nana) and was managing a chronic health condition (still do), so it seemed easier and offered me more flexibility to set up shop and work from home (Ha! Who was I kidding?). Subsequently Fury Productions was born in the front room of my 100-year-old Queenslander – with just me as a sole trader, and a big dream to be an active, working successful producer. A real producer!

Jump to where I am now - to having over 60 screen credits to my name and being an active partner in WildBear Entertainment, an established factual production company producing around 130 to 150 hours of commissioned TV series and feature documentaries every year. We have offices in three states and employ over 120 people. Some of my recent shows include a feature documentary for Netflix and MIFF called Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks and six-part documentary series Demolition Down Under for Network Ten and Discovery. Upcoming projects include a soon to be announced feature documentary for Universal Pictures and ABC TV; the 12-part series for BBC Scottish Vets Down Under (you can guess what that’s about); a 10-part series for ZDF called Just Animals (you can also guess what that’s about); and a Screen Australia, Screen Queensland and MIFF-funded feature documentary called Hating Peter Tatchell. The team have just interviewed Stephen Fry and Sir Ian McKellen for it, so one could say that I am now really living that dream!

But how did I get to where I am now? Well, it did not happen overnight. It has taken 15 years of the usual blood, sweat – and yes tears! But from the start I treated the whole journey as a real business – with a real business plan. I hadn’t spent all those years studying to not succeed. My dreams went onto paper and onto dream boards and started to become reality. I would have key goals, like get two shows funded this year, three the next etc. and earn over X amount of $. All this informed my day-to-day practice to develop and pitch shows. It drove me to focus my activities to succeed. I had a road map to follow with milestones to meet and goals to achieve. There’s nothing like a good KPI to keep you on track! Here are some key takeaways I learnt along the way:

Team Up

I had developed the early concept for a one-hour historical documentary called Black Soldier Blues at uni, and while attending the SPA Conference in the then named ‘Emerging Producer’ program I pitched it to SBS. SBS liked it, but asked me to team up with a more experienced company. It was not easy to let my film go – to lose control and ownership – but I had to be open to teaming up with key players to get the film up. Ultimately I got my first producer credit. And off the back of Black Soldier Blues, I got my next SBS show commissioned, The Glamour Game and hired an experienced producer to consult over the 2 x 1 hour series. I was on my way! In hindsight these first few films were critical to establishing my career pathway to where I am today. It was important to work with more experienced players in the beginning of my career in order to learn the ropes. Creative teaming and collaborations are critical, because the film and TV industry is big business – would you give a new graduate $1 million to make their first film? So don’t be afraid to team up – highlighting the word ‘up’ – it’s a pathway forward in your career! But it’s not just for early career producers. Over the years I’ve teamed up over and over again. Fury Productions successfully merged with Bettina Dalton’s company to become WildFury in 2011. We were successful Screen Australia Enterprise recipients, which then allowed us to grow 10 times over and we in turn merged with Michael Tear and Serge Ou from Bear Cage to become WildBear in 2014. What a wonderful team!

Industry Knowledge and Engagement

One thing I did very early on was to get to know the Australian screen industry. Who were the key players? Who was doing what I wanted to do? How did they get there? I even reached out personally and asked what steps they took, visiting the likes of Hilton Cordell (now CJZ and Essential Media). And I studied how the broader industry worked. Who funded what and how? I signed up for all the state and federal screen agency newsletters. My home state agency Screen Queensland have played a key role in my career trajectory from day one. I attended industry conferences, many of which had emerging practitioner programs and opportunities to enhance my career. It was hard to attend these events alone in the beginning as everyone seemed to know everyone. But eventually I would talk to someone – and slowly fit in. For me, attending my first SPA conference, my first Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), and then MIPCOM (the global content market held in Cannes) made me feel electric! For I knew I was with my people - producers who were producing. So go out there and find your tribe!

Veronica FuryVeronica Fury

Ideas Are Gold

All this production work is underpinned by a good idea. The magic is in the idea – whether someone brings it to me, or I have it. I love it when I have a good idea. Some just pop into my head but mostly it’s no accident. I regularly look at the screen guides, the ratings, the industry news, and the general news to see what’s trending and what’s happening in the world. Can I mimic something? Is there an opportunity? Is there a good story? And other people have ideas that need a producer – when they bring them to me I love that too. To collaborate and bring a new idea to life!

But the key is to assess the idea: is it a documentary or just a news/current affair story? What type of doco is it – observational, archival, narrated or presenter lead? Where could I raise the funding for this project? Who would buy it? Where would it play? Really analyse it. Ask yourself: is there something out there like it, does it already exist, is it on trend, what are the time slots for it, is it for Youtube, Netflix, TV or the cinema? And the classic questions - is it relevant for a contemporary audience and why tell this story now? All these questions are imperative to ask – to see how the idea will play out if developed. Ultimately you want to make a show that an audience will see and the hard part is getting that great idea to an audience - whether via a broadcaster, content platform or distributor who will commission, curate or acquire the show. You have to pitch it! 

Pitching and Not Giving Up

All those years ago I remember being physically sick in the foyer toilets at the ABC in Sydney before I was to go up and pitch for the first time to the factual department. I was beyond petrified. And in the end I didn’t get that show up. But I was brave and I was tenacious. I found out from that pitch what the ABC were looking for so I went away to develop a show that was a better fit. I pitched that (was sick again!), but I also didn’t get that show up. In fact there was a two-year gap between projects. I really had to learn to handle rejection. It can still knock me for six. I have been known to lie on the floor in grief when a show falls over. I get so passionate about my shows. But one of my goals was to get a show up with the ABC that year. Eventually, taking advantage of an opportunity, I entered a pitching comp at AIDC and won $10,000 in development funds from the ABC. That show - The Curse of the Gothic Symphony - was eventually commissioned. A story about never giving up! A good tip on all counts. Every step counts – it is a huge journey getting a project up and it can take a few years.

These days I don’t take any of this for granted. The journey has been long and hard – but very rewarding. I make amazing shows with amazing people! My dream has come true! I am an active, working, and successful producer. But the journey is not over yet. It’s time to pull out those dream boards and dream again…

Final Tips

  1. Dress for success – know and be who you will become.
  2. Know your industry. Do your homework and find out who’s who in the zoo and who are the buyers. You don’t want to find yourself pitching a car show to the cooking channel head.
  3. Know what’s working in the market (what’s popular, what’s not, trends). How many slots are Australian shows? On Netflix – how many films are Australian? What %?
  4. Don’t be afraid to team up - work with people – work with bigger companies to not only learn the ropes but to strategically grow.
  5. Always get good legal advice!