Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture: Posie Graeme-Evans

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Posie Graeme-Evans, who created both McLeod’s Daughters, Hi-5 and ran Drama at Nine for Kerry Packer, this week delivered the Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture at the Screen Forever conference.

Amongst a range of topic she discussed the plight of Independent Producers, the success of The Kettering Incident, called for another Television Production Fund to invest in training, memories of Kerry, and ominous questions about the future under Trump.

Here is her speech in full:

Hello.

As John Edwards said, when he was standing here last year, this address has mostly been delivered at Screen Forever by the Great and the Good.

Well I ain’t the first, and I’ve approached the glow, the halo of the last, precisely never. Hector was, though – he really was – both.

What a profound combined force he and his sister Dorothy were.

Do we use “Visionary” too easily? Yes we do. But they were brilliant at business, at creating and seizing opportunities and they keyed into each other to make the perfect production whole. That’s what I think.

It was the Crawfords who offered choice to the Australian TV audiences for the first time; they showed us – us.

Australian voices, real Australian people walking and talking live in your living room – and you didn’t even know these people!

The arbiters of the day were frightened; they were really scared of what they saw as the near-demonic power of the TV screen to undermine civilization.

Television offered free entertainment, and it came with no guilt. It wasn’t “good for you”.

It’s grip and scope would kill the more worthy medium of radio, destroy theatre, doom movies – because TV viewers voted with their couches – and suck Australian families into the dark to the sound of ripping moral fibre.

I have news from the front. Choice. That’s what Hector and Dorothy offered their audiences. And they liked it.

That Demon’s got out again. Cue messages of doom.

The Independent Australian industry is dying; fewer jobs drive clever kids offshore; content laws – they’re gone; five years tops there’ll be no drama; Reality is our fate for all eternity and from sea to shining sea (Donald, I’m looking at you. When you make your horse a Senator I guess we’ll know its over.)

I work now writing books on a hilltop in Tasmania and isolation makes you paranoid. Or maybe just me.

So I was feeling that pain when I began writing this address.

And that was before what happened in America; before he whose name should not be spoken, won a bigger seat at the table. A much bigger seat.

So, it’s been hard not to see everything as a capital P problem. And so many of them!

Absent long running shows, training people properly – how do we do that? (I hear you John Edwards, I really do.)

Financing Australian high end drama. We have to do it. To be cautious now is death because the audience wants “Game of Thrones” or “The Crown“. How do we persuade them we can give them what they want?

And, us Indies. A threatened species? What do we do – protect or tear the barriers down and let rip?

I have three words for you.

“The Kettering Incident”.

Made in Tasmania for Foxtel, who gave it the “Game of Thrones” slot, and picked up by Amazon, this is original, high-end drama that cost a bomb and the audience adored it. And it’s utterly true to itself.

Vicki Madden and Vincent Sheehan ticked all the boxes. New people got to work on that show in its gestation and for nearly six months of shooting and more of post.

A lot of new careers have begun, too, in our regional area – and a part of our country, so rarely seen, is showcased to the world. Tourism Tasmania should canonize Vicki Madden.

And, it was made by Independents on of the back of one good idea and brilliantly executed – because that’s what we do so well here, we put every dollar on that screen whatever its size.

A gripping mystery and a more than rising star; “luminous” is over used too, but Elizabeth Debicki has that inner light.

Luck and timing maybe, but TKI gives me hope. It should give us all hope and that’s one of the things I want to talk about today. And it’s not just in drama, though I’ll begin with that.

So, Television Drama in Australia, what are we making now, and what does that tell us?

It’s smart that the commercial free-to-airs and Foxtel and the ABC all want to show our audience high end minis about iconic Australians.

They play brilliantly at home. Time and sales have suggested that not all do quite so well in the overseas market.

Like the issue of running out of Daughters on “McLeod’s” – though we did find a few more along the way – I wonder if we’ve reached peak “Famous Australian” yet?

Bio-pics based on the B list, like later iterations of, say, “Dancing with the Stars” (though I always, always dearly loved those frocks, that sweaty verve) are not quite the same. Though, to be fair, some people you’ve hardly heard of turn out to be adorable and surprising when you see them on screen.

Now, none of us is naive in this room.

We know that commercial FTAs seek to maximize content points making minis – and high concept is often high success if it’s well made. Or not, if it’s not.

Art and commerce do collide in the business of TV – sometimes in the worst way in the world. Add in a volatile shareholder base (is Bruce Gordon volatile? I really have no idea) and these are testing times for anyone in the executive offices.

But shareholders are not Kerry Packer or Kerry Stokes (except for Bruce, obviously); owners with deep pockets and decided ideas they certainly were and are, but they put pretty good people in the managing roles. And our history in this business says every one’s richer for that in every way.

I’ve got some stories about Kerry Packer’s instincts by the way, though I hardly knew him.

I know he loathed “McLeod’s” because he owned half of the hot bit of Australia and ran cattle for real. But he recognized it worked for his audience (women make the buying decisions in the house and often control the remote. Remember having just one remote?)

He really didn’t like drama much though – unless it was cheap or based on a novella from South America about beauty contests that we could re-make (Would he and Donald have got on? I don’t dare speculate.)

Kerry thought sport was the go and, famously created whole new forms of willow on leather. The Establishment was horrified. They thought cricket and cucumber sandwiches were the best of Empire, our rightful inheritance, had to offer.

Of course it was. Once.

Is sport working as well as it did on a week to week basis? I don’t know, but I wonder – the grandstands look pretty empty to me these days (I directed AFL once. True story. It was in Tasmania. They said my coverage was unusual. It truly was – as story for the bar.)

If Kerry thought “McLeod’s” was crap, he still offered me the job of running Drama for him at 9 – though I’m still not sure what that meant. I came up to his belt and I’ve never been blond. I’m also a grandmother.

However, we had some long and, I found, fascinating conversations about why people watch what they watch and what they want.

Today I think it can be argued that accountants are the most important people in our production landscape.

There’s that old joke. Two film accounts wonder what movie to see. They get what’s available up on the phone and one says to the other, “Let’s see that. I hear it came in under budget.”

And, you know, maybe that isn’t a joke. Yet, if you’re just driven by numbers, yours and other people’s, does a perfect spreadsheet comfort you when the viewers run away?

Art and Commerce. They don’t always play nice together. Shame what we do costs so much – but there’s hope in this; costs of entry are coming down… I’ll get to the Net later.

Call me profligate, but I think the budget should suit what you’re trying to do and not the other way around all the time

So, if you’re not just in this business for the lifestyle, the prestige and the glamour – hah! – how do you build a proper business as an Australian producer – whatever form of programming you make?

Is the future just about aggregation to create market size, companies muscling up with foreign partners to compete?

Back to drama for a minute. How do you straddle the barbed wire fence of foreign ownership of a productive asset. Money comes with strings attached, they want something in return. Barnaby Joyce, come on down!

Does money from somewhere else bring too many producers and the power to dilute what made a project great in the first place?

We’ve all seen the credits on movies. And, in the past, witnessed Euro puddings or mid-Atlantic production, so called, where the balance got out of whack. And, in trying to please too many audiences, none was happy.

But I was told this week that more producers than grips isn’t always a bad thing any more.

If you’re smart, have a good lawyer during contract-hell and insist on creative notes from just one source – they all have to agree before it hits you in the head – maybe you can have more freedom, and more cash. Can’t be all bad.

Good times, Bad Times (that was the title of Reg Grundy’s “Sons & Daughters” in the German format by the way. I produced S & D for Reg for a while).

In the end all that I’m really convinced about is the power of the idea – and the strength of clever people who can sell and make said good ideas blossom on screen.

Jungle, for instance, is an Independent Australian Independent. You all know their credits in comedy, and a few things else beside.

“No Activity”, the first show picked up by Stan, “Here come the Habibs”, for Nine “Soul Mates/Bondi Hipsters” on the ABC all came from real collaboration across party lines – actors writing, creating and improvising, teamed with such smart direction and clever production. Something truly new has been born. The form has been shaken. Up.

And cheap! But what Jungle makes, travels. They co-produced Season 2 of “Soul Mates” – spun out of the viral hit web series “Bondi Hipsters” – with US SVOD SeeSo who financed and distributed both seasons direct to US audiences. And they’re seen alongside shows like “Community”, 3DRock”, “The Mighty Boosh” and “Monty Python”. That ain’t bad.

I rest my case. Content has always been king and queen. That is and was and always will be our salvation – if you can cut through.

There. End of the address. Shortest in history.

But no. Let’s go back to Crawfords.

Hector and Dorothy wouldn’t have called it “content” I think.

That’s a de-natured and passionless term for something pretty much driven by passion and belief (at least by the makers.) You have to love something a lot to stick with it for as long as you’ll need to, and still believe it can be made. Some development can outlast any individual marriage I know.

Put another way, if we generate the very best inputs: people, ideas, experience and money – and are mad enough to trust, then the outputs might work all by themselves.

That’s never been the general network way, not here – trust me, I know – and not in the US; maybe the UK is different.

HBO, famously, and Netflix – are rumoured to be different, certainly. Is that why their stuff works so well? Though budgets of bazillions on shows like GOT etc? It’s hard to believe no-one gives notes.

But, maybe they don’t. It’s certainly an act of crazy Grace to just let the creatives get on with it. Never happened to me though…

I wandered off. Back to Hector.

Crawford Productions opened its doors in 1945, 71 years ago; audio drama (and music) came first but then in 1956 Crawfords was the first Australian Independent Production company to make an actual, real Australian television Show, live (recording wasn’t invented until 1959).

It was called “Wedding Day”. Freshly married couples came straight from the reception hoping to win prizes live on air – and it ran for 39 weeks. Nothing we do today would surprise Hector or Dorothy. They did it first.

In 1961 Crawfords had another first. They were commissioned to make an hour-long drama for HSV 7,

“Consider your Verdict” was courtroom-based and the audience stuck from day one. In 1964 came “Homicide”.

My family had only just arrived in Australia then, I was a kid, but I remember the theme still, the way they shot the titles, the slam of the car doors in time with the rhythm of the music. We watched together every week, even dad. Hooked!

And out of those to two shows, arguably, the Australian Television Drama Production industry began – and independent production as well.

How good were you, Hector? You made the networks money, you made money, the country saw itself on a screen for the first time and you built an industry by accident.

You needed crew and writers and directors so you trained them on the go. Once, you had programming on all three commercial Free to Airs at the same time.

Series, serials, quiz shows, Talent shows and then high end minis. And it was you, in the 70s, who drove the “Make it Australian” campaign.

And we think the politics around broadcasting policy are clotted now – go back and read about those days. The fights!

So thank you Hector, for asking me. I watched your shows and it wasn’t just the theme to “Homicide” that sank deep.

So, then, why did I start your address with Kylie?

Well Kylie ain’t Donald Trump, for starters: she’s earned what she’s got properly.

And we should all be so lucky – to work so hard, to get so far on talent and nerve, to endure when people patronised you, only to come back bigger and better when the times turned in your favour.

Ah, luck and timing, the two great imponderables.

I do think we need luck in our industry now – and we need to get the timing right with the decisions we collectively make about our future quite soon; because, if I were anything other than a pretty buoyant pessimist, worries do remain. Just that fist-sized dark cloud or two on the horizon,

Yes, change happens all the time, and many of the fights for influence and a share of the pie, creatively and financially, repeat over the years.

But it is true that the roiling and explosive force of choice in our industry right now is like Donald Trump’s routine behaviour on the campaign trail.

No one knew or knows what to do about it, it wasn’t polite, it didn’t play by any rules anyone recognized – or wanted to emulate either – and yet he won.

That Donald – no “the” for me – went right over the top and spoke direct to an alienated audience of people who thought they’d been forgotten.

Car crash TV? Certainly, click bait and lies, but his campaign was viral and the publicity, the word of mouth came free.

Should we all be so lucky? Can we learn from Voldemort? Yes.

Perhaps the loyalty Australian audiences once showed to Australian programming – particularly drama – is leaching away. Cue Hilary’s concession speech.

Broadcasting numbers tell us all kinds of stories of course – there are break outs and cumulative scores and aggregates and… it’s all more complex than a phone plan or medical insurance.

So, did loyalty in the past get taken for granted?

Did it really only exist inside a walled-off eco-system which, in time, has begun to stifle innovation – the lifeblood of renewal – because the money has fled?

The success, for me, of “McLeod’s” says something along those lines.

Nine, at that time I think, didn’t believe in the power of the female audience – though as Kerry Packer understood, women control household budgets, make the money-planning decisions as I said.

And I was told that a woman will watch what a man wants to watch, but a man won’t watch something aimed, predominantly, at women.

There just wasn’t enough scale in women for advertisers – your show’s niche (the word “girlie” hovered); that was gospel, straight from the programming handbook.

And where would the stories come from? After all there wasn’t a proper engine to “McLeod’s”, just a bunch of girls horsing around; nothing you could properly hang a hat on.

God, those opening night numbers made me happy – after all the years of prevarication. And we lasted on air for 8 seasons, 7 years and 224 episodes… And found much more than a niche audiences overseas.

Maybe some of our future success as an industry can come again from enchanting our audience here and abroad, with how wonderful this place is. More on the regions later…

But it’s not just a niche endeavor to offer stories of hope and decency and courage, told through the lives of ordinary people, in dark times.

It’s not the style of show everyone will want to make, but I see “Rosehaven” on the ABC as somewhere in that territory

But I think I should address the big one here.

Is “Independent Production” in this country already an oxymoron (Dictionary definition: “a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction”.)

As in, “virtual reality”, “minor crisis” or “light tanks”. And the list goes on.

I’ve been a full time novelist for six years living in happy exile on a hill in Southern Tasmania, and in the time since I was asked to give this address I’ve been striving to find a helicopter eye-view on what’s going on in our world – not least as a long time independent producer.

Speaking of which, a helicopter flew low over our house the other day, circled several times and hovered, and there was a man in the open door holding a camera. Then, some kind of job done, the helicopter flew away and I didn’t see where it went.

This is not fantasy, I was on the phone outside the time, and no-one famous was getting married on our lawn that day (though Jimmy Barnes did come and stay with us a week or two back; we have a newly opened accommodation business.)

But this is Tasmania – south of Hobart (some people think there is no South of Hobart), not Moscow.

I still have no idea at what that visit means or meant, but it made me paranoid, as if we’d been invaded in some way I couldn’t work out. That’s certainly meat for a story, I can’t stop thinking about it. Weird…

However, on our hill, I’ve written a lot about history, the weather (storms, floods), invasions and general violent human behaviour – yes, I’m some kind of refugee from the Commercial Television Industry it’s true (which, by the way I do love and to which I feel great gratitude and loyalty.)

One surprised reader even said I seemed to write more about winter and war than anything else; she was confused.

The truth is, my US publishers put fluffy covers on my books and I’m always annoyed because they think, I think, that people won’t buy a book written by a woman unless it has a soppy cover. That’s what the audience expects. Grrr!

Now, contractually I’ve always had “meaningful consultation” on the covers of my novels but in the end, they have final cut on the image. And they do what the marketing department says is best.

Right there’s the story of your average common-and-garden creative and the power imbalance that’s nearly always existed between the people who have the ideas – but not always the experience or the backing to bring them off – and the other people, the risk takers with the money who own the funnel you might get stuck in.

Put another way, they might like your pitch but particularly if you’re untried, they want a bit more certainty than you can guarantee.

And they’ll try to fit you into a box because history says they’re good at marketing particular kinds of boxes.

You want that contract? You have to give to get – for a long time it doesn’t work any other way.

Maybe you need a big strong friend by your side to protect you and your idea when you walk into that office.

Absolutely no shame in that. So many wonderful long term production relationships are based on finding like-minded people and working with and for them. You may not always. One day they might work for you. Dream big! Go on!

And yes, talking about accountants, I’ve had experiences of making a couple of really successful series and from season one to season two, being asked/told to cut the budget.

That pissed me off. A lot. In fact, once I felt the ratings were really with us, I actually did quite a bit of yelling about that. They yelled back. Everybody yelled.

Did I lose? Yes. Sometimes. But I made my point. When you’re really really successful (for a while; heat is a temporary phenomenon) it gets harder for the accountants to have their way.

But you have to yell charmingly, don’t you? Make them laugh; or gasp – in a good way.

In a small market like ours, everyone has long memories. You can destroy your career in an instant if you can’t shout and still make them buy you a beer. But I never was obedient. Too much like my mum.

Yes, I’m sure I’ve made enemies but I do have a lot of friends and, mostly they’ve returned my calls as I’ve been writing this. I’ve kept a list of those who didn’t.

(Question to self. The market’s not so small any more. If you’ve proved you can do it, will you find work in the bigger world if this one gets too hard, the funnel too damn narrow? Who knows? Timing.)

So, what do we face as an industry as familiar structures are, apparently, being blown up at warp speed? (Warp. A word, as you’d know, pinched from “Star Trek”. It’s the term used in weaving to describe one kind of structural thread in the cloth that with the weft, holds fabric together. Like scaffolding, the warp and the weft. Is that what producers do – weave things together?)

So where do we focus our efforts while surf that Tsunami hitting our shores?

Will we crash the new trade barriers Donald says he’ll erect through the agency of the borderless web-based-world of programming?

Maybe. SVODs are currently devouring content for niche audiences. And, it’s certainly happening that talent is being tracked all over the world. Maybe Facebook is a benign force after all.

And my publisher in the States looks at the huge personal Channels on, say, You Tube and wonders if there’s a book in the story of the founder. There is and was. It’s worked, too. New York Bestseller list and not just for one.

Traditionally, we know it’s been hard for Australian generated shows of all genres and movies – with honourable exceptions – to crack the US market.

They’ve always made so much of their own stuff and dominated movie and TV culture world wide with “product” showcasing recognizable stars and stellar production values too (hello big budgets). So, no change there.

But these are not traditional times

In the last ten years we’ve seen some success via formats – a kind of reverse cultural invasion of the US. Though the record is patchy.

However I’ve been told that there are maybe 60 plus SVODs, and new channels of all kinds, making or commissioning new drama content on the West Coast of the US alone.

So, what you’ve already made or would like to make, might be in with a shot for a remake, or a pick up.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, of course, but I was stunned by the what sounds awfully like a gold rush; everyone’s truffling for content!

That has to be good, I can’t believe it’s not.

And, I’ve also been told that the SVOD arena really can, and wants to, cater to niche audiences; Niche? The potential numbers are still big in our terms.

Your show about endangered butterflies? They want to know about you.

Or the history of the garden gnome and the fact they’re actually not ornaments?

Robert Ingpen did that beautifully years ago in a gorgeous book. The Gnome Gardening channel will definitely take your call, Robert.

More seriously 7 has just announced they’ll make a US version of “My Kitchen Rules” in the US – their own format for someone else.

ITV’s been doing that for years. They’re a proper studio these days.

Could morphing into actual studios – making shows for other platforms – and continuing to broadcast, be the future for the Free to Airs?

7, it seems to me is so well placed; “Home and Away” alone still throws off millions into the 7 business year by year.

And “A Place to Call Home” – our very own Downton-Abby-esque dynastic drama – has been successfully re-purposed for Foxtel.

The long and strong library of content that’s been created by the 7 Drama department over the years – which can be sold or re-made – is bolstered by creatives like John Holmes, Bevan Lee and Julie McGaurin; people who really know their craft and whose track record is stellar – and reliable.

Would Broadcasters as studios for us? Is it even possible? It could be. It’s how the industry works in America, we know that, and Indie Prods work from the lot on individual deals. Why wouldn’t that work here?

Kids Like Us, the production company Andrew Blaxland – husband and business partner – and I shared with Helena Harris, made a US version of “Hi-5” with US cast on our sets in Australia.

Cast and produced by Helena in a joint venture between Kids Like Us and Nine, that US version went on to be nominated, twice, for daytime Emmys against, you guessed it, Sesame Street. I guess we didn’t win.

In drama, “The Slap” was recently remade in the US, as was “Rake”, “A Very Moody Christmas” and, soon, “No Activity” and quite a few more.

And with local super-indies backed by the likes of Sony and CBC, for instance, it’s a very natural thing for the producing community to create and make formats of their work.

But watch the full run of the Hat Trick comedy, “Episodes” first. We think we understand the US, culturally, and they get us. Really? I laughed so much when I watched that show but I was nodding. David Gyngell might have a story or two to tell about cross cultural collaboration – he ran Granada in the States after he walked away from Nine the first time.

But if our industry is to tool-up, what do we do about structural issues? Talent development and renewal – let alone financing – they all loom in the shadows.

As John Edwards pointed out last year as he was talking about drama, we’re making a lot of beautifully crafted series, 4 or 6 hours at time. And, quite often they’re one offs – they don’t spin out into another series.

And, as he also said, it’s pretty difficult to take punts on new talent in this arena: writers, producers, directors since each hour is so vitally important on screen.

So, the answer is, likely, that you don’t.

What is to be done about developing new talent going forward – and not just in drama either.

At least one of the answers, I think, is that State Agencies and Screen Australia should consider mandating a line in budgets for proper, structured shadowing; a step up and a more comprehensive system than the attachment schemes we already have in place.

An on-the-job learning program similar to an cumulative apprenticeship. It needs to be formally recognized too, I’d say.

How would it work?

Maybe we start small.

Design a program with really solid consultation right across the industry.

The aim? To agree that 5 or 7 shows, say, of qualifying Australian television programs over a period of 1 or 2 years will participate.

If we get no volunteers – because, of course, it does mean upping budgets to the extent that’s needed – consider inducements first. Upping the offset? Tricky but worth a shot.

Or, possibly could the screen agencies consider coming together to create a pot of cash from which the Shadow program can be funded? Perhaps the Unions and Associations can contribute too.

Or, perish the thought, the Networks.

Further, perhaps this becomes the first part of what could develop over time into a joint strategic training plan for the whole industry – run over a number of years in areas of perceived need and with agreed aims.

Disaster is the only thing that happens fast; building takes time.

So, seek the best advice. Help the people who count take an overview of what we have, and what’s coming, so that their best suggestions can be heard by us all. And agreed solutions acted on within a timeline we all own.

At the moment, we all do our own State-based programs and initiatives separately. And the ways things are set up are governed by each State Government’s expectations for it’s own part of the industry in Australia – and the soft power that brings (“McLeod’s” went out into the world and free ads in all those countries turbo charged the tourism sector in the wine region outside Adelaide. Fact.)

Now, I can’t see individual State Agencies agreeing to trade away competitive edge where attracting shows to their state is concerned.

But training? It might make sense…

I think we need an agreed national system in place that takes into account the various layers and ways we learn; no everyone wants to go to film school or can.

I see the Shadow program developing into something that’s complimentary to, and not competing with, Academic training.

What a learning wage should be is always such a contentious area, of course – and a lot of unions, for instance, might treat the whole idea with suspicion.

But we could at least have a discussion.

If we don’t, maybe soon there really will less than 10 writers in the country the networks approve to write their high end shows (I can tick off some of those names on my fingers and quite a few already work overseas.)

And on a similar front, but this is bigger, is it time to reconsider the specialist Television Production Fund again?

Hi-5 got the money to make a pilot from that Fund in 1998. It was designed to foster programming that didn’t attract automatic content points (and a pilot alone can’t do that, unless it’s later include in the run of the picked up show).

Also, and this was hugely contentious, my memory is the networks paid less to acquire a show the fund had supported – on the grounds they wouldn’t have picked it up at all without some inducement. (Too risky, because it was different, or shorter or longer than the norm or…)

No one wants the Networks to pay less, ever. However it’s hard not to argue that something has to give.

A lot of their big tent poles in Reality are ageing, general sport’s not working so well any more, even the Olympics (what happens, though, if Amazon picks up those rights?). From my hilltop in the Huon, it seems to me, they have to try something new to build new brands.

Again, from my point of view – yes, subjective – a lot of the “new” we’re seeing in the Upfronts seems to be yet more iterations of semi-familiar reality formats?

Well, good luck, but they’d better be really cool; the audience has a lot of other distractions to turn to, a lot of other entertainment places to go with the little free time that they have.

Mind you, I do have a stellar record of shooting myself in both feet at the same time. What would I know?

BUT, the thing about the Commercial Television Production Fund was that it really did have a go at making new things.

It got closed down, from memory, because there was perceived to be some sense of a rort going on; I seem to remember unease among the great that the Commercials were getting a leg up for nothing when it was their job to invest in development themselves. But still…

How would you finance such a thing?

Could all the Free to Airs contribute to a pot, as I’ve suggested for training?

And/or could Netflix, or Amazon be tithed to create an alternative source of funds? (this isn’t my original thought by the way.)

How would that work?

Perhaps SVODs should have to do what Foxtel does.

Support the Australian industry by putting 10%, say, of acquisition budgets ie for the programs they do not originate, into a pot that can be used to commission Australian programming.

Or, and I reckon we’d love this, what about 10% of the budget of the original drama it shows. Australia’s making money for the SVODs. Some of it should come back home.

Yes, I know it’s a free range thought.

But, supporting our local producers and our local FTA networks – who must make Australian content as a condition of their licences – out of, in effect, a different kind of license fee is worth thinking about.

And imagine if we could snare 10% of the value of Game of Thrones, or House of Cards or…

I can hear the shrieks from here. Impossible. Ridiculous. Can’t be done. Robbery!

Why?

Unpop that box of lawyers, I say, have a go. You won’t get everything but you might get more cash into the industry that doesn’t come from government (or, only to the extent of tax forgone, which, I agree might be a hard sell with treasury.)

Either way, we might be able to bulk up and make much, much bigger drama. Epic Australian drama that translates to the world as well – and competes in production value terms. I like that idea.

Or, perhaps you think I’m being too Trumpian, too protectionist?

Is it even possible to think of protection of any kind in the world in which we now live? (I guess, in the US, we’re about to find out. Or are we?)

Yet, the concept of Australian Cultural Content has always been a supported mechanism. It was recognized, as far back as the 50s, that the only way Australians would see ourselves up there – given the competition from US cultural products – was for the Networks to be induced to do it, for them to get something back in a business sense.

Now, is it a novel thought that hope lies with the biggest competitors you have?

If they’re successful, copy what they do, and only fight when it’s on your terms and you know you can win. Thank you Sun Tzu. He had a bit of a vogue in the 80s in Hollywood, from memory. (I read him from time to time, and Machiavelli too. The battle tactics, the real politic, bleeds in to my books. Translates to Television 101 so well.)

I also think a specific Television production fund could assist small independent companies stay alive and grow in these mad times.

For instance, could this be the solution to financing a 22 parter, and another season if it does well? The Networks are risk averse in this area because they think the audience won’t come to a long running drama – certainly not shown once a week these days, I grant you. Yet, so many of the big Reality shows are unscripted drama; planned, and plotted, I’d say, from the start?

Why wouldn’t you make it first and let the audience binge? If you didn’t have to find all the money…

And back to Reality. Networks block out schedules for daily does of Masterchef, or the big talent show, or the Block – why not have a go with stripped drama again.

The BBC has tried it in living memory: as a one off they blocked the run of a drama across a couple of weeks.

So, if there was low risk money and you need to break the mold, give the audience something different, why not try it? It’s the Australian way. Frighten the accountants or excite them to back you (difficult, but possible. Just.)

And what about the Net, and YouTube, that breaker of worlds. Or Facebook, or Google.

Just once over lightly here, because it’s not an area I really understand. But recently our free to airs have banded together to stream their programming on the net. The headline talked about combatting Facebook stealing audiences.

That may well be so but, from my hilltop in the Huon, I read that and I wondered.

Just my opinion, but might streaming not also maximize audience for the free to airs?

There was talk of traveling in busses and having local ads pop up on your phone; driven around in your big Mercedes taxi in North Hobart, say, late at night an Ad for a restaurant pings; next stop, off you get (and a 5% discount if you tell them where you saw their name).

However, tricky; Bruce Gordon sits on the Ten Board AND he’s Nine’s biggest shareholder. Bet he plays chess. Bet Hugh Marks does too…

Evan Maloney at Screen Tasmania calls the web the “wide open field” where “wild creative forces… leap over (my words)… the sober principles underlying commercial production”. That quote’s a bit free hand but I agree.

It’s basically how Donald Trump won the election. (Donald, get out of my head!)

Peter Cox mentioned Thomas Pickerty, as well: the French economist who recently talked at the Opera House and this previously obscure Frenchman filled the place with ease; what chance the Pickerty UTube channel? Perhaps it already exists. Must find out; I’ll certainly subscribe.

Ted talks pioneered something, too, didn’t they?

The point is, for me, that new audiences are there for the taking, you just have to get them to find you – and then hold on tight to you keep them coming back.

And before the net chokes and wheezes to a stop, all streamed out, you might as well be in the gold rush if you can.

It used to be that aspiring Directors, Writers, and Producers saw making short films and winning Short Film comps as a route to making a feature – almost every aspiring creative’s goal. (Or getting picked up as a director of Ads, at least.)

But as a marker of change here’s a list of recent web-based Australian projects that have hit pay dirt.

“Skit Box”, “Auntie Donna”, “Bondi Hipsters”, “Dafuq”, “The Katering Show”, “Noirhouse”, “#7 Days Later”, “Rickets Lane”, “The Wizards of Oz”, “Plonk”, “Fragments of Friday” – and “Avalon” – made in conjunction with Domain.

Genius! Sydney coastal realestate? Slam dunk!

I’d say there’s a bit of a trend, though; bite-sized nuggets of comedy can be spun into gold. Drama – that is, sustained story-telling that runs longer than two to four minutes – might be harder to deliver in this world. The tyranny of the truncated attention span.

And, web-based projects are training their creators in story telling and performing as they go. The audience is telling them directly when they get it right.

There are no barriers here at all. A kid in Tempe or Templebar, from their bedroom, from the back shed, can magic a whole other world into being, and send it out for someone in Spokane or Stockholm to watch.

But!!! Back to the content regs that hold us up as an industry; I’d say it ain’t top of mind for these new young creators/producer/performers that they’re Australian; they just make shows for anyone who will watch. Should we even care?

As John Travolta said, playing an American President (Bill, could that be you) and addressing a group of blue collar workers in the film “Primary Colours”, “The old jobs, the old ways, are never coming back.”

Donald, are you listening? What happens to you when you don’t deliver all those things you promised?

Was it Hal McElroy who once said, “You can’t keep up but you can stay open?”

We need young producers to work with us and, they might not know it, they need us to work with them. There’s much to be learned on both sides, by osmosis.

I also commend to you the talent-hunting that’s going on at Screen Australia; they’re tracking – that’s not stalking! – the kids putting their stuff on the web and encouraging them on.

And their “Gender matters” initiative seems like an obvious thing – always easy to recognize obvious when someone actually does it. It certainly sounds sexy to me (politically incorrect? Well, I did work for Nine.)

Also at the ABC, in the comedy and entertainment area, the punts they’re taking on the main channel and on I-view. All potent petrie dishes for our future. So much that’s fresh.

Ditto the work the AFTRS is doing, but in policy.

Its thoughtful analysis of our industry is a gold mine of information.

A bit of selective quoting here, but their new five year strategy, says CEO Neil Peplow, “has been shaped by…the most comprehensive and up-to-date survey of national industry skills ever undertaken” (thanks here to the recent article in IF.)

And, it’s clear, to quote Peter Drinkwater in the same article “… tighter budgets and greater time pressures mean less acceptance of failure. The role of training is therefore paramount, with 90% of the industry wanting access to more training opportunities in the future.”

Neil feels we’re on the verge of a similar situation to the 70s; and, “… new online content platforms and technology… has led to a Tsunami of digital content that is driven by algorithms and business models that are very much transnational. We need to understand these new technologies and platforms and work with them to amplify the Australian Story. We need highly creative entrepreneurial filmmakers who are able to take these emerging opportunities (so that) Australian stories are part of this global ecosystem. “

Amen to that. Go to the AFTRS website, read their occasional papers. It’s all gold. And it’s free.

But of course, there are still huge quantities of programming being made and bought and sold in ways we all recognize.

In a conversation with Cathy Payne recently, she talked about the success she’s found with genre pieces, such as the multiple series based around Kerry Greenwood’s glamorous detective, Miss Phrynne Fisher.

The production values are delicious – and the period is intriguing – and Cathy, I think, would love more eps to sell into the international market.

But I know as a producer how blood-sweatingly hard it is to sustain long runs over years.

A star might not want to wait out the gaps between financing yet another series, for instance. And, great actors don’t want to be typecast plus creative people do get bored repeating the same thing, playing the same character; and everyone gets exhausted holding up ambitious shows on punishing schedules.

The original title of “McLeod’s Daughters” was “Drovers Girls” by the way, but Kerry didn’t like it (it was a glancing tribute to the poem “the Drovers Boy. I don’t think Kerry was much of a one for Poetry.)

“McLeod’s” was a compromise and I still think if we’d had my original title it would have been running still. Gard! The thought!

And yes, there was a famous end of season crew T shirt one year which had “McLeod’s Daughters” at the top.

Next line, “Step” had been included before “Daughters”
Then, below, “Daughters” was crossed out and “Cousins” was inserted

After that… was “cousin’s bridesmaids” in there, somewhere? I can’t remember.

But after all we did shoot 8 series, all on location, all year round with animals, stunts and cattle that either

ran away or just didn’t want to do another take because it was bloody hot.

But you know, “McLeod’s” not only rated here, it sold and rated hugely all over the world. It still sells to this day. And yes it was on Netflix in the States for a very long time (it’s on Hulu now.)

Somehow, we made something that worked, that took a quintessentially Australian show to Lapland and G’dansk and Germany, and Georgia and Italy and India and Spain and… (and still practically runs on a loop in Germany on Free to Air)

And as Matt said, the logies started to feel like home turf to us. One year I’d thanked everyone so much already I even thanked the horses. True story. What a night.

So why did it work?

From all over the world the answer came to me when, on the 15th anniversary of the show going to air for the first time on 8th August 2001, I put up a facebook post on my author page with a photo of a poster propped up against the paddock fence outside my office in Cygnet. “Coming soon to 9” says that poster “a major new Australian Drama series.”

The same image was on the silos near the Anzac bridge and the week before we went out for the first time, I nearly killed myself when I swerved in the evening traffic.

That post on August 8th this year sailed past a million hits inside 12 hours, it had 13k of likes, countless shares and over 5,000 comments that I tried to read, and to reply, to as many as I could before I went to sleep that nigh.

This is my gut instinct, and I alluded to it before, but I think they wrote to me, and write to me still, every day, saying the show gave them hope. It got them through terrible times. A divorce, a death, being told they had cancer.

And it made them laugh. A lot. And sigh, and desperately, desperately wanted to see Tess in her wedding dress (Bridie looked lovely by the way.)

“McLeod’s” had made them believe, all over again, that kindness can win, that courage is important, that love is real. That ordinary lives, well lived, mean something.

And they saw that women were just as important in the story of our country, the long forgotten other side of the Australian myth of mateship, as men.

OK. Romantic escapism, you’re thinking? What? Really?

Well, it’s eternal and it works. Don’t despise what it tells us about what people like (and not just boys in their bedrooms)

It might be a fable and you might think it’s crap, just as Kerry did, but it’s fables such as “McLeod’s” that call out emotion and allow you to feel.

There’s catharsis in that sometimes too – you cry for the death or loss of your father, your mother, your child, when a beloved character dies on screen. Eternal emotions, the most powerful and real there are. And we all share them.

And we set it in a glorious place in the country.

We know the world is going through dark times and has been for a while.

We live, predominantly, in cities and we don’t always know our neighbours. If we want to stare at the sunset or dawn on a cliff top in Sydney or Melbourne, maybe there are hundreds of people there doing the same things at the same time. I know. I did the cremorne point walk one morning not so long ago. It was ridiculous!

And when you walk through the centre of Melbourne at lunchtime any day of the year, you walk in a scrum. Good to be a running back, then.

Of course, urban civilization gives us so much: opportunities, education, diversity, art, architecture… the list goes on and on – but an unpeopled landscape, space, is pretty important to our souls as well – as is the natural world, sky and stars.

There was an aurora over Cygnet bay only a couple of weeks ago. Nothing, but nothing, you can devise beats the power of a thing like that. Awe-inspiring, awe-inducing.

Clean air. Beauty.

And, put an animal on the screen in jeopardy and everyone watches: even if it is a lizard. It’s a baby, too, that holds you (and the brilliant way, of course, its shot, edited and produced).

Undefended innocence under threat is profoundly touching. You don’t have to include rape or a gun either.

How many times has the trailer for Planet Earth II been watched?

Lizards didn’t make into “McLeod’s” and horses didn’t take Andrew and me to Tasmania, but the beauty of the natural world did.

It’s important, to me, knowing the names of the people I meet when I go down our hill into Cygnet. It makes me feel better being alive when I can stop and talk about how good the new season’s apples are. That’s what “McLeod’s” was about. Little things. Big things.

Of course, dark drama works too – witness the recent brilliant and worldwide success I alluded to earlier of Vicki Maddern’s “The Kettering Incident” on Foxtel. Congratulations again, Vicki, and Vincent and Penny.

Cathy’s right – genre really works because there’s something that’s important about being scared and there’s something about mysteries to solve, as well.

But soooo much drama these days is dark. And exhaustingly Urban.

If you live in the city and it runs over the top of you every day, how much do you really want to see it, again, on screen?

And can I say this once more? I think the recent numbers for “Rosehaven” – set in Tasmania (we’re on a roll here and much more to come) – and also the New Zealand based “800 words” – are telling us something though they’re very different shows.

I’d put money somewhere – and we are at Crown – that people are yearning for laughter and tears and, yes, suspense again. Dickens said that in his prologue to “David Copperfield” – “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” On you, Charles. Thank you. That’s served me, personally, well.

What might our audience be waiting or yearning for? Images of a better, happier and more meaningful life – for them and for their children, that’s what I think.

They’re yearning to see connection between people that doesn’t end in murder, rape or horror on all those screens (mind you, I did watch Game of Thrones; I gave up in Series five; it just got too cruel to bear – though I’m still tempted to go back there from time to time.)

And, can I just say that not everyone lives in the city in this country?

8 million something people inhabit Sydney and Melbourne don’t they?

But we’re a nation of more than 24 million.

16 million of us live outside where we are today, and many of them have never been to Double Bay.

Forget us, or take us for granted at your peril, politicians and program makers.

Experience is showing us all, from the UK, from Europe and now from America as well, that people – your viewers – don’t like and won’t accept being talked down to.

They’re allergic to being patronised, and told they just have to put up with a cold and scary world where “business as usual” means what’s going on as Russia, and Syria bombs the children of Aleppo and targets hospitals.

What the hell has happened to kindness between people? How have we brought ourselves to this disgraceful state?

There have not been enough checks and balances against greed in the West and we’re over it.

So, make stories that tell people they are not powerless, that they can change themselves and the world, inspire them! And I think you can jump out into somewhere new – and old – something that will give you a career and make you some money as a byproduct.

Best of all, you’ll do good work and feel better about your place in the world. Because images have such power. Use them well.

There. Said it.

And can I divert for a moment into a plug for Screen Tasmania and Tasmania in general?

Screen Tas has only got a tiny budget but 5 years of planning, and a focus on Television, assisted “The Kettering Incident” triumphantly into life, supported “Lion” and facilitated the part-filming of “Light Between Oceans” in Stanley. And that’s just recently.

And, development programs such as “Comedy Concentrate”, and “Pitch, Plot, Produce” are unearthing significantly talented people among the 500,000 lucky souls who live on this country’s South Island.

All I can say is, bring us your creative children. We’ll look after them and we’ll do our very best to look after you too (though, it’s true, we only have a tiny but heroic staff headed up by Alex Sangston)

You’ll love our island in so many ways… clean water, clear air. You can buy a house with a view for less than $500,000, walk to work and still rent an office for the money you’d spend on coffee in Sydney or Melbourne… And the food and the wine? Trust me, the secret’s out…

And here’s another little pitch…

Allow me to speculate, for one surreal moment, on how Australia might attempt to immediately capitalize, creatively, on the first few months of the Trump presidency.

I’m convinced there’s a show in this, and it might just get Australian content too. I don’t know what it is yet – drama, tragedy or satire. Time will tell us all as we get deeper into development.

What I can see and hear is Trump building that wall – a single hero, alone in the wilderness – but it’s what happens next, told from an Australian perspective, that woke me up the other night. Maybe it’s called “Invasion Day”.

If we get it right, put the deal together well, it’ll be Australian content and the networks will vie to show it. Possibly.

Maybe it’ll be the first project out of the Netflix/Amazon/Network TV Fund.

Australians naturally, will feature in key creative roles both on and off the screen.

Our drama begins with gloomy and out of work Australian producers trying to save the industry now that the US has slapped a tariff of 45% on all Australian cultural content entering it’s airspace.

Yes, that would be very same Australian industry so unflatteringly described once, & not so long ago, as “Mexicans with mobile phones”.

So, in the story, Trump has just finished building his precious wall all by himself. A tremendous feat. And he’s having a trump Lager in Trump Towers, Trump Chopper standing by to whisk him to Washington when he’s good and ready.

In walks the newly appointed Secretary of State. Madame Kardashian has terrible news. The US is being invaded!

As his bat-phone goes ballistic and aids scurry in with yet more industrial grade blood pressure medication, Kim keeps talking. She has to, the President must know the facts.

An armada of tinnies captained by out-of-work Australian Producers is bearing down on the West Coast, the trade wind at its back. There’s word the Australians are gunning to crash the borders of the US Film Industry, replace the banished Mexicans and take the jobs of the newly protected US film industry.

In this dystopia I’m creating, the planes don’t fly between Sydney and LA anymore; we’ve been declared a source of muslim terrorists because of what Waleed Aly said at the election. He’s been deported from LAX and as a friendly nod towards the Alliance – a personal favour to Donald – Malcolm’s had him chained up on Fort Denison in Sydney harbour. Meanwhile inbound tourism has dropped off the cliff above Tamarama (yes, where Sculpture by the Sea used to be).

Desperate to prevent the invasion, Donald lands Trump One at LAX and goes to work. Somehow, as the San Andreas begins to rumbles and clouds crowd out the sun, he must persuade the Californians to erect a tremendously big shark net all the way from North of Alaska to banks of the Rio Grande to keep us out.

But the new and traitorous Governor of California turns her nasty back. Hilary Clinton will not pay nor will she play.

Meanwhile, the gallant but sparse Aussie battalion of disaffected production designers, grips, gafffers and line producers hits the beach, and in scenes reminiscent of “Braveheart” and “Hacksaw Ridge” fights a pitched battle with members of SAG-AFTRA, WGA, PGA and DGA backed up by the KKK, conscripted by the privatised FBI.

The earth emits an ominous grinding, but the fight is willing – not just on the beaches of Venice and Malibu, but hand to hand in the mean streets of Santa Monica as well.

Of course, Donald plays himself from the front (correction: he plays the President from inside the middle car in the heavily armed motorcade with blacked out windows.)

It’s a cliff-hanger at the end, a set up for a sequel because we’re left wondering who wins.

Viewer-voted endings, plural, are shot, perhaps literally by the great man himself. He can do anything, Donald. What happens if he doesn’t? An earthquake. That’s what.

Meanwhile, me, Kylie and Cyndi – Cyndi Lauper that is – thank you for your time and we’ll see you in the bar tonight (if I haven’t been deported.)

2 Comments:

  1. “But soooo much drama these days is dark. And exhaustingly Urban.”

    I’m glad someone in the industry acknowledges this problem. The Slap, Top of the Lake, Cleverman, Hiding, The Principal, Wolf Creek, The Kettering Incident, Wanted, Secret City, The Code, Janet King. All earnest and depressing.

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