Local the key to CJZ success

It pays to be diverse with your production slate.

Sydney-based production company CJZ (Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder) produce more original primetime content than any other company. Their slate of documentaries, light entertainment, comedy and drama includes some of Australia’s best known brands: Gruen, Bondi Rescue, Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery, The Ex-PM, Undercurrent and Go Back to Where You Came From.

Yet Michael Cordell, who is CJZ’s co-owner and Creative Director, says the company sometimes adapts international formats, as it did recently with Muslims Like Us for SBS.

“It’s a powerful piece of television”

Next week SBS premieres a follow-up series Christians Like Us. Over 2 episodes, cameras will follow 10 Christians, from Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal faiths living under on roof for a week in Bella Vista in north-western Sydney.

CJZ developed the show from the format of its predecessor.

“It’s a powerful piece of television,” Cordell tells TV Tonight.

Muslims Like Us is a UK format, but they haven’t done any follow-ons. Christians Like Us is something quite new. It’s a very simple premise, and there’s no real genius in the format, but it’s all in the casting.

“With so many debates about Islam in Australia quite a few producers have pitched ideas to ABC and SBS, in particular trying to investigate all the issues. We’d done The Mosque and we looked at ‘reversioning’ Go Back to Where You Came From to take on Islamic issues.

“But in the end Muslims Like Us was a really effective way of broaching a whole lot of subjects, to gain some insight.”

While Christianity is grappling with deep questions the 10 housemates tackle sexual abuse in the church, abortion, gay conversion therapy, women as priests and the role religion plays in modern life.

With around 20 fulltime staff, and many more on contract, CJZ is leaner than the big guys with international investors. It also owns New Zealand’s Greenstone (Highway Patrol, Neighbours at War, Go South, Border Patrol).

“He’s a very strong-minded advocate for the industry and certainly provocative.”

Cordell is co-owner with firebrand producer Nick Murray, well-known in the industry for his outspoken views on the state of local production and fewer commissioning opportunities in a landscape dominated by stripped reality.

“He sometimes shoots from the lip!” Cordell acknowledges. “He’s a very strong-minded advocate for the industry and certainly provocative. But I think there is a fundamental strength to the arguments and as a company we generally back what he says. One of the reasons we’ve been successful is he is really fearless in defending producers’ rights.

“We live in an industry where it is incredibly hard getting shows up. The temptation for young producers who are keen to get a show off the ground is they accept deals they really shouldn’t accept and give away rights they shouldn’t give away.

“Being as tough as you can and protecting those things is an essential part of surviving.”

Recent CJZ successes include true crime series Undercurrent on Seven, The Good Cop on Foxtel and the feature documentary Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy.

“That for me was a perfect example of really solid documentary filmmaking that was very entertaining. The subject dealt with some gutsy issues: alcoholism, domestic violence.it reached a whole range of people and demographics.

“You can find a way to tell a story that reaches into the heartland of Australia”

“I love it when you can find a show that does that. Go Back was the same too, certainly the early series. As a storyteller you can find a way to tell a story that reaches into the heartland of Australia, rather than just talking to people within the chapel.”

One of CJZ’s biggest hits has been the Gruen brand, easily ABC’s most popular light entertainment format. The show returns this year with Wil Anderson, Russel Howcroft & Todd Sampson -even though they keep everybody guessing as to whether they will agree to new seasons.

“We’ve come very close to selling the format overseas, but never quite gotten over the line. They had a go at it in the UK,” Cordell explains.

“I think in the UK they went too much for comedy.”

“It’s a wonderful combination of serious analysis of advertising, and comedy. I think in the UK they went too much for comedy.

“We came really close to getting it up in the States with Morgan Spurlock as host. It fell over at the last minute, but we still have hope for it.

“It’s been an absolute warhorse for the ABC.”

Another is the long-running and Logie-winning Bondi Rescue, now in its 14th season. The show was recently thrown into a Wednesday timeslot following 10’s failure with Changing Rooms. Up against Married at First Sight, Bondi Rescue managed to improve the network’s numbers -the only way was up after all. But Cordell remains upbeat about 10’s situation as well as what the success of MAFS means.

“It shows there’s still life in commercial telly,” he suggests.

“I admire what 10’s doing. It’s great that they have a decent war-chest. I think they are making some gutsy stuff.

“I think they have a problem with a smaller audience to promote to. It gets expensive promoting off-network. That’s an obstacle they’ve had for a long time. I guess they are facing the challenge we are all asking: what is the next thing that will break through?

“I think the thing we love as a company is being eclectic.”

“I think the thing we love as a company is being eclectic. One of the reasons we’ve succeeded is doing everything from serious one-off docs to comedy, light entertainment, drama.

“It’s like being a farmer. When the market for one crop has a drought you have something else to rely on. The sands shift very quickly.”

Christians Like Us airs 8:30pm Wednesday April 3 & 10 on SBS.

Part 2 tomorrow: Michael Cordell talks upcoming projects, Streaming, ABC & Foxtel.

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