Secrets of CJZ success

Rachel Antony, Nick Murray.

Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder prides itself on making original Australian television.

While bigger production companies aligned with international firms have a high volume of overseas formats, CJZ produces more original primetime series than any other production company in Australia.

Spanning Scripted, Unscripted and Factual Entertainment they include such titles as Bondi Rescue, Gruen, Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery, My Life is Murder, Working Class Boy, The Good Cop, Mr. Black and the award-winning Go Back to Where You Came From.

Speaking at an AACTA / AFI Masterclass in Sydney last week, founder Nick Murray said, “We’re making shows that are original. Most of them are paper ideas, pitched with a sheet of paper or a sizzle reel. Then we have to work out how to turn that into an actual show.

“Formats do a great job, but what they do is (tell you) at what point do the lights change to red and the camera moves down? You have to do that because that’s what the format says. But we’re having to do that from scratch and make it feel like a show you’ve already seen and is familiar. That’s what our team do.”

Together with co-founder Michael Cordell, the panel last week including Group CEO Matt Campbell, CEO of NZ subsidiary Greenstone Rachel Antony, Head of Drama Claire Tonkin, Head of Comedy & Entertainment Damian Davis and Head of Factual Andrew Farrell.

CJZ was established in 2010 after Cordell Jigsaw acquired Andrew Denton’s Zapruder’s Other Films. Murray was an in-house lawyer for 10 when he met Cordell who was working on news show Page One.

“I was there to try and get stories to air,” Murray recalls. “How close to the line can you get without stepping over it, or being caught stepping over it? This is something we still do on our shows. That’s a serious comment. That’s how we risk-assess on things and how we can hopefully push the envelope a little bit, and make our shows a little bit different to other people’s.

“We thought Factual Entertainment was an area not being done in Australia.”

“We thought Factual Entertainment was an area not being done in Australia. None of the big production companies were doing Factual Entertainment. It was big in the UK. So with my background in Entertainment and Comedy and Michael’s in Factual, as probably the leading Documentary guy in Australia, we thought it was a good selling point to networks.

“We could say ‘We will make you a show and it will be multi-layered with Factual stuff but it will be entertaining.’

“It still carries through in what we have now.”

Matt Campbell, Michael Cordell

CJZ shows have accrued seven AACTAs, nine Logies, eight SPA awards, an International Emmy and two Rose d’ors. Bondi Rescue is its longest running title, now at 14th season and sold in multiple territories. As Michael Cordell recalls, it has been a tentpole for the company with its high-stakes drama on the beach.

“If we were to stage anything down at Bondi we’d be kicked off the beach”

“I’m sometimes flattered by people who say, ‘You must make things up.’ It is at heart a pure observational documentary. It’s fast and dramatic. But if we were to stage anything down at Bondi we’d be kicked off the beach within days by the Council,” he explains.

“It’s an older show now, the ratings have gone down a bit, the budgets have gone down a bit, but for a business, having a show that happens every summer, it’s been an absolute cornerstone.”

In 2012 the ground-breaking Go Back to Where You Came From won a Rose d’or for the best international television production. According to Murray the topic of asylum seekers was given a Reality TV lens.

“It was a documentary about refugees and asylum seekers but it was cloaked as a reality show”

“We used a whole lot of Reality Entertainment tropes. It was a documentary about refugees and asylum seekers but it was cloaked as a reality show. When they got to the point of having to make a decision, such as going across the border into Iraq, there would be a subliminal bell that you would hear in a Reality show when people have to make a decision. SBS let us use all of the reality tropes -except for the rattlesnake sound,” he reveals.

“That’s why people watched it. It felt like a Reality show but they were watching a documentary about something they wouldn’t have watched.”

Michael Cordell, Matt Campbell, Damian Trewhella, Rachel Antony, Nick Murray.

CJZ is parent company of New Zealand’s Greenstone which has produced observational series Motorway Patrol, Border Patrol, Highway Patrol, Dog Squad, Neighbours at War and Renters. Local stories have also resonated in other markets.

“We make those shows first and foremost absolutely with a commitment to a New Zealand audience,” says CEO Rachel Antony.

“It’s bogans on the motorway in Auckland, or frontline Auckland airport.”

“We are not trying to make an international show. It’s bogans on the motorway in Auckland, or frontline Auckland airport. We are not trying to make something that happens to be huge in Finland… and it is.

“But it’s completely authentic. The humour is Kiwi. The tone is still very much of New Zealand and I do think that’s what makes it work internationally. If we tried to make an ‘international’ show I don’t think it would resonate in anywhere near the same way.”

But developing local formats takes time and risk. As Group CEO and former SBS exec Matt Campbell explains, sometimes you have to back yourself.

“Often networks will offer development money but we don’t take it.”

“Often networks will offer development money but we don’t take it. There’s a good reason for that. If we think a show is just for the ABC we’re happy to take their development money. But if we think it could sit in multiple networks we won’t take it. If they’re going to give us the $15,000 we’re better to us our own $15,000 and be able to take (the show) anywhere we want,” he says.

Andrew Farrell

Head of Factual Andrew Farrell has overseen recent titles Undercurrent, Demo Man, The Good Cop, Working Class Boy and Demolition Man. He says networks expect more than just a good idea.

“What the majority of networks are looking for, is access.”

“What all of those shows have in common, and what the majority of networks are looking for, is access. Access to places or people. Those shows have incredible stories but if you can secure the access to that person or place, that’s what makes a show, rather than just an idea,” says Farrell.

“Anyone can come up with an idea in the shower, but not everybody can bring Laurie from Demo Man or get Jimmy Barnes.”

Claire Tonkin

Head of Drama Claire Tonkin, who has recently overseen My Life is Murder, also has an eye on the future of screenwriting. A series output allows opportunity to invest back in the industry.

“What we are doing a lot of is pairing people up.”

“We had a lot of very experienced people working with writers who were still learning their craft. So what we are doing a lot of is pairing people up.

“What CJZ has done for a long time, before I got here is work with people at all levels,” she says.

“The big thing that is happening is a lot of our very senior writers are being discovered by the world. A lot of our emerging, exciting voices are struggling to find their way into the middle of their career. 10 years ago you would start on a big show like All Saints or Blue Heelers and go through the ranks. But that’s all changed.

“So we’re all trying to work out how to develop people’s careers so that we can have the next Tony McNamara coming through.”

Damian Davis

Head of Comedy & Entertainment Damian Davis is encouraged by expansion in the area of scripted comedy, with titles such as Mr. Black, Part Time Private Eyes and Street Smart. But the risk in Comedy is great while the budgets for commissions are also down.

“If you pitch a Comedy networks look at what they would normally pay..  and then take off 25%.”

“If you pitch a Comedy networks look at what they would normally pay for a Drama for an hour and then take off 25%. But you still have the same costs,” he reveals.

“Seven are dipping their toe in, Nine are taking pitches, 10 have done quite a lot. We’re currently on our third sitcom with them with Part Time Private Eyes. Of course ABC has been the stalwart, but there is also Stan who have done some great work. It’s still too early to see what Amazon will do, and Netflix got involved in things like The Letdown. So there are a lot of avenues which is great, but the reality is it’s still only 12-15 shows made a year and that includes returning shows. There’s a lot of competition, in comparison to drama.”

“Diversity is really key to what we do”

For founders Murray and Cordell, who claim to have only had 3 or 4 arguments over 14 years, a diverse slate is key to the company’s success. CJZ is about to commence production on its first factual series on Dubai, a policing series Dubai 999.

“Sometimes I liken it to being a farmer,” Cordell suggests. “You plant crops and some grow up into a fantastic bumper harvest, while something else has died in the paddock.

“That diversity is really key to what we do and what makes it a lot of fun.”

Nick Murray adds, “If you spread more bullshit around it grows better.”

More information on AACTA Membership and Masterclasses is available here.

TV Tonight is a partner of the 2019 AACTA Awards.

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