From supporting emerging talent to high-end global drama

Matchbox Pictures managing director Alistair McKinnon talks about a diverse slate in Drama & Unscripted.

Alistair McKinnon has been managing director of Matchbox Pictures for 9 months when we meet to discuss the company’s slate.

Majority-owned by NBCUniversal, it remains one of the biggest production companies in Australia. This year alone it has seen productions of The Heights, Secret City, Glitch, The Family Law, Mustangs FC, I Am Roxy screen across ABC, Foxtel, SBS and 10. Its library of shows includes popular titles including The Slap, Wanted, Nowhere Boys, Safe Harbour, Barracuda and The Real Housewives of Melbourne.

Coming in 2020 are ABC detention drama Stateless, SBS supernatural Hungry Ghosts, more of The Heights & Mustangs FC and production is about to get underway on Clickbait for Netflix, co-produced with Tony Ayres’ led TAP Productions.

Clickbait, co-created by Ayres with Christian White will be filmed in Melbourne, but is entirely set in the US.

“It’s a great example of Australian creatives saying ‘We can make shows set anywhere’ in the way that British and American productions do,” he says.

“We can make content that speaks to a global audience”

“It’s saying ‘We can make content that speaks to a global audience.’ Not everything we make has to be Australian in terms of the story content. Obviously that’s most of what we do, but the global opportunity has shifted so much in terms of potential partners you can work with.

Clickbait is a perfect example of ambition meeting that opportunity.”

The 8 part drama has investment under the Location Offset, an incentive used to attract international projects such as Thor. Casting will be announced soon with production to begin in November in Melbourne.

By contrast Matchbox is building emerging industry careers through the hefty output of Perth-based serial The Heights.

“Getting something long-running up is really the only way to give new writers and crew opportunities to get credits and build their careers,” McKinnon continues.

“It’s a show that really embodies inclusion, representation”

“It’s a show that really embodies inclusion, representation, opportunities for emerging talent in the writing room, new directors. It really delivered on all of that.

“Those who cut their teeth on S1 are already being snapped up for other opportunities.”

With a total of 60 episodes eventually under their belt, there are hopes for international sales -especially in the UK- as well as hopes for a new timeslot in Australia.

“They are network decisions. Sometimes you might scratch your head but you get behind their expertise and say ‘They know their audience, they know what they’re doing,” McKinnon notes diplomatically.

“We’re talking to them about maybe finding a different spot for it.”

Also coming in 2020 is South-Australian made Stateless with Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Asher Keddie, Dominic West & Cate Blanchett.

Stateless is looking incredible and has a phenomenal cast,” he continues.

“It’s sensational across the board in terms of the look, feel and performances. I think it will be pretty special.”

Hungry Ghosts with Clare Bowen, Bryan Brown, Catherine Davies, Justine Clarke and Ryan Corr will also screen on SBS in 2020.

For McKinnon, a former drama exec at ABC and business exec at SBS, having a diverse slate is central to the Melbourne / Sydney production outfit. With Debbie Lee as Head of Scripted, Matchbox recently appointed Dan Munday as Head of Unscripted. Munday has also co-created a new memory-based gameshow Watch! which Matchbox has optioned.

McKinnon is optimistic I Am Roxy, under producer Debbie Byrne may add to the Unscripted slate after leading 10’s pilot week despite her divisive nature.

“Roxy hit it out of the park,” McKinnon smiles.

“I think Roxy would be the first to admit she can be a polarising figure and the response on social media played that out. But there is no denying she is an incredibly successful businesswoman, who knows what her brand is.

“You have to have a really diverse slate”

“When you run a company like this you have to have a really diverse slate. We want to make things for the widest possible array of audiences. Not everything is for everyone. So you’re always looking for niches, or doing things for a specific group or demo. But also what are the broad things we can do?

“So Roxy was a really good fit.”

10 is yet to determine if the show will proceed to series. Meanwhile Foxtel recently announced a 5th season of The Real Housewives of Melbourne as part of a new-look Arena channel.

“That’s the show I get asked about more than any other”

“Since I’ve been in this job that’s the show I get asked about more than any other,” McKinnon explains.

“I’ve been in meetings with agents in LA and they ask ‘Is there going to be more Real Housewives of Melbourne?’ It’s very much seen as one of the strongest iterations of that franchise, globally.

“When a 5th season was announced, I was inundated with people expressing absolute delight.”

Prodded on casting, he remains tight-lipped.

“I couldn’t possibly comment. We haven’t done any casting yet. You’ll be the first to know!”

While Glitch has concluded its 3 season arc, there’s no word yet if Wanted or Secret City will return. SBS drama Safe Harbour is also up for an International Emmy award in late November.

With so many shows on the go, and a formidable team including Penny Chapman, Amanda Higgs, Louise Fox, Mimi Butler, Tim Hobart, Stephen Corvivni and more, I’m curious about what currently stands as the biggest challenge for a company of Matchbox’s scale?

“It’s very hard to get the writers or directors you need for shows here”

“This insatiable appetite for Drama means a lot of our top talent -directors, writers- are being snapped up to work on big shows overseas, which is a wonderful thing. But the flipside of that is it’s very hard to get the writers or directors you need for shows here when they are tied up for 2 years on an American or UK show,” McKinnon explains.

“There is a bit of closed-mindedness about working with foreign writers and directors. We saw what happened with Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I understand that. I get that it’s a concern and that we should be supporting the local industry.

“But when we’re in a global industry where top talent is being spirited away -and good on them- you don’t have access to the level of talent you need to make the best Australian content that you can. It’s a huge challenge.

“There are always great new people coming through but you want to be able to compete as well.”

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