Aussie TV formats make it big abroad

With a string of Aussie TV tvformats being remade overseas, Brooke Hemphill finds out how local production companies can get in on the act and whether there’s actually any money to be made in a feature that first appeared in Encore

When Joe Connor and Renegade Films began shopping the concept for a quirky TV series about a talking dog around Australian networks, they were met with blank stares. Based on a short made for the Tropfest film competition titled Wilfred, the idea failed to generate much support. Connor says: “Everyone said it would never be anything more than a short film.” A decade on, the format is now into its fourth series on the American cable network FX after a two season run on Australian television. It’s also about to be remade in Russia.

But Wilfred is not the only success story when it comes to local TV formats. As you read this, Peter Duncan from Essential Media is acting as co-showrunner on the US version of comedy Rake. Phil Lloyd is slaving over his keyboard on the pilot script for a remake of The Moodys, also be produced in the US with Doug Ellin, best known for the HBO series Entourage, working with the Aussie team. The final stages of casting are underway for a UK version of Laid, while Brisbane production house Hoodlum has just inked a deal with US network ABC for a remake of the yet-to-screen Ten series Secrets and Lies with another of the company’s formats, Strange Calls which aired locally on the ABC, receiving a pilot order from the same network.

Liz Watts, producer with Porchlight Films, the local production company behind Laid, says the reason Aussie formats are in such high demand is the people behind them. Looking at the bulk of the formats generating heat, Watts says: “They’re all very different comedies and they’re made by really interesting creatives.”

The same could be said of Laid which, prior to interest from ITV in the UK, had its format optioned by NBC in the US. The option has now lapsed and Watts is not surprised.

The project got as far as having a script written for a pilot but it was without much input from the show’s creators Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher. Watts says: “With NBC, with that script, I remember thinking they’d taken some of the heart out of it and it felt very cold. I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t go ahead to be honest.”

The idea of Australian formats having a fragile ‘heart’ is one that is repeated by many of the producers and writers Encore spoke to. It is also possibly part of the reason the American remake of Kath and Kim didn’t go the distance. And this highlights a difficult part of the process for Australian creatives selling their formats abroad – how much involvement should they have in the remake and what are the non-negotiables when it comes to handing over their baby?

Ian Collie from Essential Media, the production company behind Rake, says: “The example with Kath and Kim, it didn’t engage an audience. The Americans are a lot more sensitive to this now. If a show such as Rake has a real sort of character, and real sort of tone to it, then to capture that it’s important to engage with the key creatives to ensure it doesn’t get too dissipated and lose its distinctiveness.”

For Essential, having Peter Duncan on the ground has meant they have a strong hand in keeping the tone of the original series. Collie says: “We’ve always said that Peter wanted to be involved and they’ve always been supportive of that so it’s been a win-win for us on that basis. Certainly from the pilot, and certainly from the script, they’ve captured the whole Rake, the sort of comedy drama and chaos that Cleaver Green, or Keegan Joye as he’s now known, lives in.” While Richard Roxburgh took on the lead role in the Australian version, the US series will see Greg Kinnear, the actor with a string of credits including Little Miss Sunshine, play the part of Keegan Joye.

Back home in Australia, Collie has some distance from the project but Duncan is currently in the thick of it. During a break in shooting on the Sony lot in Los Angeles, he tells Encore: “The experience so far has been wonderfully exciting, bewildering, and terrifying at the same time. I have a self protective device within me which says ‘nah, this isn’t going to happen’ at every step of the way. The number of pilots that are made is huge and a very small percentage are picked up but it was great that they decided they wanted to make a pilot. It was great they got Greg Kinnear on board. It wasn’t through a lack of faith in the script or anything. It was just that the statistical likelihood of it happening was remote.”

But Duncan isn’t letting that voice of doubt affect the end product. He says: “As much as they try – and they will always try – to make it more American, you can actually then say, ‘but you did see the show, right? And you do know he’s like this.’ And then they have to concede.” The first episode of US Rake will premiere on January 19 after a lead in from the NFC Championship football game, the second biggest football game in the American season after the Superbowl. Fox have ordered 13 episodes in the first instance and may commission another four.

The team behind Wilfred has taken a slightly different tack embedding series co-creator and actor Jason Gann in the US remake. Connor says: “We always realised that they were going to make an American version and we were cognisant of the fact they were making it for an American audience and there would be changes. That was why it was really important for us to make sure Jason held onto that role. We felt that gave us a huge level of security in that it wasn’t really going to be tampered with to the point where it was going to be unrecognisable which has happened to a lot of shows.”

But in some cases, the international producers and creatives get the format so well, there’s little need for the creators of the original series to have much of a hand in what happens next. Andy Daly is the star and EP of Review with Forrest MacNeil, the remake of Australian series Review with Myles Barlow. After a short period of time in the writers room, series creators Phil Lloyd and Trent O’Donnell left Daly to it.

Of the format, Daly says: “I love the realness of it – the convincing documentary style of it. You can really suspend your disbelief and believe that this idiot is out there running amok in the world and trying to do something for the good of humanity and screwing it up every single time. I thought the original Australian version was brilliantly executed in that way and we are trying to do it as real here.” Review with Forrest MacNeil is due to premiere on Comedy Central in 2014.

The importance of an agent

One thing that the creatives behind our Aussie projects agree on is the importance of having someone go in to bat for the format. In some cases it has been a distributor, in others talent agents are the ones that set up meetings and broker deals.

Essential’s Collie says: “In the US, doing any real business, you need to go through one of the agents over there. It’s a lot more agent dependent in terms of being able to speak with broadcasters or cable casters.”

The Essential team work with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) who represent a range of Hollywood talents including James Cameron, Will Ferrell and Cate Blanchett.

The initial US Laid deal was put on the table with the assistance of ICM Partners while the UK project came about through sales house DRG which now owns the show format. Watts says: “Early on with the NBC deal, ICM were proponents of it and put it forward to a few other places as well. We don’t necessarily still have that relationship with them. DRG have a catalogue full of formats that they’re selling now and it’s obviously a bigger part of the industry than it was 10 years ago.”

Renegade also works with ICM but sold the Wilfred format directly to the Russian producers at the sales market MIPCOM. Yet Connor says: “It’s kind of crazy to try and do it without an agent. There’s a lot of leg work. Access to networks is not as easy at MIP as you might think. A good agent gives you a good entree and that is fairly crucial.”

Another key issue is what do with the rights of the format. Collie says: “In terms of selling the rights, especially to the rest of the world, you need to assess, ‘do I license those rights over to the distributor or do I keep and reserve those international or US format rights?’ because obviously if it’s with a distributor they’re going to be the ones selling it and sometimes they’re not always motivated to sell it because it can conflict with other programs.”

Jungleboys’ Burrows says: “In our case, international distributor DCD had the format. If you can hold onto the format then that’s your ideal situation because you can make your own deals. In the states, good representation is everything. As soon as we had Gersh, meetings were lined up with anyone we wanted. In terms of the American deal, we didn’t actually need DCD.” In addition to Jungleboys, the Gersh Agency reps big names including Winona Ryder and Calista Flockhart.

Whichever path producers choose to take, Duncan says: “Now is the time for non US formats to be presented because people are very hungry. They take a lot of comfort from seeing a show that works.” Duncan calls it “proof of concept”.

Benefiting our industry

It’s not just the overseas networks, agents and sales houses getting something out of Aussie formats. The local television industry also benefits from the process in several ways.

Jungleboys Burrows says: “One of the reasons we wanted to do this is to see how the US operates through the writing rooms and through the networks and the studios. To take some of that and bring it back here, I’m really looking forward to that.”

On the US production of Rake, Duncan has had his first taste of the American standard of writers rooms. After writing the Australian series with writing partner Andrew Knight, Duncan is finding the Americans have a different way of working entirely. He says: “It was just Andrew and me in Australia. There are seven of us here.” Duncan says this experience, combined with the “chaos” approach employed in the Australian production process, is invaluable.

The production houses behind the formats are also benefiting from the experience of an open channel to the US and other territories. Renegade’s Connor says: “We’re continually trying to interest our partners in the US in other formats and shows and now we’re pitching directly to them rather than taking the material that has been through the broadcast system here.”

And our government funding agencies aren’t being left out either. When productions get up in other markets, it provides a rare opportunity for bodies such as Screen Australia to recoup the funds they initially sunk into the local versions. Collie says: “For a lot of Australian programs, if they have Australian funding bodies involved, they may well have to share that income with some of the stakeholders. There’s many a program that hasn’t sold much overseas or recouped the investment they’ve put in so it’s only fair.”

Once the funding bodies recoup their investment, is there money to be made in selling formats abroad? Collie says: “There’s money to be made. Some people thought there was going to be a big booty of money. There’s three producers here being myself, Peter and Richard so we divide the cake a bit.”

Jungleboys Burrows says: “If you do the numbers, the production company doesn’t earn a huge amount. So what’s really important is that you negotiate good fees for services. The writing fees, the directing fees and the EP fees are everything because nobody takes a slice of that. It comes direct.”

Renegade’s Connor says: “Just because you get a show up in America doesn’t mean that you’re going to make a lot of money from it. As the years go on, your recoupment position improves but its fairly complicated and it’s not a ticket to a yacht in Bermuda.” Admittedly he’s probably a little closer to sailing the high seas than he was back in 2002 when Wilfred was little more than a seven minute short.

cover issue 39This feature first appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.



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