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TV industry ‘running out of famous Australians to make series about’

The TV industry is in danger of running out of famous Australians to make mini-series about, one of the country’s leading producers has warned.

The comments came from Posie Graeme-Evans at the Screen Forever conference in Melbourne. Graeme-Evans, who created long-running Nine drama series McLeod’s daughters, made the comments as she delivered the Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture.

Graeme-Evans: Have we reached peak 'famous Australians' yet?

Graeme-Evans: Have we reached peak ‘famous Australians’ yet?

She told delegates to the Screen Producers Australia event that while local audiences are showing appetites for biopics, they have often failed to sell in the international market.

Recent biopics have included retellings of the lives of INXS front man Michael Hutchence, TV presenter Molly Meldrum, media mogul Kerry Packer, magazine pioneer Ita Buttrose and billionaire Gina Rinehart. Graeme Evans warned:

“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?”

New biopics in the works in the coming months include Nine’s miniseries on businessman Alan Bond and criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. Seven’s pipeline includes the life story of cricketer Shane Warne and singer/actor Olivia Newton-John.

Graeme-Evans – a former director of drama for the Nine Network who is now working full-time as a novelist – warned that the networks would soon be reduced to the B-list. She said: “Bio-pics based on the B-list… are not quite the same.”

Reasons for the rise of these mini-series are not just because they rate reasonably well, said Graeme-Evans. The shows are also an efficient way for the networks to achieve their obligatory quota of hours of locally-made drama, and also win tax-payer funding via Screen Australia.

She said: “Now, none of us is naïve in this room. We know that commercial FTAs seek to maximise 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.”

Later in the speech, she said that networks are now more likely to commission based on finances. She said: “Today I think it can be argued that accountants are the most important people in our production landscape.”

However, she added that as costs of production come down – and secondary channels and streaming services make new commissions – new opportunities are opening up. She cited examples including ABC’s Bondi Hipsters TV series, Soul Mates, and streaming service Stan’s series, No Activity.

Later in the presentation, Graeme-Evans proposed the creation of a national on-the-job learning program to give future TV makers a chance to serve an apprenticeship.

She said: “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.

“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.

“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.”

She warned: “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.”

And she also called for overseas-based streaming services such as Netflix to be taxed and the money used to make more local content. She said:

“Could Netflix, or Amazon be tithed to create an alternative source of funds?

“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.”

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