Features

White Rabbit Project: how to make a series for Netflix

As Netflix premieres its first commissioned Australian production, White Rabbit Project, Mumbrella spoke with Beyond Productions’ John Luscombe about the process behind working with the world’s biggest streaming platform.

Australia has finally made its mark on the globe’s leading video streaming platforms with Beyond Productions’ series ‘White Rabbit Project’, which was produced and partially shot in Australia, launching on Netflix today.

The locally produced program features former Mythbusters’ hosts Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara as they dive into the ‘rabbit hole’ and investigate major historical, political and cultural events and rank them according to a set of criteria.

John Luscombe, general manager and executive vice president of Beyond Productions, created the format and was one of the three executive producers on the series, working alongside Ryan Senter and Martyn Ives.

While Beyond Productions currently produces most of its content for the US market, the re-enactments, post-production and graphics were mostly created locally with the theme music created by Australian composer Ned Beckley.

Luscombe had previously sold productions including Mythbusters and Deadly Women to Netflix but was approached by the streaming giant to produce the new series.

“A part of it is familiarity with things. In our case, they run Deadly Women, which is a show that we produced and they also have Mythbusters, so they’re familiar with our programming that we sell to them,” Luscombe said.

“It was a natural step for them to come and say ‘That’s working, can you produce a program based around the three hosts?’”

John Luscombe, MD and EVP of Beyond Productions was also an executive producer on the series.

John Luscombe: It was a natural step for Netflix to ask Beyond Productions to produce a program

Luscombe had worked with Byron, Bellecci and Imahara when producing popular US program, Mythbusters, until the series ended earlier this year after 14 years.

“It was probably something we’d been working on for about three years when Netflix asked us to find a new format to showcase Carrie, Tori and Grant,” he said.

“That’s when the project entered fruition, at the end of 2014.”

Commenting on how the series works Luscombe said: “There’s six stories every episode and the hosts choose a theme and take on two stories each, which they put forward as being their favourite topics.”

“They take stories they like and investigate them with things like an obscure archive they find, or re-enactments.”

The program is not only the first Australian production, but also the first factual entertainment program commissioned by Netflix.

Netflix vs TV networks

Luscombe said the production and management processes for working with Netflix was quite different to free-to-air and paid TV networks with one of the biggest challenges in creating a format to suit “binge” watching.

“We are used to producing for cable and network, with ad breaks and structured sort of play. And this [White Rabbit Project] is really made for binge, they’re approximately 50 minute duration programs,” he said.

“They’re also seamless so you don’t have the same dimensions with storytelling and recaps that you do for producing for cable.”

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Luscombe said they did not have to make a pilot for the program before they proceeded with Netflix commissioning the program as a series straight up.

“I went and told them the show I wanted to do, I described the format and they said, ‘Well if you think that makes a good show that’s what we’ll produce,’” he said.

They took a leap of faith with us and we took a leap of faith because we actually tested the show so it was kind of evolving on the run,” he said.

“You need a lot of experience to shake-down a format on the run and that’s what we were doing with this one, and they ordered straight to series which is fantastic.”

While creating a series without ad breaks was a challenge for Beyond Productions, Luscombe said working with Netflix was a “liberating experience”.

“Obviously in terms of conventional network or cable production, there are varying degrees of network management of the editorial program and making sure it fits their standards and understanding of their brand,” he explained.

“It’s a slightly different market.”

“It has a number of different programs that are targeted to niche demographics and if that fits on on their platform and has an audience then it works. To some extent it’s a more liberating experience than producing to fit within a channel feel and editorial direction.”

Netflix

Commenting on the differences between working with Foxtel and Netflix, Luscombe said:  “We have a number of shows on Foxtel and they are actually very quick and efficient. We have a very good working relationship with them so the programs tend to be pretty quickly commissioned if there’s genuine interest.”

Luscombe said the agreement for commissioning Netflix was more complicated, in part because it was the first time both parties had worked with a program like White Rabbit Project.

“This was a completely a start-from-scratch agreement and there’s a bit of learning process in that,” he said.

“There were questions about who you are actually producing for – like, when we did the land speed record, I said: ‘Okay, am I doing miles per hour or are we doing kilometres; what’s the convention?’”

Luscombe said deciding on where the production’s “home-base” was key to some of the technicalities in the show.

The creative production process

While some networks are quite involved in the editorial process, Luscombe said his company was treated, like a ‘studio’ “where you can execute and deliver programs and they’re trusting you to do that.”

“They placed an extraordinary amount of trust in this program,” he said.

“It was our format we came up with, the way in which we decided to take it, the tone of the program, the editorial approach. They left us to our own devices creatively which was a fantastic way to work.”

While Luscombe and his team were given freedom in creativity, he admitted the format in which people consume Netflix was a massive challenge in the creative process, given the 10 episodes were put up on the platform at once and were all independent of one another.

“There’s no way to orchestrate a series arch as it were of watching because they’re available to watch in any order,” he explained.

“But the biggest difference is the programs themselves because they don’t start at the beginning. When you come to the end of a program, if you don’t turn it off, it’s going to start bang in the beginning of the next episode.”

“It’s not as heavily a handheld experience as returning from an ad break and having to coach people back into where they left the story.”

White Rabbit Project

Luscombe said the company was “mindful” when thinking of creating a program on the Netflix platform, ensuring the program felt like a “screening” rather than “cable” experience.

“The temptation normally would be to immediately tell the audience exactly what they’re going to get to make sure they don’t switch off. The expectation with streaming services if you come to that program and it’s something of interest you don’t have to be wooed into or quickly grabbed,” he said.

“You can let the front of the program breathe.”

Among other challenges, Netflix streaming programs in ultra-high definition, or 4K, made the post production process for White Rabbit Project increasingly complex.

“It really pushed our post production team to the max,” Luscombe said.

“There’s a lot of visual effects which is quite different to a normal factual program. We enhanced the scenes with these virtual screens and because it’s 4K every one of those shots has to be manually created as a graphic shot.”

Will Netflix commission Australian productions in future?

While Beyond Productions’ series was the first locally-produced program to be commissioned, Luscombe is confident Australian producers will continue to succeed on the platform.

“Australian producers are certainly trying to pitch to them,” he said.

“I can’t speak for Netflix but they have said they are interested in producing internationally and it is a global platform so I can’t see any reason why things wouldn’t be produced here.

“It really comes down to content, things that work on the channel or platform and sometimes driven by talent that they want to appear on the thing, which is very much the case with us when they want people we’ve worked with.”

Luscombe also said his company is currently speaking with Netflix about other programs.

The future of Australian production 

As the end of 2016 fast approaches, Luscombe predicts the Australian production sector will undergo changes as new platforms and opportunities continue to evolve.

He added the sector would need to look at the shift in user-experience and consumption of video.

“You wonder realistically how different it’s going to be when you get something like Viceland – a fantastic new way of telling stories. But it’s much younger skewed and aimed at a completely different audience; a new generation of consumers,” he said.

Viceland took over SBS 2 last month.

Viceland took over SBS 2 last month.

“And yet what have they done? Stuck it onto SBS, which is fantastic but it is somewhat ironic. You have these new things, the opportunity of new ways of telling stories and consuming stories and yet putting it into media where we used to.”

“You’ve got people wanting to consume, but you’ve got people consuming in shared family environments on huge television sets,” he added.

“All that’s happened is an increase in the number of outlets you can pitch to.”

While Luscombe admitted working with a streaming platform was challenging he said there was a great opportunity for other Australian production companies.

“Netflix is happy with 80-90m subscribers and if you produce a program that’s a part of that demographic, part of their viewer base likes, you’re fine. You’re not trying to come up with a show that’s going to clean up a 7:30pm on Wednesday night on a free-to-air network in Australia.

“If you can get a hold of the audience you’re trying to get to and deliver fresh numbers for them then they’re doing your job and they’re going to renew you. It’s an exciting opportunity.”

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