Aussie and Kiwi Prodcos Look Outward

The city of Sydney has long been the epicenter of documentary filmmaking in Australia and the place to watch for hot, up-and-coming producers. But the empire is giving way to regional forces. Far from the Sydney-based headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting...
December 1, 1999

The city of Sydney has long been the epicenter of documentary filmmaking in Australia and the place to watch for hot, up-and-coming producers. But the empire is giving way to regional forces. Far from the Sydney-based headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, doc-makers from Melbourne and Perth are attracting strong international interest. And, in a strange twist, these filmmakers believe their location is now working to their advantage.

After years of struggling to catch the attention of Sydney’s commissioning editors, Perth and Melbourne-based doc-makers are particularly keen to explore the international coproduction route. They are beginning to establish a presence at international markets like MIP-TV – which, in the wake of the ABC’s recent budget cuts of AUS$42 million (US$27,403,000) and an increasingly tight battle for domestic funding from other sources, appears to be more of a necessity than a choice.

Which companies are the ones worth watching? From Perth, the buzz is about Prospero Productions, Electric Pictures and Artemis International; and from Melbourne, December Films and Vue are said to be the ascending stars. The following is a closer look at the prodcos hitting their stride Down Under.

Prospering Prospero

‘To a certain extent, living in Perth is an interesting experience because it’s so isolated,’ says producer Julia Redwood of Prospero Productions. ‘With the geographic situation [Perth is closer to Singapore than Sydney], we are outward looking. And having been ignored by other Aussies, we are hungrier, leaner, meaner, and forced to travel to build good relationships.’

Redwood, who established Prospero with partner Ed Punchard in 1991, has a survivor’s optimism and instincts. ‘Even with all those [financial] pressures, we feel more confident than most,’ she says. ‘If all else fails in Australia, we’ve laid the groundwork in developing [international] relationships, and they might take over.’

Most recently, Prospero has taken a turn at the docusoap genre with Diving School, a 7 x 30-minute series that follows a group of students on a grueling deep-sea diving course. The AUS$208,000 (US$132,500) per episode program, which is being distributed by Sydney-based Southern Star, has been sold to ABC, Channel 5 U.K., RTE Ireland, Discovery Europe and received support from the Australian Film Finance Corporation (FFC). Diving School was so well received that the prodco is already busy developing a second season.

The series was based in part on Punchard’s own experiences in the field. Punchard was a deep-sea diver working on the oil rigs when his life took a dramatic course. He was on the oil rig Piper Alpha when it exploded in 1988, killing 167 men. Punchard was one of 62 survivors. He left Britain and moved to Australia where he studied to become a maritime archeologist.

He met Redwood in Australia in 1989 and their combined interest in maritime history and film led to their first project – No Survivors: The Mysterious Loss of HMAS Sydney (a one-hour one-off). The AUS$284,000 (US$181,000) TV special was about the 645 sailors of the HMAS Sydney, a WWII warship which was lost without a trace when confronted with the German raider The Kormoran. Directed by veteran filmmaker Peter Du Cane, the documentary was completed in 1993 and aired on FFC and Nine Network Australia.

The film inevitably led to a thematic strand of docs about shipwrecks and oil rig disasters. Since its haul of hard-core documentaries, Prospero has also branched into conservation and adventure films in locales as diverse as the Antarctic and the Malaysian rainforests.

‘We’ve had an intense period of six-and-a-half years,’ says Redwood. ‘That came to a conclusion in 1998 . . . and all that product has cemented our company. It was a critical period for Prospero and we are reaping the benefit today.’

Electric Pictures sets off sparks

Perth-based doco-producer Andrew Ogilvie fits the Aussie producer mould to a tee – he broke into the global market by producing action-packed adventure shows. Ogilvie’s company, Electric Pictures, is best known internationally for the 1997 one-hour travel/adventure film The Human Race (for which Peter Du Cane was supervising director).

In the AUS$580,000 (US$375,000) film, a German survival expert, an American marathon runner and an Aboriginal man vie with one another in a race across a remote part of the Australian Outback. Ogilvie’s goal was to show how three people from different cultures would approach this difficult trek.

The Human Race aired on ZDF, ABC and National Geographic Explorer (as a 30-minute version titled Survive the Outback), and brought Ogilvie international caché, which he is exploiting. Ogilvie is currently working on a sequel to The Human Race with Du Cane.

Electric Pictures has expanded its roster beyond the travel/adventure genre, though. For example, the one-hour special Below the Wind (AUS$360,000/ US$323,200) looks at the sea nomads of Indonesia and their link to Aboriginal Australia, and Playing the Game, (AUS$1.4 million/US$903,000) a three-hour one-off about the collapse of the post-war empires and its impact on de-colonization, is currently in production. The project has been pre-sold to PBS (Oregon Public Broadcasting) and ABC.

Other projects in development include Winds of Change, an AUS$1.35 million (US$870,000) three-hour copro with RTHK Hong Kong, SBS Australia and the BBC; and Child Soldiers, a 2 x 60-minute series, budgeted at AUS$1.3 million (US$840,000).

Ogilvie describes himself as a late bloomer. Born in New Zealand, he dropped out of university and spent most of his twenties backpacking around the world. When he finally settled in Perth, he threw himself into film studies at university, and enrolled in a technical course at a separate college.

Ogilvie, who worked for a time as cameraman and editor to pay the bills, made his first film in 1992, The Joys of the Women. ‘Since then, I haven’t touched a camera, editing desk or any other piece of technical equipment – other than as necessary to help crews carry it.’

Artemis International arrives on the scene

One of the newest kids on the Perth block is British-born Celia Tait, a former producer and director for Channel 4 and ITV Network in the U.K., who moved to Perth in 1993. Tait partnered with Brian Beaton (a 20-year veteran doc producer) earlier this year to form a new production company, Artemis International. Their focus is on animal/people films, and they’re already attracting international attention.

Distributor Granada Media International (Australia) signed a development deal with Artemis in October for four NH docs. Though neither party would disclose the value of the deal, the prodco is in a position to expand its programming, and has started researching a range of natural history projects.

Currently in the works are two one-hour one-offs – Lobster Tales, about the life cycle of the Western Australian rock lobster, and Return to Eden, about the largest conservation project being undertaken in Australia. Both were developed with funding assistance from Screen West, Discovery Canada and the ABC. Lobster Tales (AUS$323,000/US$208,350), which will receive deficit financing from Granada, is set for delivery in May 2000. Return to Eden (AUS$504,000/US$325,000), which has been sold to National Geographic Channels, will be delivered in May 2001.

Some of Artemis’ earlier projects include Belinda’s Baby, a one-hour special for ABC and Film Australia; The Nature of Healing, a 6 x 30-minute series for SBS Australia and Sydney-based Beyond Distribution; Dolphin’s Day, a half-hour special for ABC, Canal+ and Beyond; and The Great Dinosaur Hunt, a one-hour special for Channel 7 (Australia) and Monaco-based Daro Film Distribution.

Spring in December (Films that is…)

The worldwide trend to invest in coproductions has bolstered the Melbourne-based prodco of Tony Wright and Stuart Menzies, December Films. ‘One indicator of the rising interest in coproduction is the number of people who will travel that great distance here to check out producers and check out the scene and try to make things happen,’ says Wright.

The company currently has its plate full producing Grey Voyagers, a 6 x 30-minute travel adventure show for the 60-plus crowd. Coproduced with RTE Ireland, the AUS$1,011,508 (US$645,000) Grey Voyagers is a sequel to the BBC coproduction Grey Nomads.

This is December Films’ second partnership with RTE. In 1998, they produced the one-hour one-off Mama Tina (aus$376,200/us$240,000), the story of an Irish woman who exorcises her personal childhood demons by working with street kids in Vietnam. Its success led to another collaboration with the Irish broadcaster.

‘It’s always difficult to find the right projects without bending them out of shape,’ Wright notes. As a result, travel shows seem well-suited to co-financing agreements. However, even with copro partners, Wright says his company still relies on state funds or government associations for deficit investment. ‘It’s a juggling act. We are trying to move out of that entirely.’

Wright has been in broadcast production for 16 years, but he spent much of that time making corporate videos. In 1994, Wright began concentrating exclusively on documentary films. His company hit the recognition Richter Scale only in 1994-95. He brought in Menzies in 1996 to help expand his production slate.

Over the last 18 months, the company has made quantum leaps in terms of production volume. This year the company produced two documentary series for ABC Australia – A Shared Table, a 7 x 30-minute cooking show (AUS$612,000/US $390,500) and Auto Stories, a 4 x 30-minute series (AUS$632,000/US$403,300).

There is one myth circulating about Aussie documentaries that Wright would like to debunk. ‘Australia – wrongly – is not considered a place for quality essay-style documentary, so it’s tougher to sell them abroad,’ he says, adding that he’s determined to smash this stereotype.

Vue on success

Alan Lindsay and Helen Clucas of Melbourne-based prodco Vue have been in the filmmaking business for years (Vue was established in 1990), but they’ve only recently begun to make their mark on the international scene with projects now in production.

King Brumby – a one-hour, blue-chip, natural history doc – is expected to bring Vue a big payoff this year. The AUS$675,000 (US$434,400) will follow the wild horses of the Australian alpine regions over a 12-month period. Lindsay wouldn’t name names, but says funding will come from Australia and Europe. They are currently negotiating with five different companies to sell the film, which begins shooting in April 2000.

In addition, Vue is wrapping Ice Break Heart (produced in association with the ABC, FFC, Cinemedia and ABC International), a one-hour one-off about adventurer Peter Bland, a man who defied the odds and walked on both magnetic North and South Poles.

Lindsay and Clucas were drawn to Bland’s story of heroism and high adventure, particularly his voyage to the South Pole. After drifting for days in dangerous ice floes, Bland dove into the icy Arctic waters to free his propeller from a rope. He suffered a severe heart attack upon his return to Australia and was told he’d never walk again. However, not only did he rehabilitate himself, he built his strength back enough to walk on an ice mantle in the North Pole. The film will be delivered in January 2000.

‘We have invested a lot of time and not insignificant dollars, getting to know the international market and encouraging the international market to get to know us,’ Lindsay says. ‘ We are getting recognition where it counts and broadcasters are not only showing a healthy interest in our productions, they are seeking our interest in theirs.’

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