You can read more about the Screen Forever conference here at Mediaweek, including presentations from ABC director of television Richard Finlayson, Endemol Shine Australia’s Mark and Carl Fennessy, and the feature interview with Ten Network chief executive Paul Anderson.
Previous: Part 1
I’ll now jump forward until about a decade and a bit ago. The second series of The Secret Life of Us had gone really well here, but our English partner Channel 4 hadn’t played it yet and the negotiating of the third series meant we had less financial wriggle room than we’d hoped. Because of internal network politics here, a not very favourable deal was sweetened by a development deal for a show which was eventually to be called Love My Way. As it turned out, the show we developed was knocked back by Ten and Claudia and I took it to Foxtel. Brian Walsh seized the opportunity the series offered to do a distinctive subscription tv drama, in lots of ways along the lines that HBO and Showtime had pioneered in the US. Love My Way was a great experience to work on as we felt liberated from lots of creative restraints, granted license to be bold. We didn’t have much dough though, and the point I’m wanting to make here is I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Not that we cut creative corners, but as you all here know, the main determinants of budget are shooting schedule, cast and art department (which is also really about schedule if the show is period). Love My Way had a stellar cast, three Logie winners in Claudia Karvan, Asher Keddie, Dan Wyllie, as well as Brendan Cowell and Ben Mendelsohn, and fantastic supporting cast. To the extent to which quality can be gauged by awards, I’m pretty sure it’s the most awarded drama-series ever with six Logies and eight AFI awards and a bunch of others. Now here’s the big point. The budget for that show was $500k-$550k an hour, across the three series. Pretty much half the cost of most dramas today and a tiny fraction of the cost of some. Yes it was straddling a decade ago, but a 100-400% inflation seems out of whack, especially I’d argue when there has not been commensurate increase in quality and really the only significant cost increases across the board have been in writers’ and cast fees. Yes I’m glad writers are getting paid more, and I wish directors were, actors’…maybe. But the level of inflation is way out of whack with these increases. Love My Way was a shorter running series (eight, twelve and ten hours), but I want to stress it was constructed under the same series disciplines that Secret Life was being made under previously and that my subsequent series Rush, Offspring, Tangle etc. have also been made under. There were other short running series being made at the same time that cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars an hour more, fundamentally because they took longer to shoot and weren’t submitted to those longer-form series disciplines. I think it’s fair to say empirically, that more time to shoot them did not mean more quality. And the question I want to ask from today’s point of view is, are our shows today better for costing more than twice as much?
I want to expand on this point a little more (again from the point of view my shows because at least I can be confident of accuracy). Imogen and I started Offspring eight years ago with a telemovie pilot made on the back of Rush, shot under the same pressures as the series would be, not a regular telemovie schedule. The series was then commissioned at an episodic cost of a shade over $700k per hour. Even now as we approach Series 6 with two cycles of cast costs behind us and the actors, very correctly, being paid way, way more than they first were, the show is still cheaper per hour than other series in their first time round that were funded with the aid of Screen Australia subsidy. Now of course I’m not against Screen Australia’s involvement in television – lots of shows can only hope to be made that way – the point I’m hoping to build to though is that we’ve become reliant on the short series form and that this financing structure and this reliance is not doing us any good.
Ours is an industry that does need the help of either subsidy or of quota protection or both. It’s because we need this public support that it behoves us to stay in an active struggle to get the balance and mix right. We all agree that the broadcasters in return for their licenses should be required to make Australian content, and in the case of drama there has evolved a mix of volume and price that has worked variously well over time and has been tinkered with to meet changing needs. I fear at the moment, as there are many voices calling for a percentage of spend to be a dominant criterion over that of volume that we’re in danger of getting the mix very wrong. Let me expand on why.
There are no forty-part series left at all on Australian tv, there are no twenty-two part series left. Thirteen parters are almost an anachronism. Partly this is a function of the ebbs and flow, life and death of series, but there’s also a deeper structural reason. Starting a new series is high risk and expensive. Even the promo campaign will cost a million dollars or upward on commercial tv, leaving aside the set-up costs. Why wouldn’t the network opt first time around to go with say eight parts and have up to 40% tax payer funded subsidy? It’s very understandable that this has become the predominant form. Because six and eight part shows ordinarily cost between $1 and $1.2 million per hour, and once those production structures and so on are in place, the problem becomes it’s very hard to bring budgets down, even if the number of episodes is increased in the future – we’re all both creatures of habit and justifiers of our situations. The million dollar plus an episode series becomes “normal”.
In my view there has been an even worse unintended consequence because of this. In prime-time drama in the last two years (I’m excluding the soaps from this) I’m only aware of there being two new emerging writers! I hope I’m wrong, and if I am mea culpa, but the general point holds. Networks are risk averse, understandably, and it’s very easy for producers if they want to go on eating to slide along with their risk averse wishes. Higher volume shows by necessity produce new people. A show like Big Sky, where we made forty eps in a year (it’s not remembered as a success, but all but four of its episodes had better shares than the network average). Tony McNamara, Steve Worland, Jaqueline Perske, John Polson, Rhett Watson, Kate Dennis all getting their first or second tv gig. Similarly on Secret Life there was a good handful, on Fireflies, with Mimi Butler on Rush, on Offspring and so on. Long series need the new people influx, and I do want to say as an aside here, that in my experience almost never are we let down by them. Yes, this is possible on a short series, we had three new ones on Love My Way too, but the odds are stacked against it, simply because on eight episodes, you only need say two or three writers, and the risk-averse pressures of course are amplified as costs go up. And it’s just easier to work with the fewer bods. This phenomenon spreads more widely. New editors, new DOPs, new designers seem only to be getting breaks on comedies (which is great!), but there’s presently very little new blood in drama series.
I should divert for a moment to discuss how this Screen Australia financing of short series evolved. Its earlier iteration, the FFC, specifically avoided support of series drama – that area being seen as the commercial spine of the industry, it was a very deliberate choice of FFC architect Kim William’s not to have it tampered with by the intrusion of subsidy. When Screen Australia replaced it, that specific intention in relation to television continued, to only fund telemovies and mini-series-shows of high cost, but “event” value (but as we’ll see in a moment, definitions had shifted). Telemovies (with a couple of exceptions) have always been a programming problem. Telemovies had also been popular for a time as series-pilots, but except for those that were shot on close to the schedules and budgets of their subsequent series, empirically they were failures 100% of the time (if a three series-run is a definition of “series success”). And the two by two hour miniseries form had seemed to just naturally die out. In a time-honoured producer tradition to bend rules against the spirit they were conceived in to meet self-interest, some of us helped remind FFC head Brian Rosen that the statutory definition of miniseries was up to thirteen hours. To address the television production dearth, Brian became convinced of the value of altering the guidelines accordingly. Provided budgets were over eight hundred thousand dollars per hour and licenses above four hundred thousand dollars. The first beneficiaries were Underbelly and Sea Patrol, and our television world benefited enormously. For a time of course. It didn’t take long though for the spirit of the rule bending to kick in and first series of shows that would otherwise have been thought of as staple domestic series began to be constructed as “minis”. Budgets easily glided up to qualify. Given the networks also benefited by gaining four quota points instead of the series entitlement of three, and because the FCC and Screen Australia prudently applied investment caps, extending beyond eight or so episodes spread the subsidy too thinly. Thus the inevitable outcome that we’d reach this position of the ubiquity of short, inordinately-budget- inflated series.
I should say I have nothing against short running returnable series. I’ve made eight of them, and three of them Love My Way, Tangle and Puberty Blues have been multiple series. (There was also Spirited, but I regard that as being Claudia and Jaqueline’s, not mine). I’m proud of the work that’s in them. My worry stems from the dual facts that these short shows become the dominant drama form at the expense of the more productive long form. And I’d also argue, the best and most successful short series I’ve ever made have been done under the same pressure and structures of the long form.
It’s partly a quirk of timing and fate that only two out of twelve of these series were made with the support of Screen Australia or its predecessor, and I have to say that although it was tough making Love My Way, Tangle and Dangerous on their budgets, they would have not been better shows for costing more. The same dad’s cell-memory that causes suspicion about people saying how honest they are makes me always question co-incidence – just maybe, the very tightness of money helps we producers focus attention on the things that really matter on a show. I’m personally glad that early on we bent the miniseries rule-intentions to experiment with series forms. The Surgeon qualified for miniseries points, and was made for less than four hundred thousand dollars per hour by shooting only in one location; Dangerous, again tiny budget by shooting with an enhanced documentary crew. It’s true that both were well-regarded failures. This fact, but I suspect much more importantly the fact there’s no incentive to do such experimental and risky things cheaply, means there is no optimism to see experiments like these happening in drama today. More importantly still on a different tack, lots of great ideas can only be made as short series. There’s presently not enough room for them to flourish, while returning-series sold as minis take those tipping point public funds and in doing so, all of the oxygen. Yes of course we need “event” drama as that can only be made with additional subsidy – four hour minis were dead five years ago and are healthily back now. That’s good. But they’re not our industry’s life-blood. Screen Australia can only, and should only, invest the bulk of its money where the networks want it. Screen Australia is currently keeping us alive! They have to work within a broader regulatory system that needs a re-jig. The system ought to give us a mix of forms, but at the moment it’s all short series a few two by twos and a couple of telemovies, not a healthy mix at all.
Continued: Part 3