Australian screenwriters win sponsorship deal with powerhouse US showrunners

David Taylor, from Playmaker; Graham Yost, writer/producer of The Americans, Justified; and Shelley Birse, writer/producer of The Code.

Australian television is undergoing a revolution, albeit a gentle one, in which the voices of screenwriters are rising in volume. It is, in part, a response to the success of risky genre-based dramas such as The Kettering Incident, Wentworth, Top of the Lake and The Code. “I feel like there are more broadcasters prepared to take those kind of risks, more than ever before,” screenwriter Shelley Birse says. “I’ve been writing 20 years, and it feels like the last three or four, the ceiling on what you can get people excited about has just been blown out of the water.”

Birse, who wrote The Code for Playmaker Media, is in Los Angeles as part of a program sponsored by Playmaker’s US parent, Sony Pictures Television.

The program, Scribe, pairs Australian writers with US writers as part of a program to help them develop new work and skill them as writer “showrunners”.

The writer “showrunner” model dominates US television, with most scripted projects steered by a writing producer, typically teamed with a directing producer and several other co-executive producers.

In Australia, the writer’s voice has historically been less prominent and drama development has been network executive led.

“The writers’ rooms are not that different, but the continuation of that writer’s voice into production, that’s where the gulf in Australia has been really different,” Birse says. “That just doesn’t exist. [In the US] the writer’s voice is the loudest and most important all the way through.”

Birse and another writer Glen Dolman, who wrote the award-winning telemovie Hawke for Ten, are the first two writers in the program.

Birse is working with Graham Yost (The Americans, Justified) and Dolman with veteran CSI producer Carol Mendelsohn.

The intention is that Yost and Mendelsohn will continue to steward the two writers, and the projects they are working on, remotely once Birse and Dolman return to Australia.

Playmaker’s David Maher says the scheme is also a reaction to a larger cultural shift in which borders are breaking down and local fine print – such as accents – are mattering far less to international broadcasters who are looking for new content.

“There are no concerns about accents, and parochial storytelling or overt regionality being a barrier, to be able to do that is far less of a concern now than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago when I was working for Fox,” Maher says.

Australia’s success in exporting scripted formats is mixed, though we were unusually early pioneers of the idea.

In the 1980s Grundys, now Fremantle Media, was a prolific seller of scripted soap opera remakes to Europe, including The Restless Years, Sons & Daughters and Prisoner.

More recently, Fremantle’s Wentworth has been reversioned in the Netherlands, Germany and now Belgium, and Maher confirms an Italian adaptation of Playmaker’s drama House Husbands is underway.

In the case of Birse’s The Code, the series was sold – in its current format – to the BBC in Britain and to DirectTV in the US. It has also been sold to Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland and Canada.

Maher hopes the relationships built empower Australian writers and push them out of their comfort zone.

“Empowering writers is the reason we did it, and the chance to access some of those amazingly talented writers, like Graham and Carol,” Maher says.

“It’s an opportunity to bring Australian writers to LA for a week where they can actually sit and work, bringing their ideas and to work with craftsmen like Graham and Carol, it’s just invigorating,” Maher says.”To then get home and have someone like that still there as a long-distance mentor, is very lucky.”

Birse says her experience working with Yost has already paid dividends.

“He will push me to think a bit more boldly and tell me to make some mistakes that I might not be prepared to make without feeling like somebody that experienced is helping hold the wheel a bit,” she says.”I feel like he’s going to give me a lot of shit a long the way,” she adds. “That’s good. He’ll hassle me, give me a hard time, but it’s of the best kind of quality.”

Michael Idato – SMH – August 11 2016

Observance review – low-budget horror that manages to stand its ground

Made on a measly $11,000, Joseph Sims-Dennett’s twitchy psychological thriller is poised on a knife edge between excellence and a cabin-fever B movie – 3 / 5 stars

For 11 days in January 2013, director Joseph Sims-Dennett holed up in an apartment in Rozelle, Sydney and spent $11,000 making his second feature film – roughly the same cost as the duck canapés and gougères served at a Hollywood premiere. Two years later he emerges with Observance: a twitchy, icky, genuinely unsettling psychological thriller about a private investigator who takes on what appears to be a simple, well-paying job.

Observance stars Lindsay Farris as the private investigator, Parker.

From a derelict apartment across the street, all Parker (Lindsay Farris) is employed to do is spy on a woman and report daily updates over the phone to his employer (voiced by Brendan Cowell). Things aren’t as they seem, as these things often go, and Parker – traumatised by the recent death of his young son – spirals into confusion, delusion and possibly madness.

Why is he paid to watch this woman (played by Stephanie King) and who is he working for? When a man on the street mumbles something about her being “a sacrifice” it feels like the film is about to get Wicker Man-style weird. Instead, Sims-Dennett gravitates towards things-that-go-bump-in-the-night style inclinations, largely swapping out plot-based mysteries for spooks part-and-parcel with scary sound effects and gnarly images.

Think body horror and surprise discoveries made during his surveillance, such as an ominous-looking silhouette captured in a photograph and a ghostly voice found on an audio file. Opening images of a beach and coastal rocks are clearly, in some way, important to the riddle of what exactly is happening and why.

The actors speak in American accents, making it clear which market Sims-Dennett was hedging his bets on. Even John Jarratt, a fair dinkum actor if ever there bloody well was one, talks like a yank, arriving to hand over documents to Parker in a car during the dead of night, cloak-and-dagger style.

The director’s gambit appears to have worked. Observance premiered last July at Canada’s Fantasia film festival, where it was greeted enthusiastically. Off the back of a review published in the Hollywood Reporter, Sims-Dennett was contacted by The Weinstein Company and flew to LA to meet representatives.

Observance continues a pattern of Australian films that from the get-go have found more success abroad than at home, including last year’s conversation starter The Suicide Theory (incredibly, the better part of a year later, it is still not available in its home country). The director doesn’t so much extrapolate bang for the buck as an atomic bomb for the buck, or whatever expression reiterates the point that his film sure as hell looks the part.

The atmosphere is largely comprised of small details: lots of close-ups and mid-shots, tied together with an unnerving sense of show and (don’t) tell, as if in most scenes something terrible is bobbing just off frame.

The cinematography of Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson (who was a camera operator on 1998’s Bride of Chucky) is textured with eerie colour-sapped grading. Scenes are tinted in unhealthy-looking shades of green and blue, as if the film is slowly making itself sick.

Sound editors rarely get a guernsey in film reviews, so take a bow David Gaylard and David Williams; their work here is terrific (observe how they mesh together the sounds of the sea with the sound of a train).

There are hints of Roman Polanski’s early films, particularly Repulsion, which was largely based inside an apartment, and Cul-De-Sac, which like Observance features surreal visions of a shoreline – also, when Parker sneaks into “Subject 1’s” apartment in a particularly tense moment, Christopher Nolan’s first feature film, Following.

Sims-Dennett eventually loosens the throat-choking tie grip established in the first half and the film takes on a throbbing intensity, not entirely in a good way. The director indulges in obscene, conventional horror images that feel like shorthand for shock rather than earned scares or suspense. Blood oozing out of a person’s mouth is an easy way to disturb viewers, but feels particularly gratuitous in a film that works studiously hard to get its tone and mood right and – for a while – avoids cheap tricks.

Some of the discipline that defines its early moments is lost when the crunch time comes to start coughing up revelations, or at least hinting at what on earth is happening across the street and in the protagonist’s mind. With a story that gravitates towards cryptic resolutions and an aesthetic that also grows increasingly hallucinogenic, you get a protagonist, a plot and a visual makeup that all feel in danger of spiralling out of control.

In this way Observance feels poised on a knife edge, on some occasions tinkering on the precipice of excellence and on others feeling at risk of slipping into a cabin fever B movie. Somehow Sims-Dennett and his peculiar thriller stand their ground.

Whatever you make of the film’s oblique thinking-person’s ending, and whether or not it cuts the mustard from a storytelling point-of-view, Observance is undoubtedly an impressive achievement.

Luke Buckmaster – The Guardian – Tuesday 5 April 2016

Watch the Observance trailer here:

NCIS: Los Angeles creator Shane Brennan commits $1m per year to Aussie talent

He is one of Australia’s most successful television exports, making his considerable fortune at the helm of the world’s most watched US drama franchises. Now, NCIS showrunner and NCIS: Los Angeles creator Shane Brennan is plunging some of his hard-earned money back into the local industry which gave him his start.

The internationally acclaimed, Bendigo-born screenwriter has committed $1 million a year of his own fortune to fund the development of Australian screenwriting talent, in an unprecedented philanthropic gesture which could help grow more of our own storytellers.

Brennan has teamed with his former script-producing buddy, Tim Pye (an in-demand writer and script consultant on TV favourites including House Husbands and Dr Blake’s Murder Mysteries), launching the fund later this month, in Sydney and Melbourne.

Pye and Brennan have begun canvassing leading production houses and independents for writing talent and scripts to develop and invest in; with a determination to give writers more power and control over their stories, from pre-production to broadcast.

Pye told TV Insider Brennan’s financial support would provide an extraordinary boost to local screenwriters (who often get pushed down the financial and artistic pecking order here — after actors, producers and directors).

“It’s really exciting to have this kind of philanthropy in the Australian marketplace … and shifts the power to writers which is how it happens in the US, where (screenwriters) have much more control.”

Brennan began his career in journalism, but switched to TV writing back in the 1980s; cutting his teeth on local TV productions including Special Squad, The Flying Doctors and All Together Now. It was while working on an Australian-based remake of Flipper that he came to the attention of US television studio bosses.

Brennan travelled back and forth to Hollywood, before jagging his biggest career break, in 2003, on the original NCIS program (now in season 15, starring Mark Harmon and broadcast to more than 200 countries). He is credited with creating the spin-off series, NCIS: Los Angeles (starring Chris O’Donnell, LL Cool J and Linda Hunt) where he has been at the wheel since its launch back in 2009.

Last month it was announced he would be stepping down as showrunner at NCIS: LA after eight seasons and penning 168 episodes.

Holly Byrnes, The Sunday Telegraph – August 7, 2016

Aussie screenwriters in final of Script Pipeline Contest

Michael Noonan.

Aussie writers are among those vying to take out the 2016 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest, with the winner to be announced in Los Angeles this weekend.

The competition, now in its 14th year, aims to discover up-and-coming writers and connect them with producers, agencies, and managers across studio and independent markets.

Finalists are given exposure to Script Pipeline industry partners – approximately 200 qualified contacts – and circulation.

The winning script receives $25,000 and the runner-up gets $1,500. Both receive development consultation.

According to Script Pipeline, over $6 million in specs have been sold from its alumni since 2000.

Brisbane’s Michael Noonan, who is currently teaching film at the University of Monterrey in Mexico, has two scripts in the mix, Alternate Ending and #Escape.

Both scripts were also semi-finalists in the Academy Nicholl Fellowships for Screenwriting; Alternate Ending in 2014, and #Escape in 2015 (then titled The Lupis Escape).

Alternate Ending is a thriller that follows a political candidate who, on the eve of an election, sees the movie version of his life and realises he’s going to be assassinated.

Noonan, who has made a variety of shorts and is a five time Tropfest finalist, told IF he’s been working on the script for about four years, and has gone through about nine drafts.

“I think the latest draft is pretty solid,” said Noonan. “When you write something, you think ‘I’ll get it made next year’. And then four years later you’re still redrafting. It gives you an appreciation of how long these things take with feature films.”

#Escape is a newer script that Noonan workshopped with Screen Queensland last year. A black comedy, it follows the son of a notorious assassin who mounts a crowd funding campaign to finance his father’s jailbreak and flight across the Mexican border.

“Comedy’s always tricky. It’s good just to get in a competition, you think ‘it must be working’,” said Noonan.

“Apart from getting contacts, these competitions are good for just getting a bit of reassurance that something’s alright. A lot of the time you’re on your own, you write the script and you send it off. A lot of the coverage services are pretty brutal and people don’t really give you feedback, and your friends aren’t necessarily honest. This is the most objective feedback you get can get, when someone says ‘it works’.”

Ben Phelps (left) and Gabriel Dowrick.

Sydney-based screenwriters Ben Phelps and Gabriel Dowrick have reached the finals of Script Pipeline for the second time with their script Control Room. They were also finalists in 2012 with a another script, The Hitman’s Cookbook.

Of the decision to enter Control Room in the competition, Phelps told IF that he and Dowrick, who have written around eight screenplays together, “just decided to give it a crack and see how it would be received overseas.”

“We had good fortune with The Hitman’s Cookbook being well received back in 2012 so we’d just decided to see if this film, which is very, very different, would have a similar reaction. And fortunately it has.”

Control Room is an espionage thriller that follows two female ASIO spies who have to cooperate to stop a terrorist attack by ‘hacktivists’ on the Australian Prime Minister – whom the hackers hold accountable for war crimes – during a G20 summit.

“Once upon a time whistle blowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden would have been lauded… These guys are now branded as traitors and find themselves on the run in different jurisdictions overseas,” said Phelps of the story’s inspiration.

“So we decided to think about what would actually happen, what’s the next step for a hacker if releasing the truth doesn’t set us free… if you can’t use logic or truth to generate change, do hackers then start to turn to violence to get a result?”

Despite the fact it’s an Australian-focused story, Phelps believes the reason that the script has garnered a good response in an international competition is its global themes.

Melbourne’s Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini are also in the final for their script Cinderella Must Die, an action adventure “set eight years after happily-ever-after.”

The winner of the 2016 Script Pipeline Competition is announced on July 23 in LA.

[Fri 22/07/2016]

By Jackie Keast

What Types of Low-Budget Films Break Out?

An investigative report from Film Industry Analyst Stephen Follows and Founder of The Numbers Bruce Nash

Breakout indie hits may be some of the most romantic stories in the movie business.

The plucky lone film-maker battles the odds to make their dream film, putting naysayers in their place when it becomes a box office sensation, bringing them fame and fortune beyond their wildest dreams…

But are breakout hits random events that no-one can plan for or do they share some kind of DNA that can teach us how to make successful independent films, and also what genres or techniques to avoid?

To answer these questions, we began with a list of over 3,000 films from The Numbers’ financial database, investigating full financial details, including North American (i.e. “domestic”) and international box office, video sales and rentals, TV and ancillary revenue. We narrowed our focus to study feature films released between 2000 and 2015, budgeted between $500k and $3 million, which generated at least $10 million in Producer’s Net Profit, using a standard distribution model where the distributor charges a 30% fee.

This produced a list of 63 films in total: roughly four films a year over the 15 years under consideration. Almost all of the movies will be familiar to followers of independent film, from small films that became Oscar hopefuls, like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Winter’s Bone to horror movies like Insidious and The Purge that got picked up by the major studios and became box office sensations. With the list in hand, we looked for common themes and found (with a small number of exceptions) that the breakout hits broke down naturally into four types.

Model One: Extreme, Clear-Concept Horror Films

It will come as no surprise to most producers that horror films feature prominently on the list of top low-budget breakout successes.

 Most Profitable Films: Insidious, Monsters, The Devil Inside, Paranormal Activity 2, Dead Snow.

 MPAA Rating: 82% are rated ‘R’, 12% PG-13 and 6% not rated.

 Running Time: Relatively short, with an average of 94 minutes and no film ran over two hours.

 Critical Reviews: Average to poor. Highest rated film in this category is Buried, which has a Metascore of just 65 out of 100. The average Metascore across the dataset was just 49 out of 100.

 Audience Reviews: More supportive than the critics, but still not above average for most films, at an average of 6.2 out of 10 on IMDb.

 Release Patterns: Two very distinct release patterns – half played in fewer than around 100 theatres while the other half played in over 1,500 theatres.

 Income Streams: 30% from theatrical, 64% from home video and 6% from TV and other ancillary income.

 Income Location: 46% of income was from the US & Canada and 54% international.

Model Two: Documentaries with Built-In Audiences and/or Powerful Stories

The second group of films that stood out were documentaries.

 Most Profitable Films: Exit Through the Gift Shop, An Inconvenient Truth, Marley, Tyson, Bowling for Columbine.

 MPAA Rating: A healthy spread across all ratings, with the most common being PG-13.

 Running Time: Average of 102, although a wide range from 80 minutes up to 144 minutes.

 Critical Reviews: Very high, with a Metascore average of 79 out of 100.

 Audience Reviews: Very high, an average IMDb rating of 7.8 out of 10.

 Release Pattern: Small number of theatres, with most playing in under 250 theatres and the widest release being An Inconvenient Truth in 587 theatres.

 Income Streams: 75% of income comes from home video, 18% theatrical and 7% via other sources.

 Income Location: 58% international and 42% domestic.

Critical reviews seem vital for this type of film to break out and it’s interesting to note that the documentaries with the lowest scoring critical ratings (The September Issue at 69 and Religulous at 56) each had strong inbuilt audiences (‘Vogue / fashion’ and ‘Bill Maher / religious scepticism’).

In fact, only a handful of the documentaries on the list don’t have an obvious audience: Man on Wire, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, and Searching for Sugar Man are the only ones that needed to find a crowd. The others were either about someone already very famous (Marley, Tyson, Senna, Amy… note the one-name titles!) or played very directly to a receptive audience (Inside Job, Blackfish, An Inconvenient Truth etc).

Model Three: Validating, Feel-Good Religious Films

Speaking of receptive audiences, the third group of films we found were faith-based films.

 Most Profitable Films: Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, To Save a Life, War Room, Courageous.

 MPAA Rating: Two-thirds were rated PG and the remaining third were PG-13.

 Running Time: Fairly long, all were over 110 minutes and the average was two hours.

 Critical Reviews: Incredibly poor, with an average Metascore of just 26 out of 100.

 Audience Reviews: Similar to the horror pool, with an average IMDb rating of 6.3 out of 10.

 Type of Release: An average of 1,273 theatres with the widest being War Room at 1,945 theatres.

 Income Streams: 60% from home video, 31% from theatrical and 9% from television and other ancillary streams.

 Income Location: 90% of income came from North American sources with just 10% coming from outside the US and Canada.

Two things stand out with these films. First, they make virtually all of their money in the United States. Second, they get very bad reviews from mainstream movie reviewers. The strength of these movies isn’t necessarily their quality so much as the message; they deliver to an audience that is interested in what they have to say.

Model Four: Very High Quality Dramas

At the other end of the spectrum, at least in the eyes of professional film reviewers, come very high quality dramas. Almost half of these films were American productions, with the rest coming from a wide variety of countries including Germany, Argentina, Mexico, the UK, France and Poland.

 Most Profitable US Dramas: Half Nelson, Waitress, Blue Valentine, Fruitvale Station.

 Most Profitable Foreign Dramas: The Lives of Others, The Motorcycle Diaries, Amores Perros, Sin Nombre.

 MPAA Rating: The vast majority are R-rated, with just a third being rated PG-13.

 Running Time: A wide range, from 81 minutes up to 154 minutes long.

 Critical Reviews: Extremely high, with an average Metascore of 81 out of 100.

 Audience Reviews: Similarly high, with an average IMDb rating of 7.5 out of 10.

 Type of Release: Small release, with all but four playing to fewer than 300 theatres.

 Income Streams: 67% from home video, 27% from theatrical and 6% from other sources.

 Income Location: 66% of income for US dramas came from the US and Canada, whereas the reverse was true with non-US dramas, with 64% of income coming from international sources.

The lowest rated film in this category received a Metascore of 68 out of 100, which was higher than all of the films within the Horror breakout success category.

A common thread among these films is awards attention. While they might not be big enough to win a lot of main-category Oscars, these are the films that have picked up a bunch of Independent Spirit Awards, Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and got some screenwriting and/or acting Oscar nominations.

Do the Films Have to be Any Good?

An interesting finding from this research is that the quality of the film is only relevant for certain types of films.

Religious films received extremely low ratings from critics but had mixed ratings from audiences.

 Horror films showed a range: some were disliked by both audiences and critics (such as The Devil Inside), while others had middling support from both camps (such as Monsters) and then there were films which audiences enjoyed but critics were lukewarm towards (such as Dead Man’s Shoes).

 Documentaries and Dramas were all popular with audiences and the vast majority also received extremely high ratings from critics.

If we plot this on a graph, we can see just how distinct these three sub-categories are:

What’s Missing?

Many of the films in the list come as no surprise, but what’s interesting is what’s missing from the list. We found…

 Virtually no comedies (Waiting… is the only out-and-out comedy on the list, and it was made at the peak of the DVD sales boom)

 No action movies

 No thrillers

 No musicals

 Virtually nothing directed at kids — Dr. Dolittle 3 was the only family movie that made our list — although we believe some animated franchises such as Barbie are very profitable but their budgets aren’t quite in our range.

Aside from the missing genres, the other notable absence is any major star involvement. Of course, this is largely a function of the budget—it’s hard to get Tom Cruise for a $3 million film—but it’s remarkable that none of these films attracted anybody who would even be called a B-list star at the time the film was made.

Lessons for Filmmakers and Producers from this Research

So we think there are a few lessons for independent film-makers who are hoping to make breakout hits:

 Some “niche” audiences are large enough to make for a very profitable market, if you can reach them. The “faith-based” film audience stands out, but there are also receptive audiences for certain types of documentaries. Having a very clear idea of your audience is the first step to making a financially successful film.

 If you’re aiming for a more general audience, quality matters. A lot. Honing your screenplay to what you think is perfection and then having it ripped apart at a workshop may be hard work, but it’s almost certainly what it takes to get a dramatic film to ultimately work with audiences, and to make back its investment.

 Look for good actors, not big stars, and do the same with all of the technical crew on a film. Fun fact: Affonso Goncalves, who edited list member Beasts of the Southern Wild also edited fellow list member Winter’s Bone and 2016 Oscar nominee Carol. Finding a good editor, cinematographer, production designer and other key members of the crew is more important for a low-budget film than blowing a big chunk of your budget on a famous (or, just as likely, previously-famous) actor or actress.

The Full List of Films

This analysis looked at feature films released between 2000 and 2015 budgeted between $500k and $3 million and which we estimate generated at least $10 million in Producer’s Net Profit. The films which fit our criteria are listed below.


1 Bowling for Columbine 2002 72 8 $3,000,000

2 The Lives of Others 2006 89 8.5 $2,000,000

3 War Room 2015 26 6.2 $3,000,000

4 God’s Not Dead 2014 16 4.9 $1,150,000

5 An Inconvenient Truth” 2006 75 7.5 $1,000,000

6 Garden State 2004 67 7.6 $2,500,000

7 Insidious 2010 52 6.8 $1,500,000

8 Fireproof 2008 28 6.5 $500,000

9 Paranormal Activity 2 2010 53 5.7 $3,000,000

10 Hustle & Flow 2005 68 7.4 $2,800,000

Showing 1 to 10 of 63 entries. See the full list here:

What Types of Low-Budget Films Break Out?


 The financial figures come from a variety of sources, including people directly connected to the films, verified third-party data and computation models based on partial data and industry norms. It is possible that one or two of the individual figures are different to our predictions, though en masse we are confident of the larger picture.

 The number of theatres relates to the widest point of the film’s North American release.

About the Authors

Stephen Follows is a writer, producer and film industry analyst. In addition to film analytics, Stephen is an award-winning writer-producer and runs a production company based in Ealing Studios, London.

Bruce Nash is founder and President of Nash Information Services, LLC, the premier provider of movie industry data and research services and operator of The Numbers, a web site that provides box office and video sales tracking, and daily industry news.

July 2016 –

Short Cuts: Anna Snoekstra’s debut novel heads for a Hollywood movie with Emma Stone and Julianne Moore

Anna Snoekstra must have wondered where her life was heading as she wrote her first novel while working nights at the Kino cinema in Melbourne. But even before Only Daughter is published in September, the film rights have been sold to no less than Working Title, the Universal Pictures-owned production company whose recent films include The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl, Les Miserables and the coming Bridget Jones’s Baby. Even better, a script has been written by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary, The Girl on the Train) with talk of Emma Stone and Julianne Moore starring, pending a director being attached.

A delighted Snoekstra, who is just 28, tells Short Cuts the film rights to the psychological thriller were sold from a single line in the Publishers Marketplace newsletter that described the novel: a 25-year-old fugitive caught shoplifting pretends to be a decade-long missing girl and moves in with her family.

“It’s about growing up in Canberra but in America they just went crazy for it,” she says. The film, The New Winter, is to be set in Arizona. Snoekstra, who studied creative writing and cinema at the University of Melbourne then screenwriting at RMIT, has also worked as a waitress, barista, nanny, film reviewer, receptionist and “cheesemonger”. She started writing Only Daughter as a script then, finding it difficult to break into film, turned it into a novel. Having sold her second and third novels, Snoekstra is also writing a script with US-based Bronte Payne that they want to shoot in Australia.

Garry Maddox – SMH – July 20 2016

‘Increasingly Dire’ Film Industry Has Fewer Winning Films, Studios (Analyst)

The film industry faces an “increasingly dire” outlook as audiences continue to shrink in the U.S., with too many studios producing too many tentpole films, which end up cannibalizing each other’s audiences, analyst Doug Creutz reported Friday.

The Cowen and Company entertainment expert said that there is no easy solution for Hollywood studios but that a “slow-moving consolidation” is the likely end result.

In “Another Memo to Hollywood. Prediction? Pain,” Creutz says the industry’s woes are demonstrated by the fifth consecutive year in which domestic box office demand “has taken a step function lower.” The fight for remaining audiences has become increasingly fierce as “the market appears to be condensing into fewer, but bigger, hits,” as studios crank out more films in the $100 million-plus budget range.

The analyst reports that, when the video game industry faced a similar dilemma, with fewer but bigger hits, it resulted in dramatic change. Rather than a series of mergers — the preferred result — a number of big gaming companies simply went out of the business, including THQ, Midway, Acclaim, Atari and LucasArts.

A similar breakdown in the film industry would not help investors, Creutz wrote.

“We note that even the stocks of the eventual survivors of the video game shakeout didn’t do well during most of this period, until their recent spectacular out-performance,” the Cowen report says.

Creutz offers a welter of stats to back up his contraction argument: “Last year, over 25% of total box office came from just five films, well above the average of roughly 16% from 2001-14 and the prior peak of 19% in 2012.” He called this a “consistent phenomenon.”

The top grossing films each week accounted for 33% of total box office in both 2015 and 2016, almost twice the average of 18% that prevailed in 2011-13, Creutz wrote.

And No. 1 films tend to persist, he said, noting the “nigh-unexplainable” persistence of films like “American Sniper” in 2015 and “Deadpool” this year.

It’s not only the few films, but the few studios that are taking most of the spoils.

While Disney and Universal’s combined profits were up 54% year over year and, collectively, managed 70% of total industry profit, the other studios saw profits drop 40%. “We expect this type of volatility to continue due to the narrowing of the window for hit films,” at least until there is a “likely slow-moving, consolidation,” Creutz wrote.

In many other industries, the consolidation might move more quickly, Creutz contends. But the entertainment business puts weight not just on profits but on concepts like “prestige” and “star power,” Creutz wrote. He said it would make sense for Viacom to sell Paramount — a move that is reportedly under consideration — but suggested a deal might be difficult because Viacom’s exit from the movie business would be seen as “diminishing its importance and reputation in Hollywood.”

Creutz predicts tough sledding for most of the studios in 2016, though he adds: “We expect that one or two of the companies will likely outperform our generally negative view; however, we also think picking the winners at this point is a high-risk proposition.”

A summary of some of the analyst’s predictions:

DISNEY: He calls the studio “the lead dog” and sees likely “outsized hits” in “Captain America: Civil War,” “Finding Dory” and “Star Wars: Rogue One.” But even the industry leader will face stiff competition with April’s “The Jungle Book” and its July distribution of “The BFG” for DreamWorks. Despite huge performance, Creutz worries “that investors are capitalizing what in retrospect may prove to be peak studio margins at a very high multiple.”

WARNER BROTHERS: Creutz is concerned about the company’s broad slate of 18 films for 2016, though he expressed some optimism for “likely success” in a new entry in the “Harry Potter” franchise and the kickoff of a two-film-a-year series of DC Comic films, beginning this month with “Batman vs. Superman.” A drag on performance could come from mid-budgeted films like “The Nice Guys,” “Central Intelligence,” “Sully,” “Storks,” “The Accountant” and “Collateral Beauty.” If the DC films underperform, he said, “then results could be very disappointing.”

FOX: Starting the year with runaway hit “Deadpool” sits well, but the studio’s year rests largely with three big summer sequels: “X Men Apocalypse,” “Independence Day: Resurgence” and “Ice Age: Collision Course.” Cruetz concluded: “We tend to think ‘Deadpool’ was more luck than skill (plus a heavy dose of passion from Ryan Reynolds) and so we don’t necessarily expect any success this year to be sustained.”

PARAMOUNT: “We see little hope for a significant turnaround in operating performance over the longer term, and expect this year to be characterized by continued struggles.” Creutz cites “indifferent film quality,” as an issue and too many “Zoolander 2”-type films to make up for winning franchises like “Mission Impossible,” “Star Trek” and “Transformers.”

LIONSGATE: Predicts “an uphill climb” to get back to better profitability, with focus on low- to mid-budget films and some bigger swings, like the $140-million-budget “Gods of Egypt,” missing the mark. Creutz sees a “struggle,” given the competition, for upcoming sequels such as “Divergent: Allegiant” and “Now You See Me Two.”

DREAMWORKS ANIMATION: “We think that being the 4th- or 5th- or 6th-best animated studio (behind Disney Feature Animation, Pixar, Illumination, and arguably Blue Sky and/or Warner Bros.) is not a good place to be.” Creutz worries that upcoming “Trolls” (November, 2016) and “The Boss Baby” (March 2017) will tough time in midst of competition from other animation and tentpole offerings.

James Rainey – Variety – March 4, 2016

And the Oscar for Profitability Goes to … ‘The Martian’

Experts help THR analyze the financial forecast for ‘Spotlight’ and the seven other best picture noms, factoring in budgets, marketing and awards campaign spending.

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight may have won the Oscar for best picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, but The Martian walked away with another kind of gold.

That’s according to The Hollywood Reporter’s analysis of the financial performance of victor Spotlight and the seven best-picture nominees, including Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

See below for which movies will turn a profit, or lose money. Production budgets hardly tell the whole story, since there are all sorts of hidden costs, including marketing and money spent on award campaigns. THR relied on several experts to compare total expenses against box-office returns and ancillary revenue from home entertainment and television.

In some cases, the movies were made and financed independently, such as Room, meaning their U.S. distributor won’t necessarily incur the loss.

box office

3/3/2016 by Pamela McClintock – THR

Andrew Knight on Jack Irish: “I’m really pleased with it”

Asked how he’s doing after a whirlwind year, screenwriter Andrew Knight is characteristically understated: “I’m alive and trying to construct a breakfast at the moment”. In between film work last year, Knight wrote new seasons of Rake and Jack Irish simultaneously, a process he calls “a blur”.

The new Jack begins tonight – a six-part series instead of the earlier telemovies.

Knight calls the change “liberating. We had more time to tell a story. The hard part was working out where everything would fall. We had an overall story, but assigning things episodically was a constant trade-off and shifting game”.

“I worked closely with the other two writers, Matt Cameron and Andrew Anastasios. The three of us would go away and write our bits, then we’d come back and say – that needs to move, this needs to shift”.

“If you’re just writing a tele-movie, you know where you’re starting, you know where you’re ending, you know where the cards will fall. It’s harder to work out over six hours. Right up to shooting we were saying ‘uh-uh, this doesn’t belong here’. Even in the cut we moved quite a few things”.

“You’ve got more time to spend with characters. The tension with a series like Jack Irish is that you want the humour and the warmth of the characters, but sometimes if it’s not plot-related they can feel like spackle. Thrillers demand plot. It’s a constant balancing act”.

“It was harder in the telemovies to cut to the guys at the bar or Harry (Roy Billing) and Cam (Aaron Pedersen). I would artificially weave plot in there, just so the audience feels like you haven’t completely walked away from the story, and sometimes that makes it just a little bit muddy. I felt I muddied up the first telemovie, the one I wrote”.

“I hadn’t done thrillers before. I think I was probably trying to put too much of the book in there. As John Collee said, books are contemplative and films are immersive, and the distance between that is really rather great.

The first two episodes of the new series are directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith, the rest by Mark Joffe and Daniel Nettheim. Knight describes a helter-skelter shoot.

“In England you’d get fifteen days per episode to shoot something. We get half that time: seven and a half days per ep. You don’t have thinking time once you go”.

“[Essential’s Ian] Collie and I had to be constantly thinking: where the hell are we in this series? As my father in law once said: it’s a bit like trying to fart Annie Laurie through a keyhole – it’s an achievement, but you want to make sure the end result is something you want”.

The new series is the first whose plot has not been taken from one of Peter Temple’s original novels, a change Knight calls “great and fearful at the same time. You don’t want to lose his voice – the Temple tone or humour. But it was also fantastic to be able to keep his world but come up with a plot that we owned”.

The TV veteran calls the changing landscape for local drama on the small screen “an absolute thrill. I think we’re doing some really interesting stuff”.

But Knight also sounds a note of warning.

“I think the problem is that we don’t have enough long-running series. 26-parters. Because nobody’s going to risk a six-hour, eight-hour series, on new talent. And new talent has to find a starting level”.

“When I started at Crawfords as a production manager and producer, they were pumping out hours and hours of soaps and series. Even though at the time I hated what I was working on, you definitely picked up a skill base, you definitely understood how the process worked, you definitely understood what a screenwriter did as opposed to a novelist, you definitely began to understand how to work under pressure and with urgency – and that’s missing now”.

“I would really love to see the ABC find time-slots for new talent. I started with John Clarke and the Working Dog guys. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we learnt it”.

“At the same time, I think the industry is in a spectacular place now”.

Selling War and Peace to the Russians: global cash drives UK drama

As BBC shows off its high-quality drama to international buyers, producers balance home values with global appeal

For its 6 million Sunday-night viewers, BBC1’s recent Tolstoy adaptation War and Peace felt like a classic British costume drama, with cut-glass production and a blue-chip cast. The average licence-fee payer wouldn’t realise that, like the majority of UK TV drama in 2016, the series was made with money from all over the world. BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm, has already sold War and Peace to dozens of countries – including Russia – and will this week present it to 700 more international TV buyers, at the company’s annual Showcase event in Liverpool. Its star James Norton will make a personal experience at a glitzy on-stage sales pitch on Monday night.

But does so much international funding put the purity of Britain’s prized TV drama heritage in danger, with big BBC series being made to satisfy lucrative viewers in America – or, God forbid, in Germany?

Helen Jackson, BBC Worldwide’s chief creative officer, believes not. “To get a show right, you need to be clear who is the lead creative commissioner,” she says, explaining that Worldwide’s role was to help fund the public-service BBC’s vision.

“War and Peace started with BBC Wales, who commissioned the writer Andrew Davies to develop the initial script. At the point when the BBC decided they wanted to move forward with it, we at Worldwide got more heavily involved in the financing.”

The show became a co-production between the BBC, BBC Worldwide, the British independent production company Lookout Point and US studio The Weinstein Company. It was, says, Lookout Point co-chief executive Simon Vaughan, a “collaborative” process, rather than one in which the Americans started to throw their weight around. “If Harvey [Weinstein] or anybody else had script notes, everybody’s always interested to hear what those are,” he says. “Good notes are good notes, no matter where they come from – but it was always clear that there was one primary customer, the BBC.”

Vaughan adds that Weinstein himself added value for British viewers, particularly by delivering the kind of cast that even the BBC might struggle to attract by itself.

“There’s no question that when actors such as Lily James are being offered lots of different parts, Harvey’s weight – and his personal relationships with talent – are a massive factor,” says Vaughan.

Certainly, British TV drama talent – both in front of the camera and behind it – is in greater demand than ever before. US networks are co-producing ever more British shows (such as Showtime with Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful), and now the insurgent online TV providers are snapping up huge runs of British-produced drama (most notably Netflix’s The Crown, made by London indie Left Bank). Experienced writers, such as costume-drama doyen Davies, are in particularly high demand. “What we want to hear from a writer is the thing they want to do most, not the thing they want to do next,” says Vaughan, who has signed up Davies to adapt Les Misérables. “Our deal in return is that we’ll get it made, or die trying.”

British producers and broadcasters also have to adapt to changing tastes at home.

“Viewers’ growing familiarity with what’s available on Amazon or on Netflix increases the appetite for things that feel like they have a real global scale,” says BBC Worldwide’s Jackson – though she adds that that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive runs of 13 or 22 episodes, as is traditional in America. “It’s more that people want to build franchises with a longer life. There’s not a huge volume of Sherlock, but it’s so deeply loved and anticipated that it has a really important place.”

Another cult hit, the sci-fi drama Humans, was developed for Channel 4 alone – but ultimately became a co-production with the US network AMC. That American money, says C4’s head of drama Piers Wenger, allowed the show to reach the kind of scale that would appeal to today’s British viewers. “To put it bluntly, it allowed us to do robots well,” he says. “Making sci-fi work for a mainstream audience, at 9pm, meant rendering it so that it didn’t feel in any way homemade.”

Wenger also counsels against seeing Netflix and Amazon as invaders, whose only purpose is to suck up British talent and put it behind their paywall.

“To think that America is asset-stripping the UK is missing the point,” he says. “What the US has got wise to is that the UK’s TV drama is an incredibly valuable cultural export – and that is largely driven by the BBC and Channel 4. So there’s a happy and helpful symbiosis between the two.” Netflix is co-funding the upcoming E4 series Kiss Me First – which, as a result, can have a budget more than double what the digital channel usually pays.

As well as high production values, British viewers are now much more used to seeing European dramas – which opens the door to foreign-language co-productions with British broadcasters. “I think The Killing was the show that changed things,” says Elaine Pyke, who, as head of Sky Atlantic, commissioned the first big UK-French co-production, in the shape of The Tunnel. “The great thing about The Tunnel, as a co-production, was that it felt creatively natural – it wasn’t just a bit of foreign casting. So it didn’t worry me that half of it was in French.”

Pyke is now co-founder and executive producer at the indie New Pictures, which makes co-productions Indian Summers for Channel 4 (and PBS in America) and mega-hit The Missing for BBC1 (and US cable channel Starz). “In The Missing, Tchéky Karyo – who is neither British or American – is the returning star for series two,” says Pyke. “Isn’t that interesting? That’s the brilliant thing about co-producing – when everyone involved can see what’s great creatively, and go with that.”

But, stresses Pyke, the increasing flow of international money doesn’t in any way diminish the role of the traditional British broadcasters. “They are still very key to our business as producers – they are absolutely our backbone,” she says. “And that’s why it’s important not to forget about contemporary British stories. I’m really glad that Happy Valley still gets 8 million viewers on BBC1, because it’s bloody brilliant: great stories, well told, brilliantly written.”

Neil Midgley – The Guardian – Monday 22 February 2016