Chrys Phillips: Disrupting the Australian TV Narrative With Counter Play

April 3, 2018
Returning to Australia after working extensively in the US television industry, Chrys Phillips saw a gap in the market for a high end, high-glamour series about manipulation, mendacity, and social scheming, The result is Counter Play.

“Million-dollar coastline, luxury cars and high-end couture is the scenic city of South Point… where wealth and corruption live side by side. Three affluent, powerful families believe their secrets shall never surface. However, for the Cornwalls, Haynesworths, and Morgans, life as they know it is about to be derailed. In an effort to keep untold truths, devious plans and family scandals hidden, everyone is out for themselves and no one can truly be trusted. False identities, blackmail, greed, murder and love triangles ensue in this dangerously handsome and insidious town.”

That, in the shell of a nut, is the gist of Counter Play, a glamorous story of deception and social maneuvering set in an affluent coastal suburb. It’s the brainchild of Chrys Phillips, a former expat and veteran of the LA TV industry who saw room in the Australian TV landscape for a bitchy, gossipy drama in the vein of the CW’s best. Finding no love from the usual outlets and funding bodies, she put the show together herself, casting her daughter, Mikaela, in a key role and funding a web series season. Now, having accrued 1.5 million views, both Amazon and Channel 9 have come a-calling…

What was the initial impetus for Counter Play?

I was over living in LA for seven years working on location of a few high-end TV shows there, and when I got home I just noticed nothing had really changed in Australian TV so I thought, why don’t I do a web series to keep my creativity alive and to give Australian actors a chance to platform onto a type of show that we don’t really film here? So that was really the background idea and the passion behind it.

How would you say the show differs from our usual programming?

Most of the shows that we watch here are either police oriented or we’ve got our Home and Away and Neighbours. Every so often we’ve got family-orientated shows as well. But we never get something that’s marketed like a Pretty Little Liars or Gossip Girl-type high end TV show, so I wanted to do something that captured that edge of the market. And we’ve done it quite well, which has been great. We’ve got things like Ferraris, helicopters, and high-end labels, so we’ve had fun living the high life doing the show. But that’s what I mean by something different – not the usual kind of show that we tune into in Australia.

How do you realise that kind of production value on the limited budget of a self-funded web series?

So, working in LA on shows that were pilots on anything from Hallmark to Discovery to the CW, to being on location with the TV show Revenge, you see how sometimes when they’re on the road, whether it’s a big production or small, they can sometimes only use one camera and it comes down to the acting and the lighting, so I thought “When I go home I’ll do something like that.” When I started the web series I made a decision that if I could get people to offer us some freebies in exchange for credit on the show, then I could go ahead with it; because there was no way that any of the guilds or Australian broadcasting would ever fund my idea, because it wasn’t considered the usual Australian content. So it’s really been budgeted through my grocery bill! I figure out ‘okay, I need a hundred bucks for this, or I need $200 for an editor’ – it’s really just coming through me.

Who’s your audience?

We got about 1.5 million views on the web series version and now that we’ve been picked up by Channel 9 for two seasons and Amazon Prime for two seasons, we’ve still got a lot of those people on social media wanting to see the upgraded TV version, so the foundations are waiting and we just need to get ready to launch.

How did the show come to be picked up by Amazon and 9?

We had done the web series and it went live and it just went crazy – we got 1.5 million views without any marketing, which proves that is what people want to watch. It was all very exciting for all of us. Then I got a phone call from a contact of mine in LA who said, “Chris this is great – I just watched it. Why aren’t you doing any more of it? Why aren’t you pitching it to Amazon or Netflix?” So I went through the protocols re: quality control, building the show up to a TV level, and they [Amazon] watched it and approved it, which was so exciting. Then I re-contacted someone I knew at Channel 9 who said “We have to acquisition this for Australia. We would like to acquisition the two seasons.” So, it sounds like it was easy but there was a lot of behind the scenes work over a number of months.

In transitioning to television, how has the show changed?

The web series is, for lack of a better word, dead. It’s taken a lot of time, money and resources getting it up to the quality of a high end show, of a Gossip Girl or anything that you watch on a network level. So we’ve really altered the depths, the themes, and the production.

Your daughter, Mikaela Phillips, stars in the series. What’s your working dynamic like?

She was in LA from a very young age when I packed everything up and brought her over there – she was 15. She did a bit of work over there. And when the time came to do the web series I said, “Okay, you be Faith Morgan”. Working on a low budget, without any outside funding, I had to wear every hat. Mikaela has taken on the responsibilities of assisting production and showrunner. A lot of people have called us the Aussie Gilmore Girls – we have that kind of banter. It works quite well- we have a unique relationship.

When can Australian audiences expect to see the series?

Our exact launch date we’ll find out in a few weeks, but we’re booked in for somewhere between June and July.

Keep track of Counter Play over at the official site

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