Forecast for 2020: Winds of Evolution, Challenges and a Chance of Streaming Optimism

December 18, 2019
With 2020 looming, we spoke to several key industry figures to get their predictions as to which trends will impact local production, why market adaptation is essential, plus a look at what the next decade will bring.

With the dominant talk around new platforms, a rapidly evolving content market and with local producers wanting to capitalise on the unprecedented global opportunities, the idea of evolution is one of the themes reiterated by many in the industry.

Traditional broadcasters and platforms face mounting challengers and challenges with the focus on large-scale productions with international appeal, with many wondering how they can keep up with the constant turbulence.

Amidst the slew of obstacles to traditional broadcasters from new platforms with alternate ideologies (Amazon, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Stan, Apple TV+, Peacock); evolution is an idea that must be embraced and thoroughly put into practice – from creators and producers to financiers and distributors.

With the compelling need to have globally minded productions, the prime and current example of such an approach is Netflix series Clickbait; co-created by Australian producer Tony Ayres (The Slap, Glitch) and novelist-screenwriter Christian White (Creswick, Relic). A cyber-crime thriller with an estimated budget of around $36 million, Clickbait is produced by Melbourne-based Matchbox Pictures (which Ayres co-founded), his Tony Ayres Productions, and UK company Heyday Television for the US streaming platform and NBCUniversal.

Heyday Television is the TV arm of US super producer David Heyman, who was behind the Harry Potter series, Gravity, Marriage Story and Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.

The complex and unprecedented tie-ups between Australian and international companies with traditional and non-traditional partners, is illustrative of how global, innovative and unpredictable the market has become.

Just recently, Hollywood stars Adrian Grenier (The Devil Wears Prada, Entourage) and Zoe Kazan (Wildlife, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) were announced as the headline stars of the 8-part social media-themed drama, along with upcoming actor Betty Gabriel (Get Out, Upgrade).

A locally created, shot and produced series, engineered for the international marketplace from the get-go, the marquee talent and strategy of Clickbait is a case study in the exact type of high-profile, world-facing content that financiers, distributors and Australian key players are aiming to produce.

Forging international partnerships is an innovative strategy that needs to be embraced and encouraged early in the producing process, as Film Victoria Production Executive Alicia Brown recently told us. With a significant view to global finance and production, more local players are seeking overseas partners and distribution deals early in the planning stages. By doing this, Australian creators are better placed to compete with others around the world and stimulate international buyer demand.

Addressing this international, wide-open marketplace, Film Victoria CEO Caroline Pitcher [above] said at the recent Screen Forever conference in Melbourne: “You start with an idea. You think about the audience and then you think about who is the best partner that you want to distribute that story to.

“There are endless options in that regard.”

To illustrate the opportunities such global, “user-friendly” ideas can create, Clickbait isn’t just replete with global stars, which it has been able to attract with ease. The major production will also create a showcase for emerging Aussie talents, and provide an economic boon for local actors, crew and tourism.

Australian actor Phoenix Raei (The Heights) will have a supporting role in the thriller, which will provide a big opportunity for the rising Aussie who was recently named one of Casting Guild of Australia’s 2019 Rising Stars.

Being shot at Melbourne’s Docklands Studios, with its recent renewal and significant injection of funding, last year it hosted the US series Preacher.

Clickbait will also employ the services an estimated 540 cast, crew and extras and use the services of 290 local businesses.

It coincides with the commencement of filming for Paramount Television series Shantaram, produced for Apple TV+, which just began an 11-month shoot at Docklands Studios.

Whilst practitioners, who are racing to keep up with the needs of an ever-changing market, should be aware and mindful of the surging, global opportunities; according to Pitcher, her advice to producers is that the story must come first.

“I don’t think you’re making something necessarily for Netflix, but you’re making something for your audience, by which Netflix might be the best fit for that idea,” the Film Victoria CEO added.

Speaking to FilmInk, Stuart Baxter, President of International Distribution at Entertainment One [eOne], (Peppa Pig, The Rookie, John Wick: Chapter 3, Upright), believes there are both challenges and unprecedented opportunities available to Australian creators and producers.

“With an abundance of shows being created and commissioned, the global scripted market is more buoyant than ever before, bringing great opportunity. We’re also seeing an upward scope of the breadth and scale of projects. However, even with the increased number of projects, there is still a finite number of great talent, writers and showrunners – so the best talent is being pursued for more projects which drives prices up and inflation across the industry,” Baxter told FilmInk.

“In some markets it’s manageable, but traditional broadcasters don’t always have the capacity to increase their budgets infinitely like the growing players do (i.e. SVODs) which makes it harder to compete,” he added.

Baxter, who oversees eOne’s global sales team, manages the distributor’s combined Television and Film international sales. The company’s scripted slate includes The Walking Dead, spinoff Fear The Walking Dead and premium HBO drama Sharp Objects.

According to Baxter, another change which producers should be aware of in 2020, is traditional networks teaming up with cashed up, new platforms and distributors, to finance content.

“The traditional broadcasters are looking for partners to finance shows via co-productions and/or distributors. While this can be a challenge, we see this as an opportunity as eOne can operate as both on a global basis. With a platform agnostic approach, we operate on a content-first strategy focusing on the creative and best talent for the project.”

Seven Studios recently confirmed plans to co-produce a rejigged Packed To The Rafters with Amazon Prime Video. The series is the first Amazon Original scripted drama commission in Australia. Back to the Rafters will see the full original cast return for this iteration.

The revival is seen as a landmark Australian coup which Amazon can offer to its global subscribers.

This new trend shows no signs of abating. The ABC co-produces the successful series The Unlisted with Netflix, which arrived on the heels of the ABC-Netflix drama Glitch, and Pine Gap; a US-Australian mini-series set around the world of American and Australian joint defence intelligence.

Demonstrating the new world order of international tie-ups, which are uniting traditional broadcasters and new streamers in partnership, SBS-commissioned series Safe Harbour, which just won an International Emmy Award for Best TV/Miniseries, aired on Hulu in the US and BBC4 in the UK.

Baxter, who is overseeing a number of series including eOne’s hit streaming comedy The Other Guy, which has been a success for two streaming platforms (Hulu in the US, Stan in Australia), noted that the international appetite for shows from all over the globe, is one international distributors like eOne are keen to capitalise on.

“Audiences are exposed to and appreciating more international fare than ever before. We do see bringing international partners to these projects as a big opportunity for us and to the market in general. For example, eOne series Upright is a project created with Foxtel in Australia and Sky in the UK. While it’s very Australian-based, the issues and themes are universal, and the quality is extraordinarily high which is attractive in building audiences around the world.”

Recent series The Cry was produced for the BBC in the UK, and the ABC in Australia. ABC comedy Frayed, written by and starring Sarah Kendall, was co-produced with UK broadcaster Sky.

Upcoming mystery series The Gloaming (Ewan Leslie, Emma Booth), which premieres New Year’s Day 2020 on Stan, was a co-production between Disney Television Studios, ABC Studios International and the Australian streamer.

Clickbait, is a co-production between Film Victoria, Australia’s Matchbox Pictures, and Netflix. The starry cyber-thriller, like series Shantaram and Upright, point towards a rise in demand from platforms for further content, specifically premium drama series – a key trend for 2020 Baxter doesn’t see waning – especially with anticipated, hungry platforms launching next year (NBCU platform Peacock, HBO Max).

“As we see Peacock, Warner Media, HBO Max and Quibi launching next year and new players still arriving, we think growth is going to continue in the short to medium term. We’re also starting to see the documentary space expanding with more high-end and feature docs. In today’s world, that is economically challenged and saturated by various news cycles, escapism is a very common proposition, so as a result series like Private Eyes and The Rookie are also on the rise”.

Whilst many Australian producers face uphill battles, getting the budget and distributors they need, Baxter, who is working on several Australian projects; emphasises the importance for Aussie producers to work with international partners and look at the big picture, in the pre-production stages of a project.

“We’re seeing more proactive, early-stage partners helping to finance and produce shows on a much more international scale. Instead of just focusing on a home market, distributors can now source projects from all over the world. For instance, at eOne we have Between Two Worlds, Upright, and The Other Guy which are all Australian projects. Our series Nurses originated with Corus in Canada and Ransom in France,” Baxter added.

At Screen Forever, innovation and evolution were themes mirrored in the feature film landscape, according to Madman founder and managing director Paul Wiegard.

A leading theatrical independent distributor, Madman has a current theatrical slate including the recent AACTA-winning documentary The Australian Dream, and the acclaimed film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (to be released in cinemas 26 December).

Whilst Madman is best known for handling the theatrical distribution of films in Australia and New Zealand, the boom in online content consumption has led the company to expand into offering supplementary online platforms which cater to the company’s pre-existing customers.

Alongside Madman’s core business of theatrical, the company offers three SVOD services targeted at niche, underserved audiences – AnimeLab, Garage and DocPlay.

Launched in 2014, AnimeLab is Madman’s specialist VOD animation platform, devoted to lovers of Japanese cartoons. It offers viewers thousands of episodes of series including Naruto, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Super. It also provides selected content from Adult Swim’s (Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force) back catalogue, and is priced at AUD $8.99 a month, or $89.99 a year. A free option is available. It is targeted at a niche customer base which Madman has been able to corner – and counts over 100,000 monthly subscribers.

Garage is aimed similarly at another niche market – adventure sports and adrenaline junkies. Garage brands itself as having “the world’s most comprehensive adventure sports film and TV library”.

DocPlay, costing AUD $7.99 a month or $79.99 a year, is Madman’s carefully curated non-fiction platform aimed at another specialist audience. Available in Australian and New Zealand, it offers documentaries on a host of subjects including fashion (The First Monday in May) and cricket (Death of a Gentleman), amongst its offerings. Over 35 percent of its material is Australia and New Zealand-produced.

The services allow Madman to utilise their own existing properties with external content to build new revenue streams. Designed to grow Madman’s existing brand awareness, much of the content on DocPlay is Madman IP. This includes funded shows and documentaries for public broadcasters (the ABC) which often disappear after broadcast and don’t acquire distribution.

DocPlay informs customers weekly of new additions to the platform, as well as new Madman theatrical releases. Wiegard views DocPlay as part of a global strategy and ecosystem.

“A number of the documentaries and local films Madman distributed in cinemas will find their way to DocPlay”, Wiegard explained to FilmInk.

The library of the VOD service is strengthened by offering underseen, premium documentaries to viewers.

DocPlay is about providing additional revenue. A lot of the documentaries on DocPlay extend a revenue stream which had ceased,” Wiegard told us.

“We work with the investors and producers of those films to work out what’s the best revenue for those films,” he added.

One trend the Melbourne-based Wiegard is noticing in the evolving sphere of big screen distribution – a change in definition of what is deemed theatrical.

“What qualifies as being content for the big screen, there’s no one definition now. There’s great opportunity in the ways and how you exploit the rights of films.”

Madman recently launched its AACTA-nominated documentary Finke: There and Back, an action-filled look at the lives and the drive of a number of Alice Springs competitors, who compete in the biggest off-road motorcycle race in the Southern Hemisphere.

The film is receiving limited screenings across Australia, as part of its targeted release strategy.

Whilst the crowded streaming space is providing a growing, additional revenue stream for the distributor, Wiegard says navigating the traditional landscape is also very competitive.

“It’s an incredibly noisy marketplace. How do you cut through? Theatrical is about risk management, figuring out who the audience is.”

Whilst more turbulent and unpredictable, the global marketplace going forward, is more adaptable to new and local ideas than ever. As practitioners race to stay up to date with market changes, capitalise on new opportunities and understand where the vastly challenging market is heading; one takeaway is apparent – innovative strategy, creative thinking, and globally-appealing content is more essential than ever to cut through. This is regardless of platform or scale.

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