by Anthony Frajman

Since its foundation in 2010, Jamie Hilton’s See Pictures has been one of one of Australia’s leading, most respected indie film producers.

In that time, Hilton has been behind feature films including Backtrack starring Adrien Brody, Breath and 1%, to name a few.

Beginning with producing music videos, where he made hundreds of clips, Hilton quickly branched out into features. In 2009, he produced his first film, Waiting City, starring Joel Edgerton and Radha Mitchell, directed by Claire McCarthy.

Throughout his career, Hilton has seen a sea change in how smaller features are put together, financed and distributed.

FilmInk caught up with the producer at Screen Producer Australia’s conference Screen Forever, to get his assessment on the climate for Australian filmmaking.

Has producing and releasing the types of indie films like Breath become harder with the changes brought by the last couple years?

“The change in the marketplace has been happening since I first started making films. I don’t remember a time where platforms and audiences weren’t being disrupted and segmented. Certainly for theatrical exhibition, COVID has been crippling. Films like The Dry and Penguin Bloom show there’s still clearly room for Australian films in the cinema, but you wouldn’t have wanted to be a cinema operator in the last two years, there were a lot of rent and wages to pay, and a lot of empty seats. At the same time, a family film we released like Go Karts managed to reach audiences on Netflix, released while kids all around the world were home from school. It didn’t light the box office on fire at home, but it is by far the most watched film we’ve even been involved with, the numbers were staggering. From an operations point of view, COVID had some silver lining, it gave us time to develop scripts and longer to edit and finish films before releasing.

“The Breath financing model hasn’t changed a great deal. In Australia, we are lucky to have Screen Australia and state government agencies who are looking to support important cultural material, made for and by Australians. With a celebrated [Tim] Winton novel, starring and directed by Simon Baker, it still has a good shot today. Australia is one of the few places in the world where you can get the resources required to tell a nuanced and culturally specific story like that. Some movies may be better suited to streaming, but I still think Breath would perform well in Australian cinemas today. Admittedly, Screen Australia and many top creatives do seem to be focussing more than ever on television, perhaps it’s a better business for continuity of employment and cashflow; we’re in that space a little, but we are still very much focussed on watching and making quality movies, wherever they are seen.”

How has the pandemic impacted See Pictures’ business as a producer?

“Our business has changed quite a lot. I had actually relocated to Los Angeles before the pandemic hit and spent the first 7 months in lockdown there with my family. We decided to return to Perth and then had the problem of closed State borders, which made the world feel very small. Fortunately, we weren’t mid-shoot or in the final stages of financing when everything shut down. I think we’d shot three or four films in a single year in 2019, two we were able to edit for a lot longer than planned, and Josh Lawson’s Long Story Short sold really well, which meant we were able to keep all our staff on, across a very disrupted couple of years. We released June Again in between the first wave and Delta and did solid business, and like I said, Go Karts reached more people worldwide than we could have imagined, given global school shutdowns. We pushed a television project 3 times as the WA border was closed. But by and large, we’ve faired pretty well. We’ve been able to continue to invest in development and have a lot of really exciting projects. I’m more bullish about the business than ever. And geography-wise, the world seems a lot closer with everyone on Zoom. It now seems strangely possible to live in Perth and work internationally in this business.”

You’ve tended to focus on smaller, prestige films in the past. Is that going to continue to be your focus?

“I don’t really judge size on budget. We’ve largely produced films in the $3M-10M range because we are based in Australia; Australian pictures, while in English, are still “foreign films” in the international market. There are only 20M people here and we speak in strange accents. An Australian blockbuster like Red Dog or The Dry might be $8-12M whereas an American blockbuster might be $80-120M. Our focus isn’t really on budget, it’s on stories and storytellers. And on quality rather than quantity. One thing that I don’t love about the television business, is that people can get very focussed on turnover, and returnable or reformattable ideas. The development and distribution job becomes about seeing how long it can sustain rather than how exceptional it can be. There are some incredible companies that manage both volume and quality, like See-Saw or Made Up Stories, but there are also quite a few content factories out there. The budgets may vary or grow as we move internationally, looking for that sweet spot of Australian qualifying international commissions, but I think our focus on story will remain, and our plan to partner and work with quality storytellers. We’ll never get turned off by ‘low-budget’ or starry eyed about ‘big-budget.”

How has See Pictures’ business adjusted to the boom of the streamers?

“The business of finding a story or idea, developing a screenplay, financing and then making a film hasn’t really changed. So our business hasn’t really changed. There are a few more ways to get your picture finance; in Australia, Stan is a notable entrant. What we like about Stan is they only take Australian rights. There are definitely long term challenges in a ‘work for hire’ model, where producers are essentially only being paid to churn out content for a global streamer who own it. It’s a great time to be a vertically integrated company, the traditional studios have been doing that for many years, and it seems now they are catching back up with Netflix and subscription models etc. While the business model for producers can dip in to a service role under some deals, I don’t see the streamers as major disruptors to content generation; what you lose in upside, you get in increased paths to finance.”

What are you looking for from filmmakers right now?

“There’s no specific genre or even format that we’re looking for. We’re just looking for great quality writing. And filmmakers who can really elevate that great quality writing. While every film is ‘drama’, capital D drama is still a tough sell; we do prefer it dressed as comedy, thriller, sci-fi. We’re looking for material we can’t ignore. It’s often years of work to get something on the screen, new things are going to distract from the current plate and the energy required is massive, but some material is just too good not to make. That’s the material we’re looking for.”

A number of your films have been international productions. Are you open to co-productions?

“We are wide open to collaboration and co-production, most especially internationally. We are also finding ourselves partnering with writers and filmmakers more, bringing them in to the producing process. The split between ‘creative’ and ‘commercial’ has never made sense to me. It’s a creative business, it doesn’t surprise me that Kennedy Miller Mitchell and Bazmark are the rocket ships Australia has produced. I’d be very happy in the background in either of those businesses. I’ve recently experienced some companies that would prefer to own or control everything, even IP we’ve spent years developing or are partnered on with amazing creatives. I guess the large commercially driven ‘volume’ businesses want a return on all that effort. If we find material we love, we’ll partner, and are happy to share success.”

What is on See Pictures’ slate at the moment?

“We are in post production on an American picture right now with director Ben Young. It’s got a wonderful cast in Hopper Penn, Billy Bob Thornton and Robin Wright. Ben’s a friend and a very gifted filmmaker. We’re in the offline and doing all the post-production in WA, we’ll deliver that in the middle of the year. We are co-producing a Channel Seven show called Anyone’s Daughter with Screentime, and are in the final stages of post on a multi-platform project with New York based visual artist and director Daniel Askill called Lunacy. We’re launching a new genre project in Cannes and are about to go out with a beautiful family film. There are a few exciting international projects around the corner.”

Head to the website for more on See Pictures.


Leave a Reply