The ascent of Aussie drama

Drama from down under is enjoying a watershed moment as productions attract the attention of global SVODs and travel seamlessly around the world – what’s behind Australian TV’s global walkabout? Manori Ravindran reports.

Once on the periphery of the international drama market, global-facing offerings such as ABC’s The Letdown are drawing the interest of global SVODs and bringing scripted programming from down under into the top echelons of TV. 

The comedy about new motherhood began life on the Australian public broadcaster as one of its Amazon-style pilots in April 2016, before sparking interest from Netflix, which joined as a co-production partner shortly after, launching the show globally in April 2018 to critical acclaim.

Helmed by The Good Place director Trent O’Donnell, the quirky and heartfelt Letdown (pictured above), which details the first-year tribulations of a new mother and her partner, slotted in seamlessly amidst the global SVOD’s raft of international programming – an ease that reflects higher production levels across Australian drama; global exposure to Australian content; and, in part, audience demand for new TV offerings.

The Letdown has been important in laying the groundwork for talking about more co-productions, and it has enabled us to interact with more international partners,” explains ABC’s head of comedy Rick Kalowski, highlighting the critical role international investment has played in improving the quality of drama from the region. 

The exec joined the broadcaster in 2013, around the time it debuted comedy sensation Please Like Me.

The Josh Thomas-created title was subsequently acquired by US cable channel Pivot, which then co-commissioned a second series with ABC – catapulting Australian comedy into the global spotlight and welcoming international channel and platform partners just when the embattled public broadcaster needed them the most.

“We caught the wave when we really needed to do so for financial reasons,” says Kalowski, describing the 2013/14 Conservative government cuts that saw 10% of ABC’s workforce laid off as a “devastating experience”.

“Fortunately, we had such shows as [ABC/HBO co-production] Summer Heights High and Please Like Me behind us, and that opened the door to more co-productions.” 

Kalowski had been speaking to Netflix about potential projects in 2016 when The Letdown aired as a pilot. Following an official pitch in LA by the exec and executive producer Julian Morrow – a well-known comedy presenter in Australia – the SVOD came on board.

“International collaboration is becoming the template, and it’s an effective one. It’s an absolute godsend for us because the ABC is still in a difficult financial position,” says Kalowski.

Projects on the horizon include the Sharon Horgan-exec produced comedy Frayed, a co-production with Sky that marks ABC’s first UK collaboration, while Sydney-based producer Giant Dwarf is in the works on series two of The Letdown, which is currently being edited for release later this year with an expanded investment from Netflix.

“The budget jumped from a very modest one to a healthy budget for the second series. We wouldn’t have been able to afford it without them,” says Kalowski.

Chris Hilton, CEO of newly formed Essential Media and Entertainment, which was created out of the merger of Rake producer Essential and Quail Entertainment, says the Kew Media Group-backed business recently rebooted its drama arm with an eye on producing more international-facing drama.

The new venture comes more than a year after Fremantle bought Essential’s drama division and set it up under the new banner of Easy Tiger Productions.

“We had a few projects that didn’t go to Fremantle,” explains Hilton, noting that a number of Essential Scripted projects at script stage have so far drawn both domestic and international interest.

“There is an appetite for young adult material and we are working with a few books. We have some sci-fi projects, and another set in a high school,” says the exec.

“There seems to be a renewed appetite for that material because Netflix has been so successful with shows such as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. We are also looking at big, period classics that could also go to SVOD players.”

Hilton adds that budget levels are steadily rising due to international co-production and co-financing. “This is enabling higher quality production venues and higher-profile talent, which help these shows travel,” he says, citing recent break-out dramas, such as the Jenna Coleman-fronted BBC One/ABC thriller The Cry.

Budget levels used to hover around the AUS$1m (US$717,000) level per hour of drama, but now reach up to AUS$2.5m (US$1.8m) per hour, thanks largely to international partners.

However, the new model also presents some challenges for producers around development.

“All broadcasters are in a situation where they are depending on another player outside Australia for a significant part of their budget. This means they are less likely to develop themselves from scratch and prefer to see scripts rather than going off concepts,” says Hilton.

“Ultimately, a lot of development goes back to the producer, along with that risk. That’s not great if you’re a small player and can’t afford to pay for development.”

The reliance on global partners also affects the types of content that get commissioned, with packaging internationally recognised talent becoming more of a priority.

DCD Rights was among the first distributors to have wide-ranging success with Australian drama, but CEO Nicky Davies-Williams acknowledges that talent plays a major part in how the programming has sold overseas.

The business’s breakthrough in the region came with 2011 ABC Australia series The Slap, which sold into the US (DirecTV) and UK (BBC Four) and was also adapted Stateside by NBC in 2015.

More recently, DCD pre-sold Channel 10 procedural My Life Is Murder (pictured middle), which stars New Zealand actor Lucy Lawless, into AMC-owned SVOD Acorn TV.

“These types of deals largely revolve around talent and with Lawless involved, we have found that the pre-sales are available and broadcasters are interested in getting involved,” says Davies-Williams.

“What’s been helpful about the Australian market is that many of its acting talent works on both sides of the Atlantic and that has worked tremendously well.”

While she allows that broadcasters such as the ABC have “less investment” than they used to, the quality has kept pace with international broadcasters and platforms.

“All the networks are much more interested in drama than they have been, and in a much more universally focused way that is helpful to distributors. There is more of a market for it now than there was.”

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