The State of the Commercials and Content Industry in Australia and New Zealand 2016

TVC-1.jpgThe blurring of geographic borders, the onset of new content delivery platforms and the changing nature of industry partnerships places a whole new set of expectations on Australasian production companies. CB gets the scoop on the ever-evolving nature of commercial production from the industry's most inventive and resourceful storytellers. 

"The word 'content' is a misnomer - I don't understand its use and believe it's wildly overused by those who love buzzwords," says Wilf Sweetland, managing partner of The Sweet Shop. Sweetland says these days, there's little distinction between online and television: "Every TVC is made available online, whether through the brand's own channels alone, or as paid media." And whilst Sweetland agrees there has always been a huge variance in budgets for both, he says when there's a strong story to be told, it doesn't matter where it is seen.
"Everything is content - there is no differentiation between which media a story is consumed on. If a brand launch spot with a $1 million production budget is shown online on FTA, isn't this 'content'? Isn't it a piece that people would watch the same as they would something exclusively online?"

TVC-2.jpgExecutive producer and managing partner of Curious Film, Matt Noonan, tends to agree and approaches each project on its merits creatively, stating budgets are simply the resources to execute the ideas.

"Is there enough resource to make the job good enough for the collective ambition? Is the contribution of the production company valued appropriately in that allocation of resource?" 

Photoplay executive producer Oliver Lawrance says it really doesn't matter whether it's a content project or a traditional commercial - the end goal is captivating storytelling: "In general, budgets are smaller for content jobs, although this is starting to change as more content projects are being budgeted properly with the bigger picture in mind." 

Although technology has made the process more streamlined and a little cheaper, Lawrance assures that online audiences still demand captivating content films, and this relies on good storytellers and great filmmakers.

Michelle Parker, executive producer at World Wide Mind, considers the main shift to be in audience behaviour; how they engage with brands, how they view content and how they want their content delivered. And, just because the delivery platforms vary, it doesn't mean the quality or the cost does, regardless of some client expectations.

"There is an impression that crew, equipment and all of the other production costs are somehow cheaper if we say it's for online content, but suppliers don't care how we use the content or where it ends up, the costs for them and for production companies are essentially the same," she says. 

TVC-3.jpgOver at Jungle, executive producer Nick Simkins is seeing an increasing amount of briefs that have a traditional TVC element with an accompanying online execution. Sometimes the TVC director is involved in the online executions and other times it's treated as a B unit. 

"A lot of this content is handled by our sister company, In The Thicket, which is full of incredibly talented up and coming directors, producers, animators and editors," Simkins says.

The lower level of investment expected for some content jobs can often equate to less pressure and Infinity Squared founder and executive producer Dave Jansen argues that content work is allowing for more innovative work. 

Jansen says Infinity Squared's model is to attract and foster younger, up-and-coming talent, using content work as a way for them to build up their reel before moving on to bigger, more lucrative commercials.

Changing demands on directors

Like the production industry itself, directors have had to evolve, offer a broader set of skills and expertise, and be more adaptable, flexible and responsive.

With more clients looking for fully integrated, strategic solutions to a brief, Parker at WWM advises that content needs to be generated quicker, tailored to different audiences and be implemented across multiple platforms simultaneously.

TVC-4.jpg"One of the more problematic demands being made on directors is to do more with less: less money and less time," she says. "It's not a new issue but it's an increasing one. We can usually work with less money and 'more' time; or more money and 'less' time, but less of both is a problem."

Another side effect of lower budgets and more jobs moving agency side is less availability of the lower-budget TVCs once used to train up junior directors.

"That nurturing side of a production company growing emerging directors is diminished, and it will be interesting to see the effect this has on the next generation of commercial storytellers," says Airbag managing partner Adrian Bosich.

The past few years have also seen directors becoming more and more involved in conceptualising work, and Plaza executive producer Peter Masterton reckons it's definitely become an added requirement that extends beyond what you'd call 'traditional' craft.

Although a longer-term trend that Masterton says has continued over the past couple of years, more specifically it translates into the growing importance of the director's treatment at pitch stage. And, since the industry is living with the reality of smaller budgets, he confirms that directors need to be faster and more decisive because there is less time available to them on set.

With no shortage of new directorial talent coming through the ranks, Masterton would also like to see the development of more creative producers, by which he means "almost a combination of a traditional account person with traditional producer". It's an idea Plaza is hoping to develop next year.

Revolver executive producer and managing director Michael Ritchie says he is finally starting to see the gender balance equalised. "Female directors are finally getting a fairer deal and of course there is still much more to do," he says.

The production landscape is more collaborative now than has ever been before, and Finch executive producer Corey Esse says that today many projects require creatives and the director to workshop ideas to help solve the logistical and financial pressures of the job.

TVC-5.jpgTaxi Film Production executive producer Andrew Wareham says that for online content, directors and producers also need a better understanding of the audience and platform the content is being created for.

"Our director offering has really evolved over the past couple of years and in addition to more traditional directors we're really excited to have Emmy Award-winning motion design collective Breeder on our roster. They are the definition of a 'new breed' of talent - they're very different to anything else out there and not for everyone, but that's not a bad thing."

Wareham believes there's definitely a growth in multi-skilled directors/creatives that deeply understand the whole filmmaking process from directing, to shooting, to post production. It's what Eight managing director and executive producer Katie Millington deems the 'slashy' era.

"Our directors are slash DoPs, slash writers, slash designers or slash editors and our producers are slash writers and even slash actors," she says. This brings an interdisciplinary aspect to every project Eight works on, whether collaborating on ideas at the front end or tweaking edits at the back end.

Sustainable production partners

Industry fragmentation has led to more global partnerships and according to Filmgraphics  executive producer Anna Fawcett, these alliances have become more important to Filmgraphics over the years. She says post houses sometimes require her directors to pitch on work, and that Filmgraphics also has its own set of global affiliations that help to tap into exciting overseas directors.

"We pitch work direct to clients, usually clients without an agency attached, and agencies are open to discussing any ideas we bring to them to pitch to their clients," Fawcett adds.

Over the past few years, Revolver has seen a continual increase in the number of briefs it received from overseas agencies, perhaps most specifically from the US and even more specifically for director Steve Rogers.

"We have pushed ahead with our Will O'Rourke initiative into America and this has started to get traction and we are confident this will be quite a good growth curve for us," Ritchie reveals.

Screen Shot 2016-12-29 at 5.53.53 am.pngHe says Revolver is still getting the best work partnering with the best agencies. "This is critical to our output. Sure there are some projects from clients that do not have an agency, like Chanel, and they are different beasts, but they are interesting in another way."

The shift to digital has also brought with it a raft of smaller, lean companies and Passion Pictures executive producer Katie Mackin welcomes it.

"Rather than feel threatened by emerging new business models we feel it's an opportunity to see things differently and to ultimately refine our own offering," she says. "We foster community wherever we can - we have a lot of like-minded individuals and companies who we collaborate with."

Over at Rabbit Content partner and executive producer Lucas Jenner enjoys partnering with clients, agencies and post houses. "Partnership is the key word. As opposed to servicing, we are always trying to partner with the companies that we work with, regardless of who is paying the bills."

The traditional 'silo' approach to production is no longer sustainable and Parker at World Wide Mind warns that some agencies, production companies and post houses are trying to be all things to all people and this isn't effective either.

"The WWM model centres on partnership," she says. "We have built a physical and virtual hub where we partner with specialist, independent artists and companies who are innovators and experts in their own fields." 

Masterson says Plaza isn't partnering with clients direct just yet, stating: "Like most production companies we tend to have very strong relationships with our post production partners, and of course our international production partners are a huge part of the mix."

Context is queen in virtual reality

Many Australian production companies are still feeling their way when it comes to virtual reality and The Otto Empire founder and managing director Jo De Fina says whilst there have been a few set up who focus solely on VR, it's the post houses that are definitely branching out.

"We partnered with a post house that has been in the VR space for almost three years now, so together we offer the end to end production and delivery (PLaTO Reality)," she says. "I think there is still a way to go in understanding how best to apply VR to advertising, and working out how to split the overall marketing and advertising to incorporate VR projects."

Screen Shot 2016-12-29 at 5.55.27 am.pngStill trying to figure out how the immersive, non-linear nature of VR storytelling fits into the industry, above and beyond the gimmick of 'technology for the sake of it', Millington at Eight says in the meantime, it's about encouraging directors to familiarise themselves with the technology and to get them thinking in non-traditional, circular narrative terms.

"This will in turn spark new VR, MR and AR ideas and help generate new collaborations, because now more than ever, creatives and brands need to partner with us in the foetal stages of concept development," she says.

There are specialist companies who handle VR, and Fawcett at Filmgraphics reveals it's easy for production companies to tap into their expertise.

"We have two VR projects happening at the moment and the reason we got one of the jobs is because even though the film is VR, they wanted to capture the emotion they saw in some of our charity work," she explains, noting there needs to be a balance between technology and telling a powerful story using it.

One production company seizing the VR day is Rapid Films, and executive producer Susannah Phillips is already seeing an increasing interest in VR from agencies and clients globally.

"It is no secret that Rapid has invested heavily over the past three years in the 360° VR medium in both resources and production techniques," Phillips says.

"We are getting international recognition for our work in the space and have applied traditional film making techniques to this exciting new genre. We are excited about what can be achieved and where this technology is heading."

Inspiration on the side

Sometimes the side projects look okay on center stage, offers executive producer Esse, and after producing the Ben Shewry episode of Chef's Table season one, Finch set up an entertainment arm to co-produce Chef's Table: France, and to build a slate of other entertainment projects.

"They are in various stages of production - look out for Chef's Table Season 4 in February and a scripted drama project end of next year," he says.

Screen Shot 2016-12-29 at 5.56.33 am.pngIn the past 12 months, Robber's Dog Films managing director George Mackenzie says his directors have published books, released feature films, made music videos, produced art installations and written screen plays for documentaries, television and films.

Curious Film's Hunt for the Wilderpeople broke box office records in New Zealand and Australia, and Noonan doesn't consider it to be a side project.

Photoplay has also expanded its long form production offering, and plans to grow this area over the next few years. In collaboration with Bunya Productions the company produced Ivan Sen's new film Goldstone, which opened the Sydney Film Festival and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"We have also collaborated with Aquarius Films on Cate Shortland's new feature film Berlin Syndrome, which will premiere in February 2017; and again with Bunya Productions on Warwick Thornton's new feature film Sweet Country, which will be finished in late 2017," says EP Lawrance.

On top of receiving funding for its narrative VR project, Jungle has just wrapped series two of No Activity, Australia's first locally produced SVOD series (Stan) and series 2 of Here Come the Habibs, which is Australia's first narrative comedy on a commercial network for over ten years (Channel 9). Jungle has also created the Screen Australia backed online series The Member, and now has ten projects (TV and film) with development funding from either a network, Screen NSW or Screen Australia.

Outside of ad land Taxi Film Production is currently involved in the production of This is Desmondo Ray, a multi-platform content series written and directed by Taxi director Steve Baker.

"Desmondo Ray is a pretty special guy who's an animated character living in our live action world," says Wareham.

Screen Shot 2016-12-29 at 5.57.39 am.png"Creating Desmondo Ray was a creative experiment we came up with a couple of years ago with his video dating tape and it garnered a lot of love worldwide including winning a bunch of international awards and nominations. So Screen Australia and Screen Queensland have come on board with us to create this new Desmondo series that will be completed before the year is out."

This year Eight has produced three short films and has a couple of feature films and a web series in development. The team is also excited by the move towards live immersive experiences, particularly in the northern hemisphere, and is playing with some ideas for an interactive theatre project.

Alongside business partner Steve Rogers Ritchie has launched television drama and feature film production house Revlover with ex-Screen Australia executive Martha Coleman just over a year ago and have so far accumulated over $600k in market-sourced development funding.

Thumbnail image for CBNAT NOV2016_COVER_Page_1_resizedagain.jpgThis article first appeared in Campaign Brief magazine.

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