Helen Bowden, one of the founders of Australia`s successful Matchbox Pictures spoke to Philippa Campbell about the Australian environment and the challenges of making drama for AU$1.1 million/hour.
Campbell, accustomed to AU$2 million an hour after Top of the Lake, no doubt sympathized. But somebody has to make the cheap stuff. What Bowden acknowledged from the get-go was that Matchbox was called into being to take advantage of events in the Australian environment that developed into an almost perfect storm of support.
Since 2008 the Australian Producer Offset (SPIF equivalent), public broadcasters, content quotas for commercial networks (including pay TV) and, more recently, the Enterprise Scheme have all combined to energize the TV production industry.
Matchbox was built on those schemes and opportunities, so successfully that NBC Universal bought 60% of the company three years ago. That money helped grow the company. NBCU bought the remaining 40% late last year – well over a year ahead of the planned takeover – with that payment rewarding the founders.
NBCU`s logic was sound. It had several channels both free to air and cable for which it needs content, it was already investing in production in Australia, and it liked the quality of Matchbox`s work.
Bowden decided she would prefer not to work for a company wholly owned offshore, took her money and, if not quite ran, left at the end of the project she`s recently delivered, Devil`s Playground.
That success comes from Matchbox consistently pitching, securing and delivering high-quality projects, of which Bowden called The Slap the first that was truly “a Matchbox production”.
Like many companies, Matchbox was formed by people who`d once worked together keeping in touch and, over several years and drinks, repeatedly slurring, “We must do that again.”
Bowden and Tony Ayres had worked together previously and had experienced many such instances of that conversation. Bowden got serious about them starting a production company when the Offset was introduced, seeing the potential for producers to benefit.
She explained that the Offset did more than deliver the practical benefit of an ownership stake. The Offset also delivered a creative benefit to producers, or a benefit to creative producers. Both seemed true.
Before the Offset, Bowden claimed, producers had developed projects they thought would achieve support from funders, because those were the projects that got made. The Offset has encouraged some risk-taking, and producers can now put forward projects that excite them and have the potential to make money for all involved.
Unbeknownst to Bowden, while she was talking to Ayres about joining forces, Ayres and his partner had also been having the same conversation with Penny Chapman. Chapman had been working with another ex-pat Kiwi, Helen Panckhurst, and wanted to bring her in too.
So, Matchbox was born. The rest, as they say, is history. Matchbox later received Screen Australia Enterprise funding (the scheme on which the NZFC`s Business Development Scheme is partly based). Following an election, the Rudd government gave a significant funding boost to the ABC.
Bowden et al are an incredibly talented bunch, and that talent has been well-served by the Australian government in a number of ways that conspired to create an almost perfect storm of opportunity.
It`s too early to say whether the changes coming to incentive schemes and the introduction of the BDS might have a similar effect here, but it`s unlikely. One of the reasons it`s been effective in Australia is because of the regulatory environment. Broadcasters must programme original Australian content; the industry is more heavily unionized; and the market is larger.
The first Matchbox production that garnered a lot of international attention was The Slap, adapted from Christos Tsiolkas` novel. It was also the show from which Bowden drew the AU$1.1 million/hour figure.
Allowing for exchange rate, that AU$1.1 million is about double what shows such as Harry and The Blue Rose received from NZ On Air last year. For The Slap, the broadcaster (the ABC) put up 50% of the budget. The offset covered 20%. Matchbox raised the rest from DCD Rights in Europe, Screen Australia and Film Victoria.
The Slap was a success, not just in Australia. It played well here, and sold well internationally. It played a strong part in driving NBCU`s interest in the company. US remake rights for the show have been sold and Ayres will be an Executive Producer on the US show – although it`s unclear how much involvement he`ll have.
Since The Slap, there have been plenty of other shows, none of which have quite made the same impact (no pun intended). They have been successful, however, and the company continues to grow.
For Wellingtonians, Bowden will be in conversation with Robin Laing at the Film Archive on 12 March.