How do early career screen creators break through? How does the system deal with the digital volcano-verse? The evolution of a single show currently on ABC iView tells all. BY DAVID TILEY.
On Wednesday 11 May 2016 the ABC broadcast The Legend of Gavin Tanner, one of six comedy pilots in the Comedy Showroom Initiative funded with Screen Australia in association with Film Victoria, Screen NSW and ScreenWest. It reached 370,000 people in the five cities. All six shows were posted on iView on 27 April.
According to Lauren Elliott, the producer in the Mad Kids company, ‘We had a lounge room screening party. It was our first ever half our on TV - it was very exciting. We have been actively producing comedy content for about five or six years.’
The concept of a series of pilots goes back to the BBC in the 1960’s with Comedy Playhouse, but it is surprisingly uncommon. ABC executives Brendan Dahill, now the Head of Non-scripted Production and Rick Kalowski, the Head of Comedy, reinvigorated the notion for the digital era.
‘It is the best way to test out shows,’ said Kalowski. ‘And really harness the creative energy over one half hour rather than go from zero to a hundred in a world where we never get to do more than about six series a year, and have far more good productions than slots. It is much better than [shows] festering and waiting three or four years to get on the air.’
A newer generation of comic creators have been piling up on the net, building their skills and fan bases, creating those audience figures which make traditional television executives writhe with envy.
The evolution of Mad Kids is a classic gang story in the screen sector. It tells us a lot about the creation of success.
Henry Inglis and Aaron McCann met at Perth’s Central Institute of Technology in 2003, and gradually developed their iconic Henry & Aaron comedy universe. Inglis also established himself as an editor for various local companies, while they teamed up with producer Lauren Elliott. She spent three years in London working for L’Orèal as an event co-ordinator, came back to Perth in 2007 as marketing manager for the Perth Fashion Festival and joined Muse Bureau, her PR company.
After Henry & Aaron’s Perfectly Adequate Christmas Special, they won the first tranche of $50,000 in the short-lived Movie Extra Webfest, which enabled them to create Henry & Aaron's 7 Steps to Superstardom.
But it was a tiny, half jokey job for their old school, Central Institute of Technology, which really broke through. Their promo, It’s a Snap!, went viral. Three million hits gave them a deal with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and a trip to Hollywood for Serious Conversations.
‘They could see that we had more than just one viral video,’ said Elliott. ‘We got an agent and a manager and developed an American version of Henry & Aaron which we pitched to HBO, Comedy Central, FX, Adult Swim and IFC. It didn’t sell in the states but it interested the ABC here and we went into half hour development for a few months. During development, we produced a Christmas Special for the ABC, Henry & Aaron’s ABC2 Xmas Quickie. The half hour series didn’t end up going ahead but Rick ended up loving The Legend of Gavin Tanner.’
Meanwhile, they had become close to Matt Lovkis, a 2003 graduate of Curtin University, who had been working in the engineering and construction industry as a project planner and scheduler on projects like the Holcim Concrete Plant on Barrow Island. By 2011, he had begun writing for reality television, via Between The Lines, a sports show from Southern Star. He went on to Beauty and the Geek, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and three seasons of Big Brother.
For Lovkis, this was heaven on a stick. ‘I have a great interest in psychology and particularly the transactional analysis realm of things. And Buddhism as well. Particularly round the references to the ego delusion and attachment,’ he admitted. ‘I was working in the most expensive Petri dish in the world.’
By 2012, he had crossed over into narrative comedy, to write and perform in the webisode version of The Legend of Gavin Tanner. Elliott, Lovkis and Inglis formed production company Mad Kids, with the firm intention of creating a sustainable platform, which will be in continuous development and production, work with outside projects, and take on the odd branded content as well.
Aaron McCann moved sideways into feature drama as an assistant director, and developed web series Top Knot Detective with Dominic Pearce of Blue Forest Media and producer Lauren Brunswick as part of the SBS Comedy Runway initiative. TKD is now a feature project with McCann as director.
At this point, the story takes a twist into geography and the siren call of globalism.
Elliott went to Los Angeles, courtesy of both ScreenWest and the Screen Australia Talent Escalator Program, which gave her a six month internship with Ben Stiller’s production company Red Hour Films, and Tim & Eric's Abso Lutely Productions. She shadowed Debbie Liebling, one of the executives who discovered South Park, for six months, which took her to studio and network meetings. ‘I learnt how to pitch and to have materials market ready, and what sort of projects US networks want’ she said.
She was exposed to the sheer scale and competitive rigour of the American system, while the digital revolution is breaking up mass audiences. ‘No-one has time now to watch everything. You are in competition for people’s time, not only with other TV shows. You just want that real cut-through into the national consciousness. It takes a lot for people to give you their time these days.’
She remains committed to comedy, which has a mixed track record for Australians in the US market. Lots of funny features disappear, while TV shows like Wilfred and Rake are remade.
‘The Australian sense of humour is still distinct from the American sense of humour,’ she said. ‘But to be a sustainable business you need to be able to create globally relatable content whether you produce it in America or Australia. You want to find an international audience because that is how you grow your business. Our goal is for every single project we make to be sold internationally. I do think there is crossover.’
Back in Australia, she was given the inaugural $100,000 ScreenWest Emerging Producer’s Initiative, to be spent on project and professional development. Now the three of them are working full time for Mad Kids developing ideas which interest them. They have become a strategic entity in the WA government’s drive to create a regional industry in the most remote capital city in the world.
Agency officials at both state and federal level have learnt to be philosophical about the pesky way that screen people move around. ‘Geography is sort of irrelevant to me really,’ said Lovkis. ‘There’s an idea that draws you with its gravity, and that’s where you go.
‘We’ve had wonderful support from ScreenWest, and we’ve got crews here, we know a lot of talented crews we have a kind of shorthand with. Distance hasn’t been an incredible obstacle because we’ve simply ploughed ahead doing what we are trying to do.’
Marketing and PR probably pushed Lauren Elliott deeper into the culture of Western Australia. ‘I feel comfortable in Perth. We have incredible support from ScreenWest and I guess our families and friends are here and we feel quite focused here. Because it is a smaller city we just work really hard and focus on growing our business.’
But she too has her bags packed in the wardrobe. Los Angeles ‘was awesome. I was really sad to leave but I managed to secure an O1 visa which is valid for three years so I can work in the US. I plan to go back with the boys in tow - I’d love to split my time between LA and Perth.’
Besides a cosy nest with decent parking, a sympathetic local agency, accumulating knowledge and good crews, the success of an emerging company depends on a distinctive identity.
For all that talk of funny, Elliott maintains that ‘We are not comedians - we are writers, and in that sense we are different. We are a production company. The boys don’t do stand-up, that’s not our thing. We are first and foremost writers although we do appear in our own stuff.’
Narrative comedy works for them because they are clearly good at the long, slow development of ideas to discover their fundamental comic engines. Those years on Big Brother were a sustained course in storytelling for Matt Lovkis, who had to develop lines and directions for Sonia Kruger as she controlled the live action moments where people were voted off the shows.
‘It’s what the focus of the reality shows is - to respond to the characters and find the best and most effective way of telling that character’s story as clearly as possible. All decisions are based on that. And story is a factor in practically every decision.’
The Legend of Gavin Tanner in turn is really clearly worked out. He believes he is a Legend, but is really a hopeless self-deluded bogan. ‘Gavin is most absolutely active, and he has a very clear goal - he is not a victim of circumstance but of his own neurosis. He desperately wants love and approval. And he doesn’t get it so he resorts to nefarious means in order to get it. Which only means he can’t get it. The comic premise is that if he could just relax and not have this desperate need to impress and self-aggrandise he would probably have mates and have people who did like him.’
Ten years seems like a long time to reach the chancy competition of a comedy pilot, but the Mad Kids and Kalowski all agree that the time frame works.
‘The pace itself is okay,’ said Elliott. ‘It does take a long time to get into the game. Whilst we’ve been producing for a number of years this is the first half hour we have ever written and produced. It is a challenge going from ten minutes to thirty minutes, and its been a very important learning curve for us. We’ve got the characters and the world and the stories, but writing a compelling full half hour is a different experience.’
The grim fact, Kalowski claimed, is that the track record of people going into comedy series without any closely related experience is very bad. ‘It is like getting match fit,’ said Kalowski. ‘You can’t do a marathon because you liked being in a fun run.
‘In a series we shoot by location so we shoot out of order. We don’t know until we see the whole thing and then sometimes we get nasty surprises - you can’t change it once it is done. It is better to do a pilot and work out which bits worked and which bits don’t before proceeding on to a series.’
The Comedy Showroom Initiative is delivering six shows by very different teams, all of whom have had success in related areas. Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney have Bleak, Eddie Perfect is launching The Future is Expensive, Lawrence Mooney floats around with Moonman, Ronny Chieng brings the world of the International Student, while Alison Bell’s The Letdown is produced by Chaser Julian Morrow.
The development strategy brings us straight into that other key player in all these stories - the audience. Audiences can use an online survey tool to provide feedback on each show, and the results will be taken into account when the ABC decides which productions to take into series.
When it launched, Kalowski figured, ‘We would learn a lot and people would feel invested in it when it came back as a series. Networks spend a lot of time on focus groups but they only reveal the opinions of a tiny, tiny fraction of the audience. This is much bigger than the average focus group and you do see patterns emerge. Certain stories appeal to certain people in certain age groups.’
Is it working?
‘Almost every single one of them has their champions and their detractors,’ said Kalowski. Three weeks into the project, there have been at least 200,000 views, with 5,000 surveys in the first week and well over 10,000 by the end of the second.
‘The feedback is specially important for the ABC because people are very very invested in the ABC. It is not simple - we are asking penetrating questions. We are deadly serious about poring through those responses from viewers. I have already found it extremely interesting, and we’ll keep doing it now, I think.’
This is not a simple beauty contest, subject to online mischief, ending up with a perverse and ghastly preference for something which went viral for the wrong reasons. They are all good productions, for a start. The ABC maintains control over the decision, along with any agencies which become involved, and taking account of producer decisions to redevelop shows. It is the beginning, not the end, of the negotiation process.
But it certainly opens decisions up to the real world, far from the middle class Sydney-centric world that frustrated regional folks believe dominate Auntie’s world view.