The cast of CJZ's ‘Mr Black’.

(L-R): Nadine Garner, Sophie Wright, Nick Russell, Stephen Curry and Paul Denny in ‘Mr Black’.

CJZ MD Nick Murray and CEO Matt Campbell are grappling with three major issues facing the screen industry as the company ramps up its production and development slates.

They identify the challenges as the rising cost of drama budgets; a shortage of top-class writers given the talent drain to the US and UK; and finding original concepts for factual and factual entertainment shows.

Murray questions why drama is more expensive to produce than comedy, observing: “I don’t know that the additional money that goes into drama is necessarily visible on screen to the audience.

“The costs of drama are going up and we need to be making it cheaper. There are work practices which make it impossible to make drama at the price it should be made at. We should be employing people differently or with more flexibility, as happens in US productions which shoot here.

“We should have smaller crews and there should be fewer courses for lunch. There are a lot of weird work practices in drama which will end up having to change.”

Campbell says: “We have a lot more interest in our drama slate from the international market. It’s a matter of how you make that financial puzzle fit together. There is plenty of money out there but it’s the same as it’s always been: it’s got to be the right project.”

On the shortage of writers, Campbell says: “For a network and a production house it is the greatest struggle to find writers in this country at the moment as they get sucked up into the US and UK. Everyone is after the same people. We are having to look far and wide for writers.”

Traditionally CJZ develops its own concepts for factual and factual entertainment. “We put a lot of money and energy into that area,” says Murray. “The biggest challenge that anyone in Australia faces is competing with people who import international formats. It’s been the engine room of the UK production industry and it should be here as well.”

In the past few years the company co-owned by Murray and creative director Michael Cordell has invested significant sums in drama development, broadening the base from comedy, factual and factual entertainment.

That paid off with the Network 10-commissioned My Life is Murder, which is now shooting in Melbourne. Lucy Lawless stars as Alexa, a private detective and ex-cop who unravels the most baffling and bizarre crimes, with NIDA graduate Ebony Vagulans as her offsider/researcher and Bernard Curry as the head of the homicide unit.

Elisa Argenzio is producing with CJZ’s head of development Claire Tonkin; the directors are Leah Purcell, Mat King, Jovita O’Shaughnessy and Ben C. Lucas.

(L-R): Matt Campbell and Nick Murray.

CJZ has just delivered to 10 Mr Black, a sitcom created by Adam Zwar, which stars Stephen Curry as the curmudgeonly lead character who moves in with his daughter (Sophie Wright) and her boyfriend (Nick Russell). Nadine Garner plays Mr Black’s estranged wife. Amanda Brotchie and Clayton Jacobson directed the eight-parter, which CJZ hopes will become a returning series.

While neither of the pilots the firm produced for 10’s Pilot Week got up, Murray still hopes there is life in both concepts. He loved a sketch in Skit Happens in which Stuart Daulman played a South African used car salesman whose wife has been kidnapped and is keen to collaborate again with the cast including Jenna Owen, Heath Franklin, Vita Carbone and Neel Kolhatkar.

Former politician Sam Dastyari and a panel comprising comedian Becky Lucas, former Olympian Stephanie Rice and PR guy Greg Baxter participated in Disgrace!, a half-hour of opinion and insights.

The 11th season of Gruen for the ABC is scheduled for the second half of the year on the usual tight turnaround: taped each Tuesday night for telecast the following night.

Filming of series seven of Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery is underway for the ABC while How Australia Found Its Mojo will see Russel Howcroft recount the story of Alan (Mo) Morris and Allan (Jo) Johnston, who founded the ad agency Mojo.

Campbell is willing to predict the one hour doc, which he describes as the “soundtrack of our childhood,” featuring Paul Hogan, Ian Chappell, Delvene Delaney, Hugh Mackay, John Singleton, Ita Buttrose and others from the era, will be among the highest rating docs on the ABC this year.

CJZ’s director of production Toni Malone and head of entertainment and comedy Damian Davis will produce Crossing The Line, an eight-part online series co-funded by Screen Australia and Google Australia’s Skip Ahead initiative. Comedian Neel Kolhatkar will investigate offensive comedy with an audience who will hear a string of jokes and then decide at which point they ‘cross the line.’

‘Christians Like Us’.

The follow-up to last year’s Muslims Like Us, the SBS-commissioned Christians Like Us sees a diverse group of Christians give their views on issues such as institutional sexual abuse, abortion, women priests, contraception and gay marriage. “What we find out about these people, a mixture of the devout, relaxed and progressive, is absolutely astounding,” says Campbell. “I guarantee it will make you laugh and cry.”

A second season of MegaTruckers for 7Mate and international distributor TCB Rights will again feature the colourful Jon Kelly, the founder of Heavy Haulage Australia who has bounced back after his company collapsed.

Factual programming overseen by head of factual Andrew Farrell includes Inside The G, a two-hour doc for the Seven Network which goes behind the scenes at the MCG; true-crime series Undercurrent: Real Murder Investigation, which airs on Wednesday nights on Seven; Ron Iddles: The Good Cop for for Foxtel’s Crime & Investigation; and the 14th season of Bondi Rescue, currently airing on 10, which has a fresh look thanks to eight new recruits.

The development slate includes Balwyn Calling, an eight-part scripted comedy for the ABC based on brothers Stephen and Andrew Curry’s experiences growing up in a Bible Belt Melbourne suburb in the 1970s and 1980s. The workshopping team includes Sophie Braham, the lead writer on Gruen.

Producers Claire Tonkin and Glenys Rowe have asked UK casting agents to scout for a lead actor for Darby and Joan, a mystery drama scripted by Phillip Gwynne about two strangers who set out on an epic outback journey. There is a lot of international interest in the project but the local broadcaster is still to be determined.

Across the Tasman, CJZ’s New Zealand arm Greenstone has no fewer than 18 shows in production including High School, a new series on a sky diving training school, a feature doc on iconic Kiwi band Split Enz, Puppy School, Highway Patrol, Dog Squad, Kitchen Science and Honey Wars.

Greenstone has established an outpost in Dubai to produce observational documentaries for local and international markets. Deals are being closed with Dubai broadcasters for the first two productions, Dubai 999 and Super Car Cops.

Campbell concludes: “Last year was a huge year for us and this year will be huge too.”

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