By Zona Marie Tan
H2O – Just Add Water, one of Australia’s widely successful live action children’s TV productions, is slated to go into production with a feature film spin-off sometime in 2009.
The series executive producer and founder of Jonathan M. Shiff Productions, Jonathan Shiff told INSIDEFILM that, “We’re now planning a movie, a family or a kids movie as a spin off on the series.”
Despite having only previously produced live action children’s TV, Shiff confidently declared that, “As we go up into higher budget projects that are shot presumably in 35mm ready for cinema, we’ll be taking 20 years of TV experience into motion picture.”
Shiff kept mum about the film’s storyline and exact principal photography commencement date, but revealed that his production company’s ambitions have moved on to film.
“Our corporate ambition is to now start a new division working on one feature film every two years,” he said. “There are great prospects for doing fantasy, action adventure produced in the vein of the Spiderwick Chronicles, but are shot in Australia for a global audience using the same brand pedigree that we’ve developed through our TV division.”
A division that has seen H2O – Just Add Water through two successful series broadcasted on more than 120 channels worldwide to over 200 million viewers per week.
Currently in production with series three, H20’s brand has expanded broadly to include musical elements in the upcoming series, worldwide merchandising, a clothing and beachwear line through Target Australia, DVD distribution published by Magna Pacific, an online presence and a yet to be announced toy deal with international toy manufacturer, Playmates, who will be releasing mermaid dolls and bath toys.
“It’s an unusual model for Australia,” Shiff admitted. “Not unheard of, because Saddle Club did it, just unusual. But we’re punching well above our weight because we’re competing with the likes of Hannah Montana. We are a little independent producer in Australia with a global impact, and our principal rival is Disney worldwide. So we’ve become well advanced now with the global business model.”
In spite of H20’s success, it could be facing a death sentence in the eyes of the new Screen Australia guidelines. Shiff expressed that he was disheartened over the guideline that specifies only 65 half-hour episodes of a series qualifies for the producer rebate.
“That is effectively two and a half seasons,” Shiff pointed out. “Which means, halfway through [H20] series three, we fall off the rebate. And that’s a crazy, damaging and senseless policy.”
He interpreted this as essentially damaging for any Australian producer who wants to build a business of successful brands.
“We’ve put that to the Screen Australia review of their guidelines, that this is the perfect way to destroy the most successful part of Australian’s production sector – kids TV live action.”
So disheartened was Shiff that he considered abandoning plans of a third series for any of his future productions, or possibly discontinuing to film in Australia.
“New Zealand is a viable alternative,” he conceded. “In terms of its cost competitive nature, location, proximity, crew, topography and calibre of the visual effects… But that’s why it would be disheartening to find that when our shows become successful they go offshore, because the rebate is not available onshore.”
However, Shiff was optimistic that his effort in lobbying the minister and Screen Australia for a review of the guidelines will come to fruition.
“I’m confident that something will be done about it, because it’s an error of drafting,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s sat down and actually said ‘Let’s destroy children’s TV’.”
Screen Australia issues aside, Shiff hinted that the H20 movie may be the girls’ last swim as mermaids with the hit series despite pressure from international networks for a fourth season.
“Let’s face it, our girls are now 19 and they’ve grown from being on the show since they were 16,” said Shiff. “Especially now having an AFI nominated actress from a children’s series in an adult category, which is unprecedented. I’m sure it’s getting to a point where they want to move on.”
H2O – Just Add Water (Series 2) has been nominated in four categories at next week’s AFI awards ceremony to be held in Melbourne on December 6.