Mark Fennessy officially launches new venture, Helium

Mark Fennessy. (Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder)

After handing over the reins at Endemol Shine Australia last year, Mark Fennessy has officially launched his next venture, Helium.

The Sydney-based company will comprise three arms – Helium Studios, Helium Pictures and Helium Records – blending the producer’s passions of film/TV and music.

As an independent production label, Helium will have a primary focus on premium scripted and premium factual. Fennessy, who will act as the company’s chief creative officer, tells IF his focus is on the “premium, contemporary, noisy, disruptive”.

Via a growing stable of artists and creative talent, coupled with a unique network of storytellers, writers, and producers, we’re committed to building sustainable and truly rewarding partnerships,” he says.

On the Helium launch slate is the previously announced Last King of the Cross, in pre-production for Paramount+; feature film 6 Festivals, also for Paramount+, and crime thriller series Sex and Thugs and Rock n Roll, in advanced development.

Beyond this, Helium Studios will partner with third party creatives and rights holders to provide deficit funding, invest in development and provide resources.

“Our independence enables us to mix up the degree of participation in both series and feature film production – in some cases acting as the studio whilst at other times as the producer,” Fennessy says.

In music, Helium Records already has two acts signed, Darlinghurst and Gasper Sanz. The former’s self-titled debut album debuted in top 10 of the ARIA Album Chart this week.

Broadly, Fennessy hopes Helium will play a role in “redefining the boundaries between music and pictures.” Both 6 Festivals, in which Sony Music is an investor, and Sex and Thugs and Rock n Roll, based on Billy Thorpe’s first book, are stories centred in music.

However, Fennessy insists there is still a “healthy” development slate of projects which are not music related.

“At times the music side of Helium will run parallel to the picture side – at other times they work completely independently. Either way they are very much complementary.”

Following the Banijay acquisition of the Endemol Shine Group, Fennessy and brother Carl resigned as co-CEOs of ESA last September.

The duo have a long legacy in the industry, having founded indie prod-co Crackerjack, which in 2003 was sold to Fremantle. A few years later the company would be merged with Grundy Television, leading to the formation of FremantleMedia Australia, with Mark CEO and Carl COO. In 2010, the brothers left to create with Elisabeth Murdoch the local affiliate of the Shine Group, sold to Endemol in 2015.

After steering some of the country’s largest production companies, for Fennessy it’s the right time to be “truly independent” again. He sees the marketplace as healthy and well positioned for growth, but would like to see more investment in local content from streamers.

“After going at such a ferocious pace for a long time my career really felt like one long day. Together with my brother I’d worked incredibly hard, learned a huge amount, worked with and for some super talented people and achieved a lot. After finally getting the chance to take an extended break you step back and say ‘What next? What if?’,” he says.

“And the industry has changed. The audience has changed. The world has changed. Helium is perfectly positioned for new opportunities that come with a rapidly changing landscape.”

Announced by Paramount+ in May, Last King of the Cross will be a 10-part series based on the autobiography of John Ibrahim. Written and directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith with Fennessy producing, it is an operatic story of two brothers, one worshipped by his father and the other scorned, who organise the street but lose in each other across their ascent to power. It is slated to go into production in the first half of 2022.

Writer-director Macario de Souza’s 6 Festivals follows a group of three best friends, Maxie, Summer and James, who ‘bucket-list’ six music festivals over six months while coming to terms with the fact one of them has received a cancer diagnosis. Helium Pictures partners with Invisible Republic and Hype Republic, with Michael Wrenn producing with Fennessy as EP.

The film is led by up-and-coming talent in Yasmin Honeychurch, Rory Potter, Rasmus King, and newcomer Guyala Bayles, and will feature a number of music acts including G Flip, Dune Rats, Alison Wonderland, Bliss n Eso, Peking Duk, PNAU, Example, Hooligan Hefs, The Amity Affliction, JessB, B Wise and Running Touch.

Sex and Thugs and Rock and Roll will be jointly-produced with Richard Lowenstein’s Ghost Pictures; with Fennessy having approached Lowenstein with the project after they made Mystify: Michael Hutchence together.

It is planned as a six-hour miniseries, set in 1963 Kings Cross, when 17-year-old Billy Thorpe moved to Sydney from Brisbane. Thorpe joins a band, finds fame and starts living a pop star fantasy, until he is inadvertently dragged into the dark underworld of The Cross.

Lowenstein writes and directs with Lynn-Maree Milburn, and both will produce with Fennessy and Andrew De Groot. The series received development funding from Screen Australia earlier this year.