Alastair McKinnon.

A generational change is sweeping through Matchbox Pictures as the NBCUniversal-owned production company develops a raft of projects with emerging writers and producers.

“Talent development has always been a priority for Matchbox,” says Alastair McKinnon, who started as MD last December after three years with the ABC, most recently as head of content investment and planning,

McKinnon signed on just as the company founded by Penny Chapman, Tony Ayres, Helen Bowden, Michael McMahon and Helen Panckhurst was celebrating its 10th anniversary. “That was the perfect time to reflect and think about what Matchbox has done incredibly successfully over that time as the leading drama production company in Australia,” he tells IF in his first interview since taking charge.

“But the industry has transformed in that 10 years and is unrecognisable if you think about the sorts of shows, how they are financed and the distribution models of drama.

“For me coming in it was not so much about anything needing to be fixed or radically changed but looking at the opportunities to grow Matchbox and push it into new markets and new territories and take advantage of all these new streaming players.”

That means a more aggressive approach to development, often on scripted projects before broadcasters are attached, and ramping up the non-scripted side of the business, drawing on NBCU’s formats as well as developing original concepts.

McKinnon is recruiting an executive to take charge of non-scripted following the departure of Kylie Washington to BBC Studios Australia and New Zealand.

Overseen by director of scripted development Debbie Lee, numerous projects are in development with experienced writers including Belinda Chayko, Andrew Bovell, John Ridley and Elise McCredie – plus a host of emerging talent.

Among the new producers with whom the company is collaborating are Warren Clarke, formerly a development manager who has just produced The Heights and has more projects on the horizon, and Paddy Macrae, a development manager who will soon step up to producing.

Sheila Jayadev, who started at the company in business affairs and went on to produce Ali’s Wedding, is moving into drama producing.

Sophie Miller, formerly an assistant to Penny Chapman, graduated to producing on The Family Law while Julie Eckersley worked her way up from associate producer to producing Glitch and The Family Law.

Among the new writers who are working with Matchbox is actor Osamah Sami. Hannah Carroll Chapman, who started as a development coordinator, Magda Wozniak and Katie Beckett were among the writing team on The Heights. That show also employed Romina Accurso, who honed her craft by scripting episodes of Neighbours and Home and Away.

Given the unprecedented levels of English-drama production worldwide and fierce competition for among Australian producers for commissions, how is Matchbox responding?

“In my experience in working with streamers like Netflix and in discussions with potential international partners, the more distinctive and specific Australian stories are, the more they are going to cut through,” he says. “That is our point of difference in the international market. The mistake would be to try to replicate an American or UK sensibility here and think that was going to work.”

Starring Anna Torv, Jacki Weaver, Danielle Cormack and Marcus Graham, Secret City: Under the Eagle premieres on Foxtel’s showcase on March 4, with a holdback on Netflix for the rest of the world. Foxtel executive director of TV Brian Walsh has said he foresees a franchise for the political thriller based on novels by Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis.

“We’re talking about all sorts of possibilities about how to take Secret City forward. We think it is a world that can expand or head in any number of directions and we would love to keep working with Anna Torv,” McKinnon says. Tony Krawitz and Daniel Nettheim directed the show produced by Stephen Corvini, with scripts by Matt Cameron, Belinda Chayko, Angela Betzien and Elise McCredie.

‘The Heights’ (Photo credit: Ben King).

Produced by Matchbox Pictures and Peta Astbury’s For Pete’s Sake Productions, 30-episode serial The Heights launches on the ABC at 8.30 pm on February 22. Co-created by Warren Clarke and Que Minh Luu and set in the fictional inner-city neighbourhood of Arcadia Heights, the drama explores the relationships between the tower’s residents and those who live in the adjoining, rapidly gentrifying community.

“No one has successfully launched a serial since Home and Away,” he says. “It’s exceeded expectations. The production values are extraordinarily high for what was as a relatively lean production budget; it doesn’t feel like a serial drama at all.

“The really exciting thing about The Heights and why it’s so wonderful that the ABC has backed it is that it is developing emerging writers and directors. We have a really inclusive writers room and directors are cutting their teeth on the show. So it is providing this big industry development opportunity that does not exist anywhere else.”

James Bogle, Andrew Prowse, Renee Webster and Darlene Johnson directed the first season, written by Hannah Carroll Chapman, Romina Accurso, Peter Mattessi, Megan Palinkas, Nick King, Clare Atkins, Niki Aken, Dot West, Magda Wozniak, Mithila Gupta, Tracey Defty-Rashid, Larissa Behrendt, Miley Tunnecliffe, Katie Beckett and Melissa Lee Speyer.

McKinnon is confident the show will travel internationally, particularly to the UK, given the diverse cast of characters including those from Iran and Vietnam, and the universal themes.

Casting in underway for Hungry Ghosts, the four-part supernatural drama commissioned by SBS, which explores Vietnamese Australian families dealing with the aftermath of war, set in contemporary Melbourne during the Hungry Ghost festival when the community venerate their dead. Shawn Seet will direct, Stephen Corvini is producing and the writers are Timothy Hobart, Michelle Lee, Alan Nguyen, Jeremy Nguyen and John Ridley.

The third and final season of Glitch, co-created by Tony Ayres and Louise Fox for the ABC and Netflix is in post, with Jessica Faulkner, Harry Tseng, Jackson Gallagher, Dustin Clare, Susan Prior and Anna McGahan joining series regulars Patrick Brammall, Emma Booth, Rodger Corser, Sean Keenan, Hannah Monson, John Leary, Aaron McGrath, Rob Collins, Luke Arnold and Sweden’s Pernilla August.

Nowhere Boys is winding down after four series and a movie. The supernatural show created by Ayres is Matchbox’s most successful production of all time, with sales to more than 200 territories.

A third series of teen drama Mustangs FC is in development for the ABC. There is no word yet from the Seven Network on a renewal of Matchbox Pictures and R&R Productions’ crime drama Wanted, which starred Rebecca Gibney and Geraldine Hakewill.

Due to premiere on Seven later this year, the second series of Eureka Productions/Matchbox Pictures’ Australian Spartan will see Australia and New Zealand’s fittest, fastest teams of athletes compete for one of 10 places in the grand final where one team is crowned champions and win $150,000.

Supported by the SAFC, the Adelaide office run by Kirsty Stark is developing several projects and McKinnon hopes at least one will be commissioned before the end of this year.

“We have some big, exciting shows which we will announce in the coming weeks and months,” he concludes.

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