David Taylor and and David Maher.
Playmaker Media co-founders David Taylor and David Maher reflect on the suspension of the local content quotas, the impact of the overseas talent drain and the key to longevity as the Sony-owned production company marks its 10th anniversary.
Q: Congrats on the 10-year milestone. There have been a lot of peaks and a few troughs?
A: Mostly peaks, thankfully, and valuable lessons learned from the occasional trough. It’s been a wild and varied wide, producing just under 200 hours of scripted drama. Some seismic shifts in the scripted content game along the way have enabled bigger budgets and bolder ideas.
Q: The Scribe Showrunner program which you launched in 2011 with Screen Australia’s support was a game-changing initiative that has been widely emulated. What inspired that idea?
A: Scribe came out of simply wanting to work with the best Australian writers who had the attributes, attitude and desire to have a hand on the tiller through the entire process, from pitch to delivery.
Not all do. The skill set beyond writing capability, and effort required to sell, package, finance and protect an idea as you work with production personnel and the buyer through the entire process can take it out of you. Scribe wasn’t such a brainwave, we think, just the best way to make drama.
Q: Shelley Birse was among the first recipients of the Scribe Showrunner, resulting in The Code and The Commons. What had you seen in her work which impressed you?
A: Much about Shelley impresses. The empathy in her writing, her work ethic, her craft and how she leaps at the chance to work with talented collaborators that complement her many skills. And she’s a terrific person to boot.
Q: Glen Dolman was the first recipient of the international extension of the initiative, paying off with two seasons of Bloom. How did you ‘discover’ Glen?
A: Glen was already well discovered when we met – can’t take the credit there. Bloom was an easy one: It had a great hook and a big theme (the fountain of youth) to explore. Lots of ideas come across your desk that don’t have both and they’re the things we look for in a pitch.
5. Being acquired by Sony Pictures Television in 2014 has enabled you to make projects that would not have happened otherwise?
A: Yes, Sony has been an excellent partner with editorial freedom and financial backing; it doesn’t get much better than that. Our Sony-supported series Reckoning (which launches on Netflix in the US on May 1) is one project which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t joined forces.
Q: Love Child was among your biggest successes – how did Sarah Lambert pitch that to you?
A: Sarah developed Love Child through the Scribe program. The complexity and substance of Sarah’s characters connect with you immediately. The strength of her work was evident again in Lambs of God.
Q: House Husbands ran for five seasons on the Nine Network until it lost Screen Australia funding as it exceeded the 65-episode limit. I imagine a five-season run for any show now is unlikely given the budget restraints on broadcasters and fragmentation of viewers?
A: Wentworth might suggest otherwise. Viewer choice has certainly expanded but without an ounce of sour grapes we’d suggest quietly that House Husbands’ die-hard audience would still be into it if it were still being made.
Warm, multi-generational and fun have gone out of fashion with Aussie buyers for some reason, but not with viewers. What’s going on in at the world at the moment might bring it back, we hope. As for limiting the potential success of shows that Screen Australia invests in, that has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for us.
Q: How did you pitch The Midwife to Nine and where did you and Sarah Smith get the idea?
A: I (David Maher) had three kids through midwife programs in birthing centres and all three of us recognised the heart, chaos and fun a drama in that world could capture. It just took us a while to find the right hook.
Q: Apart from having Sony’s backing what is the “secret” to Playmaker’s longevity?
A: Being able to share the pain! I think we conceptualize, pitch, package and finance projects pretty well and have sustained volume momentum over time with a lean, supportive and hugely talented team. Generating ideas has never been a problem: execution is the challenge.
Q: I think it’s generally accepted that the suspension of the local content quotas for the commercial broadcasters and pay TV drama channels won’t mean much in practical terms this year as no one can produce anything. But are you concerned the government may decide to extend the quotas next year?
A: In a word, yes. We obviously hope the quotas are retained and the free-to-air broadcasters continue to commission Australian drama. If they don’t, we will continue to produce Australian drama for the increasing list of buyers who want it. Stan are local heroes in that regard at present.
Q: During the so-called golden age of TV drama, competition for slots and funding has never been greater, here and worldwide?
A: Without a doubt it is harder, despite the increased content demand. It’s harder for Australian drama to compete with the best in the world for reasons beyond budget discrepancy. Top local writers, directors and actors are understandably being tempted offshore and local producers need to carry higher development risk to work with them.
Q: Given the inexorable trend to shorter series – six or eight episodes where 13 was the norm – does that make it harder to give opportunities to new or emerging writers and directors?
A: Yes. The long-running one-hour writing nurseries like G.P. or A Country Practice are a thing of yesterday unfortunately. But we’re as ready as ever to give emerging writers a shot on the strength of their work.
What we’ve perhaps become more realistic about is the difference between writing a good script and having the capacity to plot and showrun a series is exponential.
Q: How are you both coping with the pandemic? Working remotely? Spending more time on development?
A: We work in a unique industry where the crucial development side of things has cranked up. We’ve got Zoom rooms going left and right and it’s working much better than we thought. All sorts of new things are cooking to hopefully suit the mood of re-emergence – and we can do it all in bare feet at the moment. Bliss!