The ways to tell stories – and the tools at filmmakers’ fingertips – are constantly evolving. At Webfests, the International Emmy awards, and on streaming platforms worldwide, we’re seeing Australian video content gaining impressive traction.
How has Australia managed to become known as pioneers in these new, unorthodox forms of storytelling?
By Caris Bizzaca.
Did you know one single video from Australian content makers The RackaRacka has had more views than the entire population of Australia and New Zealand combined?
The video in question, Marvel VS DC, has raked in more than 39 million views since it was uploaded to YouTube in April, 2015. It was the first in the series Versus, which was supported by Screen Australia’s multiplatform fund and expanded on their viral video Harry Potter VS Star Wars by pitting other famous pop culture characters against each other. Except this time around, thanks to multiplatform funding, the budgets to really push their ideas as far as possible.
For The RackaRacka aka Adelaide twins Danny and Michael Philippou, they created Versus armed with both financial support from government and producer Julie Byrne of Triptych Pictures. It helped them grow their subscriber base of just over 700,000 in January 2015 to 3.25 million in less than two years. They have accumulated more than 360 million views on YouTube alone and Variety recently dubbed the duo as one of the “Famechanger” honourees of 2016.
The RackaRacka’s Versus is one of 63 individual projects Screen Australia’s multiplatform fund has had a hand in supporting since its inception in 2012 – a list that also includes the titles/groups The Katering Show, Mighty Car Mods, SketchShe, Skit Box, Aunty Donna, Starting From Now and Soul Mates.
The fund was created for a specific purpose: to develop innovative online and interactive projects. It was about supporting what was ‘new’, whether that be emerging talent, unusual formats, or different revenue models.
But as the lines between film, television and online blur, what has emerged since the start of the fund in 2012 are not just the innovators, but the disrupters and gamechangers – the filmmakers building immense international audiences online and inspiring the traditional mediums to take risks and challenge the status quo.
Filmmakers who couldn’t apply through the typical Screen Australia channels – many of them YouTubers or emerging content creators – found a means to make web series, get a foothold in the competitive industry and boost their careers through this fund, changing the typical route they would usually have to take.
Mike Cowap, Screen Australia’s interactive and multiplatform investment manager, says there’s a knock-on effect. On one hand, content creators are developing their careers, but there’s also the impact it has on industry and burgeoning filmmakers.
“When we support people like The RackaRacka, they inspire others to follow in their footsteps and in doing so bring the mainstream along with them,” he says.
“And it enables Australia to stay ahead of the curve.”
As the industry evolves to meet the needs of audiences and technology, Cowap says Australia is making sure it has a voice – and one that’s relevant and truly reflective of the society we live in.
Multiplatform is amassing eyeballs and bucking the norm with verve, by:
- Developing Talent
- Disrupting the traditional route to being ‘discovered’
- Reflecting Australia
- Finding ‘new’: formats, distribution and revenue models
- Creating stories that travel.
Want to know more? Read on.
Discovering and developing new talent is a major aspect of the online sphere and multiplatform fund within it. For many emerging filmmakers, it’s disrupting the traditional way of being ‘discovered’ – which is leading to sustainable online careers, MCN (multi-channel network) and SVOD (streaming video on demand) deals here and overseas, or the chance to branch into television and film.
Screen Australia isn’t doing this alone. The multiplatform fund was used for successful special initiatives such as Skip Ahead (with Google), three stages of Fresh Blood (with ABC), the Digital Media Incentive with Canada Media Fund (CMF), a Twitter initiative, and was also used to support a range of unorthodox series, all of which gave a significant boost to new talent. It’s ongoing too, with a new round of Fresh Blood just announced.
Comedy groups Skit Box and Fancy Boy have both just launched their own series on ABC2 and iview – Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am and Fancy Boy – after becoming the two teams to make it through the three phases of the inaugural Fresh Blood. As well as the hands-on experience and credits, it enabled the all-female Skit Box to make the leap from creating YouTube content such as Activewear to writing and directing their own series, while the Fancy Boy team went from live sketch comedy to making the series.
For The RackaRacka, the multiplatform support initially helped support the hit series Versus. But as recipients of the third round of Screen Australia/Google’s Skip Ahead they will be stretching themselves further still, working on longer, more narrative-driven content with RackaRacka: LIVE (working title), a 30-minute comedy also produced by Byrne. They are also tackling even longer formats – as both recipients of Screen Australia’s Enterprise People and with a feature film in development with Screen Australia support.
Meanwhile, it was a combination of both Skip Ahead and Fresh Blood support that has helped the popularity of comedy group Aunty Donna soar.
Aunty Donna had already started building a following on their YouTube channel when they applied for Fresh Blood and were selected as one of 24 teams in the first phase. The teams had to create sketches to air on ABC iview in June 2014.
Producer Nel Minchin says even with the modest injection of cash through phase 1 of Fresh Blood they were able to make five episodes for iview and online. One of those sketches, Bikie Wars, is still their most popular video on YouTube, with more than 1.5 million views.
“It was our first video to hit a million and the first time we were on an Australian TV network’s radar,” she says.
Aunty Donna then became one of five teams selected to go into the next round of Fresh Blood and make a pilot. While they missed out on getting into the third and final phase, involving a series commission, they were selected for Screen Australia and Google’s Skip Ahead – a joint initiative designed to help online storytellers think outside the box, so they could build their skills and a sustainable career.
Through Skip Ahead, Aunty Donna received a total of $100,000 from Screen Australia and Google (the owner of YouTube). This enabled them to make the leap into their sketch series 1999, which became the most-watched title from any of the Skip Ahead alumni with 3.3 million individual views. It also saw an impressive spike in subscribers. Before 1999, director and editor Max Miller says Aunty Donna had built up 65,000 subscribers on YouTube over four years. “After the series, which was released over three months, we finished on about 108,000 subscribers,” he says. “We got close to doubling our subscriber base with just one series.”
Streaming Video on Demand (SVOD) service Stan has also taken note of Aunty Donna’s potential. With support from Screen Australia they have commissioned Aunty Donna to develop the series Chaperones.
Disrupting the traditional route to being ‘discovered’
Whether it’s Stan supporting the development of Aunty Donna’s Chaperones; SBS2 (now SBS Viceland) picking up Starting From Now series 4 & 5 and The Wizards of Aus; or ABC commissioning The Katering Show series 2 for iview, there are examples across the board of mainstream companies looking online for new talent.
Minchin says YouTube has a huge part to play in proving there is an audience. It makes the decision-makers take notice and disrupts the traditional way of making the transition over to the networks.
“That’s what YouTube can do that we haven’t had access to before – it’s about creating audiences. Before YouTube, people just relied on producers and network heads seeing the potential in someone,” she says.
“Aunty Donna are proving there is an audience for their work, and that makes a pretty compelling argument.”
Soul Mates was commissioned by ABC iview (with Screen Australia support) off the back of the success of Bondi Hipsters – a popular self-funded online comedy from Nick Boshier, Connor Van Vuuren and Christiaan Van Vuuren. After building an online following, ABC TV commissioned the spin-off series Soul Mates, which expanded the Bondi Hipsters world.
The first season of The Katering Show, produced by Tamasin Simpkin and written and directed by Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan, was supported by the multiplatform fund for a direct to YouTube release.
Following the success of those first eight episodes (the Thermomix episode had more than 1 million views in eight days), a second season was commissioned by ABC to premiere exclusively on iview (again with financial backing from Screen Australia’s multiplatform fund), and has gone on to be the most successful ABC iview original series of all time.
But it also aired on ABC TV, resulting in the broadcaster shaking up traditional programming times.
“The Katering Show wasn’t timed to fit neatly into a broadcaster schedule, but it inspired ABC to be unorthodox in order to fit it in,” Cowap says. “They took a risk with a new format. It’s titles like The Katering Show that influence broadcasters to be adaptable and flexible to changing technology and audience demands.”
ABC Head of Comedy Rick Kalowski says iview is enabling the broadcaster to step outside the box and nurture more new talent than arguably ever before.
“There was a time, even on the ABC until three or four years ago, where the only way you got a break was if you got a whole TV series. But the chances of going from being an emerging filmmaker, or having a bit of stand up and a few things online, to being able to pull off a full six by half hour series was very, very low,” he says.
“What iview has given us is a really helpful platform that’s great for the ABC brand, but also helps us nurture and develop people’s craft skills by giving them a much softer place to fall and a sounder opportunity to succeed.”
As part of Screen Australia’s joint initiative with Twitter, Network Ten have also delved into web series to supplement their new show The Wrong Girl. The network created the #AlicesWorld series on Twitter that takes audiences behind the scenes of the morning news program within the show.
Australia is diverse. No argument. The 2011 Census of Population and Housing showed 48% of Australians were either born overseas or had at least one parent born overseas. In 2012, the Department of Health and Ageing estimated about 11% of Australians had diverse sexual orientation, sex or gender identity. And in 2015, the Australian Bureau of Statistics noted 18% were living with a disability.
As Screen Australia’s Seeing Ourselves report showed, what we see on our television screens is not an accurate reflection of Australian society.
But through the multiplatform fund, series such as Starting From Now, The Horizon and Maximum Choppage have received the support to tap into underrepresented audiences online – with impressive results.
Starting From Now’s writer/director/producer Julie Kalceff and producer/actor Rosie Lourde have acknowledged how creating a web series enabled them to bypass the gatekeepers of traditional television and prove there was an audience for their project.
Kalceff was an emerging filmmaker and was frustrated by the lack of diversity on screens – particularly the poor representation of women, sexuality and ethnicity.
“When I was growing up there were no lesbians on screen. Australian television was quite conservative and probably to a degree, still is,” Kalceff says.
“(But) that would have really helped me a lot with my identity. So I wanted to create a series that was diverse in its representation, so audiences could see an aspect of themselves reflected back at them.
“And I realised the way to cut through and the way to find an audience was to make a series and put it online.”
Series 1 of Starting From Now, which she wrote, directed and produced, was self-funded. The goal was to prove there was an audience. Initially, Kalceff aimed for 100,000 views on each episode.
Lourde says: “We actually went back through the stats and we achieved that in just over two months on the first season.”
Series 2 and 3 came soon after. “We broke 10 million views in the first year. It’s a mind-boggling number, especially when we’re talking about 2014 when web series weren’t really established, especially not web dramas and especially not female-driven ones.
“To have that amount of traction with a global audience was something really tangible we could take to Screen Australia and to Screen NSW at the time.”
Screen Australia supported series 4 and 5 of Starting From Now off the back of the first three seasons’ success.
Series 4 and 5 was picked up by SBS2 (now SBS Viceland) to premiere in March 2016. SBS2 Channel Manager John Beohm says Starting From Now came with a strong following, but it was also picked up because it aligned with the SBS remit to tell diverse stories.
“Obviously SBS exists for a relatively specific purpose, so finding something that actually clicks with that purpose is just as important,” he says.
“Our ambition is to try to find and nurture new talent. I guess we’re less fussed about where we find it. If you find something that is successfully existing on its own somewhere else, it can be a proof of concept for that project and show there’s an audience. Then we can hopefully help elevate that to the next level by bringing it into the SBS fold.”
Finding ‘new’: formats, distribution and revenue models
“The world is changing very quickly and it’s the multiplatform fund that helps Screen Australia keep pace with that, or indeed keep one step ahead,” Cowap says.
“One example is the explosion in Video on Demand services.”
In Australia, there are services such as Netflix and Stan, but Australian content is being snapped up from a wide number of services that have emerged overseas.
- The Katering Show on Fullscreen (US)
- High Life on Canal Play (France)
- Event Zero and Skinford with Rockzeline/Black Pills (France)
- Soul Mates, Fancy Boy and Skit Box with Seeso (US)
“Under our normal programs, these types of series just wouldn’t have met our requirements,” he says.
“So it gives us the flexibility to be able to support filmmakers to take advantage of new opportunities. And as a result, Australian stories and voices are travelling overseas faster and at less cost than the traditional routes.”
And as the Screen Currency report noted, exported local drama content has an economic value of at least $252 million. That’s not including its influence on tourism and soft diplomacy.
Another area where Australia is on the front foot is through its support of virtual reality (VR).
In 2015/16 three VR projects received funding through Screen Australia’s multiplatform drama production:
- The Buried VR: a 3D experience that puts the viewer into a Dreamtime world, created by Indigenous writer/director Tyson Mowarin
- Madeleine: a horror short by Jumpgate VR that has aired at Adelaide Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival.
- The Extraction: a visceral thriller from acclaimed writer/director Khoa Do (Better Man, Schapelle)
“VR is an area where filmmakers and audiences are still experimenting and understanding the possibilities. Who knows what the future holds, but Australians are making sure they are a part of that conversation,” Cowap says.
Creating stories that travel
Unlike TV drama and feature film, online content doesn’t adhere to the same geographical boundaries, meaning something uploaded in Australia can reach a huge global audience.
For Aunty Donna, their audience breakdown on YouTube is 40% Australian, 30% North American and another 30% from England and parts of Europe.
The RackaRacka say the US is their biggest audience, followed by the UK and Australia. But they put that largely down to Australia’s smaller population size. When you are pulling in an average of half a million views on the channel every day, as they are, having Australia as #3 in views by location still equates to a lot of eyes.
The primary audience of online drama Starting From Now is also North American, according to writer/director/producer Julie Kalceff and producer/actor Rosie Lourde. In fact, the series has been watched in more than 230 countries, primarily in the USA, UK and Europe. Australia is fifth in regard to views.
A report commissioned by Screen Australia showed the positive impact this has on tourism – every year approximately 230,000 tourists come to our shores or extend their stay here as a result of watching Aussie screen content. And they spent an estimated $725 million while they are here.
These Australian online stories are not only travelling overseas, but garnering international acclaim.
Screen Australia-supported web series Movement, from creator/writer/actor Maria Angelico, was selected for Tribeca Film Festival’s N.O.W. (New Online Work) showcase. It put a spotlight on 11 up-and-coming storytellers who create productions for the web.
Meanwhile the debut season of The Katering Show won Best Short-Form Digital Series at New York Television Festival.
It’s not the only festival where Australians shine. At LAWebfest in April 2016, 10 different Australian series (four Screen Australia-supported) won a total of 24 prizes across categories including editing, directing, VFX and sound design.
Screen Australia and Screen Queensland supported Ludo Studio (which was co-founded by Nick Boshier, one half of the team behind Bondi Hipsters) to create the first series of the Doodles, which animates children’s drawings into short video.
This season acted as a proof of concept, from which the ABC commissioned series 2 and 3 (which also received Screen Australia multiplatform support). In that first series the episodes were longer, but by series 3 the format had been refined down to 30 second clips. These have proved to be not only entertaining, but give children a feeling of ownership and agency over their work.
“Ludo are inspiring others to shake up the format and engage with audiences in ways that haven’t been done before,” Cowap says.
While the pool of funding for Screen Australia’s multi-platform and online content fund ceases at the end of June 2017, the agency will need to reallocate funds to this growing and innovative area.
“We must support our online creatives who are pushing the envelope and exploring the potential of new platforms here and around the world,” Cowap says.
Look out for content that is still in the pipeline due to hit our small and mobile screens: the third round of Skip Ahead has just been announced; the two series selected for the final phase of Fresh Blood (Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am) are on air now; the new round of Fresh Blood has launched; the Long Story Short series for ABC iview have been selected and will air in 2017; and some great new projects have been supported through the production fund, with compelling new submissions coming thick and fast.