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The new heroes of New Zealand TV

Julie Christie (bless her) gets all the airtime but a new wave of Kiwi TV entrepreneurs is hitting screens in New Zealand and on the international airwaves. Imagine what they could do with a decent share of the export receipts, writes Deborah Hill Cone

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Idealog November/December 2006, page 36. Photographs by Stephen Langdon

Julie Christie (bless her) gets all the airtime but a new wave of Kiwi TV entrepreneurs is hitting screens in New Zealand and on the international airwaves. Imagine what they could do with a decent share of the export receipts

In August, Statistics New Zealand released its first-ever survey of the Kiwi screen industry, covering the 2005 financial year. It found the industry earned $2.6 billion, almost as much as the forestry and horticulture industries. More than 85 percent is earned offshore.

This isn’t just a Weta thing—almost half the revenue came from television. And the export market isn’t interested in rehashed versions of overseas formats—they want to watch something new. That’s where Kiwis with ideas can thrive, even in the bureaucratic, ratings-obsessed world of TV.

Local production deals don’t always make it easy for TV entrepreneurs to sell their ideas overseas, but there’s a ready market for the shows and formats. And new technology and the rise of narrowcasting makes it easier to make shows on a shoestring budget. Idealog meets three New Zealanders who are part of the TV success story.

Great Southern Man

Phil Smith was working as a producer on TVNZ’s Holmes show when he had his epiphany. He read the book Primary Colours and was taken with Bill Clinton’s approach of getting ‘face time’ when he wanted to influence people. The affable, floppy-haired Smith took his cue, bowled into the office of TVNZ’s then-head of programming, Aussie hardman Mike Lattin—at the time feared for his unpredictable temper—and announced he wanted to go out on his own as a producer.

“Lattin said, tell you what, I own the rights to The Golf Show,” Smith recalls. “You can have them for a dollar.” Chalk one up for the Clinton approach.

Smith, who comes from an entrepreneurial family—his father was an industrialist running Beacon Shipping—says he always knew he would not be an employee for long. “I looked at reporters who were standing outside the District Court at 40 and thought I am not going to do that. I had seen Julie [Christie] go out on her own pretty early and admired her—I’d visited her sitting in her office with a fax machine and a box of stamps, and that was it.”

Media is going to be fragmenting and the next five years are going to be reasonably ugly for television.

Phil Smith

Smith and partner Phil Leishman set up sports production company Uplink in 1995 with the Lattin-gifted Golf Show as their first production. Things happened very quickly. He rang Sky programmer John McCready who said he was keen on the show.

“We ended up [five years later] being the largest independent producer of sport in Australasia—four golf shows, extreme sports shows, footie shows. We rang up ESPN in Singapore—just rang them out of the phone book—and they said we’ll buy your golf show for 42 weeks a year.  That gave our company huge value and an audience footprint of hundreds of millions of people,” Smith says.

In 2000 Uplink tried to sell its shows to a major player in the UK. “We saw the company management at Sportsworld and asked if they wanted to buy our shows. They said no, but we’d like to buy your company. Six months later we got $7 million for Uplink.”

But that wasn’t the end of the deal. In 2001 there was a dramatic collapse in the value of global sports rights. Sportsworld, which had been the fourth largest company in the market, went belly up.

Smith, helped by dealbroker Greg Peters, a former owner of the Midas auto chain, had wisely turned down an offer to structure the deal using Sportsworld shares, which plummeted from £6 per share to three pence.

“That’s where I got lucky,” says Smith. “I was able to walk away with money and freedom.”

Some charity work for outdoor education centre Outward Bound led Smith to meet the charity’s then-president David Levene who became the backer for Smith’s new company, Great Southern Television, set up in 2002. Levene, one of the country’s most low-key entrepreneurs, is worth $170 million according to the National Business Review Rich List. “He liked the way I worked and took an interest in what I was going to do next after Sportsworld collapsed and he suggested we go into business together.”

Like Uplink, Great Southern Television has grown quickly and can now be considered a ‘super-indie’ among independent production houses, producing international hit The Lion Man, acclaimed comedies Eating Media Lunch (now in its sixth series) and The Pretender, quirky documentary series The Unauthorised History of New Zealand, a local version of new Phil Keoghan-hosted reality show No Opportunity Wasted (produced by veteran Andrew Shaw), reality programme Remarkable Vets and a documentary on the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup in Queenstown.

New shows in the works include a self-help divorce series fronted by a ‘divorce coach’ (Smith is confident it’s a fresh idea), a second series of political mockumentary The Pretender and several new dramas with international potential.

The Lion Man has sold to 23 countries and generated revenue in seven figures (Smith is bound by a confidentiality agreement with TVNZ) after Smith went to the main trade fair, Mipcom in Cannes, to hustle deals to international broadcasters.

Meanwhile, The Unauthorised History of New Zealand is being marketed offshore as a transferable format; expect to see The Unauthorised History of Wales or The Unauthorised History of Scotland.

Comic legend John Cleese loved The Unauthorised History so much on his recent visit to New Zealand that he rang Smith to tell him.

“Our fundamental rule is we only make what we like,” says Smith. “You’ve got to really like and really be into it. We’re a pure play creative company.”

Smith’s own role is hands-on; he was a co-creator of Eating Media Lunch. It was an easy sell to TVNZ, which loved the idea of Jeremy Wells fronting a satirical media show.

“I’m more of a creator, although I’m not saying ‘Look at me, I’m all wacky and creative’. In the company you have hunters and farmers. All I do is hunt.”

Queenstown-based Smith, whose wife is TV3 correspondent Leanne Malcolm, says he finds getting out of Auckland inspiring, especially when mixing with other locals like pal A J Hackett. “You can concentrate entirely on your own business and not be distracted by other people’s successes or failures, and the Internet provides you with all the information you need globally.”

Smith reckons there is money to be made in television for producers who adapt to the new Internet-dominated environment of YouTube, Google Video, blogging, media streaming and changes in who funds production. “All companies have to have an international view so you can’t just be reliant on the networks,” he says. “Media is going to be fragmenting and the next five years are going to be reasonably ugly for television.”

Which also means there will be new opportunities. Smith (now 42) says his company, which has 100 people on contract, is part of a new wave of television makers taking on the established players like The Gibson Group, South Pacific Pictures and ScreenWorks.

I had thought it might be like a big departure lounge but we arrived and it was like Colditz, with barbed wire and every cliché you could think of, like people on hunger strike.

“[NZ on Air] is looking to see—where is the next generation? They’re bringing in a new tier,” he says.

TVNZ is becoming more businesslike about doing deals, he says, but warns it has to be worth his while to travel overseas and flog his product. In the UK, regulator Ofcom has capped broadcasters’ take at 20 percent of gross sales, but in New Zealand producers frequently give up the lion’s share of their international sales to the network. Smith says that means a lot of material generated by the networks is sitting in storerooms and not being sold.

“There need to be some parameters set [to reflect that] it’s the production company’s idea but the network has paid for some of it. It’s a tough stance … that view has been put to them by Spada [the Screen Production and Development Association].”

His argument is that TVNZ would be better off getting 50 percent from a highly motivated seller than getting nothing because the network is gouging such a high percentage of sales.

“They need to be a bit more visionary. There is no point us selling overseas if you’re left with $500 after doing a million-dollar deal.”

Let’s get televisin’

Luke Nola, the adman-turned-filmmaker behind hit kids’ science show Let’s Get Inventin’, believes his new claymation Buzzy Bee children’s programme could be the next Bob the Builder–type franchise.

Nola and producer Neil Stitchbury’s company, Television Spaceman, is looking for funding after making a claymation pilot of the show as a taster for a 52-episode series. They attracted top talents Anthony Elworthy and James Lewis, who had just wrapped Tim Burton’s big-studio feature Corpse Bride, to work on the pilot and are looking for backing for the series which, at $200,000 per episode, has an $8 million-plus budget.

Nola says they showed the pilot at television marketplace Mipcom and received a good response. New Zealand on Air also liked it and so did TV3, “but it’s not sold yet”.

I’ve always loved ideas and inventions like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Martians in space and robots. I’ve never really grown up.

Luke Nola

Nola might be buoyed by the success of Let’s Get Inventin’, the innovative show that helps kids build their dream inventions. It has been sold to a household-name international network that will make its own local version (Nola can’t reveal who yet because the network doesn’t want to tip off its competitors). He’s also in talks with Channel 9 in Australia and a Canadian broadcaster.

Helping flog the format is Nola’s genuine passion for making stuff; the show taps into his long-held interest in toys, science-fiction and neat ideas. “I’ve always loved ideas and inventions like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Martians in space and robots. I’ve never really grown up.”

Let’s Get Inventin’ was an easy sell for TVNZ because it dovetails with the charter and the government’s desire to show children that science is cool. It’s a message that Nola enjoys spreading: “Science isn’t boring, it’s about explosions and making stuff,” he says.

The show has generated its own culture, with a massive online presence through its website, a museum exhibit at Auckland’s Motat and a growing database of ideas from creative Kiwi kids. A second series is already in production.

“It shows anybody could have a good idea, not just people who know how electrodes work. We got more ideas than we could use. New Zealand kids are really ingenious, especially the rural ones in sheds out in the country who really use No. 8 wire.”

Let’s Get Inventin’ grew out of The Goober Brothers, an underground series made by Nola and friend Glenn Wood about two brothers, Gary and Glenn Goober, and their silly inventions such as the lickatron for licking stamps and the Chihuahua hoop. Each episode ended with Ren and Stimpy-like mayhem. The Goober Brothers episodes are now included in the Museum of Children’s Television in New York.

Nola, who has worked as a creative at several major advertising agencies and in Hollywood on feature films such as Rugrats, says his background in advertising is helpful in creating new shows; he knows how important the graphics, music and look of the show are.

For Let’s Get Inventin’ he commissioned original music from Henry Coburn, fusing heavy rock and rap, while specialist 3D graphics were done by Lindsey Redding at The Department of Motion Graphics.

Nola and Stichbury work hard at export sales but, like Phil Smith, they struggle with the terms that are typical of local deals. When Let’s Get Inventin’ is sold overseas, New Zealand on Air and TVNZ get 60 percent of the revenue until their investment is returned, so they recoup their money first.

“It’s a tough sell,” says Nola. “We’re the ones who paid $20,000 to buy tickets to Mipcom to go and sell it.”

Smarter than the average guy

You wouldn’t pick Leigh Hart as a Christ’s College old boy. He might be the only alumni of New Zealand’s most prestigious boys’ school to have lived in Peru, jammed with Jimmy Barnes, dug the Channel Tunnel and spent ten days in a French prison.

If Hart (36), better known as That Guy from the long-running Sports Café, is difficult to classify, so is his new series of Moon TV, scheduled to debut in late October in a TV2 slot following Eating Media Lunch.

With sponsorship that he personally hustled from House of Travel, he took his three-person crew (including himself) to Peru, ‘Bigfoot country’ in the US, San Francisco, Croatia, Hong Kong and Australia, following in the footsteps of his Great Uncle Harry.

It’s almost gone full circle. People realise unconstructed reality is actually boring and reality shows are now constructed to the point of being scripted again.

Leigh Hart

The low-budget show grew out of a capping mag-style fanzine called Moon Newspaper, “basically 30 pages I wrote myself”, and features Hart being himself with storylines that are a mixture of reality and parody.

“It has almost gone full circle,” he says. “People realise unconstructed reality is actually boring and reality shows are now constructed to the point of being scripted again.”

Hart’s Moon Enterprises business, based around the Leigh Hart/That Guy persona, has spread to include a Herald on Sunday column, a starring role in the Bonus Bonds advertising campaign, TVNZ work on Fair Go, Test the Nation and The Great New Zealand Spelling Bee (just don’t ask him to spell freesia) and corporate work such as producing a pedestrian safety video for Asian students.

A Panasonic digital video camera and Final Cut Pro editing software on an Apple Mac allow Hart to make his own show in his Balmoral front room with 14-month-old son Sam underfoot.

Hart’s next goal is a Leigh Hart film which he expects to write, direct and act in. “Otherwise why don’t I go and do something else I don’t know how to do, like build a house?”

While interviewing Hart outside a Parnell café, I have some unsolicited help as a stream of fans feel obliged to interrupt and offer their comments on Hart’s work.

“You keep me laughing, you’re so awesome, man,” offers passing 18-year-old Matthew Covell, before asking Hart for his favourite comedy film ever. (For the record: The Life of Brian, Spinal Tap, Peter Sellers’ physical comedy and frat comedy.)

Perhaps Hart connects with middle New Zealand, including hard-to-impress teenagers, better than the average Christ’s College graduate because his family hails from Runanga, a small town near Greymouth where his father was a coalminer.

“There’s no chance in hell of me becoming a snob,” Hart says. His father was a cleverer-than-average coalminer who sat his tunnelling exams at night school and worked around the world on major projects including several years in Peru, where Hart lived until he and his brother were sent to Christ’s as a boarder to get “a proper education”.

When Hart left school, his father found him a job helping build the Channel Tunnel. At 19, he was the youngest among “some pretty hard men who worked hard and played harder”.

Stints playing in a pub band called Wild Turkey with his brother Greg and mate Matt Johnston followed, everywhere from Butlins-type holiday camps to a French ski resort, where they were arrested for Visa technicalities and thrown in jail for ten days in Lyon.

It was while behind bars that Hart started to write about his experience. “I had thought it might be like a big departure lounge but we arrived and it was like Colditz, with barbed wire and every cliché you could think of, like people on hunger strike.”

Deported to New Zealand, Hart decided he wanted to work in television. Lowly jobs like a runner on the Topp Twins’ show led to a development gig with John Harris’ Greenstone Pictures and later a regular spot on Sports Café.

Like the other television producers spoken to for this story, Hart is reluctant to criticise TVNZ because they buy his work. But it might be fair to say he would prefer to have an earlier time slot than 10.30pm, that he fought hard for the series to go to air sooner rather than later, and that he would like the networks to throw more resources at their local shows. But that hardly sets him apart from the rest of the comedy crowd. Still, he says, “if you’re going to put a show to air you might as well go all out and get behind it”.

Hart has never done stand-up comedy, although he says he once did a piss-take about the world’s worst stand-up comedian which ironically involved getting a crowd together in the Comedy Club and asking them to stay deadpan. “By the end everyone was starting to crack up because we’d told them not to. I don’t really find stand-up comedy funny. I find real life funnier.”