Cleverman achieves dramatic success overseas

When intern Ryan Griffen brought an idea for a children’s show to management at Goalpost Pictures, nobody could have imagined that the adult drama that grew from his concept would achieve one of the highest levels of export sales for a television series in recent Australian history.

First broadcast in June 2016, by the end of 2017 the first season of television show Cleverman had achieved total sales in excess of $4 million.

Goalpost Pictures Managing Director Ben Grant said it was a remarkable gift to have access to stories whose origins are entwined in a culture more than 60,000 years old.

‘Goalpost Pictures acknowledges and respects the traditional owners and custodians of the lands on which we work and live, and it was of the utmost importance to us that we hear those indigenous voices in the development and production process,’ he said.

‘Many of the key creatives were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians, as were the directors of both seasons, many principal and supporting actors, and key crew positions.’

‘Both the development and production of the show were supported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation through their Indigenous Department – this collective knowledge is unique and in all respects quite remarkable.’

Cleverman is set in the near future and reframes several stories from the Aboriginal Dreamtime in a modern context, in which humans become aware of a humanoid species known as ‘Hairypeople’. These ‘Hairies’ are restricted to a designated zone, prompting some to disguise themselves by shaving their body hair to blend in with humans.

A modern take on a figure of significance in several Australian Aboriginal cultures, the cleverman of the title is an individual of the right bloodline or character who is chosen by another cleverman to inherit superhuman abilities related to the past, present and future.

Goalpost Pictures partnered with a number of organisations to produce the show, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Pukeko Pictures in New Zealand and German-based distributor Red Arrow International.

‘Our first major challenge was that the concept and execution of the ideas in this show were big and sophisticated and required a budget with sufficient funds and a schedule with sufficient time to actually make the program,’ Grant said.

‘Every co-production is a complex legal arrangement between countries, entities and funding agencies and Cleverman – produced as an official Australian and New Zealand co-production – was no different in terms of navigating challenging agreements between all concerned.’

Connecting with audiences

It is a matter of pride for Goalpost Pictures that an Australian television show with Aboriginal themes, told by Indigenous Australians and featuring Aboriginal language has achieved such success overseas.

Working with German-based distributor Red Arrow International allowed access to the key markets of North America, the United Kingdom and Europe with sales to major companies such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and cable company AMC Networks, said Grant.

‘The show recorded terrific responses in North America and the United Kingdom, firstly through transmission and broadcast on the Sundance Channel and BBC Three, and then subsequently on Netflix in both those territories,’ he said.

‘There has been a genuine and organic connection with peoples of colour – a surprise and joy at the uniqueness of the Cleverman story telling, and we are incredibly proud that this show has connected in that way to the international market,’ he said.

Aside from the obvious business connection to major companies like the BBC and cable network AMC, a success like Cleverman in the international market is a great boost to the production companies involved.

‘The impact of the show has given Goalpost Pictures and our partner Pukeko Pictures a connection to key markets and organisations that raises our visibility and makes us more global companies,’ Grant said.

‘As a production company, that increased standing in the international television production community is a great calling card for future Goalpost projects, and the Cleverman brand in those markets is also a great leg up for the careers of the show’s key creatives, actors and crew.’

Looking forward

The constant pressure in the entertainment industry to produce more and better content for less money creates challenges for producers and production companies attempting to source funds for the development and finance of their content.

Goalpost Pictures has been aware of Australian Government assistance to exporters through the Export Market Development Grants (EMDG) scheme for some time, and has found the funding for marketing visits and trade fairs very useful, Grant said.

‘We recently signed a content development deal with London-based company all3media international, and engagement with the market in the key locations of London and Los Angeles is included in our strategy,’ he said.

‘We encountered no issues during the EMDG application process, which is straightforward and relies on the applicant’s own accounts and record keeping.’

The third season of Cleverman is currently in development but Goalpost Pictures is also delivering the television series Fighting Season to Foxtel Australia and SkyVision UK and is about to begin production on theatrical film Top End Wedding.

‘Goalpost Pictures is focused on scripted content creation for both cinema and television and for both domestic and international markets,’ Grant said.

‘Our strategy is to lever up the advantages we have in the domestic territory and expand our reach with exports to the key markets of the North America, the United Kingdom and Europe.’

‘I am enormously proud to be a key partner in a company controlled by women who are creating unique and great content – it’s exciting to be a part of the Goalpost team.’

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Hunter Page-Lochard stars as Koen West in Cleverman – Season One. Photographer: Lisa Tomasetti