As commissioning editor of Drama for Foxtel Networks, Penny Win developed hits like Wentworth, now Foxtel’s longest running drama. Elevated to Head of Drama in 2014, Win now oversees the entire slate, including this year’s much-hyped The Kettering Incident. IF catches up with her to talk about the state of Aussie TV and what she’s got in development.
The general quality of Aussie TV drama seems a lot better than it was ten years ago. Why?
First off, television’s cyclical. Ten years ago drama was over and reality was king and people were weeping into their cups. And then comedy was dead a while ago and that came back. The truth of it is that television’s changed so much in the last ten years and even five years. Even the last twelve months. There’s a lot more scripted drama because there’s a lot more places for scripted drama to go, both internationally and here. In Australia we’ve no longer just got the networks. Foxtel has innumerable drama channels, whether they’re our own, like Soho [set to become Binge on Oct 1] and Showcase, or NBC-Universal, BBC, FX running out of Australia. There’s now streaming [platforms] – Stan, Presto, and Netflix, though that’s not Australian product yet. And that’s reflected globally. You look at America and I have no idea how many outlets there are for scripted drama now. Apparently Snapchat are doing scripted now. When Snapchat are doing it, you just know there are so many places [to take a script].
Are the streaming platforms forcing the competition – networks, cable, FTAs – to get better?
Look, not all of it is going to be great. John Landgraf, the CEO of Starz, noted that there were over 400 scripted hours of shows being commissioned last year in the States. Percentage-wise, I think that’s why there’s been a larger number of really good [shows], because of the amount of television being made. Places like HBO, Showtime, AMC, and some of the smaller ones that have focused on high-end premium cable. And Netflix. Netflix is definitely a game-changer. Not that other channels weren’t making quality drama, it’s just that Netflix made a lot more noise.
Is Netflix making life difficult for Foxtel?
You can look at it a couple of different ways. For me Netflix was always an interesting exercise in marketing over content. The fact that everybody in Australia had already heard of Netflix, it was that ‘Dorothy’s Rainbow, over there is Oz’ thing. They had Netflix and we didn’t. But you knew that when it came down here and people spent time with it, people would go: oh, there’s a lot of library on there and not so much original. On the other hand, Australia has been a country that has been slow and loath to pay for television, because it’s something that was free for a long time. A lot of other countries used sport to drive [pay-TV], which obviously you couldn’t do in Australia. So there was a resistance by a large core of people to paying for TV. What Netflix did actually turned out to be a positive, because people started paying for TV who hadn’t before. There’s been a little paradigm shift. And for people who love great television, particularly great drama, Netflix, Stan, Presto are great adjuncts to television.
It seems as though if something’s good, like Netflix’s recent Stranger Things, you don’t need a huge amount of pre-release publicity.
Sort of, except there are now so many platforms and so many shows, [that] good shows get lost. Netflix has the advantage of the sheer weight and volume of numbers. 60 million subscribers around the world, and they’re all highly engaged on social media. For them it works. For the broadcasters and cable, they still have to spend on the ones they really want to cut through.
In terms of Aussie drama, how do you commission?
We’re very clear about what it is that we’re looking for. We think of our audience as very smart, very intelligent, and we commission for Soho-Showcase only. And when you look at Soho, particularly Showcase, that’s the home of HBO and the best of dramas from around the world, so that enables us to be very clear when we’re talking to producers, creators, writers, about what it is we want and who we’re speaking to. Which is great, because we can be really honest. We get a lot of proposals, and we pick very few. And we spend a lot in development, we take a long time. With some shows it’s two years from meeting and writing and talking script to it even going into production, let alone going to air.
Is the volume of scripts you’re seeing, the amount coming across your desk, much higher than it was a few years ago?
Yes. Yes. I work all day on a Sunday, from 12-8, and normally I take home six to eight inches of scripts. Most of it is pleasure, because it’s the shows we’re working on, but we also have to read the next great thing that might come through. So there is a lot more. What is wonderful is that it’s changed from when I first started, nearly five years ago. We used to get scripts or proposals which we knew we were the last cab on the rank [for]. They had been to Seven, Nine, Ten, Two, and then they were coming to us. Now I think people trust us. They know what we want; they’ve seen what we’ve produced over the last few years.
You say you can be quite direct now about what you’re looking for – what is that?
We’re highly aspirational in terms of what we want to achieve for Australian television. Everything we commission sits alongside the best in the world, so it has to sit there with it, and we believe Australian drama can and does, and I think we’ve proven it so far with what we’ve commissioned. As I said we spend a lot of money on development. With Kettering and A Place to Call Home, we’ve got directors who are film directors working in television, amazing DOPs, we spend a bit more money per episode. We’re character-driven, serialized. It’s got to have a strong voice. We’re happy with people being bold.
It’s interesting that some of your biggest programs like Wentworth and Kettering and Secret City are female-driven: was that an accident?
Yes and no. Strong female characters resonate. In terms of what drives drama, women and particularly slightly older women drive a lot of the drama in terms of loyalty. That actually hasn’t changed much in the last 20-40 years. But strong women don’t look strong if you haven’t developed the male characters as well. I believe really strongly that you don’t develop one gender at the expense of the other. If you want it to resonate, every character has to be fully defined.
It seems as though quote-unquote dark TV like Catching Milat will get numbers, but similarly adult feature films don’t. Most of the successful Australian films last year were crowd-pleasers.
Well you’ve got more hours to expend on a story. One of the things that television does so well, or at least the television that we’re aspiring to, is create great characters that drive the story. So it’s not plot driven or story driven. If you believe the characters, if you know them, whether it’s Australian movies or television, you’ll stay with them. And I think sometimes dark for dark’s sake isn’t going to keep anybody.
What’s on your development slate now?
We’ve got eight things in development. One of them just got greenlit a couple of weeks ago that I’m very excited about. It’s a miniseries and it’s based on an iconic Australian story that people will know really well but it’s going to be based on the book. We’ve got a little movie that’s in production [called] Australia Day, directed by Kriv Stenders. It’s the other side of Australia Day. It’s been with us for two or three years, long before the current topical discussion of racism in Australia. It’s showing Australia Day from the other side. It’s about an Australian farmer, a Chinese illegal immigrant, a Persian family and an Indigenous girl. The structure of it is very like [2004 Oscar winner] Crash; these characters intersect but they don’t know each other. It’s about standing up and taking a stand.
Are the other projects all series?
Yep. I’ve got another miniseries, another book adaptation. It had Hollywood interest back in the 90’s. It’s very out-there, no-one will have seen anything like it on Australian screens before. We’ve got another miniseries that’s a book adaptation [in development], and that’s the Grand Days trilogy by Frank Moorhouse. So that’s been in development for a while. It’s big, so we’re taking our time to massage it into the right place. A couple of other things; we’re looking at a military drama and I can’t talk about the other one: it’s too good and I don’t want to give anything away.
And season five of Wentworth coming?
I’m flying to Melbourne this afternoon, and we’re having our first cast read-through tomorrow. The Americans love it. It’s on Netflix over there. They can’t get enough of it. It’s changed the show, actually.