Fremantle raises the bar for blue-chip dramas

04 February, 2019 by Don Groves

Chris Oliver-Taylor on the set of ‘Neighbours’.

Since taking the helm of Fremantle’s Asia Pacific operations last September, Chris Oliver-Taylor has been busy realigning the Australasian business.


Adhering to Fremantle’s global mantra as “the place creatives call home,” the CEO has significantly upped the drama development budget and is prepared to commission blind scripts, i.e., before a network is aboard.

Oliver-Taylor and his team led by Jennifer Collins, the Australian director of content, are discussing projects with a host of A-grade writers including Robert Connolly, Giula Sandler, Katherine Thomson, Tommy Murphy and Matt Cameron.

“We want to work with world-class writers, predominantly but not exclusively Australian,” he tells IF in his first interview since moving over from Matchbox Pictures, succeeding Ian Hogg.

“The second part of the strategy is having great IP, whether it’s a book, a play or an original idea. The third is a strong financial strategy. Drama in Australia is expensive so we need to partner sensibly.”

The exec also flagged a move into factual content, in line with the parent company’s mission to produce blue-chip factual series. That will capitalise on Collins’ experience as head of non-fiction at Screentime and the ABC’s head of entertainment.

During her career she has overseen numerous productions including RBT, Adam Hills Tonight, The Chaser Decides, Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery, Gruen Planet and Kitchen Cabinet.

Oliver-Taylor praises Collins’ ability to evaluate ideas for all kinds of content and to figure out how to finance and make shows. “It’s a new Fremantle,” he says. “Jennifer brings a different voice to the networks. We are changing our conversations with the networks.”

Collins’ appointment has also freed up the content heads – director of scripted Jo Porter; director of unscripted including formats and catalogue Caroline Spencer; and director of major formats Jonathon Summerhayes – to focus more on creative matters. “We have added more structure and resources to the content teams,” he says.

Another initiative was a commitment to ensure diversity in all story rooms, which was suggested by RGM’s Jenn Naughton. That ensures there is at least one writer from a diverse background on each show.

Fremantle is developing drama projects via its exclusive development and production partnership with Marta Dusseldorp.

Writer Jono Gavin (Sisters, Offspring, Cleverman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, The Beautiful Lie), who joined last November as showrunner/creator/writer, is hatching projects for the all networks and SVOD players.

Series seven of Fremantle’s Wentworth will premiere on Foxtel later this year and production will start on season 8 – spanning a mammoth 20 episodes, bringing the total to 100 – in October. All the recurring cast signed on again, although their options had lapsed. The show screens in the US on Netflix.

Entering its 35th year, Neighbours consistently ranks as the highest-rating program on 10’s Peach and on the UK’s Channel 5. Oliver-Taylor marvels at the production schedule: 6 episodes a week, 258 episodes a year. He encourages emerging writers, producers and actors to apply to work on the show as a terrific training ground.

Last year Fremantle produced 12 episodes of Celebrity Name Game, based on a US format and hosted by Grant Denyer, which will premiere on 10.

Casting for judges and contestants is underway for Australia’s Got Talent, commissioned by the Seven Network.

Last November Fremantle signed a first-look deal with Keshet International covering the global producer-distributor’s non-scripted formats in Australia and New Zealand.

Oliver-Taylor is particularly excited by social experiment format Bussing and The Great Garden Challenge, a competition for garden designers which he likens to the bake-off shows, and will shop them to networks.

Optimistic about the overall slate, he says: “We will roll out a lot of shows this year.”