After nine years in-house at Matchbox, producer Julie Eckersley reflects on her recent return to solo producing.
At the end of 2019, I had a great plan in place for 2020. It seems so naïve now, doesn’t it?
For me, it was the beginning of a new era. After nine years in-house at Matchbox Pictures I was headed back into the wild west of freelancing. With the industry changing and Matchbox no longer needing as many full-time producers, I ventured off with a package under my belt and a sparkling new five-year career plan on my wall. And that went quite well… for the first two months. And then, well… we all know what happened next. March 2020 brought COVID-19, delivering massive change for all of us personally and professionally. How will we ever forget?
Clearly, I am not the only one for whom 2020 took an unexpected path. But 12 months on from re-entering the freelance world, and with a newly-unmasked Melbourne face looking towards 2021, it felt like a good time to reflect on the challenges and benefits on my first year back being a solo producer.
- You can run your own slate. While there is always the opportunity to pitch your own shows in-house, when you are running solo you need to trust your own gut and define and back what excites you. For me, the outcome of this has been clearly defining the stories I am passionate about telling and has resulted in a great combination of working with some incredible new and diverse talent as well as keeping relationships with those I have a long history with.
- You are your own boss. I must admit, given I’ve had the likes of Chris Oliver-Taylor and Debbie Lee as my bosses, I’ve been pretty lucky in the ‘boss’ stakes. In fact, it could be argued that my current boss (me) is a lot harder to get a day off from. Still, I can usually wrangle her to take a walk by the beach at lunchtime, even if she does insist on listening to the latest industry podcast while we walk.
- Getting to work with new companies. I think that most of us in this industry love change and variety. Could you really work in it if you didn’t? I’ve really enjoyed being contracted for a wide variety of companies that I’ve never worked with before. Meeting new people and bringing new teams together is creatively invigorating.
- Meeting new people. Similarly, I’ve been able to meet with a great new range of people in our industry, which has been exciting and stimulating. If I am interested in meeting with someone I can reach out to them directly without the concern of stepping on toes of those further up the line who may already have that relationship in place.
- Getting to work from home. Yes, yes, me and the entire workplace this year, but sitting at my desk in the quiet of my study feels both efficient and peaceful. And – confession – I may take the occasional meeting in my slippers.
- Things can change in an instant. When you are in-house at a company there is mostly a clear and strong pipeline coming your way. Being a freelancer means that a single phone call can suddenly launch you into an incredibly exciting new project.
- Learning. This year I was fortunate enough to be given a Screen Australia People Enterprise Grant. This is an incredible initiative which enabled me to build my own career development program. Working with the amazing Jenni Tosi, we identified two key skill areas I really wanted to build on post-Matchbox. We then created a targeted strategy to achieve this, aspects of which were also supported through the Screen Oz funding. While you get other great learning opportunities in-house, I don’t think I would have received this bespoke type of support had I stayed at Matchbox.
- Getting a coach. Speaking of Jenni Tosi, I have worked with her throughout 2020 as a career coach. I made a conscious choice after leaving Matchbox to set myself up for success. I wanted to make sure I had a clear framework and plan of where I was headed. Jenni has such a wealth of experience that being coached by her has been invaluable.
- An office full of whiteboards. The very first thing I did when I left Matchbox was purchase a bunch of whiteboards. Whether I am plotting a story, brainstorming ideas, updating my slate or forward planning having whiteboards that I can see it all laid out on at any time is my favourite thing in my home office.
- Targeted partnerships. With my own slate of shows I am able to approach a variety of companies for partnerships. This means, in particular, that I can approach the company that is best suited for a show when I need a producing partner.
- Being able to reinvent yourself. Having come into Matchbox as an intern and very much grown up in the company, I think there comes a time when you need to reinvent yourself to truly keep growing. Stepping away from the incredible support of Matchbox was tough but I feel I have definitely grown and become a better storyteller and creator since doing so.
- Finances. It’s the big one so let’s just put it out there. It’s feast or famine when you are freelance. You need to keep some emergency fat in your bank account to ride the wave.
- Being part of a team. I’m a pretty self-motivated solo operator but it is nice to hear a cheer go up in the room when one of your co-workers gets a green light, or catch the excitement of what you are able to accomplish together as a team. Working solo means that that celebration is a little quieter, although my partner does love a reason to crack open a great bottle of wine.
- Firepower. With international money more crucial than ever to any finance plan, companies with strong international connections like Matchbox definitely have an advantage. As a solo producer I have had to find and build my own relationships to navigate and achieve this. Not a bad thing, but it’s taken some work and is an ongoing challenge.
- Some things are easier to do together. When you’re part of a great team there are multiple people working to one goal. This means that while you are moving onto the development of another project, someone else in the company can be pulling together all the financing and documentation on the prior. There is a definite efficiency in what and how much you can turn around.
- Company momentum. When a company has momentum it is easier to get meetings, build your reputation and ride on the wave with your team. Matchbox won SPA’s Producer of the Year award three times, and it felt exciting to be part of the company’s momentum and growth.
- Project momentum. As you hand projects on to others, so too can projects come up the pipeline to you. The Family Law for instance was initially found as a book by Tony Ayres. Sophie Miller and I were then brought in on the project to bring it to life.
- Career momentum. Over a nine-year period at Matchbox I was able to consistently move from one project to the next. I started with producing an online game to sit beside the Nowhere Boys series, moved onto producing a short in The Turning, then animation and doco, into half hour comedies (Maximum Choppage and The Family Law), before moving though to Glitch. It gave me incredible range and experience. I am aware how incredibly lucky I am to have had such continuous momentum as a producer, and to have been able to keep going from project to project, with the projects getting bigger and more challenging. Without the backing of Chris Oliver-Taylor, Tony Ayres and the fabulous people at Matchbox I simply would not have been able to achieve the momentum those credits gave my career in such a short space of time.
- The ‘parents’. When Sophie Miller and I were producing our first show together we had the glorious support of Helen Panckhurst who we could turn to for advice at any point. Helen oversees production at Matchbox and has an incredible wealth of production experience under her belt, as well as being one of the wisest people I know. She would always guide me to think of the outcome I wanted then we’d gently work out together the best way to get there. Talking out an issue with her led me to make much better decisions.
The truth is, having a creative career in Australia means you are likely to experience times of both freelancing and being in-house. There are benefits and challenges to be had no matter what shape your career is currently taking. In all honesty, I enjoy both for different reasons. My top takeaway is this: creativity requires growth and growth requires change. So while it can take some time to move from freelance to in-house or back the other way, the opportunity for new challenges, new partnerships and new roles is part of what makes us who we are and ultimately make us better creators. The opportunity to reinvent yourself is invaluable.
Having survived, and I’m going to say even thrived, in my first year back as a freelancer I feel excited about what lies ahead. I have a growing slate of really distinct projects and I have been fortunate enough to receive development funding for several of these. I am working contractually with some of my favourite companies and people which is a joy. More importantly, I feel like my own creative voice is stronger than ever and my skills have grown in unexpected ways.
While none of us really know what 2021 will hold, I’m backing the resilience of our industry and the great fortune we have to live on this stunning island knowing the ability we have to build our way back to a better future. It may be naïve or possibly overly optimistic but having survived 2020, don’t you feel a little invincible too?