The premiere of Amazon’s Back to the Rafters last month and the impending production of Netflix’s Heartbreak High offer insight into how international platforms approach local IP with cultural resonance.
Whereas one picks up the story of a family six years after their last outing, the other will reimagine a world from before the turn of the century, sharing only its title and young adult genre with the original.
The local and international popularity of both series – Heartbreak High was sold to more than 80 countries in the ’90s and Packed to the Rafters to a number of European and Asian territories, as well as South Africa – makes them appealing for platforms like Netflix and Amazon with global audiences. However, the process of bringing back an old favourite is not always a smooth one.
Five years ago, Foxtel commissioned a re-imagining of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock as a six-part series and Network 10 announced a mini-series adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s novel Wake in Fright, updating stories originally explored on film in the 1970s New Wave.
While the former, which was sold to Amazon in the US, received praise for delving into the backstories of the characters, the latter received more a lukewarm reception, with some critics questioning the need to bring the story into the present day, given the timeless nature of the themes explored by Cook.
Packed to the Rafters creator Bevan Lee admitted to IF he had similar misgivings when Amazon approached him more than three years ago to revisit the Rafter family.
“I’m a person who really likes to succeed and I’d already written an end, where I’d drawn a line under these characters, so deep down I think I was terrified I couldn’t do justice to them,” he said.
“I told myself all sorts of lies about why I was not responding immediately upfront but I think it was that fear of not being able to do right by them.
“But then [Amazon Prime Video head of content for Australia, New Zealand, and Canada] Tyler Bern kept showing enthusiasm and when you are faced with that kind of enthusiasm, you have to keep questioning yourself. I think that helped me get over the barrier of fear and get an idea that I felt was worth saying.”
In Back to the Rafters, Dave (Erik Thomson) and Julie (Rebecca Gibney) have created a new life in the country with their youngest daughter Ruby (Willow Speers) but find themselves in familiar circumstances when they travel to Sydney to celebrate their 35th anniversary with the rest of the family.
The six-part series is Amazon Prime Video’s first Australian scripted drama, for which the streamer teamed up with Seven Studios and Lee, who wrote the new episodes with Margaret Wilson, Trent Atkinson, and Katherine Thompson. Also returning from the previous iteration are series producer Chris Martin-Jones and co-producer Lesley Parker, with Thomson serving as associate producer.
Bern told IF the decision to revisit the Rafter family was “really a no-brainer”.
“Packed to the Rafters is a beloved show with huge ratings and is a cultural institution within Australia,” he said.
“We just wanted to bring the show back and harness that amazing creative vision and really bring something special to not only our Australian audience but to our millions of customers around the world.”
While the family has always commanded a large viewership in Australia, the country is now one of more than 240 where Prime Video subscribers can access the reboot.
Lee described writing for a global audience as a “journey of discovery”.
“It was good for me in the sense it is good for other people to come in and challenge creative people a bit more in general,” he said.
“Also, the international factor where you are making sure you adjust to an international audience but at the same time, you don’t adjust so much that you’re local audience don’t sniff out a sellout of local truth to international requirement.
“That was a necessary balancing act, because what’s the point of us having vernacular that everybody here understands but the audience overseas spends their whole time playing linguistic catch-up?”
Eight-part series Heartbreak High, currently in pre-production, is being brought back to life by Dutch company NewBe and Fremantle Australia.
Known for its honest depictions of issues sex, drugs, domestic violence, racism, politics, and body image, the original program ran for seven seasons from 1994 to 1999 on both Network Ten and ABC, proving to be hit both in Australia and internationally.
The reimagined series is the first commission from Netflix director of Australian originals Que Minh Luu, who told IF the decision to commission the series was not so much an example of choosing established IP as it was about tapping into the ethos of the program.
“As a team, we’ll consider any compelling idea whether it’s original or based on underlying IP,” she said.
“What matters is the strength of the storytelling and how reflective it is of us as Australians.
“When we decided to reboot Heartbreak High it was a nod to the show’s cultural impact and fandom and the feeling it gave teenagers at the time of being seen and understood.”
Despite Netflix boasting the largest global audience of all SVOD platforms, she said there were no plans to skimp on any ‘Australian-isms’.
“We want to do it in a way that is uniquely Australian, and that puts on display that Australian sense of humour, which is self-deprecating and freaking brutal, irreverent, and often inappropriate at inappropriate times,” she said.
“The new Heartbreak High is for young people in Australia today to feel seen, and reminding everyone that they are much, much cooler than us.”
Back to the Rafters is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.