Sourcing smart production solutions amidst the evolving economic constraints of 2023 along with leveraging technology whilst preserving the essence of storytelling, production companies across the APAC region have this year stepped up to the challenge to produce brave and impactful work. CB gets the inside scoop from the industry’s leading trailblazers.
An international economic downturn is also a domestic one and requires careful navigation. According to Revolver managing director and co-owner Michael Ritchie, the downturn has indeed had a bearing on turnover and margin. Despite the headwinds, Ritchie believes work this year has excelled. He says: “The interesting thing about these past 12 months is the level of the work we have been able to put out there; it is as good as I can remember. I don’t want to sound too chest-beaty on that, but I honestly feel it.” If anything, he adds that Revolver has been pushing its international partnerships harder than ever, and they have been pushing back.
With the Aussie dollar low and confidence growing in international clients travelling for work again, Taxi Film Production (The Taxi Group) general manager Kohbe Vela-Smith says the production house has welcomed facilitation jobs with global agencies and brands to shoot and experience all the country has on offer. Says Vela-Smith: “Australia hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year certainly played into that, with flow-on briefs and production opportunities stemming from the event.”
With work sourced predominately through local agencies, The Pool Collective managing director Cameron Gray has also enjoyed a handful of overseas collaborations and pitches direct from clients, specifically with large brands that have developed in-house creative teams. Concerning budgets, Gray says: “We’ve found budgets have decreased disproportionately, certainly when juxtaposed with the rise in the cost of cauliflower.”
He believes time will tell whether this is a genuine economic downturn or simply the new normal. “The five-year trend has seen asset requests rise and budgets decline, and I see no evidence that this flow will reverse. I suppose the very nature of capitalism dictates that we must continually increase productivity while reducing our costs. If we embrace this model wholeheartedly, the expectation year-on-year should be for budget decreases, hence the rush to embrace AI technology with little questioning of the outcomes. It’s just another means with which to facilitate that equation.”
Seeing work arrive from Melbourne, Sydney, the United States and Singapore, Airbag managing partner Adrian Bosich agrees there’s a friction between an expectation of lower budgets with the reality of the cost of living, crew rates and overall production costs rising.
In September, more than 170 film industry employees gathered in Sydney to launch a campaign against cuts to the NSW budget which looked to threaten 85 film and television projects and almost 30,000 jobs across the state.
Says Airbag executive producer Renae Begent: “Thankfully due to the film sector pressure, the NSW Government reversed these cuts, however I think a lot of reputational damage was still done and many productions spent a huge amount of time and money trying to pivot.”
Scoundrel co-founder and executive producer Adrian Shapiro says luckily the cuts were overturned avoiding major problems within the broader industry.
Says Shapiro: “One of the beautiful things about NSW has always been the support from the government for film and creative endeavours, and it’s brought a lot of projects to the state, so one positive outcome was to see the industry band together and say, ‘no it’s not acceptable for these government cuts’.”
Filmgraphics executive producer Anna Fawcett was also relieved common-sense prevailed, and the cuts were withdrawn. She says: “NSW is unique in terms of locations – especially locations within driving distance of Sydney, which we keep advocating for. We need to remain strong and keep promoting all things Australian.”
Ritchie at Revolver agrees, adding: “I think the representation the Screen Producers Association made was incredibly effective. They reminded the government that film companies and vital small businesses that employ high level film crew and their toil bring in significant income to the country.”
He says Covid and post Covid seemed to open the world up to Australia being an amazing place for production: “I still hear from our international directors that the crew are literally the best they have worked with. It was a proliferation of long form and commercials that was not really expected but it was very, very real. This surge was amazing in that it enabled new film crew to be blooded and it showcased our capability to the world – 18 months ago, we were at full capacity where it was really hard to actually crew a production.”
Film Construction executive producer Belinda Bradley says comparatively in New Zealand, the SAG strike had an immediate effect with the cancellation of some large US projects. “Hundreds of screen workers were out of work, and we were inundated with work inquiries. So, what happens in long-form television and film impacts advertising.”
Without making the conscious decision to prioritise the New Zealand market, Bradley says since Covid, most of Film Construction’s work has been local, adding: “But this is a global business, so we always look for opportunities from other markets. We like to think of Sydney as a second home, and working in Asia is always a delight.”
Like recent years, Exit Films executive producer Leah Churchill-Brown says work has been spread out evenly between Sydney and Melbourne, followed closely by New Zealand. She adds: “We’ve also had our usual smattering of international agencies both through our facility wing and coming direct to our roster. We’ve had just the one job direct from client.”
According to Rabbit founder and executive producer Lucas Jenner budgets have held up at the top end of the spectrum. Says Jenner: “The big brand campaigns still have money, however the middle of the market seems to have fallen out and the three-to-four-day shoots that we used to see more of have definitely declined over the past 12 months.”
The Producers executive producer Tanya Spencer has seen a broad spectrum of budgets come across her desks this year, including some larger budget work. She says: “This is encouraging considering the predicted economic headwinds, and hopefully a sign that the industry and clients still value high quality productions. The small to medium budgets is where we like getting involved early to problem solve and work with our internal team and the agency to come up with solutions to make the job happen and put the most of our resources on the screen.”
Adventures in AI
Acknowledging the significant influence of AI, Clockwork Films managing director and co-founder Jamie Cohen says the most substantial business opportunities exist in operations and administration automation and a notable industry shift towards programmatic media bookings creating downstream transformation.
Says Cohen: “AI has been around for a while, especially in our post workflow, to achieve efficiencies around rotoscoping, keying, camera tracking, captioning and so on. The recent explosion of awareness due to generative AI, like ChatGPT and Midjourney, however, has increased general interest and the profile of machine learning technology. At this stage, the most obvious impact is in pre-visualisation and copywriting, with future impacts threatening creatives, artists and actors – we’re not indifferent to the adverse potential.”
However, as an innovation forward company, Cohen says Clockwork Films is always looking for ways to create value for its clients: “The bigger business opportunities for us lie more in the operations/admin automation space. There’s definitely some interesting post production tools in the pipeline though. The biggest impact to the industry however has been the standardisation of programmatic media bookings. AI automation of media bookings has and will continue to reshape schedules, budgets, and demand for lower cost content as low budget media sales become more profitable.”
Having experimented with a content creator platform this year, he says it definitely has its strengths and weaknesses, but is indicative of a trend towards clients seeking bespoke and innovative solutions. “Ultimately we don’t think AI will replace creators, but those that utilise new and emerging technology will have an advantage.”
Beautiful State founder and executive producer Kim Kirby agrees, stating: “The future is certainly going to look different, and probably sooner than we think with the pace of AI technology.”
Sweetshop managing director Greg Fyson acknowledges that film production has been constantly evolving since its inception. Fyson says: “I am personally excited by all the new toys that we get to play with. Any technology that supports good storytelling I will always welcome with open arms.”
According to electriclimeº executive producer Shahn Devendran, AI is often used as a very broad term for the tools that are now at our disposal across creative industries.
Says Devendran: “Most recently, we have been working with directors, DoPs and VFX artists to find the best ways to apply AI tools to our processes. We feel that as long as we’re safeguarding jobs while we integrate these new tools, it’s an exciting time for the industry.”
He adds VFX artists with an understanding of AI tools have been highly sought after. “This is predominantly because brands are looking to bring an AI element to their more recent live-action campaigns. Whether or not this is an aesthetic fad or something more, that’s one skill set we are finding more and more in demand.”
The rise of new technologies, according to Guilty Content executive producer Jason Byrne, has had both positive and negative impacts on the business. Byrne explains: “On the positive side, AI and automation have streamlined certain aspects of content creation and data analysis, making our processes more efficient. However, the challenge lies in maintaining the human touch and creativity in our work. It’s a balancing act to leverage technology while preserving the essence of storytelling and creativity.”
In the past year, he says roles related to data analysis and digital marketing have become more in demand. “As the digital landscape continues to evolve, clients are placing greater emphasis on data-driven insights to inform their marketing strategies. This has created opportunities for professionals who excel in data analytics and digital marketing and content that uses this information to great effect.”
Filmgraphics has already created a dedicated AI division, Figment, that is starting to produce work. Fawcett says: “This is targeted at online and social media advertising – and we are excited to share what our team has been up to.”
FINCH executive producer Loren Bradley is excited by all the new tech opportunities: “We are in a new territory of managing expectations as we see a lot more AI used in briefing decks. It can limit the imagination of what a director can bring to a project and lock a client into a certain output expectation. I’m confident that this will progress from here as we all get used to AI as a tool.”
Shapiro at Scoundrel says Midjourney is the perfect tool to create reference imagery if you can’t find a certain image for a treatment. He adds: “AI is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. I don’t think it will ever replace the heart and soul of traditional film making, but it’s definitely something we’re all keeping our eyes on as the progression from the beginning of the year to what you can create now is wildly exponential.”
Churchill-Brown at Exit Films explains a lot of her directors are dabbling in AI for the treatment process. She says: “We have had a project go a little haywire when a client signed off on a look that was created in Midjourney but was impossible to recreate in the real world! It feels like we’re at the tip of a very big iceberg which is as exciting as it is daunting.”
Gray at The Pool Collective says for now, AI is just another tool in the armoury — but it’s too soon for a prognosis on any direct impacts upon business, good or bad.
“If I project forward, the emergence of AI technology as a viable application within the creative industries will likely expedite what was previously a slow-burn disruption of the traditional model. In a positive sense, it will broaden the scope of what is required from a creative thinker and expand the potential for multi-faceted artists to collaborate on commercial projects — visual artists, conceptual artists, digital artists and the like.”
In the short term, he says the potential for copyright infringement has likely slowed any immediate rush to stick AI-generated content straight onto the screen — although he has already seen a few briefs this year encouraging us to head in that direction.
“As with all new tech, there is a desire to find ways to embrace it as quickly as possible, and AI is no different in this regard. It’s too soon to have an opinion on where it will land us. Ultimately, creativity will prevail, regardless of the tools at our disposal — so long as we remain human.”
Taxi Film Production’s Vela-Smith is also excited by virtual production/Unreal Engine, generating a lot of buzz with both agencies and clients. “Exploring the possibilities of VP has been incredibly eye opening and I think Taxi’s foray into the world of VP on a couple of projects this year has only really scratched the surface of how we can and will use the technology in a positive way for production in the future.”
New Year, New Faces
In 2023, many production companies have welcomed back top-level experienced directors and their return to commercial work. Says Churchill-Brown at Exit: “I do feel their presence back in the TVC sphere helps to bolster and mentor our emerging talent. Our main focus this year for emerging talent has been in searching for the right fit for our leadership team and I hope for an announcement there soon.”
Byrne at Guilty Content is also excited to welcome some great additions to his team but securing talent has been a mix of both easy and hard. He says: “Securing talent has been easier because the industry’s recognition of our previous work has attracted some top-notch talent. It’s been harder because there’s also increased competition for skilled professionals in our field.”
Photoplay Films executive producer Oliver Lawrance was excited to sign Lester Jones. He says: “Lester is a passionate and insightful film director who lenses the world in such a fascinating and emotive way that really connects with and challenges audiences. He has a cinematic approach with an eye for human connection and creates visual films with such great mood and tone. He has recently directed campaigns for Paspaley, Commbank, The Iconic, R.M. Williams, Schick and Westfield.”
Collider managing partner and executive producer Rachael Ford-Davies feels fortunate to have signed directors Tig Terrera, Raghav Rampal and VERSUS. She says: “It’s so important for us as a company to discover and support new voices and distinct perspectives and we are thrilled to welcome them to the Collider family.”
Revolver has renewed the roster this year, adding Fiona McGee, the international duo King She (who just shot the new Ebay brand film), and is proudly bringing through Victoria Singh-Thompson to the roster – who has written and directed an amazing short, 14 In February, which Revolver produced.
Says Ritchie: “We will be bolstering more talent from within the company and are always looking for new talent and new director’s assistants, who eventually, and if showing the aptitude, may want to direct themselves.”
Despite maintaining a fairly consistent director roster in the past, Taxi Film Production welcomed Hannah Ariotti earlier this year as she transitioned from the company’s traffic content arm to the flagship Taxi brand. Says Vela-Smith: “Hannah is the type of director I would have loved to work with more when I was agency side and her enthusiasm for her craft is just naturally contagious.”
Over at The Pool Collective, there were a few additions to the creative ranks, including filmmaker Yeoseop Yoon, photographers Saskia Wilson and Woody Gooch, graphic artist Jodee Knowles and AR/VR/AI artist Julian Wolkenstein.
Welcoming a change to the roster, Filmgraphics has signed directors Sinéad McDevitt and Jessie Hill. Jonathan Samway also joined as executive producer and partner.
For electriclimeº new directors to the roster include The Roos Brothers, Kids of Bill and Henrik Rostrup. In addition to directors, Devendran is excited to have recently hired Shaye Guillory as production manager in the Sydney office, who comes with a wealth of experience on large scale productions from her time at Rideback and MPC.
Bosich at Airbag says there’s been no issues securing talent this year, stating: “We’ve doubled the size of our Sydney office and are enjoying shooting in New Zealand.”
At Clockwork Films, the production house recently welcomed Patrick Fileti and he has been busy shooting since he stepped in the door. Earlier in the year, new additions also included Rosie Parker (EP/producer) Josh Nicholas (PM) and Katie Trew (EP/WA).
Cohen adds: “Experienced storyboard artists and DAs are always in demand, likewise for VTR, and we’ve seen boom and bust film incentives in markets outside Sydney and Melbourne impact crew availability.”
Fyson at The Sweetshop says whilst there continues to be a deep pool of talented directors working their way through the ranks, it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate motivated and talented production staff. “As industry leaders, I believe we should take a more proactive role in mentoring recent graduates and highlighting the excellent career prospects within our field.”
The big news for Film Construction is celebrating the first year of its stills photographic roster. Bradley explains: “After working with film directors for almost three decades, this was a significant development and one we are very proud of. Our roster includes Michele Aboud, Sophie Miya-Smith, Jason Ierace, Matt Hurley, Katya Brook, Jodie James, and Mike Hishon. And award-winning food specialist Manja Wachsmuth has just joined. We’ve already produced some great work for Smirnoff through Thinkerbell and KFC through Special. We are very excited about the future.”
Spencer at The Producers is pleased that two of the company’s production managers, Krystal Tomczak and Georgia Rankin, have started producing this year. She says: “They have a wealth of production knowledge and are already familiar with our fabulous clients, so it makes sense to us for them to grow with the company.”
FINCH has recently signed Michael Hili. Says Bradley: “He studied theatre production design at NIDA and has started his career making music videos for prominent international artists. You can see this in his craft, as he has a tactile approach to filmmaking. Stephen Carroll has also joined FINCH and we are so happy to have him a part of the family.”
The Reel Highlights
The country’s top storytellers worked on a diverse line-up of campaigns for some of Australia’s most prominent brands. Rabbit got busy on a heartfelt campaign for Qantas ‘Feels Like Home’ directed by Madeline Clayton, Google Pixel ‘Super Sharon’ directed by Al Morrow and starring Magda Suzbanski, along with Forty Winks ‘The Unslept’ directed by Owen Trevor.
For Beautiful State, Kirby points to a job with Howatson+Company for Domain, shooting in Toronto with actor Rose Byrne and her partner Bobby Cannivale. Kirby says: “The scripts were fun, the talent faultless, and award-winning comedy director Trent O’Donnell was a delight to work with. It was a dream job.”
Over at Taxi Film Production, a standout was Taco Bell USA ‘Real Crave’ via director Paul Geusebroek. Says Vela-Smith: “From a production perspective, it was such an energetic project with a large integrated crew and mixed media options. We had the DP shooting on a polaroid camera one moment and 35mm film the next, so everyone was on their toes and loved the ride.”
Scoundrel’s top picks were Toyota ‘Hilux’ with Saatchi & Saatchi, directed by Tim Bullock, Allianz ‘Swim Club’ with Howatson+ Company, directed by Grant Sputore, and Toyota Corolla ‘Metamorphosis’ via Hero and directed by Toby Pike.
For The Pool Collective, a few notable collaborations were with agency Edelman, working on KFC tie-in with PUBG for the Asian market, along with a campaign alongside creative agency Orphan founders Ant Hatton and Hans Christian Berents for the Children’s Cancer Institute.
Cohen at Clockwork Films points to Rebel Sport ‘Sport Is A Gift’ directed by Patrick Fileti via The G Store; Mitsubishi Outlander ‘Australia Ready’ directed by Justin McMillan; and, Unloan ‘Feel The Crunch’ directed by Jesse James McElroy. Commenting on Unloan, Cohen adds: “The spot was innovative and a fun piece of creative that was a great challenge to tackle both VFX and practical effects wise. Jesse, the team, and crew did a fantastic job putting it all together.”
Exit Films’ top campaigns included Telstra ‘Country Footy’ directed by Mark Molloy. Churchill-Brown explains: “It was such a fun job right the way through the production process. From finding the perfect locations to casting an incredible combination of real people and actors to fill the roles. It was Mark’s idea to cast a woman as ‘Mick’ the coach, and it was a dream come true when we found Jacki, an actual bus driver. It was a fast and furious shoot in freezing conditions leading into an even more manic post production schedule that The Editors managed brilliantly under massive time constraints. This was one of those jobs where we all ran as one, agency, production and post, and we couldn’t have asked for a better team.”
Her other two standouts included Telstra ‘Xmas Dashers Run’ via The Monkeys Melbourne, directed by Glendyn Ivin, and MYOB ‘Myobelieve’ via Howatson+ Company, directed by Stefan Hunt.
For Airbag, campaign ‘FitChix’ by Steven Nicholson and Dan MacNish for VMLY&R continues to work its magic both in the market and award shows, taking home multiple Golds and Grand Prix; ‘BWS’ by Christopher Hill via M&C Saatchi also continues to rack up the gongs, and the production house just debuted a passion project by its VFX department for Bangalow Koalas via Momentum WorldWide.
For electriclimeº, favourites included Standard Chartered x Liverpool FC ‘Play On’. Says Devendran: A heartfelt story with an important message, this beautiful little film directed by Armand De-Saint Salvy with director of photography Campbell Brown, was released in the lead up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup and made Ad Forum’s Top 3 Best Global Campaigns. Finding a fresh and relatable angle for gender equality and team sport, the film highlights the importance of the skills women learn on the field when they’re young that carry them through life.”
His other two picks included Audi ‘Progress You Can Feel’, directed by Lincoln Caplice and BETR ‘Sport Is Everything’, a directorial collaboration between Leigh Powis and Ian Pons Jewell. “This incredibly poetic ode to sport and the sport fan was part of the official selection and shortlist for Berlin Commercial 2023. Drawing inspiration from the breadth of meaning and importance that sport holds to the sport’s fan, the film is a visual ballet through the sport world.”
Top three pieces of work for Guilty Content included Tassal ‘It Must Be Tassal’ directed by Edwin McGill; DrinkWise ‘It’s Okay to Say Nay’ directed by Tony Rogers; and, Budget ‘Get to the Good Stuff’ directed Edwin McGill.
Commenting on Tassal, Byrne says: “This campaign stands out due to its unique storytelling featuring Ken, an unconventional synchronized swimmer with hidden talents. The visuals of Ken savouring Tassal salmon by the pool are both mouth-watering and visually appealing. As Ken showcases his unexpected prowess, the campaign creates a memorable connection. It celebrates health and goodness, portraying the salmon as a delicious and wholesome choice. Ken’s agility and the reactions of the crowd add to the captivating and heart-warming narrative, making it a standout advertisement.”
Over at Film Construction, top picks included Isuzu ‘Master of All Roads’, an epic shoot with Triton Films in Bangkok; Honda ‘The Power of Dreams’, a delightful story of a brand appeal that crosses generations; and Beef And Lamb New Zealand ‘Good Things Start With Beef and Lamb,’ a story of girl power and the rise of women’s rugby star.
For Revolver, a film for the Sydney Opera House’s 50th birthday based on a song by Tim Minchin, directed and driven by Kim Gehrig, and produced by Pip Smart who stepped out of the EP chair and back on to the considerable tools required to pull this off alongside the might of The Monkeys. Says Ritchie: “It was a once-in-a-lifetime project and one that we are just really, really proud of, as I hope Australia will be too.”
Secondly, Steve Rogers did a special project co-produced with Tony Peterson Films in Germany for Hornbach, and thirdly, Carlton ‘Drylandia’, directed by Andreas Nilsson via Clemenger BBDO.
For Photoplay, Lawrance points to Michael Gupta’s direction of a hauntingly beautiful music video for band Winter Swim, which has picked up a string of awards at shows including Ciclope, Shots, MADC and AWARD. He also references Binge’s latest film campaign with comedy performance director Gary John and agency Thinkerbell. “It was all about the awkward moment when someone tries to talk about a TV series that they haven’t actually watched. The first iteration was set on a Tinder date, and Gary nailed the performances from our two date makers, with pitch-perfect timing and awkwardness.”
Lastly, director/photographer Sarah Adamson’s provocative global brand campaign for female-focused insurance company Stella ‘It Takes Boobs’. “It was an awesome campaign to collaborate on with CocoGun across both film and photography. It also picked up a string of awards from shows including Ciclope and Shots.”
Dedicated to making projects for social, cultural and sustainable change, this year Collider produced one of its most important and successful yet. ‘Tuvalu – The First Digital Nation’ brought crucial international media attention to the impact of the climate crisis on Tuvalu and the urgent need for proactive and effective climate policies, for which it was awarded the Cannes Lions Titanium Grand Prix. Another was ‘Minderoo – The Plastic Forecast’ that highlighted the devastating impact of plastic on the environment and featured at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris during an international summit on plastic pollution; and most recently, ‘Far Enough – Vote Yes’ amassed over 10 million views in the first week, making headlines across Australian news outlets. Says Ford-Davies: “It has been an honour to be creating such meaningful and impactful work that tangibly generates the attention these kinds of global and national issues deserve.”
Top spots for Sweetshop included Uber ‘Almost Almost Anything’. Says Fyson: “Tom Felton’s spot is perhaps my favourite but is rare to see or be part of such a massive but well-rounded campaign. The entire campaign is made up of nothing but hits!” Others included Leggo’s ‘It’s How We Do Italian’ and Vogel’s ‘Nothing Compares’.
He adds: “After a post-Covid drought, the past 12 months have seen the overall level of quality in creative ambition increase in many of the projects we have been involved in. It is fantastic to see our agency and client partners leaning back into meaningful and entertaining communication.”
The Producers teamed up with Thinkerbell and Repco for the second year in a row to create their annual Bathurst campaign. Says Spencer: “This year, after we were awarded the job, the client asked for the idea to be even bigger, so we brainstormed with the creatives and grew the concept from a 30 second to 90 second. Somewhere along the journey the idea to have Angry Anderson was written in, which was a shoot highlight for the die-hard fans amongst our agency, client and crew.”
For FINCH, standout work included Modibodi ‘I’m Dying Inside’, directed by Arundati Thandur, via Howatson+Company. Says Bradley: “I’m proud of what we achieved with this campaign and the creativity with launching a Gen Z content series on TikTok. It’s a great example of entertainment on brand, which boosted Modibodi sales tenfold. I am also really grateful for the bravery of Howatson for believing in an emerging director and supporting her vision for the campaign.” Other highlights were ALDI ‘Shop Aldi First’, directed by Christopher Riggert via BMF, and Telstra’s ‘Deals You Didn’t See Coming’, directed by Benji Weinstein via The Monkeys.