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[Introduction – 00:00]

Voice Over:

You’re listening to In Conversation with Screenwest. Screenwest Documentary Manager, Paul Williams, joins Electric Pictures founder and CEO, Andrew Ogilvie, and Aussie Gold Hunters Series Producer, Robin Shingleton, to discuss the next series of Aussie Gold Hunters, the history of the series, and the benefit it provides the WA industry. From Screenwest, this is In Conversation.

Paul Williams:

Hi, my name is Paul Williams and I’m the Documentary Manager at Screenwest. Electric Pictures is a production company based in Perth, Western Australia, actually in Fremantle, so just outside of Perth, and also has a regional office in Toronto, Canada. The company has nearly three decades of experience producing documentaries and factual program for the international television market. With that brief overview, I’d like to introduce our two guests for the podcast today. Andrew Ogilvie. Andrew is the founder and CEO of Electric Pictures.

Andrew Ogilvie:

Hi, Paul.

Paul Williams:

And Series Producer of Electric Pictures’ flagship observational documentary series, Aussie Gold Hunters, Robin Shingleton.

Robin Shingleton:

How are you, Paul?

[Aussie Gold Hunters – 01:14]

Paul Williams:

Very well. Welcome to you both. For those who have not had the pleasure of watching Aussie Gold Hunters, I’ll run through some pretty incredible stats. Aussie Gold Hunters is Discovery Channel Australia’s all time highest-rating local show. It has been the number one factual series on the Foxtel cable platform for four consecutive years. It has also broken records in the UK, as one of the biggest performing original productions on Quest, with a 31% increase in audience for season five, reaching nearly eight million viewers. The series has screened in over 140 countries worldwide and we can see it continues to be commissioned with Discovery Australia and UK announcing their commission of series seven and eight recently. Let’s start with an overview of the series. Just give us a quick rundown of what audiences can expect from Aussie Gold Hunters.

Andrew Ogilvie:

Yeah, look, Aussie Gold Hunters is essentially a massive treasure hunt, and the hunt is obviously for gold. We now have seven teams who are out there in the wilds of Outback Australia, either as sort of two detectorists with state-of-the-art metal detectors, or teams who have got a 30 ton excavator and various machinery to recover gold, fundamentally. It’s a character driven show. The characters are key. Yes, gold is the star of the show, but the characters and their journey and their passion, their dreams, and that universal notion of striking it rich, one day having your life turned around is, in essence, the heartbeat of the series. And I think the heartbeat of why people watch it because they put themselves there. They’re there with our characters, believing we can do this. Our audience sitting in the UK, in some little flat in London, are looking at the beautiful, stunning, vast Australian Outback, going, “We can do this can’t we! Sure, what you think, hey?”

Robin Shingleton:

And a glass of Chardonnay in there too.

Andrew Ogilvie:

Yeah, that’d be good.

Paul Williams:

I suppose that eureka moment of striking it rich underpins the structure of the show, and is what has made it returnable into a seventh and an eighth series, which is remarkable really for any factual series to get that longevity.

Andrew Ogilvie:

Absolutely, and to your point, Paul, these are kind of universal themes and ideas and dreams that so many people can identify with. And I think, fundamentally, it’s a character-driven returnable series because the characters are what we tap into and they wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Robin Shingleton:

Totally true. I would say, though, that I think part of the lure of the series is the gold. In the history of human civilization, gold has a very special place and has been highly valued by society for thousands of years. And it still excites people. And the thing about gold too, is when you dig it up and dust it down, it immediately shines. There’s no processing, there’s no polishing, it’s immediately you get a result. That’s something which the prospectors that we film live their life to experience.

Andrew Ogilvie:

Well many of them talk about that, don’t they. They talk about the fact that here’s this thing that’s come out of the ground and yes, it’s gold, but it’s, no one has seen this for potentially millions of years. And some of them just see that first before they see the money and the glint of gold.

Paul Williams:

How many episodes has it been now over eight-

Andrew Ogilvie:

Series one to six, it’s a total of 84 hours. And of course now we’ve been commissioned for series seven and eight. The first season, series one and two, were shorter seasons, but since series five there’ve been 20 episodes a season. And having been commissioned for another two seasons, we’re now looking at doing another 40 hours over the next two years. So, by 2022, we would have done 124 hours in approximately six years.

Paul Williams:

That volume of a commission is very rare in Australian documentary. What does a big 40 ep commission mean for a company like Electric Pictures?

Andrew Ogilvie:

Opportunity to offer good people permanent employment. I mean, we engage people across the full spectrum and we have freelancers that do come and work for us only for maybe six months, but it’s six months, not six weeks. And we have many people who are just more or less permanent on staff. The editors are pretty much consistently in work, perhaps the odd month off, but lots of work. And we have a production team, a management team, which is permanent. I think altogether, we employ about 25 people on a permanent basis. And then an additional, probably another 30 people on top of that, 40 people on top of that, including in post-production who are on contract or, or freelancing. So it’s a great employer.

Robin Shingleton:

The thing that I’ve seen too in the time that I’ve been at Electric for three and a half years and with Aussie Gold is when the volume deals came through, as in 40 episodes, it’s just exciting that over that time that we were working on those, we’ve seen young ones come in, who have been just ingesting footage. And now they’re editing, we’ve seen growth for those young people. And I find, and I know you do too, Andrew, it’s exciting actually seeing them grow and being able to have the infrastructure, because of the sort of volume of commissioning, to be able to see that realized.

Andrew Ogilvie:

I think it’s exciting also just in our industry to be able to offer people some sort of stability. People have got mortgages, and families to feed. They can actually do what they want to do passionately, and most of us, let’s face it, we’re not in this business really to make money, it’s mostly about some dream we had about being a filmmaker along the way, but they can actually have a good income as well.

[Working with Discovery – 06:41]

Paul Williams:

Let’s talk about the other aspects of that question, the relationship you have with Discovery. A 40 episode commission is an enormous endorsement of a production company’s capacity to deliver, so maybe talk us through how the relationship with Discovery started, how you pitched the show to them, and how you manage that relationship in an ongoing way.

Andrew Ogilvie:

Well, funnily enough, it was somewhat accidental originally because series one was fully commissioned by National Geographic with the backing of Screenwest and Screen Australia, as a global commission. And then before we signed the contract, they had a very major management shake-up at senior levels in Washington. And they just decided to go in a completely different direction at that time and decided that they weren’t going to do anything in the mining space anymore. And it was a concern that they had, and it’s a fair enough concern, that perhaps mining could be seen as environmentally damaging, not necessarily good for their brand.

As it turns out, in fact, Australia has some of the strictest mining regulations in the world and I think we can say that any damage to the environment here is minimized in Australia better than any other country, pretty much worldwide. And we’re world leaders, particularly in gold, and we’re world leaders in restoring habitats after the mining has been completed, and so on. Anyhow, so National Geographic was on board. We were going to go onto production, I think this is about 2015, and then they pulled out, one of the few times in my career that’s happened, but it did. I don’t remember quite how I made contact with Discovery the first time but probably through the Australian office and-

Paul Williams:

This is with a production ready show that’s been fully developed, ready to go?

Andrew Ogilvie:

Yeah. Oh, we’d spent months on it, and a lot of money, developing it as you do. What I didn’t understand was that we’d actually stumbled onto an incredibly popular genre in the Discovery world because we hadn’t gone out to make a gold show per se. We hadn’t looked at all the gold shows then said, “That looks like something we can do. We’ll do it here in Australia.” We actually came to it from a different route. In 2014, we made, probably, I consider to be, our best dramatized documentary, a really big high budget, four part, dramatized series to commemorate the start of the first world war. And we won the commission at the ABC to be the company to produce it nationally. But after that nothing was happening, it was quite amazing really and I think one of the best shows that ABC ever made, and then ABC changed, ABC lost its… They had new management, they went in different directions and we were left behind.

So I decided, quite consciously, we had to find new markets and new genres and new types of television to make, given that historically we’re very much a public broadcaster producer. And so we started reaching out to National Geographic and then eventually in this case Discovery and so on. But anyhow, I just basically gave our development team instructions that we had to look for new genres, new types of programming, break away from ABC, break away from SBS, break away and public broadcasters. And they came back with ideas about going to places like Lightning Ridge to look for, believe it or not, opals and emeralds and other precious stones, which you find in those places in South Australia and in Queensland in particular, and not so much here in Western Australia actually but mostly over there. I thought about it and I said to them, “Well, yeah, I mean, this sort of prospecting space or mining space is interesting, but we’re living in one of the world’s greatest mining states. Why can’t you find something here? What have we got here? Gold. Okay. So why don’t we go and find a gold story?”

And so I sent a team out to Kalgoorlie looking, but we didn’t understand actually that we were looking in a very successful area, that these gold shows overseas had done really good numbers. And so it was an accident really. Anyhow, we presented it as our idea to Discovery in Australia. I remember at the time they thought that it was unlikely that it would be successful because all the gold shows that they were showing, which are highly successful globally, had been made out of the US, Gold Rush, or Yukon Gold, I think there’s another one. And that’s when I discovered that we actually were onto something. But they gave us a go. And I remember that actually probably at the end of series one when the results first came in, the ratings first came in, that the head of Discovery Australia at the time, he’s talking to me on the phone.

He said, “Look, Andrew, I’m really, really impressed. You’ve done it. You’ve actually made a show that is working as well, if not better, than these imported shows from the US. To be honest, I wasn’t actually totally confident we were going to get there but you’ve done it. Let’s do another one.” And then we did another one, and ratings got better, because we got better at doing it of course. And we listened to their feedback and we crafted the show to increase the audience numbers and it worked. And the third came along and then now here we are 84 episodes later. So it’s something I’m very proud of actually, but that’s how it came about.

Paul Williams:

I’m interested, with regards to coming from a public broadcasting background, what it was like to tailor a returnable series specifically with an audience in mind and with a demographic in mind from Discovery.

Andrew Ogilvie:

Not so very different from working for any other broadcaster, to be honest. The ABC has its own demographic as well, and you just really need to listen carefully to your broadcasters and how they describe their audience and then think of ways to appeal to that audience. Discovery’s audience is, at least for this sort of show, very much a blue collar audience. They’re working people, they’re people that are used to doing tough and difficult jobs themselves often. They’re trades people. Not entirely, there’s also a little group of white collar workers we know as well, who secretly love Aussie Gold. They probably wouldn’t admit it at the next cocktail party. But the audience is a certain socioeconomic background and you think about what works for them and you try it out and you look at the results and then you build from there.

[Keeping the show fresh – 12:30]

Paul Williams:

So Robin, in a series producing capacity when you’ve got a big volume commission like this, part of the trick is to keep it the same, but also to keep it fresh. How do you deal with those conflicting agendas?

Robin Shingleton:

To Andrew’s point before, we are constantly listening to the network, as a collaborative process to a degree, but in terms of keeping a series fresh, there’s a huge amount of pressure from season to season to really deliver something fresh and new. Locations are key, being able to celebrate various locations. Finding variety, finding those places where we can drill into another aspect of the gold mining industry, the history of gold. And finding characters, it’s a character driven series so ultimately though we want those fresh new insights to come from fresh new characters, and we do mix it up, particularly every couple of seasons, we’ll see a couple of new teams come in and possibly lose one or two to keep that variety alive.

Andrew Ogilvie:

I think actually, if I could just jump in there, one of the big bonuses in terms of our form of Aussie Gold is that we don’t have any major stars that you have to keep on to drive the show. You can actually have a churn. And in fact, every budget we do, we allow a certain amount for ongoing custom research and we employ people out of Kalgoorlie and we employ people up in the Kimberley, whatever, to try to find characters for us that might work. Every year we’re looking at new potential characters. We don’t always get it.

Robin Shingleton:

Yeah. The format isn’t beholden to a particular star, the only star of the show was the gold, fundamentally. The thing that hooks people is the journey to the gold for each of the teams. So I think you’re right, Andrew.

Andrew Ogilvie:

Well, from a production point of view, from a producer’s point of view, that’s a great advantage because you’re not having to deal with people that get rather big egos and who may want to… I think there is a tendency, of course, for people to think that they are stars well before they really are, and we’re in a good situation, when they become too difficult to handle we just move them along.

Paul Williams:

So, so tell me, tell me what happens in, I think, season four, when you had the really big find out of the team that’s working in Victoria. The call to the office that day, it must’ve been pretty exciting.

Robin Shingleton:

Are these the guys who pulled up the two nuggets in one day?

Paul Williams:

That’s the one.

Robin Shingleton:

That was fantastic. The first thing that comes through is the text message photo and you go… And they always have a reference, so you’re looking at it in their hand going, “What the hell? That big? What?” On the phone, “Why, where, how? How much?” And yeah, you get this flurry of photos that come through and a) you’re excited for the team themselves because you’ve journeyed with them. You’ve spent two months as they struggled and then to see them pull that up is fantastic. And obviously from a production point of view, there’s the star of the show just appeared and that secures our futures as much as a great story does. So it’s super exciting on many levels. And one of the things that television doesn’t show, just as a sort of sidebar, is that it’s really heavy. If you haven’t held gold, and if you have, most of us have never held a nugget, that’s 82 ounces, your brain hasn’t been pre-programmed to experience what that feels like in such a small dense mass. So it’s a phenomenal experience if you get a chance to hold a golden nugget, it honestly does something for you. It does for me. And that big is just-

Andrew Ogilvie:

If you’ve ever held a lead bar in your hand, imagine that same bar weighing suddenly twice as much.

Robin Shingleton:

It’s a surreal experience, but look, fantastic day for the show.

Andrew Ogilvie:

I think for me it was actually though when the first big nugget was found, which I think was series two or three-

Robin Shingleton:

Victoria Diggers, was it?

Andrew Ogilvie:

Yeah. It was just huge.

Andrew Ogilvie:

…what happened then when we went online? Because we cut a clip in Discovery, put it up on their website, and it just went viral and totally viral to the point where, the last time I looked, which is a very long time ago, it had done 25 million views. And there had been about 25 million views in three months. It’s just amazing. And you can almost watch the clock spinning. Every time you refresh there’d be another hundred people who’ve watched it.

[Moving towards Streaming – 16:45]

Paul Williams:

Let’s move outside of Aussie Gold a little bit and just talk about some broader industry themes. Discovery’s just launched Discovery Plus internationally. This show was developed for their linear model. How do you think that introduction of the big streaming services like Discovery Plus, Disney Plus and older ones are going to change the way companies like Electric develop?

Robin Shingleton:

Well, actually one of the very big changes I’m already feeling is, it’s the lack of information you can gather from a streamer as to how well your program might be doing or whatever. They do not give out statistics, none of them do. So, first of all, it’s very hard to sort of look at it from a scientific point of view and do metrics. And that’s something, over my career, I’ve got very used to doing, is looking at ratings and results that you can measure. Well, with the SVODs, it’s very hard to measure anything. So if you can’t measure much, it’s a bit hard to actually know what to provide them with or what might work for them, because there’s nothing to look at to tell you what actually does work for them. But our feedback so far, because Aussie Gold is now on Discovery Plus in the UK, that it’s doing really well. It hasn’t dropped in its numbers. And in fact it just increases its size of the audience overall. But I think what we’re hearing in terms of editorial feedback, in terms of editorial requests, is it’s a much more diverse audience. So they’re looking for greater diversity on the screen as well. Now we’re quite lucky with Aussie Gold because Aussie Gold, that was already quite a diverse cast in terms of ethnicity. It is very male skewed but we’re always trying to bring in female characters and characters from more diverse backgrounds.

Paul Williams:

There’s a First Nations team?

Andrew Ogilvie:

Definitely there’s an indigenous team who are great fun, and we really enjoy it. They really enjoy it. Everybody enjoys it, including all their indigenous mates. And so we already had a certain amount of diversity. So we started off with a reasonable advantage when it comes to Discovery Plus compared with some of the other shows and some of the other gold shows, I mean the American shows have so male-centric and very… kind of certain type of person. They’re quite narrow in terms of their character base, actually. So we had a good advantage to start with but I think that’s what was going to happen, as the shows are going to have to appeal to a broader audience because the audiences that buying into SVOD they a much broader range of ages and of interests.

Robin Shingleton:

Well, traditionally your cable network, you buy your cable because you want to watch sport, and traditionally that’s been male skewed, certainly changed over the last few years. Whereas, we use Discovery Plus as an example, their streaming platform encompasses all of their broader brands in terms of TLC, makeover shows, lifestyle channels. We fit into this amalgamation of programming now and so they want us to mesh into that where there’s a lot more female skewing shows in that context. But to Andrew’s point, we’ve always had good gender diversity and good number of-

Andrew Ogilvie:

Well, given the industry, given the work, given the subject material…

Robin Shingleton:

Absolutely, as a traditionally male skewed industry…

[Upcoming Slate – 19:50]

Paul Williams:

Well, you’ve certainly made every effort, given the variety in the teams. Can we talk a little bit more broadly in terms of Electric Pictures slate? What have you got in development? What other opportunities are you looking to take advantage of in the next little while?

Andrew Ogilvie:

Probably won’t get into specifics of actual titles or programs but we’re definitely looking at another quite reasonable size scale, potentially returnable, series based here in, actually, Perth, for a change. We’ve never actually made much inside Perth itself. This will be a first, if it’s successful. We’re also looking at other genres. That’s also a kind of a hard work, dirty jobs type jobs space, but also looking at developing some ideas for some murder mysteries.

Robin Shingleton:

True crime space.

Andrew Ogilvie:

True crime space. And actually, I guess our major initiative at the moment is we’ve just engaged a new head of development and we’ve increased the size of our development team. We now have four people, one on maternity leave at the moment, in that team, and we are actually reviewing right now the various opportunities that might be out there. And the way we’re going about that is we’re actually conducting interviews with broadcasters and other buyers around the world and we’re sending them lists of questions. Actually, they’re coming back to us and then we’re sitting down and talking to them and interviewing them and trying to work out what they want. So very much focused on again, and always have to be, on what the market wants rather than just what we want to make, which is a distinct difference between a company like Electric Pictures and maybe the smaller filmmakers.

Robin Shingleton:

At the moment it’s a critical time in terms of programming because of the streamings and the SVODs that are really coming in to play. And when you have a key client like ours with Discovery Plus that’s come into the mix, it just changes the landscape. And we need to, as Andrew said, we need to be listening, we need to know what that shift in gears looks like. And fortunately we have some good relationships with networks and broadcasters, so we can get that intel firsthand and are able to make those meetings, have the conversations, and really drill into some of the detail of, more than anything, what they’re not looking for now, which they may have been looking for a couple of years back and it’s critical to stay fresh.

Andrew Ogilvie:

That’s one of the questions we asked them, actually, is what they’re not looking for and to be sure we never pitch it to them again.

Paul Williams:

Until there’s a change and they’re looking for that again.

Robin Shingleton:

Pull them out of the bottom shelf

Andrew Ogilvie:

I think as part of that sort of revisiting our whole development strategy is also revisiting how we engage with the market. Clearly the pandemic has made a huge difference to how we talk to each other. We don’t meet physically anymore. We might again in the future, but I have a feeling that even after the pandemic is over there’s unlikely to be a full return to the usual sort of market scenario where people gather in places around the world to talk about programming and meet each other. We have an advantage, of course, in that we already have quite a lot of connections. So if we ask for a Zoom call or Skype call, often we’ll get one. But, yeah, it’s part of a new strategy we’re evolving and it’s still a bit early to be giving you too many details but we’re definitely working on trying to review how we operate in the marketplace and how we can sell things in the marketplace without going to markets.

Paul Williams:

It must be enormously satisfying. The recent recommission of 40 episodes is a real gold rush for Electric Pictures and for factual programming in Australia. It’s one of the great success stories of Screenwest and the Western Australian film industry. You can watch the new series of Aussie Gold Hunters on Discovery and Foxtel Australia now. Robin, Andrew, thanks very much for joining us today.

Andrew Ogilvie:

No worries, thank you.

Robin Shingleton:

Thank you, Paul.

[Outro – 23:43]

Voice Over:

This has been In Conversation with Screenwest featuring Andrew Ogilvie and Robin Shingleton of Electric Pictures. This podcast was brought to you by Screenwest. Screenwest wishes to thank Lotterywest for their continuing support of the WA screen industry. Today’s episode was edited by XB studios with music by Andrew Wright and produced by Paul Williams for Screenwest.

In Conversation is a Screenwest production.

Screenwest is a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing strategic leadership and assistance to the film and television industry in Western Australia.

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