QUOLL FARM: A $600k Wildlife hit for ABC Australia, Smithsonian, ZDF/Arte & NHK

Quoll Farm is a classic natural history film about a very cute and little-known Australian marsupial, the Eastern Quoll.

It has a gentle conservation message, and like several recent films, notably My Octopus Teacher, there’s a story of human redemption as part of the wildlife package.

I was totally charmed by the antics of the quoll, and deeply impressed by the filmmakers’ craft when I screened Quoll Farm as a judge for WCSFP‘s Natural History category.

Producer Simon Nasht kindly agreed to share the film’s story from concept to hit-level ratings for its ABC broadcast premiere.

Trailer (2018)

USP

  • It hits the sweet spot of a warm, family friendly film with real heart in these difficult times.
  • With a Blue Chip budget, it also had the production values that allowed a lengthy shooting schedule, orchestral score and specialist camera work expected for premium nature productions

Unique Access

  • Tasmanian filmmakers, Simon Plowright and Nick Hayward have many years of experience  working for international broadcasters, filming and organizing natural history shoots.
  • But when Simon found himself despondent at the impending collapse of Tasmanian Devils in the island state’s north west, he moved to an isolated and abandoned farm.
  • There he found a remarkable place, full of iconic Aussie animals like wallabies and wombats, but also a very unusual concentration of the usually solitary and little-studied quoll.
  • For the next year he lived alone with these remarkable animals who eventually came to accept him as a benign presence.
  • It gave him extraordinary access to this hidden world where quolls have taken over the abandoned farm buildings.

The Quoll

  • “I would describe Quolls as Australia’s answer to meerkats— lots of nervous energy, endearing. And always on the lookout for predators like Australian Devils, snakes, and unfortunately, feral cats.”

Financing

  • The two filmmakers teamed up with veteran producer Simon Nasht who believed the film would have global appeal.
  • With development funding from  local agencies Screen Tasmania and Screen Australia, the team did initial shooting and produced an appealing trailer.

It helped us overcome resistance to the lack of teeth. Broadcasters tend to want tooth and claw, and quolls are, well, smaller than a cat and pretty cute, not exactly crocodiles. And mostly nocturnal. But in the end we had a genuine story of human/animal interaction, and unique footage, and it is a film with a strong narrative – which is where Natural History is heading. Simon Nasht

Pitch

  • First pitch: AIDC in Melbourne in 2018
  • And then at World Congress of Science & Factual Producers in Brisbane and Tokyo

International Partners

  • The film attracted strong international interest including an offer from NHK.
  • Nasht has made many recent  productions with ARTE and they came on board swiftly via ZDF.
  • Smithsonian meanwhile are quite process driven and were rigorous in interrogating the narrative structure. This was slow, but ultimately made for a better film. I think they were reassured when we brought on the highly experienced UK editor Darren Flaxstone who has cut Attenborough epics and Emmy winning projects like My Life As A Turkey.

Budget

  • US$600,000
  • 17% tax offset
  • 23% Screen Australia
  • 8% Screen Tasmania
  • 10% ABC Australia
  • 42% international presales.
  • A distribution advance from Flame Media recoupable against first dollar sales.

Domestic Sale

  • Surprisingly the last piece of the funding puzzle was the one closest to home, a sale to domestic broadcaster ABC Australia.
  • Hard hit by budget cuts and increasingly turning to cheap in-house production, commissions from the national broadcasters are rare.
  • But the enduring appeal of local animals won them over, and it will show in a prime Sunday evening slot in February 2021.

COVID Impact

  • The project had to battle its way through disruptions caused first Australia’s disastrous 2020 bushfires and then Covid.
  • We were fortunate to get Darren to Australia just before lockdown – and then get him home on virtually the last flight out of Australia after the four month edit.
  • Ultimately the twin disasters only cost a couple of weeks to the schedule and the film was delivered on time and on budget- a minor miracle in the circumstances.

Music

“Recording the wonderful score by composer Maria Grenfell with the Tasmanian Symphony was much delayed due to social distancing requirements, but with some ingenious recording techniques we managed to get a full orchestra recorded over several long days – just in time to meet our deadline.”

Versions

  • Four different lengths
  • A set of rushes for NHK who will recut the film to their own requirements.
  • The producers went down the path of a full Welsh language version for S4C (Simon Plowright is originally from Wales) but couldn’t quite fit it into the schedule.

Distribution

  • The reaction from international buyers has been strong.
  • Flame Media is the distributor.
  • Contact: Fiona Gilroy fgilroy@flamedistribution.com
  • Flame handled Smith&Nasht’s previous Jackson Hole winning film, The Kingdom of Fungi and achieved more than $100k in sales.

Nick Hayward

Production Timeline

  • Development: 2 years
  • Filming: 200+ days on 4K, trap cameras, drones and GoPro plus night vision cameras.
  • Over 200 hours of footage
  • Post: 14 week offline edit on location in Tasmania. 10 weeks of online and audio post.

ABC Australia: A Documentary Hit

  • Most-watched non-news program of the night, winning its prime Sunday evening slot against reality formats and live Australian Open Tennis.
  • Highest rating single documentary on the ABC in three years.
  • Trended on Twitter
  • ’Exceptional’ streaming numbers on ABC iView catch-up platform

“The ABC put a major marketing push behind the film, using all the muscle of a public broadcaster across its multiple radio, TV and social outlets, including more than 20 regional and metropolitan radio interviews with the film’s presenter, Simon Plowright. Exceptional mainstream media coverage followed including an unprecedented 4-page spread in Australia’s largest selling magazine, The Australian Women’s Weekly. It was an unusual priority for a single documentary, and the results justified the effort. This was classic (and increasingly rare) ‘public broadcasting’ that cut across all demographics, age groups and political persuasions at a time when the ABC’s role is under attack in Australia from political opponents and the Murdoch media.” Simon Nasht

Simon Nasht’s Biggest Challenges

  • Putting together these scale of budgets takes a long, long time. But animals and opportunity don’t wait
  • Dealing with the twin disruptions of catastrophic fires (which came within sight of the location) and a global pandemic without losing focus – or hope.
  • Complexities of producing multiple versions and differing lengths. It needs to be prepared for when budgeting and scheduling.
  • Running out of our lease to rent Quoll Farm when the start of filming kept being delayed. Took some difficult negotiations
  • Dealing with the destruction of one of the key quoll habitats by vandals. A key animal ‘character’ was lost but we managed to incorporate it into the story.

Key Players

  • Smith & Nasht
  • Petra Boden, ZDF/Arte
  • Tria Thalman, Smithsonian Channel
  • Tetsunori Kikuchi, NHK
  • Leo Faber, ABC
  • Fiona Gilroy, Flame Media
  • Screen Australia
  • Screen Tasmania

Release

  • Smithsonian Channel UK: Now
  • June release in North America
  • ABC Australia and ARTE: February 2021
  • NHK tbc
  • (For Australian readers, here’s a link to the ABC iView page of the show)

Simon Plowright

Press / Social

Judging for Congress

  • Quoll Farm was up against the mighty Octopus and yet was nipped by a whisker for the WCSFP Wildlife prize.

More Reading

 


My QUOLL FARM case study is dedicated to John Caldon, Flame Distribution‘s managing director, who passed away this week after a long struggle with cancer. We benefited from the commercial vision and financial business experience that John brought to our niche. Our condolences to his family, colleagues at Flame and the many producers and buyers who will miss their work with him.