Katie Parker chats to the brains behind thedownlowconcept, the Kiwi battler production company that are now in development with US heavyweight network FX.
Since Nigel McCulloch, Ryan Hutchings and Jarrod Holt met as fresh-faced undergrads and formed production company thedownlowconcept, their ascent to wunderkind New Zealand TV royalty has been swift.
From their radio show Off the Wire, to C4’s madcap Pop Goes the Weasel, to current Kiwi staple 7 Days, you will have been privy to their phenomenal success whether you know it or not. Now, like true pioneers, they are ready to conquer a new frontier after landing a development deal with US network FX.
Other than the fact that it is a half hour comedy – and that Josh Thompson will probably be involved – the details remains hush hush at this stage. “He’s [Thompson] been wandering around the office throwing out different accents” says Jarrod, perhaps a hint. Undeterred, I sat down to talk with them about television, hemispheres and – of course, potatoes.
Take me back to how the FX deal came about
Nigel McColloch: We’ve been pitching in America for quite a while, we’re represented by WME [William Morris Endeavour] over there. We generally go out with different production companies. We’ve gone out pitching with Ben Stiller’s production company, Adam Sandler’s production company and Sharon Horgan’s production company.
Jarrod Holt: When we were over there this last time, we had this concept that we really liked but we were actually there to pitch something else. So we went up and pitched that but – because we really liked this concept and had a good relationship with the broadcasters – we just thought we’d take it to that meeting by ourselves.
In America, what you usually do is you have a writer on board and a studio on board and the production company on board and they all go in and pitch. We just did it ourselves.
NM: They really liked it. Within half an hour we got a phone call from our agent saying they wanted it.
JH: We were really cool about it. Real calm, it was really expected. We had a long conversation with our agents and they just sort of dragged us along. It wasn’t until right at the very end they said “oh yeah by the way we got a call from FX and they bought the script.
I was like [lets out an excited scream].
How long have you been pitching in the US?
Ryan Hutchings : For about two or three years.
JH: They’re called couch and water meetings. You sit on a couch and they give you all a bottle of water, and they say how amazing you are, how they’ve all seen your stuff and they love it. Then you talk about your stuff and you realise they haven’t seen any of it.
Those studios just churn through so much. We were surprised that they were so eager for new ideas. It took me a long time to find the right idea but it’s just such a lottery. There’s, what, 600 TV shows on at the moment? Each network will pilot maybe ten a year and four will go to series. It’s just a crazy lotto ticket.
What is that pitching process like?
JH: You do the same pitch, make the same jokes, laugh at the same points. It’s really horrible. It’s so brutal as well, you’ve got about 12 meetings over two or three days. Sometimes you’ll come out of a meeting and go “I think they really like it, I think we’ve got a really good shot.” Then your agent will ring and say “they’ve just passed.” You’re like “we’re not even in the lift yet!”
They say no really really quickly so they can move onto the next thing. Which is quite tough for Kiwis. We’re in development for such a long period of time for both film and TV over here that it’s quite funny when you just get such an immediate rejection. You can take it quite personally.
RH: I quite like it eh, it’s just a straight up burn.
NM: In New Zealand you’ll generally just go and see one person who’s the programmer. You’ll talk them through the concept and maybe have a couple of pages that you show them, what it might look like, who might be attached or what the story will be about. In America you go in and there’s four, five people at the table.
RH: We’re lucky because there’s three of us, so we can turn it into a little bit of a show. You sort of have to because there are so many people there listening to you. You have to be enthused and energetic and tell a story and talk them through everything.
Do you find it harder pitching in America than in New Zealand?
NM: It’s much more stressful.
JH: We’ve had relationships with some local programmers for 14 years now. It’s just like going and seeing a friend. They’re always pretty straight up and can say whether the idea has merit or the likelihood of it flying.
What made you want to start pitching to America networks?
RH: They’re making so much over there, it gives you the chance to make a project that you just wouldn’t be able to make here. New Zealand is so small and the budgets are so limited that you’re sort of capped at a point. We can make 7 Days and, while that happens here, the idea would be to make a show for a network in America at the same time.
JH: On a basic level it’s just about working more. I think we love writing first and foremost, and we get a show up every now and again in New Zealand. It’s just about pitching shows wherever we can to increase that opportunity to write some more.
RH: I think it’s probably harder to make a lot of television here than it was a few years ago. Off-peak comedy doesn’t really get made here anymore. Whereas in the States, there’s just such a bigger population.
Prestige dramas are huge right now in the US, do you see that trend making its way here?
RH: I just don’t think New Zealand has the money to make that stuff. Even with the alternative comedy, there’s just not the population.
JH: FX have this points system where a show either needs to do well in the ratings, be loved by critics, or by the people in the room. It only needs two of those ticks. So, if it’s rating awfully, but they love the show and critics have responded positively, it stays on the air. I guess, correspondingly, if they hate it but it keeps rating really well then it stays on.
It’s quite interesting, the way they can work their way through those ratings bumps. Same with HBO: even Girls has only got 600,000 viewers, but it’s more about what it does for them critically. New Zealand can’t take those risks, we don’t have the commercial viability to support off-peak shows.
NH: Girls performed like that in America but it’ll sell to 40 places around the world. Whereas in New Zealand our biggest shows like say, Filthy Rich, probably won’t.
JH: First and foremost, you have to be successful here.
RH: That’s sort of the difficulty with TV eh? You basically have to appeal to as many people as possible. I think if that’s your mandate it’s very hard to do anything that’s that interesting or different. In a food term it’s basically potatoes. You know what I mean?
JH: That’s the headline now. ‘TV is Potatoes’
RH: But lots of people like potatoes…
JH: I love potatoes! They’re great, you can do them in all different types of ways! Wedges! Shoe string fries!
RH: Exactly. But that’s what it is, you’re having to serve things that offend the least amount of people.
Do you ever find it frustrating working in New Zealand?
JH: I think why it comes down to the numbers game is that, in New Zealand TV, every show that happens has to be a hit. You don’t really get to fail that often over here.
With the Americans, you kind of hang yourself in a way, which is really fun as a writer. They’re creating so many scripts that there’s no point in them saying “this is what I want this script to be”. You either deliver a script which is great and they want to make or you don’t. But they’re not going to tell you how to make it great.
NM: We’re talking about a development process as well, and development costs money. Here, we can’t spend too much money in development, so right from the get-go that idea has to be an idea that will eventually work on air. In America they’ll go “we really like that idea, we’re keen to see where you take it”.
Has your overseas success given you more clout to make what you want in New Zealand?
NM: We always walk into meetings in New Zealand now wearing something we’ve bought in America just so we can bring it up.
JH: I like to wear an LA hat.
NM: A Dodgers hat.
JH: Is that what it is? Is it a sports thing?! I just thought it was ‘the LA hat’
Will you keep pitching to America?
JH: Yeah, it’s just constant. It’s not just one idea – its hundreds. Things fall over so quickly. It’s the same with the UK. We’re just constantly pitching over there, Oz as well.
to our journalism!Find Out More
JH: Not Mexico. Canada, you’re thinking of Canada.
Among all the TV projects, thedownlowconcept’s debut feature film Gary of the Pacific will be in cinemas nationwide in March 2017
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.