New Benchmarks

Benchmark Media and Entertainment co-founders Paul Sullivan and Giovanni Pacialeo talk to Jackie Keast about their business model and working with brands.

The first season of Benchmark Media and Entertainment’s AACTA nominated series Woven Threads had a relatively traditional finance plan, made with backing from the ABC, Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation.

But the second season, now in production, has a model that is quite different. After the ABC couldn’t commit to a second iteration, the producers went ahead anyway, seeking finance from the private and commercial sector.

It’s not the first time Benchmark Media and Entertainment, headed by co-founders Paul Sullivan and Giovanni Pacialeo, has raised finance this way. For instance, Sean’s Kitchen, which aired on the Seven Network, was entirely brand funded,
through organisations like Sky City and South Australian Tourism.

For Benchmark, brand-funded content is an integration of the two arms of its business: the ‘Media’, which focuses on video content and TVCs, and ‘Entertainment, which focuses on film and television. Sullivan tells IF that, more and more consistently, the lines are blurring. “You’ve got less and less silos; people are working across all platforms now. Whereas before it used to be like, ‘Well, I only do feature films’ and ‘Well I only do TVCs.’ You can’t do that anymore and survive in this industry. It’s just changing so much.”

Created by Michi Marosszeky and produced by Sullivan, the 8 x 4 minute Woven Threads sees refugees narrate their individual stories against an animation. The docuseries now forms part of the Victorian and Western Australian educational curriculum, as a resource for teachers and more than 900,000 students, and was nominated for the AACTA for Best Short Documentary.

“It’s a beautiful concept, having the actual voices of the people telling their story, but animating it so that it takes away any preconceived notions or prejudice that people might have,” Sullivan tells IF.

The second season, Woven Threads – Stories from Within, will follow a similar format but is focused on mental health. When the ABC wasn’t able to confirm a greenlight for a second iteration, Sullivan wasn’t dismayed and simply looked elsewhere for the finance. Among the partners are AIA Insurance and CEO Damian Mu.

“It’d be very easy and very defeatist, I think, to say, “Well, no one’s going to give us money; let’s just not worry about that’. But we don’t take no very lightly. So we’ll
just go out until people say yes,” he tells IF.

The producer says AIA have given the team creative freedom but have stipulated they focus one episode on men’s depression, due to the staggering rate of male suicide.

“This is a good way of educating people, and they will use it for internal resources and study, as well as us being able to put it out again on the ABC or across festivals.”

The team are also working with Spark Strategy to engage government and get the show in front of appropriate ministers. Benchmark co-founders Sullivan and Pacialeo launched their business in 2011. They both have backgrounds as assistant directors – between the two of them they’ve worked on more than 40 films.

After meeting on the set of 1998’s Babe 2, they stayed in contact, working together again on films like Superman Returns, The Matrix sequels and Moulin Rouge.

Eventually they began talking about making a TV show together. Pacialeo came up with My Family Feast, which put chef Sean Connolly in the homes of immigrant families to listen to their stories, and learn their recipes.

“We wanted to make projects that we were passionate about, things that interested us. We wanted to tell stories from our point of view,” says Pacialeo.
“Working on those big films, they’re amazing and they’re great. But you’re always telling someone else’s story, or you’re working on some fiction. For us, My Family
Feast was a bit personal. We both love food. We both love family.”

My Family Feast ran on SBS for two seasons across 2010 and 2011, directed and produced by Pacialeo and Sullivan in partnership with The Monkeys and Hopscotch Films. It sold to 23 territories, and was nominated for a Logie.

However, Sullivan says when it came to a third season, it was “looking good until it wasn’t”. It forced the duo to consider what they were doing. It was then that
they formalised their company, and started looking towards branded content.

Connolly, the host of My Family Feast, had contacts within the casino industry, and they were able to then secure finance for what would become Sean’s Kitchen.

“It just became second nature, to the point where today, we’ve got three series on the boil that are all brand funded,” Sullivan says.

When it comes to working with brands, Pacialeo says there must be mutual benefit, and the brand’s inclusion must be integrated cleverly and fit with storytelling. It is not overt advertising.

“We see them as a client helping us tell the story in whatever TV genre we’re creating content for. It’s quite considered.”

But he notes that compared to traditional advertising – say a 30 second ad spot – clients often get more for their money.

“Some of our shows have been on air around the world six years running. Those brands are still being exposed; their one-off investment is still running six years later, which is quite incredible.”

While brands can be wary of investing and often have lots of questions, Sullivan says they typically become passionate advocates for a project – particularly
as brands increasingly want to align themselves with social causes. “They’re so enthusiastic about it, because it’s breaking new territory for them. It’s different to just putting up a post saying ‘We support mental health’, to actually getting involved in something that’s four to five minutes on mental health.”

Funding projects through brands has other advantages in that Benchmark, rather than a network, is able to retain all of the IP, Pacialeo says.

“We own the actual program, and as it sells internationally, and if we want to make another season, we don’t have to beg the network for more money.”

For the past few years, Benchmark has predominantly been focused on the commercial side of the business to make sure it is can be sustainable. However, slowly but surely Sullivan and Pacialeo have been building up the ‘entertainment’
aspect, with three series in train at the moment, including another with Connolly.

“It was always our plan to have both working side by side: entertainment and media,” Pacialeo says. “We wanted to create something that was going to be sustainable and work so we can create content across all platforms. Still, admittedly, TV drama and film, it’s been a bit of a journey to get there. But I don’t see how we could have done any other way.”

They also have features they’re working on, though note it’s a slower slog. Sullivan was one of the writers on Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan, and it was a reminder of a love of narrative – he says producing films is eventually what they’d like to do, given it’s where both he and Pacialeo started.

“That’s the ultimate aim, to get back to that. But… it’s tough with feature films. It’d be interesting to see if there’s another way of doing it outside of the norm. That’s our plan, but it’s trickier.”

Article originally published in InsideFilm #192 Dec-Jan 2020 by Digistor

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