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18 September 2018
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Fifty years of television: Kim Vecera as agent of change

As television in Australia turns 50, a new book commissioned by the AFC's Women Working in Television Project and published by ABC Books - Look at Me! Behind the Scenes of Australian TV with the Women Who Made It by Christine Hogan - celebrates the important role of women in this industry. KIM VECERA has been one of the industry's most successful and influential producers and executives. Her career began here at the AFC. In this extract from the book Kim shares her journey over the years in TV, including highlights like when Love My Way walked in the door.

It all started in 1983. I got a job at the AFC as a temp, working for the director of projects, a gorgeous man called John Daniel. I was partway through the BA Comm. at the Institute of Technology, Sydney, which I was doing three nights a week, and I obviously needed to work to pay the rent. I thought it could be an interesting job, working at the AFC. Little did I know … it kicked off what I call this career. Just before that, I spent two-and-a-half years working in London in fashion and music, and had the usual jam-packed, eighties experiences there and in Europe. When I was twenty-four I decided to return to Australia to see if I could focus on what I wanted out of a career. I literally fell into the job at the AFC, but quickly discovered it was something I loved.

Getting a gig on The Coolangatta Gold was an extraordinary opportunity. In those days, the AFC cultivated a program of on-the-job training which enhanced knowledge of the filmmaking process, and theoretically developed an understanding that you could profitably take back to the government-funding environment. I worked on the film as a production secretary/casting assistant, working for casting director Rae Davidson. The film was, at the time, one of the most ambitious and expensive Australian productions ever. It was produced by John Weiley and directed by Igor Auzins from a Peter Schreck script.

I returned to the AFC, and moved into a discrete division called the Special Production Fund, headed by Errol Sullivan. Its express purpose was to fund non-deductible tax items in the production budgets and was essentially the greenlight fund in the lively 10BA tax break years. Errol assessed final drafts and budgets, met with the filmmakers and negotiated finance deals. It was an extraordinary exposure to the sophisticated, business-end of film financing. My work in the AFC's development branch and the SPF put me into direct contact with many different independent producers and I got a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to drive a project into production. Let's not forget that I worked there more than 20 years ago, when the AFC was the body for developing writers, greenlighting productions and funding huge marketing campaigns for a large number of features a year. The AFC was the trigger point for all film: development, production and marketing. The industry structure is very different now.

In 1985, I was approached by a start-up production company called Roadshow, Coote and Carroll. Its principals were Greg Coote and Matt Carroll, two of Network Ten's leading execs, who were backed by Village Roadshow. I had worked with Matt and Greg when I was at the Special Production Fund, assisting them with a couple of telemovies they were financing, and they asked me to join them as business affairs manager. They had a number of projects, were building their slate, and they needed help if they were to get two to three of those projects up every year. I ended up staying with RCC for 10 years. As you'd expect, it was a massively challenging time where I learned much of the groundwork for project financing and contracting, as well as what was good or bad or indifferent about drama.

In my time at RCC the company produced 280 hours of series TV, including GP, 75 hours of miniseries and two feature films, Turtle Beach and Until the End of the World. The last one was a bit of a cheat as we were simply an Australian minority co-producing partner. The miniseries included Frankie's House, The Paperman and Brides of Christ. Brides was a milestone series in Australia. It had it all, really … beautifully made, enormously emotional, rites-of-passage story, covered the whole era of the 1960s and 1970s in Australia. The production team was a creative blend with Penny Chapman, Sue Masters, director Ken Cameron and the writer Sue Smith.

Working at the business affairs end of things I developed a commercial understanding of a number of deals in a short time. I was fortunate enough to work with several excellent lawyers, including David Williams, then a partner at Mallesons. A charming, eccentric man with a giant mind. I made sure I was involved in the creative development of our projects as well as the deals. I had to supervise writers' agreements, liaise with all of the agents, and option all of the projects which I'd learned a bit about in my first job at the AFC. I also had a good understanding of production contracts and the process because of my work on prospectuses with Errol in the SPF. So I knew what was needed to drive a project through the stages, putting the little pieces together, which was really more good fortune than brilliant planning on my part. In those days, you just followed your nose and put in enough hours, and you could actually make things happen.

During the time with RCC I got my taste for lobbying. I was appointed TV division council member for SPAA [Screen Producers Association of Australia]. I did that for a year or so and then Bob Weis asked me to be vice-president of SPAA. I don't mind a challenge. That's partly what sparked my interest in subscription TV. After working at RCC I knew the Roadshow executive board quite well. Roadshow happened to own a big slab of Austereo, which owned a big slab of radio in this country. And, as a growing, aggressive public company, they needed to expand their business. That meant, for them, looking to television, and they drove a deal with Optus to launch a 24-hour music channel that would essentially be the 2Day Radio Network on television. The demographic was 25-plus, pop, a very commercial, heavily researched base. Something in me said 'that's new', and I needed a fresh challenge.

I knew television production but I'd never done anything like run a channel. Austereo knew music but they didn't know television. I also happened to love music, which was convenient, so together we launched Arc Music TV. It was exhausting, but a wonderful experience — it was pioneering stuff. All new branding, twenty music shows a week, 24 hours a day. Three months later, MTV Networks rolled into Australia saying, we want to launch a music channel, and they wanted to work with the big players in music, which was clearly Austereo. We rebranded and relaunched the channel, which became MTV Australia.

MTV Australia had a strong local thrust, but also had what no other music channel in that field had, which was long-form programming and animation and tremendous cachet as a very 'groovy' brand. So we had the best of local, and all this extraordinary branding and seminal MTV shows, plus we could do the local music scene. It was a passionate undertaking on everyone's behalf. Being CEO of MTV Australia was about me heading up a team of 25 people, and all of us were feeling our way in servicing a 24-hour channel environment. With Roadshow, I would set up projects with Greg and Matt, and then would appoint a physical producer, and they went and made the show with their freelance crew. I had to get in among it myself with MTV and drive the bus. We launched in 1996. By November 1998 I had resigned from MTV.

Optus was cost-cutting and there seemed a lack of genuine commitment to roll out new channels. My budgets were continually cut to the point that my job became untenable. Those cuts meant less and less local production of MTV in Australia. Recently, it has had a new injection of funds and it is doing nicely on the Foxtel/Austar and Optus platforms. At some point, I went from being a deal-maker to a program-maker. I guess I grew more confident and derived enormous satisfaction out of a bigger creative task than just being a facilitator.

After the MTV era I took a sabbatical for three months. I hadn't had a break for fifteen years so I enjoyed a great summer. I recommend it. It's good for the soul. And then I received a call in February 1999, to help with the launch of Fox Studios Australia. [CEO] Kim Williams was creating a dedicated film studio, entertainment complex and world-class post-production facility. It was nothing like the back of an industrial warehouse in Alexandria — which was the type of place in which we had all made our films up till then. I ended up being contracted at FSA for two years as the head of production, working on television projects for all three commercial networks, mainly comedy and long-run, as well as exploring some modest Australian feature film possibilities.

Then the funding sword came down again. Kim Williams left Fox Studios and joined Foxtel as CEO. I followed shortly after as head of production for Owned and Operated Channels on Foxtel, which was again focusing on my favourite thing: driving local production. That was in July 2002, a period of intense growth. It was a chance to oversee and supervise lots of production for different channels, and I did love the variety. There was some reality, some lifestyle, some talk shows.

But what really defined my time at Foxtel would have been the drama projects I have exec. produced. Foxtel commissioned a short, original drama series called Love Bytes. Love Bytes was a small but tasty morsel, four 30-minute episodes. That anthology format hadn't been done much in this country before, and it was extremely well received. The show had great production values, and were inventive little pieces of drama that made Foxtel confident to do more first-run commissions.

Then Love My Way walked in the door. Claudia Karvan and John Edwards came in to pitch the project to me and I thought: I haven't seen this group on TV before, 30-something, not suburban, grown-ups (though not really). It's a show about the complications of modern families. Our 'lofty' ambition was to make something in the HBO model that might provoke and stand out from the pack of Aussie dramas. What Claudia and John had learned from Secret Life gave them real confidence in pushing story boundaries. Showtime have picked up the third series, scheduled for production in November 2006. I'm currently consulting on their original commissions.

Among people I work with, I like to cultivate certain qualities: importantly, a sense of humour, and an old-fashioned notion that you have to work hard and push people and challenge people but not bully them. I don't like bullies; it's a very reactionary way of getting the best out of people. Pay-TV is a business where it should be possible to see newer people coming through and trial new ways of working.

First job: I was a secretary. I came out of a secretarial college in Townsville and I thought that I wanted to be a court stenographer. I worked in a solicitor's practice and would sit in the Supreme Court during my lunchbreak, watching the hearings and pouring over depositions.
Big break: Not one. I would like to think all my jobs have been defining.
Highest point: Helping shape and make Love My Way. That was a certain kind of wonderful. Then the reviews came in on the first three episodes. It was a most excellent feeling because you can only ask journalists to review the first few episodes of a series; you can't make people keep writing about it so glowingly, but they did. Then the show won the Logie, Foxtel's first. Then the show won another three Logies in 2006!
Lowest point: Walking out the door of MTV.
Mentor: A number of people have impressed me. I can't really pinpoint one person though [AFC chair] Maureen Barron warrants a special mention. She's very smart, very funny and outclassed everybody else at the time. I think I would probably have liked to have been her at some point.
Advice: Go on your gut unless you want to be an also-ran. Depends what you want in life, really. If you just want a job you can keep yourself under the radar, but you should be prepared to share. TV has to be collaborative but you also have to have an opinion and hold it up proudly. So my advice is, keep your mind open but drive your opinion.
Future of television: The future of TV, that's a big question. It has got to be about choice, really. Choice and sophistication. There will always be lots of genres. Reality is here to stay; drama will always have a place as people want to share human experience. That's why people will always read books and love listening to stories. And that's the kind of television that I like — stories that move you. Pay-TV can only get stronger as people taste the change and refuse to settle for the limits of three commercial free-to-air networks and a couple of public broadcasters. More and more content must figure as more and more channels establish themselves.

Extract from Look at Me! Behind the scenes of Australian TV with the women who made it by Christine Hogan. Commissioned by the Women Working in Television Project (a partnership between the AFC, ABC, Network Ten, ASTRA, Seven Network, SBS, Nine Network, Free TV Australia and SPAA). Published by ABC Books, September 2006.

Claudia Karvan in Love My Way
Executive producing this drama has been a highlight of Kim Vecera's career in TV. Photo: Jimmy Pozarik. Courtesy Southern Star Entertainment.

Look at Me is publishing in September to celebrate 50 years of women in TV.