Meet Nick Murray – the ‘Jigsaw’ in Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder

Executive Producer Nick Murray is the ‘Jigsaw’ piece of the puzzle in the Australian production company Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ).

Nick Murray, Executive Producer and founder of Cordell, Jigsaw and Zapruder, Australia’s largest independently owned production company.

Along with producer and director Michael Cordell,  Murray founded Cordell Jigsaw in 2005, and they went on to establish themselves as producers of an eclectic mix of factual, entertainment, drama and comedy. They recently merged with Andrew Denton’s Zapruder’s Other Films, making CJZ Australia’s biggest independently owned production company.

Murray’s responsibilities as EP include overseeing one of the company’s most highly regarded and  popular shows – the international Rose d’Or-winning Go Back to Where You Came From (SBS).  Murray is also responsible for popular factual television series Bondi Rescue (Ten), the spectacular aerial documentary series Great Southern Land (ABC1) and  children’s sketch comedy series You’re Skitting Me (ABC3) – among other projects.

A former President of the Screen Producers Association (SPAA) and the foundation CEO of Australian cable network The Comedy Channel, Murray has more than 20 years of diverse experience within the Australian television industry.  He took some time out to answer our questions about the lay of the local television landscape, telling us why size matters, why Australian television needs to stop relying on international reality formats, and why we need to nurture more young teams of comedy talent. Oh, and he also tells us that he wishes he’d invented Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals! Read on to find out more.

AFI | AACTA: Can you tell us how you came to merge with Zapruders? What was the rationale behind it, and how is it working out so far?

Nick Murray: It’s working very well.  The creative teams are working seamlessly on the existing shows and new development.  The rationale is to help us to compete with the big foreign owned format dealers like Shine, Fremantle, Granada and Endemol.  To compete with format importers, we need lots of good ideas.  That’s what we do and what we’ve shown we can deliver.

AFI | AACTA: What are the particular advantages of being ‘Australia’s biggest independently owned production company’?

Nick Murray: Being a medium sized production company is difficult.  We have to have high overhead and permanent staff costs so that we are responsive and remain interesting to the networks.  This is a big financial risk.  To remain nimble, we need to offer continuous employment to our key creative people, so the theory is it’s better to be bigger rather than mid-sized.

Nick Murray is Executive Producer of GREAT SOUTHERN LAND (ABC) – a four-part documentary series offering a unique aerial view of Australia and its people. .

AFI | AACTA: As the ‘Jigsaw’ in the Cordell Jigsaw Zapruders puzzle, what are the particular strengths and experiences you, individually, bring to the mix?

Nick Murray: I am one of the few Australian producers who has worked in Network TV management, Indie production and run a cable TV network.  As a result, I have built teams that understand the whole market.  That has helped create and pitch new shows. I guess we have half a chance of predicting trends!

AFI | AACTA: What is it that you love about working in television production as opposed to film?

Nick Murray:  TV is more immediate and attracts a much bigger audience.  It is the only medium where the audience experiences it on the same night across the country.  This year, three of our shows – Dumb Drunk and Racist (ABC2), Go Back to Where You Came From (SBS) and Can Of Worms (Ten) – all use audience reaction to spread word of mouth or provoke debate.  I love that.

AFI | AACTA: In international terms does Australia have a strong local television industry? And what are some of the particular strengths and weaknesses you see in our industry?

Nick Murray: We’ve got a great local industry and Australian shows are performing well on TV.  The biggest weakness is a reliance on formats.  In the UK, both on the broadcast side and in production, they have nurtured a stronger industry because of risk taking and innovation.  There is no lasting benefit to the industry if a foreign owned company makes a really expensive foreign format for a network and the profits go offshore.  Australian drama production costs are also becoming a worry.  Our work practices result in costs that are no longer competitive when compared to international productions.

AFI | AACTA: Looking through the list of shows produced by your company, it’s clear you have an obvious strength in the area of making entertaining yet intelligent factual content. Are there any secrets to making shows such as Go Back to Where You Came From, Great Southern Land or Two Men in a Tinnie, which cover important social issues, but in an approachable way?

Nick Murray: The secret is great casting and cloaking the information contained in the show in an entertaining way.  With Go Back for instance, the quasi-reality elements make the audience comfortable watching a show about a potentially uncomfortable topic they would never normally seek out.

GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM, Series 1, SBS.

AFI | AACTA: Is there a factual format you wish you’d invented?

Nick Murray: Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals.  It has changed the way some people eat and you can shoot an episode in an hour.  Plus it’s got Jamie Oliver in it.  Brilliant!

AFI | AACTA: You must be very gratified by winning the two awards at the 2012 Rose d’Or Global Entertainment Television Festival – for both Best Factual, and Best overall program in any genre for the first series of Go Back to Where You Came From. Can you explain to those who aren’t fully aware of the Rose d’Or how these awards work, and what it means to you as a production company to win them?

Nick Murray: The Rose d’Or Awards are the only proper international TV awards.  It is the highest TV award in the world.  Other awards, such as the Emmys, do not pit US shows against international shows which have their own award.  That’s why it is such big news in Europe and the US.  It was great for SBS and it is a huge honor for us to win and has resulted in a big lift in our profile internationally.  It has brought the spotlight to shine on our other shows and new ideas.

AFI | AACTA: Your Rose d’Or win seemed to go under the radar with the Australian media. Do you have any ideas why?

Nick Murray: I can’t work out why it doesn’t get recognised here.  All I know is that judging by the story placement, many industry publications and funding agency newsletters thought it was more important that some short animation was nominated for an obscure award in the Ukraine, than us getting the Rose d’Or for a major piece of Australian TV.

AFI | AACTA: As you will be aware, this year the AACTA Awards have introduced a new award for Best Reality Television Series. What qualities would you like to see this AACTA Award celebrate?

Nick Murray: It’s got to look at the underlying idea, the casting and the execution.  I’d like to see some new unique ideas in there rather than formats.  If it’s a format award, then it’s an award for the best copy.  I’m not sure that’s what the AACTA awards are about.

AFI | AACTA: The second series of Go Back to Where You Came From was a definite ratings and social media win. Were there any special advertising, PR or social media avenues used to create awareness and encourage people to tune in to the broadcast and engage with it interactively?

Nick Murray: Go Back is SBS’s biggest show of the year.  So they supported it with extensive online and traditional marketing.  Our own team did some terrific work in the social media space.  Through our YouTube partnership, we got the jump on clips and promos online which SBS was able to use too.  But the best work comes in the educational space.  SBS’s outreach unit created a wonderful schools kit and this helps the series live on in classrooms for the whole year.

AFI | AACTA: You have a background as foundation CEO of the Comedy Channel. Any opinions about the current state of Australian television comedy? Is there anything you’d like to see more of? 

Nick Murray: The missing link at the moment for me is comedy teams. We make a wonderful low budget sketch series for teens for ABC3 – You’re Skitting Me.  It’s great working with young comedy performers.  But there’s not much else. The industry has to remember that comedy teams over the years like The Comedy Company, Fast Forward, The D Gen were hugely popular and spawned industry heavyweights like Eric Bana, Gina Riley, Jane Turner, Magda Szubanski, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Glenn Robbins and Shaun Micallef (and others).  More recent shows shows like Ronnie Johns and The Big Bite brought Hamish Blake, Andy Lee and Heath Franklin into the public eye.  Over the years comedy shows have done more for the industry than any other form of entertainment.  But the form is ignored by networks and funding agencies alike.  That’s short sighted.

‘The missing link at the moment is comedy teams,’ says Nick Murray. Pictured: the cast of young comic performers from kid’s comedy series YOU’RE SKITTING ME (ABC3).

AFI | AACTA: Do you have any advice for young players? Any common mistakes to avoid?

Nick Murray: Young players need to remember that we are in the entertainment INDUSTRY.  That implies that it should be profitable.  Don’t do things for nothing.  Certainly don’t do things for less than award rates.  You need to make a profit to run a successful company.  If you aren’t making a profit, you can’t develop new shows.  So you may as well get a job instead of taking the risks of producing yourself.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your time, Nick.

Links and Further Reading

  • Visit Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder to find out more about their current slate of programs.
  • Read Mumbrella account of the merger between Cordell Jigsaw and Zapruder’s Other Films.
  • Series 2 of Go Back to Where You Came From attracted over 1 million viewers nationally on its first night to become the no.1 rating show for SBS with a Metro average audience of 767,000 viewers. Related hashtags such as #gobacksbs had 8 of the top 10 trending topics in Australia and 5 worldwide making it one of the most successful Australian programs of 2012, with over 22,000 twitter mentions in 24hours.
  • Series 1 of Go Back to Where You Came From won the 2012 Golden Rose (Rose d’Or) – Best of Rose d’Or; the 2012Rose d’Or for Best Factual Entertainment; the 2012 Logie for Most Outstanding Factual Programme; the 2012 UN Peace Media Award for Best Promoter of Multicultural Issues; the 2012 UN Peace Media Award for Best Documentary; the 2012 Australian Directors Guild Award for Best Direction in a Documentary Series; the 2012 Banff World Media Festival – Best Social and Humanitarian Documentary; and the 2011 SPAA Independent Producer Award for best documentary.
  • You’re Skitting Me is sketch comedy made for kids for ABC3, starring all-new Australian talent. Performed by teenagers, the sketches introduce characters such as the Tattiana the Sailor Girl, Voldemort, Internet Speak Girl, Mario and Luigi, Cavemen, Vikings, Naughty Girl Guides, Bear Cub, the Hipsters, Uncle Vijay, Inappropriate Joe, Australia’s Next Big Talent judges, parodies of Twilight and the accident-prone Helmet Boy.
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