Northern Pictures strikes the right balance

When David Haslingden decided to return home to Australia a few years ago, he didn’t have a home. After leaving his role as the president and chief operating officer of the US Fox Networks Group, the home to FX, National Geographic, Fox Sports and others, he emerged with a production company with operations in China, New Zealand and Singapore yet “nowhere to sit” in ­Sydney.

In three years, Haslingden has established more than just a seat at the Australian television table. After a friend suggested he meet factual producer Sue Clothier, who had recently established Northern Pictures and was in the midst of producing the natural history series Kakadu, Northern joined his RACAT Group of companies. And then Haslingden was appointed chairman of Nine ­Entertainment Co.

“It was very fast and Northern Pictures has continued on the evolution and expanded into other areas but really it was an absolutely perfect fit for me,” Haslingden says.

This week, Northern reprises one of its more notable successes with the second series of Changing Minds: The Inside Story airing through the week during the ABC’s “Mental As” series supporting Mental Health Week.

Haslingden laughs that his socially progressive documentary choices aren’t a reaction to the more tabloid programming on Fox’s US cable networks but rather moves into areas “I was most passionate about”. “I loved National Geographic, so when I had the opportunity to make a change I wanted to explore that,” he says.” I am very passionate about nature and social issues that impact many people that aren’t understood. Media is an incredibly powerful tool to assist in informing social change and awareness of things.”

Changing Minds did that, anchoring the ABC’s “Mental As” initiative last year. Clothier admits “nobody knew how well it was going to go last year and going into production, we had no idea the sort of content we could actually expect as well” given the series follows mental health patients at Sydney’s Liverpool ­Hospital.

As the local production sector consolidates, Northern (Clothier is managing director and Haslingden chief executive) has struck a balance where it can deliver global series of great scale, such as Life on the Reef, as well as targeted, high-risk series such as Changing Minds.

Haslingden says: “There’s a level you need to get to that gives you the financial ability to greenlight films and produce them at a high quality that’s really hard to get to if you’re really small.

“Once you’re there, I actually don’t see the necessity to become really big. In a way, our balance here is between doing big natural history stuff, which does have an international market. The success of those shows allows us to make shows about Australia which, no matter how good they are, it’s difficult to generate a return ­beyond Australia.”

He appears enthused and comfortable with his production stable, particularly NP, but also including NHNZ, Beach House Productions, Keshet Australia and ZooMoo. Rumours of his possible move to become chief executive of Nine appear exaggerated, although he is equally bullish about television’s future, and consequently for Northern and Nine. If television can be described as an audiovisual experience that evokes emotion, he says, “that is a golden product that is getting more and more valuable every day”.

While distribution channels have multiplied dramatically and the revenue potential of traditional channels has declined markedly in some markets, he points to Britain as a market where the aggregate money generated by a “piece of IP (intellectual property) is increasing”.

“But you can’t produce stuff in the middle any more; you’ve got to produce stuff that creates that emotional experience and the more profound that emotional experience, the more valuable the product,” he says.