Steve Jaggi Company: we make the wrong movies and the industry is a scam

You are doing it wrong says Steve Jaggi as he builds a solid company in defiance of conventional wisdom. He is becoming the Young Adult king of Australian production.

‘I can make a movie in six months, from the idea to the first screening’, says Steve Jaggi, proprietor of the Steve Jaggi Company.  What is more, he has a production line of movies, and they make a profit, and he never works with private investors. 

‘If I can’t make a film for around $3m – although that is creeping up a bit – and fund it entirely on presales plus the offset, I will not go ahead. The project is dead.’

This is shaping up as an interesting interview. Jaggi has a clear mind, learns from experience, and is respected in the Queensland production space. Swimming for Gold is running in Australian cinemas from today, while Romance on the Menu opens on Netflix from September 24.

Jaggi has three productions in various stages across Queensland as of mid-September 2020. For This Little Love of Mine, the production took over a resort in North Queensland, sealed it off, housed the entire crew and cast, and made the whole thing in one continuous run. The crew photograph is a gem.

Jaggi keeps a sharp eye on the larger ecosystem. He is not alone in preaching the value of thinking against the grain. As the sector plunges towards tentpole streaming and intense bingeworthy shows, smaller opportunities are revealed to producers who understand and respect both the genres and audiences. He works mostly on young adult (YA) films.

‘The average person in a Western country is right wing or centre right wing and the trick is understanding what they want to watch. They want material that is apolitical, they want material that makes them feel good about themselves…’

– Steve Jaggi

Here is the synopsis for The Dog Days of Christmas, obviously aimed at this year’s starved Christmas market. It hits more buttons for a very specific market than a crazed child in a dying spaceship:

When Annie Blake returned from an overseas aid assignment to her small home town for the holidays, her plan was to spend Christmas with her family and then take up a promotion doing aid work in Nepal… That was until an ad looking for animal foster carers finds Annie with three new housemates of the furry kind, and a mission to find them all homes.  With the animal shelter forced to close, Annie teams up with the local vet  and her ex high school debating team nemesis Dylan Hawke – to find a way to save the shelter.

Lead Georgia Flood has done a lot of Australian TV plus American Princess in Los Angeles; Ezekial Simat is similar, introduced to the US via the Heath Ledger Scholarship. Director Tori Garrett is an experienced TV director, her first feature was the memorable Don’t Tell, a courtroom drama about sexual abuse, and she is now active in the US as well.

Central to the company is a focused vision of the brand.

‘I personally am left-leaning,’ Jaggi says, ‘but people vote for Trump and Scott Morrison. The average person in a Western country is right wing or centre right wing and the trick is understanding what they want to watch. They want material that is apolitical, they want material that makes them feel good about themselves, and they want to be inspired, they want the notion that humanity can be better. Those are the core tenets of our business, like everything we do has to leave the audience feeling that the world can be a better place, and that there’s positivity.’

A bid for idealism

Steve Jaggi came into the sector with a valuable mix of experience. He was born in Canada, grew up partly here, went back to Canada, then worked in finance in the UK for eight years, did some formal training at Griffith University, and took off into the Australian film sector.

He started with an idealistic edge, telling IF he wanted to make uplifting films, set up an incubator program for new creatives and backed veteran writer Stephen Sewell to direct his feature Embedded, an erotic thriller. ‘A number of our films went to festivals but never made any money,’ he acknowledged. ‘And then a series of  happy accidents happened.’

‘We made a film called Riptide, which was a teen surf movie that nobody thought we could make. I was living on credit cards, and this was going to be my last film. It had a Disney star (Debby Ryan), an unknown director (Rhiannon Bannenberg) and we made it for a very tight budget on a three week schedule.

‘And it went gangbusters. Fifteen million people around the world watched it, Netflix took it for the world and we were inundated with fan mail and it made a ton of money and all of a sudden, it was like, people actually pay to watch movies and you can do this.’ We should acknowledge that Box Office Mojo claims it made a mere AU$250,000 around the world in cinemas.

Australians are making the wrong movies

‘That was where it all clicks into place,’ he says. ‘The problem that I think everyone faces in Australia is, we’re all making the wrong movies. Audiences are desperate for content but they just don’t want to watch arthouse.’

Reinvigorated by Rip Tide, Jaggi pushed further into the Young Adult market, which basically means teenagers. This is a space which is at once wholesome and sexy, with impossibly beautiful young people in a world of superheated wish fulfilment. Young women can admit their desires, boys can be objectified, and people of colour are part of the gang.

‘Romance genres are underserved,’  he insists. ‘And if I can be blunt about the competition, we go in there and we bring in hot young filmmakers and we put in the movie star, and we treat it like a real movie, and we’re competing against people and companies that don’t give a damn. Riptide was a full on theatrical style offering from a director who was an artist and we took it very very seriously and that’s why it performed so well.’

Building the Steve Jaggi Company

‘We don’t have an output deal. We’re moving in that direction with a number of different US companies and we have a couple of first look deals now that we’ve inked or are inking with a few different outlets. I’ve learnt the hard way that building a production company, content is only a quarter of what you do as a business owner. We had to build up a line of credit and credit facilities and find partners so that we have outlets for our films and build pathways for material to come to us and so on.

‘Nobody overseas wants to talk to a producer that makes one film a year, or once every two years.’

– Steve Jaggi

”No business can survive with one movie so we’ve discovered it’s a volume business. As our volume gets greater the quality of the movies go up and the performance of the movies go up, because you need the cash flow and you need the scale. And when you have scale then the Americans take notice. Nobody overseas wants to talk to a producer that makes one film a year, or once every two years.’

The whole journey, film by film, is laid out on the Screen Australia website.

Buying American

To grow, Jaggi took to buying spec scripts from American writers experienced with studio projects, whose projects were almost ready to shoot and would do whatever was required to get them to principal photography.

‘We could just buy scripts from America and then, boom, we could suddenly go from one year to three films a year, and not have to worry about development because development is costly and takes time.’ What is more, he says, ‘The honest truth is there are so many very experienced screenwriters there, who will write great scripts for half the price of an aspiring writer in Australia. It sounds horrible but the reality of it is…., you know.’ 

He plays to the old industry nightmare in which the films are about some second-rate has-been actor hired to huff his way through a colonialised story in which Americans rescue Australians. That idea was fought from the beginning and is still in play today. 

Fixing the balance

‘In our bigger performing movies we did have American actors. As we are very prominent in the Young Adult space we’d often bring in Disney stars. We would happily have Australians but you need to have a name that has a global reach, and that is usually American.’

He called this strategy a phase. The Jaggi company has also built a development strand, run now by actor and writer Sophie Tilson, who has been working in LA. 

‘There is a misnomer about our business,’ he says. ‘We are 100% dedicated to the Australian marketplace and to Australian practitioners and the vast majority of our cast are almost always Australian.’

But two things have happened to disrupt the pressure to involve Americans. ‘Netflix really has accelerated the rate at which overseas audiences will accept foreign accents. We are finding that buyers and the studios we work with are accepting Australian accents more and more. And audiences are more more open as well.’

On top of this, COVID-19 is turning out to be a boon. Now the casts are purely Australian, using performers who have worked in the US and come home to shelter. ‘Content demand is so high right now that we can use entirely Australian casts. But you still have to get the money.’ 

A sickness in the sector

Ten years in, Steve Jaggi remains a mixture of idealism and business sense. He sees the desperation and exploitation in the Australian screen sector, and calls it out. 

‘I am on the record for this. The film industry is a scam, like we were all lied to. They feed upon people, they make money from other people’s misery in this industry. 

Part of the scam is the way new screen creators are taught to focus on their art and singular vision, to focus everything on the one production. The real creative heart of a production company is a slate, not a production.

‘Very few people are actually making productions that go out there and sell so you can have a great career making great films. We have been working of late with some great filmmakers and great practitioners and crew to to do really well for themselves, but over and over I see a lot of people who are miserable, who are desperate and the desperation feeds an entire industry. 

‘It’s not just the film industry, its so many of these kinds of industries. People are mostly living off each other and it’s horrible.’

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.