Television

‘Godfather’-esque Crime Thriller ‘Last King Of The Cross’ Is Proving That Australian TV Drama Is So Much More Than ‘Neighbours’

Welcome to Global Breakouts, Deadline’s fortnightly strand in which we shine a spotlight on the TV shows and films killing it in their local territories. The industry is as globalized as it’s ever been, but breakout hits are appearing in pockets of the world all the time and it can be hard to keep track… So we’re going to do the hard work for you.

This week we head down under to Australia, where Paramount+ original Last King of the Cross has been making a serious racket. Telling the true story of gang warfare in the notorious Sydney Kings Cross district, the 10-part crime thriller harks back to classics such as The Godfather. Its journey to screen has been a lengthy but enjoyable one, say producers.

Name: Last King of the Cross
Country: Australia
Network: Paramount+ Australia
Producer: Helium Pictures
International sales: Cineflix Rights
For fans of: Godfather, Gomorrah

Neighbours may have felt like the only Australian TV drama worth reading about last year but a show of a very different nature was being prepped simultaneously in Sydney, and has been a hit with audiences in recent weeks.

While industry gossip reached a crescendo around Neighbours, the iconic soap that was brutally axed by Channel 5 in the UK then rescued by Amazon Freevee, Last King of the Cross was being finalized to increasing excitement. It could now usher in a new era of high-end Australian scripted fare, if exec producer Mark Fennessy has anything to do with it.

Paramount+ Australia’s 10-part crime thriller, which depicts the true story of the gangs who battled for control of the notorious Sydney Kings Cross district more than 30 years ago, has been a long time in the making, but it all started at a Lady Gaga concert.

Fennessy, who was then running Endemol Shine Australia with brother Carl, met John Ibrahim, the notorious ‘King of the Cross’ nightclub owner who has been charged multiple times over the years. Despite once being labelled the “lifeblood of the Kings Cross drugs industry,” Ibrahim has never been convicted.

Ibrahim was looking to turn his best-selling autobiography of the same name into a TV series and he thought Fennessy was just the man. Fennessy, to his surprise, found Ibrahim to be “quiet, reserved, charming and polite.”

“John is notorious and infamous in many respects but he’s a private guy who doesn’t do red carpets or interviews or anything like that,” Fennessy tells Deadline. “He doesn’t seek the limelight. I was immediately intrigued by the story, the background and the history of the constabulary.”

Fennessy began developing the TV adaptation and when he left Endemol Shine Australia in 2020 to launch his own shingle, Helium Pictures, Last King of the Cross came with him, as did Ibrahim, who is co-EP.

Development continued apace once Helium was up and running. Soon, Fennessy, Ibrahim and a team of six diverse writers had their greenlight from Paramount+ Australia. Distributor Cineflix Rights has since taken worldwide rights and sold to a number of major territories including Sky in Europe. We hear more sales are afoot.

Led by up-and-comers Lincoln Younes and Claude Jabbour alongside the star quality of BAFTA-winner Tim Roth, the show follows goings-on in the iconic nightclub district in the 1980s and 1990s, as John Ibrahim and his brother Sam arrive from Lebanon with barely a penny and begin to make a name for themselves in the criminal underworld just as the cocaine wave hits the city. Karl Zwicky is producer, directors are Kieran Darcy-Smith, Grant Brown, Catherine Millar and Ian Watson, and writing team features Darcy-Smith, Morgan O’Neill, Jane Allen, Alastair Newton Brown, Matt Nable and James Pope.

Production wasn’t without its teething problems. The difficulty in abiding by strict Covid-19 protocols was compounded when tropical rain hit Sydney last year, as filming was taking place in a mega-sized car park converted into the iconic Kings Cross area. However, the producers took this in their stride.

“We had rebuilt Kings Cross in a Western Sydney car park and suddenly there was torrential rain, which actually worked quite well for the world we were building,” explains Fennessy. “Kings Cross is really a personality in the series; a world within a world.”

Meanwhile, Ian McShane, who was initially due to star as drug kingpin Ezra Shipman, pulled out early on due to health problems, creating a major headache for the producers. The team were overjoyed when Reservoir Dogs method actor Roth threw his hat into the ring.

“His interpretation of the character was very different from Ian and it complemented the editorial in a beautiful way,” says Fennessy. “He made real effort to get inside the DNA of the story.”

The end product is a romp of a thriller, comparable in tone with the likes of The Godfather and Sky’s Gomorrah, although Fennessy stresses Last King’s unique make-up.

The release date was brought forward (some later episodes are still being completed in the edit) so the first three episodes would land on Paramount+ in Australia at the same time as U.S. tentpoles such as 1923. That move has been a success, with Last King becoming the streamer’s most-watched Paramount+ Australia original within a week, although Paramount Global declined to share official numbers. The success could also contribute to the debate around weekly scheduling as episodes are being dropped every seven days, coming after hits such as the BBC’s Happy Valley benefitted from such a weekly drop.

“This was a real swing for the fences,” says Fennessy. “It was never supposed to be ‘just another Australian drama’ and the intent was there from the beginning.”

“New era and frontier”

With a tempting tax credit and plenty of places to film, he says the Australian production sector is in a “healthy state” and buyers need now put their money where their mouths are.

“There aren’t enough buyers for the amount of great projects that are going around,” he adds. “Netflix, Paramount+, Prime Video, Stan and Disney+ are all here but they are probably only commissioning around two scripted projects a year.”

NBCUniversal is also likely to greenlight several big-budget projects in Victoria following the decision to make Sam Esmail’s big-ticket Apple TV+ drama Metropolis in the state, though it’s not known from where these projects will hail.

Set to help the situation is an incoming local content quota that could, by next year, require the streamers to pump 20% of local revenues back into Australian content.

And with the likes of Last King of the Cross, Netflix’s Heartbreak High and Disney+’s upcoming Artful Dodger adaptation emerging, Fennessy believes we are at a “new era and frontier” of Australian content, one in which shows like Neighbours and Home and Away feel a thing of the past.

“Soaps were an important part of the landscape but you’re not seeing them commissioned anymore,” he concludes. “Australian drama is standing taller and prouder than it ever has.”

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