'I want this to be the new Outrageous Fortune'
Hopes are high that the hyper-local 'Kura has the same impact as the Wests. Plus, scalpers, and everything you need to worry about this week…
A small, short, low-budget web series about the South Auckland suburb of Papakura has become one of TVNZ OnDemand's most-streamed local shows, rating up with Shortland Street and The Bachelorette. How did that happen? I asked the creators of ‘Kura what’s behind their popularity - and their answers were surprising. Let’s go….
Vince McMillan, the co-creator of hyper-local TV series ’Kura, was scrolling through his Instagram feed recently when a message popped up. It said: “I love your show – can I be in it?” He did a double take. That message came from Vinnie Bennett, the Christchurch actor who has just hit it big with a starring role in the record-breaking American blockbuster Fast & Furious 9.
Bennett was pleading to appear in 'Kura, McMillan and James Watson's five-part web series about the Auckland suburb of Papakura that has quietly become one of TVNZ's most popular OnDemand shows. Like many, Bennett had seen 'Kura's first season, loved it, and wanted a role.
For McMillan and Watson, who fielded similar requests from big name local actors Grace Palmer and David de Lautour for their second season, it was another stunning moment among many. “It's not like it's a slick, sci-fi production with a moving camera and stunts,” says McMillan, who eventually managed to find a small role for Bennett. “We just didn't have the budget. It's a bit ropey. It's simple.”
That, along with an opening credit sequence that's a shot-for-shot remake of The Sopranos with local Papakura landmarks doubling for New York, is part of 'Kura's never-ending charm. The first season, which followed the exploits of twenty-something best friends Billy-John and Hotene during their last week together in Papakura, won TVNZ's New Blood competition in 2018, which asked the public to choose one of five shortlisted TV shows to be made.
'Kura won with 45 per cent of the vote and its first season, made with TVNZ and NZ On Air prize money of just $100,000, debuted at the beginning of 2020. It quickly took off. “It's rating up against ... Shortland Street and The Bachelor,” says Watson incredulously. “It's kind of unreal.”
They blame that popularity on its hyper-localised setting. “That's what we found out – the more specific we got, the more broad appeal we have,” says Watson. “Papakura is just a representation of what each (small) town in New Zealand is like,” McMillan says.
It also stems from the desire of McMillan and Watson, who met at a primary school in Bombay but grew up together in Papakura, to make a show that cast their home suburb in a different light. “Papakura gets a bad rap,” says Watson. “Type ‘Papakura’ into a news search engine, and it's always, ‘Fight at the local school’...”
McMillan agrees, referencing the murders of pizza delivery driver Michael Choy and Countdown security guard Goran Milosavljevic as tragedies the suburb has become known for. “It has a dark past,” he admits, but says, “it also has a charm. There's a bit of an underbelly there.”
The pair wanted to make something that showcased the suburb they knew, the one they used to roam around from the age of eight. They wanted to focus their lens on the people, the community, the local landmarks, the sense of humour, and the belonging that they felt growing up there.
“We are tapping into reality, more than you realise sometimes,” says Watson. McMillan: “We take credit for creating it, but it's all just sitting there. We just put the lights on it, the camera on it.”
After winning the New Blood competition, the pair used their industry contacts built up over their careers making music videos and ads to pull in favours. They quickly found that Papakura residents were eager to help them get their show made. Full of local hot spots like the op shop, tattoo parlour, swimming pool and the infamous cowboy-themed Stampede Bar, the pair were amazed at how quickly everyone rallied around their show.
“Every location is a genuine place from our background,” says Watson, noting that even the homemade sign seen in the show's pilot that says, “Haircuts $7/Massage $15” is real. “When we went to the swimming pools, they were like, ‘Come and do it (but) you've got to mention a ‘code brown’,” says Watson. “People love it, they love that there's a show filming there,” says McMillan. “If you're from there, you get it on another level.”
However, the suburb's council representatives were wary and asked to meet with them, worried the show was going to portray Papakura in a negative way. They soon changed their tune. “Once I pitched it out, it went from apprehension to, ‘Oh my god, my daughter’s an actress – she'd love to be in it.’”
Fame has affected the show in other ways. Phone numbers they couldn't afford to blur out in 'Kura's first season get called by fans. The house that doubles as the show's main setting has become a target for selfies and drive-bys, with fans yelling out: “Is Billy-John home?”
And on the Papakura Facebook group, locals fire up about minute details that they think 'Kura has gotten wrong. “They say things like, ‘There's no way Paul would keep the fish ‘n’ chip shop open that late,’ and, ‘That's not the exit to the pools – they're driving the wrong way’.”
“They're not wrong,” says Watson, “but there's a few logistical things getting in the way of reality. You assume people know it's a drama, but maybe it does transcend that a little bit.”
The show's popularity has done big things for 'Kura's stars too. Since its first season aired, Dahnu Graham, who plays Billy-John, has scored roles in a Power Rangers TV series and appeared in local dramas The Gulf and Vegas.
Lionel Wellington, who plays Hotene, can also be seen on The Gulf, as well as Head High, Educators and Shortland Street. A supersized second season of 'Kura debuts this week, with a bigger cast and budget fuelling six episodes of 20 minutes this time.
Pressure? They're feeling it, but McMillan and Watson have bigger dreams for their show. They want to expand on the series, mention potential spin-off shows, and when Stuff suggests a movie, they quietly nod their heads. “Hopefully,” says McMillan. “Six seasons and a movie, baby,” jokes Watson.
Underneath the humour, they're serious. The pair have their eyes set on another much loved local series that had hyper-local appeal with a broad, fanatic fanbase. “I want this to be the new Outrageous Fortune,” says McMillan, “the South Auckland version.”
'Kura is available for streaming via TVNZ OnDemand. This story first appeared on Stuff.co.nz.
It’s time to find out how scalpers make their money…
A few weeks ago, I sent out my first newsletter exclusively for paid subscribers. It was an interview with the original architect of Auckland’s iMax building, headlined: ‘It’s become a mish-mash of crap’. I was worried no one would read it, because it’s behind a paywall, but it turned out plenty of you did. It went great! So I’m going to do it again. On Wednesday, I’m sending out my second one. It’s a bit of an international adventure that involves ticket scalpers, a Christchurch festival headlined by Lorde, a small flat in Dublin, and an early morning Zoom call with a London-based expert. It’s taken me a while to put together, but I’m pretty proud of it. If you’d like to read that one, you’ll need to subscribe here. Only do this if you can afford it! I’ve set prices as low as they can go - just $5 a month. That’s cheaper than a cup of coffee, unless you drink a soy decaf latte, which, in that case, what is wrong with you? Just get a kombucha…
Everything else you need to worry about this week…
The first episode of Ted Lasso’s second season is streaming now - and it’s dog-gone wonderful. (Via Apple TV+)
Lorde took the whimsical ‘70s vibes of her new single Stoned at the Nail Salon to Seth Myers over the weekend. (Via YouTube)
I’ve been writing a bit about Woodstock 99 lately ahead of the HBO documentary Peace, Love & Rage (here’s part one, and part two) so I really enjoyed this episode of the podcast 60 Songs that Explained the 90s, about Limp Bizkit’s Break Stuff.
Billie Eilish’s new album Happier Than Ever is Friday’s big new album release, but I’m hanging out for rapper Isaiah Rashad’s The House is Burning. All signs are pointing to a classic. (Via YouTube)
Finally, set aside three minutes to watch this absolutely incredible trailer for Dune, the upcoming Denis Villeneuve blockbuster. It’s out on September 16, which is clearly too far away. For now, we’ll just have to make do with this…