Soaps like Home and Away and Neighbours have been a staple on Australian television for decades.
Now, a groundbreaking new drama with LGBT teens at the forefront is hoping to find a home among the gum trees.
With a fresh Aussie cast, strong community backing, and a pilot launched on YouTube just last week, Subject to Change has picked up fans already. But now, its creators are looking for a network or streaming service to back the show – and bring episode two to life.
Fundamentally, Subject to Change is about the trials and tribulations of high school. It stars three unlikely best friends: neat freak Ben (Aiden Debono), who likes guys, but can't tell anyone; obnoxious, tomboyish Karly (Maryann Wright), obsessed with soccer and music; and Evie (Katy Avery) who is caught up with body image, bullying, and boys.
They’re just normal teenagers at a normal school. But Subject to Change hopes to tell the stories of LGBT teenagers in Australia in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Debono, Wright and Avery, along with the show’s director Daniel Mercieca and producer Rory Delaney, are crowded around a cafe table on a rainy Sydney day, hot drinks in hand. The enthusiasm is palpable as they tell BuzzFeed News about Subject to Change.
“There’s something about the story that draws people in, even without it being pushed. it’s unlocked something, somewhere,” says Wright.
Since the pilot launched on YouTube last week – quietly, says Delaney, without too much fanfare – the cast has received messages from people across Australia and all over the world. Messages from London, Iran, Russia and France have all said it struck a chord.
Part of the appeal comes from the show’s mission: to counter a lack of depth in the LGBT characters we see on Australian television.
“There were always characters shows touched on, but it felt like they needed to be more central, to really get and explain and understand their side of things,” Mercieca says.
Delaney agrees, adding that more LGBT characters are coming through. He points to The Family Law, a new SBS show based on the popular memoir by Benjamin Law, as one example.
“I wouldn’t say it's a desert out there, but there’s still not enough.”
In the works since 2001, Subject to Change came together slowly but surely, after a fundraising campaign exceeded its $15,500 target by an enormous 75%.
“The amount of support just blew our minds, the people who wanted to support the show financially,” says Delaney.
“There was a period of just asking, how?” says Avery. “It’s just us – we’re not big names!”
Mercieca puts it down to there being “a real gap in the market” for young adult drama, adding that the extra money funded post-production and commercial music rights.
Support came from high places as well, with musician Missy Higgins donating the rights to her song “Secrets” to be used in the pilot.
Mercieca and Delaney drew from their own high school experiences and worked with the Safe Schools Coalition (an organisation that works to prevent LGBTI bullying in schools) to make Ben, Karly and Evie as authentic and relatable as possible.
“We did a few informal focus groups with high school students today, just to make sure we got a few contemporary things correct,” says Delaney. “But a lot of it was working off the characters, making sure they were real and believeable.”
When asked what they have in common with their characters, Wright and Debono simultaneously answer “Everything!”
“My character is pretty much me when I was that age,” says Wright. “I was a tomboy, I played soccer, and I sang. It was me. I literally walked into the audition and went, well, if I don’t get cast, there’s nothing more I can do.”
When Debono auditioned, he was a queer teenager at a Catholic high school living the same reality than Ben does.
“People yelling at me by lockers, trying to suppress who I am,” he remembers. “And of course I had crushes on boys. It was an all boys school, there were attractive people at my school!”
Now, Debono is in year twelve at a performing arts school, where things are friendlier – but he says filming the pilot was a “breath of fresh air” for him during a difficult time.
“It allowed me to explore who I actually am,” he says. “I grew so much from the pilot. it changed my view of myself.”
While the online response has been good, Delaney and Mercieca are in a “continual process of pitching”, hoping Subject to Change will be picked up by a TV network or a streaming service.
“There’s an audience out there for it,” says Mercieca. “The people with the money are always going to be cautious about what they spend it on. It’s not because it’s gay content, they’re just being clever in how they commission their shows.”
“The streaming services are more likely to take risks on what can be perceived as niche content,” adds Delaney.
“An TV executive watches the show and thinks, 'It’s an LGBT youth series, our bucket of money for that is only so big'. But with Stan, Presto, Netflix – that’s all changing.”
Episode two is on hold until the show can be signed, but plenty of people are asking for it, says Wright.
“They’re already invested in the characters."
However, Mercieca and Delaney are tight-lipped about what the next episode and the rest of the season might contain, with even the three lead actors in the dark.
But while Debono, Wright and Avery have their theories about where Ben, Karly and Evie might end up, it’s on the downlow for now, while Mercieca and Delaney continue pitching, hoping someone will pick it up.
“We’ve had positive conversations with Screen Australia,” says Delaney.
“We’re waiting for it,” adds Wright. “We just need one yes.”