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 time round, we’re flying way down south (ironically) to explore Far North, a dramedy crime caper New Zealand about a normal couple who are caught up a major drug smuggling operation led by the world’s most hopeless gang. Incredibly based on a true story, the show has met with critical acclaim and ratings across Australasia ahead of a U.S. debut on co-producer Sundance Now.
Name: Far North
Country: New Zealand
Producer: South Pacific Pictures, White Balance Pictures
Distributor: All3Media International
For fans of: Fargo
Asked what a streaming service might make of Far North, South Pacific Pictures CEO Kelly Martin answers: “Perhaps a New Zealand version of Fargo but without any of the crazy violence.”
Martin’s musing is quite the statement, but audiences in New Zealand seemed to get it — the six-part series has been warmly received by critics and topped ratings for Warner Bros. Discovery-owned national channel TV3, its streaming service ThreeNow and for Paramount+ in Australia. A Sundance Now launch is incoming and distributor All3Media International has been pushing the show in the global buying sphere.
The plot is part comedy caper, part survival drama and part mystery thriller. It follows an inept Tongan-Australian gang who see the chance for a $500M fortune when they do a deal with a massive drug cartel to smuggle half a ton of meth from Hong Kong to New Zealand. The issue is they’re terrible at crime and are soon stranded with a broken down boat. They hatch a ludicrous new plan to save their skins and the deal involves a new boat, a staged funeral at sea and an unwitting older couple Ed and Heather, who slowly learn their new friends are up to no good. As the caper grows in desperation, the couple realize they have to help the deal get done, while also hoping to thwart the crime and survive to tell the ridiculous tale.
What makes Far North even crazier is the fact it is based on a real life story. In 2016, New Zealand officials seized the biggest haul of methamphetamines in the country’s history found abandoned off the coast of the Ninety Mile Beach on the North Island. A Hong Kong national and five Australians were jailed following Operation Frontia, and the story was chronicled in Jared Savage’s non-fiction book ‘Underbelly: Inside NZ’s Biggest Meth Bust.’
“When the drugs bust first happened the story seemed so unbelievable — half a billion dollars’ worth of meth, a $100,000 boat left on a beach,” recalls Martin. David White, who would go on to create, write and direct the series, drove to Ahipara at the southern end of the beach, did some amateur detective work and ended up knocking on the real-life Heather and Ed’s door. “They were gracious enough to tell him their story,” adds Martin. “It was even crazier than you could imagine, so he offered to buy their life rights on the spot.”
White co-wrote and co-directed the resulting series with Mingjian Cui (Inked) and Suli Moa (The Panthers), with All3Media-owned South Pacific and White’s indie White Balance Pictures co-producing for ThreeNow/TV3, Sundance Now in North America and Paramount+ in Australia. Though the series is billed as being “mostly” based on a true story, White has told press how some of the funniest exchanges were lifted direct from courtroom transcripts — highlighting how useless the drug traffickers were.
“David brings a unique tone and style to his work, and when you add that to a mix of story elements in Far North, you get a wonderful and unique show,” she says. “The story has so much comedy, but so much heart and drama, so it is a blend of those three things with some thriller elements thrown in — it’s a real hybrid in the best possible way.”
Playing Ed, a 70-year-old Māori diesel mechanic, is Temuera Morrison (The Book of Boba Fett, The Mandalorian). Starring alongside him is Robyn Malcolm (Top of the Lake, Harrow) as Ed’s aqua-aerobics instructing wife, Heather. Far North marks a reunion for the pair, who last acted together three decades ago in seminal Kiwi soap Shortland Street. Villa Junior Lemanu, Maaka Pohatu, John-Paul Foliaki, Albert Mateni, Fay Tofilau, Mosa Alipate Latailakepa, Fei Li, Dennis Zhang and Xana Tang are also among a large ensemble cast.
“As this story is real, we wanted to be as true as we could with telling it – and we cast accordingly,” says Martin, who is an exec producer alongside White. “Our cast were strong, from the most experienced of them right through to a couple who were absolute newcomers. The main challenge was making sure we were being true to the story.”
The show’s premiere was the biggest audience for any drama since the platform’s launch, with more than 450,000 people watching after 10 days — not bad for a country with a population of about 5.2 million. After four episodes, total streams were 629,000, according to Adobe Analystics Media Starts, while reach was 686,000, Nielsen TAM stats showed. WBD told local press the series had driven a “significant uptake in new registrations” for streamer ThreeNow, with around 50% saying the show was the first they watched on the platform. Martin calls the numbers “extremely satisfying and humbling” and says the streaming additions are “a definite win.”
“It’s also doing well for Paramount+ in Australia, and we’re feeling very optimistic and hopeful that it will do well for Sundance Now in North America too,” she adds.
With so many co-production partners, it’s fair to say the series had a large budget — the “highest per episode for a NZ production we’ve ever had,” says Martin. She attributes this in “large part” to the government’s Te Puna Kairangi Premium Fund, a local production fund created to help New Zealand’s recovery from Covid-19 by supporting local high-end productions aimed at global audiences. “Further to that we had amazing partners from the beginning in Sundance, Paramount+, ThreeNow and All3Media International.”
New Zealand’s TV industry has been through a tough 2023, with the merger of public broadcaster TVNZ and RNZ culled as the government redirected money to the “cost of living” crisis, while filming of the Power Rangers franchise exited the country after more than 20 seasons of production. Its neighbor Australia — if you can call a country 2,500 miles away a neighbor — has been looking to attract more international productions, which may have played a part in the Kiwi government renewing and improving the international production and post-production incentives it offers back in May.
Martin, a former TV3 Head of Programming who took over as CEO of South Pacific from local industry legend John Burnett in 2012, says focusing on premium projects with international cut-through can offset problems.
“Domestically — as with many other markets — things are tough, so finding ways to tell our stories and have them stand out from the crowd is a challenge,” she says. “We still have strong incentives in New Zealand, and partnering to make this sort of premium content has become more and more important to us. We think Far North demonstrates what we can achieve here – we have writing and acting talent who can deliver when given the opportunity.”