causeway films

Source: Steven Woodburn

Samantha Jennings, Kristina Ceyton

In recent times, two Australian producers have been responsible for a steady stream of bold films that have attracted serious attention from festivals and buyers: Samantha Jennings and Kristina Ceyton from Causeway Films.

The pair knew each other for more than a decade and worked together from time to time before Canada-born, Australia-raised Jennings became an equal partner in Causeway Films, which Germany-born, Hong Kong-raised Ceyton established just before she made The Babadook in 2014 – her debut feature as a producer.

Since that film scooped more than 50 festival and critics’ awards, Causeway has produced seven titles that won A-list festival berths and, frequently, prizes: The Nightingale (Venice 2018), Cargo (Tribeca 2018), Buoyancy (Berlinale 2019), Good Madam (Mlungu Wam) (Toronto 2021), You Won’t Be Alone (Sundance 2022), Blaze (Tribeca 2022) and Of An Age (Melbourne 2022).

The Australian outfit’s latest production, horror title Talk To Me, closed Adelaide Film Festival in October. The debut of filmmaking twins Danny and Michael Philippou, whose YouTube channel RackaRacka has nearly 6.7 million subscribers, is represented internationally by Causeway’s regular partner Bankside Films, which has three other Causeway titles on its AFM slate: First Nations psychological horror The Moogai; Samuel Van Grinsven’s ghost story Went Up The Hill, a New Zealand-Australia co-production scheduled to shoot in May 2023; and Catriona McKenzie’s First Nations thriller Stolen.

Another Causeway production – Dario Russo’s darkly comedic folktale The Fox – is also in the market, represented by Protagonist Pictures.

Ceyton says “growth has happened organically for Causeway”. She cites a few contributing factors, among them a commitment to the vision of filmmakers, becoming more experienced at packaging, developing trusted financing partnerships, being creatively in sync, and capitalising on their momentum.

“When you wake up at 3am and know you have to be part of a film, that’s when you know,” says Jennings. “And you get better at knowing.”

They keep a document that lists their selection criteria for projects, including excitement to work with a filmmaker, originality, breakout potential and stories with something to say. But they joke about rarely referring to it.

Projects in advanced development include Good Madam director Jenna Cato Bass’s supernatural tale Tok Tokkie and Goran Stolevski’s political satire True-ish. Jennings herself is writing an adaptation of John Purcell’s comedic novel The Girl On The Page, which is likely to end up a UK-Australia co-­production.

Masters of the in-house

Causeway’s modus operandi is to never outsource development, never try to predict or chase trends, and give every project careful focus right to the end. Either Jennings or Ceyton are on set every day.

The Moogai_credit Tess Peni, Causeway Films

Source: Causeway Films

‘The Moogai’

Their company – which now numbers four full-time and two part-time staff – has been rewarded for taking risks and delivering on quality, says Jennings, when asked why they are more prolific than other Australian production companies. Those risks include playing with genre, producing non-English-language films (Buoyancy, You Won’t Be Alone) and supporting debut directors.

“Buyers want original, fresh material,” says Jennings. “We seek out people who are special and motivated. Some of the most exciting work is being created by people who aren’t established yet.”

The pair say they are always exploring different models of financing but are not looking to reinvent the wheel. As for why their international success has yet to be replicated in their home market, where only The Nightingale has grossed more than $345,000 (A$545,000) in Australia, Jennings observes, “Australia has a mature cinema­going audience, not always interested in films targeted at younger people, outside the norm, or taking risks.”

Two upcoming films could change that. Of An Age is being co‑distributed in 2023 by major player Roadshow Films and the original rightsholder, specialist distributor Bonsai Films, with Causeway.

The release of Talk To Me, meanwhile, will be a collaboration between independent distributor Umbrella and Maslow Entertainment, which was set up in 2020 by former 20th Century Fox Film Distributors executive Marc Wooldridge.

There are many measures of success. The Babadook is Causeway’s most profitable film relative to budget, followed by Good Madam, which was made for $130,000 and sold by Visit Films to Shudder. Talk To Me is also selling well and may overtake The Babadook on worldwide theatrical sales.

“We love being on-the-ground creative producers and want to grow our output, employ more people but stay personalised,” says Jennings.