‘High North’: Drug smuggling drama could be New Zealand’s version of ‘Fargo’

Welcome to Global Breakouts, a biweekly installment of Deadline where we shine a light on TV shows and movies that are popular in their local territories. The industry is as globalized as it’s ever been, but breakthrough hits keep hitting pockets around the world and it can be difficult to keep track of them… So we’ll do all the hard work for you.

This time we fly far south (ironically) to explore Far Northcrime drama from New Zealand about a normal couple who get involved in a huge drug smuggling operation run by the most hopeless gang in the world. Incredibly based on a true story, the series has received critical acclaim and viewership across Australia before debuting in the US on co-produced Sundance Now.

Name: Far North
Country: New Zealand
Producer: South Pacific Photos, White Balance Photos
Distributor: The international company All3Media
For fans: : Fargo

When asked what the streaming service stands to gain Far NorthSouth Pacific Pictures CEO Kelly Martin responds: “It may be the New Zealand version Fargo but without this crazy violence.”

Martin’s musings are quite spot-on, but New Zealand audiences seem to have understood – the six-episode series was warmly received by critics and achieved top ratings on the country’s TV3 channel, which is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, on its streaming service ThreeNow and on Paramount+ in Australia. The premiere of Sundance Now is approaching, and distributor All3Media International is promoting the show to the global shopping sphere.

The plot is part comedy, part survival drama and part crime thriller. The plot centers on a bumbling gang from Tonga and Australia who see an opportunity to make a $500 million fortune when they strike a deal with a huge drug cartel to smuggle half a ton of methamphetamine from Hong Kong to New Zealand. The problem is that they have a terrible crime rate and soon they are stuck with a broken boat. They come up with a new, absurd plan to save their lives, and the deal includes a new boat, a staged funeral at sea, and unwitting elderly couple Ed and Heather, who slowly learn that their new friends are up to no good. As Caper grows desperate, the pair realize they must help broker a deal while hoping they can foil the crime and live to tell the absurd story.

What makes Far North what’s even crazier is the fact that it’s based on a true story. In 2016, New Zealand officials seized the largest shipment of methamphetamine in the country’s history, found abandoned off the coast of Ninety Mile Beach on the North Island. A Hong Kong citizen and five Australians were jailed as a result of Operation Frontia, with the story featured in Jared Savage’s nonfiction book ‘Underbelly: Inside NZ’s Biggest Meth Bust’.

“When the first drug bust happened, the story seemed unbelievable – half a billion dollars worth of methamphetamine and a $100,000 boat left on the beach,” Martin recalled. David White, who later created, wrote and directed the series, drove to Ahipara at the southern end of the beach, did some amateur detective work and eventually knocked on the doors of the real Heather and Ed. “They were gracious enough to tell him their story,” adds Martin. “It was even crazier than you could have imagined, so he offered to buy their rights to live there.”

White co-wrote and co-directed the resulting series with Mingjian Cui (Inked) and Suli Moa (Panthers), in association with All3Media’s South Pacific and independent White Balance Pictures, which are co-productions for ThreeNow/TV3, Sundance Now in North America and Paramount+ in Australia. Although the series bills itself as “mostly” based on a true story, White told the press how some of the funniest exchanges were taken straight from courtroom transcripts, highlighting just how useless the drug dealers were.

“David brings a unique tone and style to his work, and when you add that to the mix of story elements Far Northyou will get a wonderful and unique spectacle,” he says. “There’s a lot of comedy in this story, but also heart and drama, so it’s a combination of those three elements with elements of a thriller – it’s a real hybrid in the best way possible.”

“Definite Victory”

Ed, a 70-year-old Maori diesel mechanic, is played by Temuera Morrison (Boba Fett book, The Mandalorian). Robyn Malcolm stars alongside him (On the surface of the lake, Harrow) as Heather, Ed’s wife who instructs aqua aerobics. Far North marks the reunion of the pair who last appeared together thirty years ago on the innovative Kiwi soap Shortland Street. . . The cast also includes Villa Junior Lemanu, Maaka Pohatu, John-Paul Foliaki, Albert Mateni, Fay Tofilau, Mosa Alipate Latailakepa, Fei Li, Dennis Zhang and Xana Tang.

“Because this story is true, we wanted to be as accurate as possible in telling it – and we were cast accordingly,” says Martin, who serves as an executive producer alongside White. “Our cast was strong, from the most experienced of them to a couple who were complete novices. The main challenge was to make sure we were true to the story.”

The premiere of the program attracted the largest audience of any series since the platform’s launch – after 10 days, it was watched by over 450,000 viewers – not bad for a country with a population of approximately 5.2 million. According to Adobe Analystics Media Starts, after four episodes, the total number of plays was 629,000 and the reach was 686,000, as shown by Nielsen TAM statistics. WBD told local press that the series resulted in a “significant increase in new sign-ups” for streamer ThreeNow, with about 50% saying it was the first show they watched on the platform. Martin calls the numbers “extremely satisfying and humbling” and says the streaming additions are a “definite victory.”

“Paramount+ is also doing well in Australia, and we are very optimistic and hopeful that Sundance Now will also do well in North America,” he added.

With so many co-production partners, it’s safe to say the series had a big budget – “the highest per episode in the history of a New Zealand production,” says Martin. He attributes this “largely” to the government’s Te Puna Kairangi Premium Fund – a local production fund set up to help New Zealand recover from Covid-19 by supporting local, high-end productions aimed at global audiences. “Additionally, we have had incredible partners from the beginning in Sundance, Paramount+, ThreeNow and All3Media International.”

New Zealand’s television industry endured a difficult year in 2023, with the merger of public broadcaster TVNZ and RNZ on hold as the government diverted money to the “cost of living” crisis, and while filming the series Power Rangers the franchise left the country after over 20 seasons of production. Its neighbor Australia – if you can call a country 2,500 miles away a neighbor – is struggling to attract more international productions, which may have played a role in the Kiwi government renewing and improving the international production and post-production incentives it offered in Móc.

Martin, a former TV3 programming director who took over as South Pacific CEO from local industry legend John Burnett in 2012, says a focus on premium international projects could offset the problems.

“The situation in the country – as in many other markets – is difficult, so finding ways to tell our stories and make them stand out from the crowd is a challenge,” he says. “We continue to have strong incentives in New Zealand and collaborating to produce this type of premium content is becoming increasingly important to us. We think Far North shows what we can achieve here – we have a talent for writing and acting that can give it our all if given the opportunity.”


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