Paramount+ maintaining momentum with Helium Picture’s powerful Paper Dolls

Paper Dolls

Mark Fennessy back making music, surrounded by Harlow and talented creative team

Mark Fennessy’s production company Helium Pictures looks set to help streaming service Paramount+ finish the year strongly with the new drama series Paper Dolls.

It was Helium that contributed as Paramount+ maintained its momentum as Australia’s fastest-growing streamer early in 2023 with the February release of The Last King of the Cross. At the time the series was the most-watched Australian production on the platform. (That’s a record that was recently overhauled by NCIS: Australia.)

Paper Dolls was originally commissioned for Network 10, but the series will now debut on Paramount+. The eight-episode season about an all-girl pop act called Harlow will be screened weekly after the release of the first three episodes on December 3.

Helium founder and chief creative officer Fennessy told Mediaweek that all Paper Dolls episodes have been delivered to Paramount ANZ and he and his team were delighted with the finished product.

The executive producer has no problem with a streaming service premiere. “We are expecting the series to get good marketing support and audiences are now watching scripted content on streaming platforms when they want to watch on demand.

“We supported the decision to be screened on Network 10 initially, but we were particularly delighted when they advised us we were going out on Paramount+. They have been very enthusiastic about Paper Dolls and very supportive.”

It is expected the series might eventually also be screened on 10.


Paper Dolls

Four of the five members of Harlow.
All photos from Paper Dolls by Tony Mott

Is Paper Dolls telling the Bardot story?

Fennessy first got involved in Paper Dolls when former Bardot member Belinda Chapple approached him with an idea several years ago. “Belinda had a memoir – The Girl in the Band – which was her story and her experience of Bardot and also her personal story of learning to sing and dance when she was younger.

“I read it back then and it was a tremendous inspiration for the series we have ultimately produced. It is very much a fictional series. It is not the Bardot story. However, her experience during her time in Bardot was a definite inspiration for Paper Dolls.

“While the series is at times unapologetically dark and unrelenting, Paper Dolls is a celebration of resilient women who continue to rally against an industry that’s determined to exploit them.

“While it’s dark and gritty, it’s incredibly joyous and delightful in so many ways. We are very proud of what is a fascinating female-driven drama with a female-led creative team.”

Helium undertook an 11-week shoot for Paper Dolls. “It was demanding on the five girls because they had to manage choreography and the recording of eight original tracks.”

Mark Fennessy

The series is set in 1999 and 2000 and the music reflects the period, said Fennessy. “We used a songwriting team from Sony Music Publishing – Robby De Sa and Janeeva. Belinda was involved in that too and made a really good contribution.

“There is a feature performance at the end of each episode that is tied into the story.”

Ainslie Clouston led the writing team, both producers were women and all three directors were women as were the editors. “It was unique in that sense and it made the shoot and post-production incredibly vibrant and a joyous and fun experience.”

This despite themes in the series about exploitation, abuse of power and coercive control. Fennessy admitted: “Parts of it are confronting, gritty and some of the themes are dark. Those moments are juxtaposed with the euphoric high of performing – giving the audience a taste of the epic highs and the darkest lows that all successful artists experience.”

Paper Dolls

Paper Dolls

Is Harlow hit bound?

One of the joys of Paper Dolls is the 90s-inspired pop soundtrack. “The casting brief was the girls needed to be able to sing, dance and act,” said Fennessy. “We were looking for girls between the ages of 19 and 26. We probably had a spread of about 300 girls. We were just blown away with the talent and we probably could have cast three groups they were that talented. Some of the girls got callbacks five or six times and still didn’t make it.

“It was incredibly difficult selecting the final five. Everything you hear is their voices and you see them performing live. It’s all them.

“From the first time in episode one where they sing in a record company office as a mini showcase performance your jaw drops and you think oh my god…these girls are super talented. They just sound like an established group that has been together.”

A soundtrack featuring Harlow will be released as the series debuts on Paramount+. “It is called This is Harlow and features eight tracks and will be available on all streaming platforms.”

When asked if the girls will perform live as Harlow, Fennessy was unsure at this stage. “I can’t confirm or deny.”

Emma Booth and Ditch Davey in Paper Dolls

With his music background (running MTV when it was on Nine and later working with major music labels on special projects), you get the sense that Fennessy is very excited about more active involvement with music artists. “My love and passion for the music business has never waned,” he said.

Fennessy’s Helium group includes a publishing company, Rogue Nation Publishing, a music arm and a record label. “The music is available on Helium Records, distributed by MGM.”

The Last King of the Cross update

Fennessy also provided Mediaweek with an update on sales and production of the John Ibrahim story The Last King of the Cross.

“It has performed very well in international sales with the distributor Cineflix doing a very good job. Sky UK has re-upped for season two and season one has just been running. It has also gone to Paramount in Canada, Sky for Italy, Germany, and Ireland and Warner Bros Discovery in New Zealand.

“It is still early days with a number of other territories at the moment. Like any franchise when it climbs into a second and potentially third season the volume makes it more attractive.

“I would expect more sales from territories that didn’t pick up season one once suddenly they are able to acquire 18 episodes.”

The second season of The Last King of the Cross is in pre-production with shooting to commence in January. “We are deep into the casting process,” said Fennessy. “We have moved out to our production office. I’m all about script and what we have for season two is really strong.”

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