Life is a ‘Riot’ for prolific producer Joanna Werner

February 23 2018

Article written by Don Groves and published on IF

Joanna Werner is in the fast lane. The Melbourne-based producer is attending a preview screening in Sydney tonight of Riot, the ABC telemovie dealing with the 1970s gay and lesbian rights movement, which premieres at 8.30pm on Sunday.

Australians in Film is staging a screening of Riot at the Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles tomorrow Australian time, which Werner hopes will lead to US deals. On Monday she flies to LA for the red carpet premiere of Dance Academy: The Comeback at the same venue, attended by the director Jeffrey Walker and stars Miranda Otto, Xenia Goodwin, Dena Kaplan and Alicia Banit. The US distributor Cinedigm is launching the film scripted by Samantha Strauss at 11 cinemas across the US and Canada and on digital and VOD platforms on March 2.
Cinedigm’s extensive marketing campaign kicks off this weekend at the USA Varsity Spirit in Anaheim, the US’s biggest cheerleading and dance event combining multiple competitions, which the cast will attend.

After four days in the US the Werner Film Productions’ founder will return home and immerse herself in workshops to develop three primetime drama series for Australian networks.

Damon Herriman plays activist Lance Gowland in Riot, alongside Xavier Samuel, Kate Box and Jessica de Gouw. The activists are confronted by police brutality, legislative persecution, social shunning and job dismissals.

Their resolve is tested and by 1978, when the push to decriminalise homosexuality seemingly has stalled, they decide on a new tactic: The Mardi Gras celebrations as a way to garner wider public support.

Greg Waters wrote the screenplay based on a story by Carrie Anderson and Walker directs.

"It was such a brilliant idea the ABC jumped on it," Werner, who produced with Louise Smith, tells IF. "It was so timely because we were shooting during the marriage equality debate. It felt like we were doing something very positive."

"Damon transformed himself into Lance; he is an incredible actor. I first worked with him on Secret City and he transformed himself in that role."

NBCUniversal is handling the international sales rights for the film which is being screened at LGBTQI film festivals.
Werner is confident about Dance Academy: The Comeback’s prospects in the US, tapping into the fan base of the series which screened first on Netflix followed by Hulu. Strauss and Werner are also developing another teen property in the vein of Dance Academy.

Despite the unprecedented challenges of financing and selling children’s series worldwide, Werner says: "It is absolutely still a passion of ours. We did have to diversify because it is very tricky just being a children’s producer."

As a Screen Australia board member and chair of its Gender Matters task force, Werner is pleased with progress towards gender equality in the screen industry but says: “We still have a long way to go before women are equally represented in any area, particularly writing and directing feature films. We need to look at every department in film and TV and look to have equal numbers of men and women.

"The screen agencies are at the forefront of this and we just hope the industry will catch up. It’s up to every production company to look at trying to promote women in every area and that happens from the top down."