Sophia Zachariou at the top of the television game

Sophia Zachariou was 24 when she realised that the lonely life of the painter was not for her. Instead, she embarked on creative direction that was the polar opposite when she entered and immersed herself in the collaborative, multi-disciplined world of television production. She has never looked back.

The CEO of  award-winning media company, Bunya Entertainment (whose body of work includes the highly rated series Mystery Road, as well Australian feature films High Ground), had been an artist for 10 years and had studied at the Sydney College of Arts when she entered the world of television in the early 1980s.

Sophia Zachariou embarked on a television course with the University of Technology Sydney and also began working for Special Broadcast Service (SBS).

SBS which had launched in 1979 as Channel 28, with experimental ethnic television broadcasts from Sydney and Melbourne, using ABC facilities, included the Worldwide News program that was anchored by George Donikian.

The fledgling SBS offered unique opportunities for aspiring and experimental filmmakers and Ms Zachariou thrived in that environment. She left her studies at the University of Technology to focus on her new career.

“I started at SBS in my early 20s as a production assistant and worked on Eat Carpet and produced the show for some years,” she told Neos Kosmos.

In each hour-long segment, Eat Carpet presented up to a dozen short films by amateur directors and film students from Australia and the rest of the world. The films ranged in their genres from documentaries to music videos, comedies, dramas and interviews.

“SBS was a great starting point. It was small enough to do what you wanted, it was a great creative hub for multicultural communities in Australia and was an outlet for indigenous filmmakers as well,” Ms Zachariou said. Supporting new talent is a role that has characterised her career in the industry.

In 2004, as an independent, she produced Micromovies, short films made using smart phones – a first for Australia. During her career she also developed digital formats for iview.

She moved to the ABC rising to executive producer and deputy head of entertainment. During her time with the national broadcaster she was to commission over 30 award-winning shows that included Gruen, The Chaser, Kitchen Cabinet, Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell, Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, and At the Movies, to name a few on a long list. She notched up over 400 hours of television while with the ABC.

As executive producer she was behind a versatile range of programs that included: “hybrid docu-comedies, quiz-based panel shows, talks, factual entertainment and comedies”. Her role has ranged from creative development, editorial leadership, production and program launch.

“In films the executive producers raise money for the project. In television, the executive producer hires and fires people, oversees the creative aspects, holds meetings with the heads of departments and is responsible for creative and financial decisions.

“Television is a collaborative business which means you have to work with different people. You have to be a good collaborator and respect others. It is about getting the right people together, spotting talent to create a good product. You have to be a ‘people person’.”

Ms Zachariou left the ABC in 2016 for Screen NSW and was soon appointed Head of Development and Production. During her time there she oversaw the commissioning process of award-winning productions such as Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, Rachel Perkins’ Mystery Road, Nash Edgerton’s Mr Inbetween, Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black and Jeffrey Walker’s Riot.

Sophia Zachariou is the CEO of the television arm of award-winning media company, Bunya Productions. Photo: Supplied

In 2019, she moved to Bunya Productions.

“At SBS and ABC, I was buyer, now I am a seller of film,” she said.

The Australian film and television industry, she says, is in a very healthy position.

“(The industry) absolutely stands on its own merits. We are not only Australian actors in Hollywood but writers and directors and producers and crews. We have a very robust creative industry.

“It’s a great future with so many opportunities for program makers and also for audiences. They’ve never had so many diverse choices before.”

The future of the industry lies in nurturing local talent and especially indigenous Australian talent.

“We have to keep making shows that reflect a modern Australia and also reflect the diversity of who we are – First Nations’ talent, as well, is very dynamic and important to tell who we are and the true history of our country and its past,” she said.

“First Nations stories have come into their own and are being told and listened to. Films such as High Ground, Sweet Country and Top End Wedding are all examples of the diversity of First Nations storytelling.”

She grew up in Wagga Wagga and credits her family for some of her drive and early artistic leanings. Her father, Vasili, was an avant garde artist in Athens who made a living painting movie billboards and posters. He came to Australia in 1956.

“I have one older brother and we grew up in a big Greek extended family as my mother has lots of sisters. We are all still very close – cousins, cousins’ kids and so on.

“I am married to a woman and she is also in television- she heads the BBC studios production arm in Australia. We have three kids, all teenagers.”

She grew up in a family that is proud of its Greek background and is also supportive and ambitious.

” All the kids had great education and went to university and we have barristers and executives as part of that.

“Our parents worked hard to give us the best in education and choices in life and that is a gift from our Greek heritage.”

She said that while First Nations’ actors directors and writers would do well in the industry she said the Greek Australian community had some “great comedians and acting talent – Steen Raskopoulos comes to mind and Zoe Terakes.”

Working hard and learning about people is the key to succeeding in her industry.

“You start out as an intern or runner and get to know who the people are to work for. Be generous and offer your thoughts and be willing to listen,” she advises those who want to enter the world of television and film.