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Factual indies go global

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10 December 2013

The market for factual producers has changed dramatically in the past five years. When the economic downturn kicked in, many indies went in search of new markets around the world as UK broadcasters cut back spend. Their hunt for new business has now paid off.

Televisual’s latest Production 100 survey was full of examples of indies producing for clients in the US, in particular, as well as rising territories such as China and Latin America. The Production 100 revealed that a dozen or so well known British indies now earn more than 50% of their revenues from international broadcasters, including Wag TV (85%), Raw (78%), Darlow Smithson (87%), Studio Lambert (62%) and Blink Films (60%).

Wag TV, for example, has just produced its first Spanish language series, Misterios de la Fe, for Discovery en Español. Other indies are pressing into China. Three have recently picked up work with CCTV. True North is co-producing a series on Chinese fashion designers, Lion TV is co-producing a series on Confucius and North One is making a Chinese version of The Gadget Show.

But the US market has been the main focus. Discovery and National Geographic’s decision to set up production hubs in London has been hugely beneficial to many indies, with orders like Dragonfly’s One Car Too Far, October Films’ You Have Been Warned and Tigress’ Naked Castaway.

A swathe of entrepreneurial producers have also set up shop in the US. Studio Lambert has picked up a raft of US orders, among them Undercover Boss for CBS and The Pitch for AMC. Raw TV’s hit Discovery series Gold Rush, meanwhile, is available in 223 countries and in 45 languages.

Three reasons for growth
The global ambition of UK indie producers was clear to see at this autumn’s Mipcom programme market, where executives pointed to three key factors that are  fuelling international growth.

Firstly, the market took place against a background of improving sentiment about the global economy, with key territories like the US feeling more confident than in recent years.

Secondly, the growing consumer uptake of paid-for video on demand is said to have strengthened the hand of content producers, spurring demand for quality programmes. “It’s created a demand for content that has re-energised the industry,” says Luis Silberwasser, EVP and chief content officer at Discovery Networks International.

And thirdly, there was a sense that the market for TV programmes is continuing to grow right across the world, particularly in key emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China. A rising global middle class, with increased leisure time and spending power, is choosing to do what many in the developed world have done in their spare time for the past 40 years: watch television.

Encouragingly, the UK is a key beneficiary of this growing global demand for new programmes. And that’s because the UK has a strong reputation for producing innovative, creative shows. British broadcasters, particularly the BBC and Channel 4, says Nutopia founder Jane Root, have innovation woven into their DNA. “Compared to the US, there’s almost an allergic reaction to doing anything copycat. There is such a premium on innovation in the UK…it’s like the world’s laboratory, a petri-dish for new ways of looking at the world.”

Discovery’s Silberwasser – an American working out of the UK – confirms this view, saying the thing that strikes him most about the UK production scene is “how diverse the output is, even more so than the US.” He observes, however, that US producers are better at “boldness of ideas”, citing the event production of Felix Baumgartner’s sky dive from the edge of space for Red Bull or daredevil Nik Wallenda’s crossing of the Grand Canyon on a high wire for Discovery.

“The UK does have a great reputation for innovation and for not being derivative,” adds Mark Reynolds, BBC Worldwide director of factual, content and production. British indies, he says, are known for their ability to find a fresh take on a subject and for uncovering new angles.

Plus, says Arrow Media’s John Smithson, UK indies have the advantage of working in the English language and can capitalise on a strong rights position, thanks to the Terms of Trade.

Casting an eye over the BBC Worldwide factual catalogue, Reynolds says there are three areas where sales are strong around the world. Blue chip science and natural history, like the upcoming NHU series Hidden Kingdoms, is “still incredibly in demand” particularly given the UK’s reputation for quality and innovation in story telling and technology; factual entertainment, where there is a huge appetite for character driven pieces or where experts are embedded in the action; and factual drama such as space shuttle tale The Challenger.

Behind the figures

Figures published in October by Pact and UKTI confirmed the global appetite for British TV. They reported revenues from the international sale of UK TV programmes stood at £1.22bn, a 4% increase from 2011. The US was the most important export market with sales up 11% to £475m – accounting for 45% of total export revenue in 2012.

Meanwhile, revenues from China grew the fastest at 90% to £12m. Sales to Indonesia were up 81% to £1.2m, and to India by 42% to £4.3m. The figures also revealed that co-productions showed the greatest percentage increase, up 60% from last year.

There was a time when British broadcasters and producers were reluctant to co-produce, preferring to work on fully funded shows that were the product of a single vision and financier. But with broadcaster budgets on the slide, the need to plug funding gaps with international co-production partners has become increasingly important.

UK broadcasters and producers have therefore become much more interested in partnering with international broadcasters on projects, says Ten Alps creative director Fiona Stourton. “They used to be suspicious about what would happen to their project, but that doesn’t happen now,” she says.

In fact, the UK market is now so tight that if a producer pitches a project to a UK commissioner with an international partner on board, their project is more likely to go to the top of the pile.

Working with international broadcasters can also enhance projects, she says. For example, Stourton was at Mipcom helping to raise funding for Norma Percy’s next BBC documentary series after The Iraq War. “Norma’s projects would not happen without international funding,” says Stourton, citing a two year long production schedule employing high calibre staff to help research and arrange interviews with world leaders. The international market contributes around 50% of the budget.

International focus

Meeting with producers, it’s clear that many are focused on the needs of the international market place. Jane Root, for example, calls Nutopia an “internationally focused company.” The former controller of BBC2 says it was her spell as president of Discovery Networks that opened her eyes to the potential of producing for a global audience.

And the opportunities are increasing as the number of middle class consumers grows. “You look at what is happening in countries like Brazil or India and you can see huge potential there,” she says.

Based in the UK and US, Nutopia has specialised in creating mega-docs – like America: The Story of US or Mankind: The Story of All of Us – that can play across the globe. Nutopia’s international contacts also helped it to bring in co-pro partners on its Algerian terror attack film Siege in the Sahara, which was funded by C4, PBS and CBC in Canada.

Factual producers are also travelling far more – to events like Real Screen, Mipcom and Sunny Side of the Doc (and to Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK) – to build contacts around the world. “You used to see very few British producers at Real Screen,” says Arrow Media’s Tom Brisley. “Now you can’t move for them.” Arrow Media is one of the UK indies which travelled with a Pact delegation to China in November to the Sichuan TV Festival – one of Asia’s major content markets. Brisley says the international market is hugely important for Arrow, whose recent credits include Terror in the Skies for C4 and the Smithsonian Channel and Animal Fight Night for Nat Geo Wild. 

Travelling abroad to markets, of course, is not cheap. True North creative director Glyn Middleton estimates he spends £2,500-£3,000 attending Mipcom (and that’s not on top end hotels and or expensive airlines, he adds). “But I don’t think I have ever come away and felt I have not earned it,” he says.  Middleton cites a recent meeting with Beyond Distribution at Mipcom. The distributor subsequently picked up True North series Dick and Dom Go Wild, selling it to Discovery EMEA and Discovery Pacific Rim. “That deal might have paid for our development for a year,” says Middleton.

Deals, particularly in China, can take years to come off. True North’s upcoming Chinese designer series for CCTV has been developed by exec producer Liz McLeod, who has spent ten years building contacts and trust in the country. “Whenever people come to me and say, ‘how do I crack China’, I say it takes ten years,” jokes Middleton.

Time and again, though, indies stress how important it is to invest time and energy building up international contacts, and how fruitful the relationships can eventually become. Something always comes out of visits to markets like Mipcom, says Ten Alps’ Stourton. “Sometimes it is two years later. But you need the continuity. As you build relationships with broadcasters, they trust you.”


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