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The great indie start-up craze

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12 November 2014

A swathe of new TV indies has launched in recent months, with more set to come. What’s driving the start-up trend?

The big story of 2014 in indie production has been the takeover of a large part of the UK industry by US studio groups. Discovery, Liberty, 21st Century Fox, Warners, Sony and NBC are now key players in a UK indie sector that is 65% owned by foreign investors.

The spate of deal making this year sparked fears, aired by C4 boss David Abraham in his MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh, that the creative culture of UK production would be snuffed out by foreign owners who put profits ahead of risk taking.

Abraham’s fears about the changing TV landscape seemed to be justified by comments last month from 21st Century Fox co-chief operating officer James Murdoch last month, who said the need for scale in a globalised world was a key driver behind the merger of Endemol, Shine and Core. Murdoch’s words suggested that the world of TV production had changed for good, and that only the biggest producers with true global reach could thrive and survive.

Yet, in the past few months, there’s been a curious counter trend to all the indie super consolidation. A raft of execs, producers and directors have chosen to go independent, starting up their own fledgling production companies.
 
New companies to have launched include Little Gem, founded by former Maverick exec Ben Gale and ex-Princess exec Natasha Bondy; Hungry Bear (ex-Talkback producer Dan Baldwin); Curve Media (ex-Cineflix execs Rob Carey and Camilla Lewis); 7 Wonder (ex-Maverick CEO Alex Fraser, see box opposite). Producers alliance Pact says 77 new members have joined so far this year, up from 59 for the whole of 2013.

There are several reasons for the spate of start-ups. Many are director-driven production outfits set up to make their own projects and hold on to rights. Others are companies focused on branded content and AFP, taking advantage of the growing demand for video content and falling technology prices.

There’s also a swathe of start-ups launched by well-known TV execs who have worked for some of the biggest production companies and broadcasters.

“What we are seeing this year is a disproportionate number of new indies emerging,” says RDF founder and former Zodiak boss David Frank – who set up his own new company, Dial Square 86, earlier this year.

He argues that recent consolidation is a key factor in the new launches, and predicts that – based on conversations he has had – we will see some surprisingly big names soon choosing to go independent.  “It is amazing how hard the tree is being shaken by what is happening.”

Many of them, one suspects, do not enjoy being part of large conglomerates where the emphasis is primarily on hitting financial targets and where the pressure will be to make shows for the broadcasters’ parent companies. Others believe they can earn more money outside the superindies.

Many indie founders who sold their companies to superindie groups are choosing to leave after the deals have expired – following the example of execs like Nick Curwin and Magnus Temple who sold their indie Dragonfly to Shine in 2007 and left in 2009. They then launched new indie The Garden in 2010 and sold it to ITV last year.

The sudden appearance of new start ups is “the flip side of uber-consolidation”, says Claire Evans, a former BBC exec who set up new indie Babygrand Productions last year. “The unspoken thing about our industry is the sustainability of some of the bigger companies and whether they actually have an implicit lifespan – because it is very, very hard to retain talent.”

It is not just the big inhouse departments at the BBC and ITV that struggle to retain talent, it is also the bigger indies. Evans points out that once an indie or superindie has been sold, it is no longer able to offer equity stakes to execs. “So if you are an emerging creative and want to develop great formats, why wouldn’t you go and start up on your own.”

Those who have set up on their own say that broadcasters are keen to work with them – if you have a good track record in the industry.

Natalka Znak (Hell’s Kitchen, I’m A Celebrity) and Simon Jones (American Idol) set up their Znak&Jones indie earlier this year.  “The doors are completely open. We are pitching every day,” says Jones. “A good idea is a good idea. If they know you can produce it, I actually think a lot of broadcasters prefer working with boutique outfits. We’re not going to spend six months doing the deal, we aim to please and we want to get good shows on air quickly.”

Babygrand’s Evans confirms this: “Commissioners are hungry for new ideas. The competition between channels is so ferocious for hot new formats. Frankly, as long as you are someone they know, they will take a meeting.” Simon Jones adds that broadcasters can only benefit by encouraging new start-ups. “If I was a buyer I wouldn’t want to be only able to buy from Endemol/Shine, All3Media and Fremantle. Do I want to hear three ideas or 30 ideas?”

Indeed, C4 is encouraging relationships with new and smaller indies in a bid to work with a wider number of producers, launching initiatives like the £20m Growth Fund to back smaller indies.

Many new indies also say that it is a good time to start-up because of the sheer number of options open to them. There are far more commissioning broadcasters now in the UK, beyond the traditional terrestrials. The market is more global too with international broadcasters like Discovery and Nat Geo commissioning heavily out of the UK. British indies have also had great success pitching directly into the US market. 

Indies are also producing for digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon right through to low cost shows for YouTube. Funding for content is available from brands too, with the likes of GroupM active in the market. There’s also a surge in drama and animation production thanks to new tax breaks. And distributors who are not aligned to the superindie groups are eager to work with credible new producers to secure a pipeline of new content to sell.

Carl Hall set up Warehouse 51 Productions to house and fund production talent in the UK after selling his indie Parthenon Entertainment to Sky in 2012. He says it’s a “sellers market” for producers who have the skills to negotiate the new international marketplace and put deals together.

“If you have a good idea that people want, there are lots of places to go to…You are not as exposed as you were even a year ago.” And that’s because the range of options open to people who want to build a business in ‘content’ is much, much greater than it ever has been.

Recent indie TV production company launches


7 Wonder Launched by former Maverick CEO Alexandra Fraser and colleagues

Archery Pictures Drama and film indie run by producers Liza Marshall and Kris Thykier

Babygrand Launched by former BBC execs Claire Evans and Sonia Beldom

Curve Media Run by former Cineflix creative director Camilla Lewis and md Rob Carey

Dial Square 86 New company set up by RDF founder and Zodiak Media CEO David Frank

Hello Halo Scottish indie launched by former STV creative director Wendy Rattray

Hungry Bear Media Set up by Celebrity Juice co-creator, Dan Baldwin

Little Gem Launched by former Maverick execs Ben Gale and Natasha Bondy

The Forge New drama indie launched by ex-Company Pictures founder George Faber

Merman Films Founded by Sharon Horgan and producer Clelia Mountford

Monumental Drama and film indie from Alison Owen (Saving Mr Banks) and Debra Hayward (Les Miserables)

New Pictures Drama indie launched by ex- Company Pictures boss Charlie Pattinson

Playground All3Media International md Louise Pedersen will set up UK arm of the US producer run by Colin Callendar

Plimsoll Productions Set up by former Zodiak USA boss Grant Mansfield (behind ITV's Prom Crazy, pictured above)

Riverdog Productions Factual indie launched by Come Dine With Me creator Nell Butler and ITV Studios exec Tim Mille

Sid Gentle Films Launched by Sally Woodward Gentle (Downton Abbey), ex-Carnival

Warehouse 51 Productions Founded by the former MD of Sky Vision Carl Hall

Znak&Jones launched by ex Zodiak Media USA CEO Natalka Znak and ex Talpa Media USA CEO Simon Jones

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