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The rise of Belfast's indies

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21 March 2011

As recently as 18 months ago you could have counted the number of network commissions coming out of Northern Ireland on one hand and still had a few fingers left over. Now it’s an entirely different landscape, with the majority of indies looking outside the local market and landing network shows, primarily for the BBC but also increasingly commissions for the US, and the occasional C4 project too.

The BBC’s push in Northern Ireland
This sea change in outlook for Northern Ireland’s indies is largely down to the BBC making a concerted effort to engage with the sector. It is steadily building up network spend in Belfast as it comes good on its commitment to boost levels of network commissions in Northern Ireland to 3% by 2016. Current estimates are it’s already at around 2%, which is a significant increase on the figure of less than 1% only three years ago.

The latest BBC network show from Northern Ireland is Wild Rover’s prime-time National Lottery game show Secret Fortune, which has also been picked up for the US market, with the US version being co-produced by American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe.

Other examples of BBC network commissions from Belfast over the last year or so include Green Inc’s BBC1 series Ask Rhod Gilbert and its BBC2 series The Many Faces Of…, an assortment of one-off BBC4 docs by Double Band including Britain Goes Camping and High Flyers: How Britain Took To The Air, The Beauty Of… BBC4 docs made by Tern TV’s Belfast office and animation series by Sixteen South and Waddell Media-owned Flickerpix for CBeebies and CBBC.

“The 3% aim for network commissions is a 71% increase on what we had and a very welcome stretch,” says BBC Northern Ireland’s head of programmes Ailsa Orr. “We had further to climb than others but it’s probably around 2% now. The strategy was lots of different targets in lots of different genre to see where success would come and we’ve seen great successes with factual and entertainment.”

The strategy for BBC Northern Ireland is to closely align local commissions with network ambitions, and it has recently appointed Susan Lovell to look after local commissions and work alongside Ailsa Orr to put this joined-up strategy into practice. “We work over both local and network, and don’t think we can distinguish between the two, they have to be aligned,” says Orr. “We work very strategically with key indie suppliers so our local commissions support the network.”

As an example of this, Orr says: “We’re very strategic about getting comedy on the map, with [local commission] Sketchy, by Green Inc, and finding new comedy stand up talent. We also raise the profile of people locally, including mind-mapper David Meade [with Wild Rover’s local commission, The David Meade Project], who we’re raising up for the network.”

Alan Tyler’s role
Another major step forward for Northern Ireland’s indies came when Alan Tyler started as executive editor, entertainment commissioning at the BBC in the middle of 2009. He’s responsible for entertainment programming from outside of London across all BBC channels, with his remit including all lottery output as well as a selection of primetime shows.

“Alan Tyler has started a huge sea change in entertainment, he’s a real advocate for the indies here and I’ve lots of plaudits for Alan,” says Wild Rover’s md Phil Morrow. “Everyone was sceptical as to whether regional commissioners would work as a strategy, but it does because he’s not successful if we’re not.”

“Secret Fortune is our first one off the block with Alan and has huge international potential. It’s been optioned all over Europe and is a massive game changer for us. We’re now getting pretty good shots at major spaces in the broadcasting landscape.”
Similarly, Green Inc’s md Stephen Stewart says: “Alan Tyler’s entertainment department has been great for getting BBC network stuff. We’ve done Ask Rhod Gilbert for BBC1 and The Many Faces of… series for BBC2 and we’re hoping to do more of these very soon. We also did a BBC4 one-off called Men About the House."

Channel 4’s efforts
C4 is now also showing signs of wanting to do more with Belfast’s indies, through its Creative Diversity department, headed up by Stuart Cosgrove, which is making a concerted effort to reach out to the Northern Ireland production community.
Long-standing indie Waddell Media now makes C4’s well-respected 4thought.tv strand that follows the C4 news every weeknight, and many of Belfast’s production outfits are broadly optimistic about their chances of soon also securing C4 commissions.

“Landing a network commission for C4 has been our main focus and we’re getting very close,” says Brendan Hughes, who heads up Tern TV’s Belfast office. “I’ve been surprised by how C4 engages with Belfast and think they are doing a terrific job. They are beginning to put a lot of effort in but none of us deserve to get a commission, you need a very good idea.”

“C4 is just a little bit behind the wave, compared to the BBC,” believes Richard Williams, CEO, Northern Ireland Screen. “Stuart Cosgrove’s department can get a fair distance with energy and commitment, and I know Waddells is optimistic for more from C4.”

Double Band’s md Dermot Lavery is also cautiously optimistic about something happening with C4 soon: “Eight years ago, we would have been successful at securing C4 work, but that changed. Now C4 is going through another change and there’s a sense of another push there, with Stuart Cosgrove’s diversity department. I get the sense it’s fighting fit again and I’m hoping there will more business for companies here.”

Waddell Media’s creative director Janine Waddell says its success with 4thought.tv came about after a concentrated effort by the indie to secure a commission: “It took a lot of effort and was about employing the right execs – it was a high risk but it paid off. We’re now developing more things including a potential series for C4.”

Green Inc is another Northern Ireland indie actively engaged in conversations with C4. “I’ve had chats with Stuart Cosgrove and it seems to be gearing up well, though they clearly have some way to go as yet,” says md Stephen Stewart.

With his focus very much on the BBC over recent years, Wild Rover’s Morrow hasn’t been pursuing potential opportunities with C4. “We’ve not had much from them but we’ve also not done much pitching. Our development effort has gone into the BBC. With C4 it would be a cold pitch, which is always tougher and your chances of success are lower.”

The burgeoning US market
The other big market for Belfast’s indies is America, with Waddell Media leading the way with series for Discovery and other key broadcasters, and the likes of Wild Rover and Below The Radar amongst the other production outfits finding success in the States.

“We met the Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney [who directed Taxi To the Dark Side and Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room] in Galway and set up a partnership programme with him,” says Below The Radar md Trevor Birney. “Gibney makes four or five docs a year and it’s a huge learning process for us to discover how he funds them. We’re launching an online news and current affairs platform called The Detail and are discussing doing a documentary about Northern Ireland with Gibney as exec producer. The doc would talk about Northern Ireland here and now, in a similar way to how Gibney approached his doc about Enron.”

The Belfast trailblazers in the US, Waddell Media, set up a New York office three years ago, headed up by Jon-Barrie Waddell. “We’ve really expanded into the US market and have now completed productions for Nat Geo, Discovery, A&E, The History Channel and G4,” he explains. “It’s a good market and around 40% of our work is now for the US.”

Waddell’s success is being mirrored by Wild Rover, which is making major inroads with its recently developed LE game show formats. Both Secret Fortune and another Wild Rover show, Take The Money and Run, are being remade for the US market, the latter having been picked up by ABC with Jerry Bruckheimer exec producing. “We’ve very, very big international ambitions for doing very big primetime projects,” says Morrow.

Local broadcasters
The newly buoyant Belfast scene isn’t entirely obsessed with network and international shows – the bread and butter work for local broadcasters that kept the indie scene vibrant through darker times is still an important market. Local commissions for BBC Northern Ireland and RTE are in relatively plentiful supply, while Irish language broadcaster TG4 and, to a lesser extent UTV, also provide work for Belfast’s indies.

“Northern Ireland is better placed than some – we compete for Nations quotas, can get work from the Republic of Ireland, have a BBC local broadcaster and are now targeting the US market,” summarises Double Band’s Laverty. Green Inc’s Stewart says: “30% of our work is now for the network, and the rest is local commissions. We’ve two big RTE shows – The Daily Show and Four Live – which are a substantial part of our business. For BBC Northern Ireland we’ve a cookery format called Stuffed and a comedy sketch show called Sketchy, and we’ve a gardening series called Glorious Gardens for UTV.”

The Game of Thrones effect
The other big talking point in Northern Ireland is HBO’s Game of Thrones, which recently completed shooting and posting there. Northern Ireland Screen was heavily involved in bringing the production to Belfast, and part funded the production, which is apparently the largest TV production to shoot in the UK.

“Sector wide, Game of Thrones has been a huge deal – it brought in a lot of money and puts to rest any issues as to whether Northern Ireland can deliver big drama,” says Wild Rover’s Morrow.

“It’s a most amazing thing Richard Williams has done, and has proven to London there’s no reason Northern Ireland can’t do a big production,” agrees Below The Radar’s Birney. But, he adds, “It’s all about what footprint will be left in Northern Ireland – where’s the legacy? Are the writing team, DoP and directorial skills dripping into the DNA of the production sector?”

The series was edited at Belfast’s Yellow Moon, which spent £200k gearing up for it. “We supplied the cutting rooms and did the dailies and offline,” says md Greg Darby. “If it comes back for another five years, which is possible, we can hire sound people and colourists and really bolster up our facilities.”

The indie sector in Belfast

Belfast’s independent production companies aren’t particularly clustered in any single location and are instead scattered around the city centre. This is a pretty compact area so it’s easy enough to get from one indie to another quickly enough.

There is also an established and growing production community on the outskirts of Belfast city centre, in the suburb of Holywood, which is home to Waddell Media, Green Inc, animation company Flickerpix and post house Yellow Moon. Most indies say there’s a community feel about the sector in Belfast, with a number of those running the key indies getting together informally now and again for a “coffee and a moan”. The regularly updated Northern Ireland Screen website (www.northernirelandscreen.co.uk) is most people’s first port of call for news and information about the local production community.

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