Hannah Veale explains why and how Oxford Digital Media self funded its Soviet spy drama documentary Sonya.
When we discovered Sonya’s story, it felt like a gift. Here was a spy who handed over Britain’s atomic secrets to the Soviets right under the noses of MI5, who outsmarted Britain’s star interrogator of the day, evaded capture by the authorities of her host nation, and managed to escape Stalin’s great purge. Her story was one we felt had to be told, and, with the release of the MI5 files on Sonya into the National Archives, we would be able to build a more complete picture of her life in the UK than ever before.
In short, we would be able to reveal just how much Ursula Kuczynski, codename Sonya, had been under surveillance, and how close the intelligence services came to unmasking her.
The decision to make the film was straightforward as we knew we had a strong story and we certainly have the capability. Oxford Digital Media has been producing digital video content for over a decade and most of our in-house producers, editors and camera operators have worked extensively in the TV industry. Founded by James Tomalin, who has a background in composing for television, our next logical creative step for the business was into producing factual documentaries for broadcast.
We knew however that cutting through as a new entrant in the race for commissions in the UK and abroad would be a challenge.
Our decision to self-fund the production of ‘Sonya’ came mostly because of traditional commissioning lead times. With ‘Sonya,’ we were under pressure to shoot the film while those who knew her were still alive, knowing full well the time it can take to get a green light.
As we made the film ourselves we absorbed the costs, although we would expect the commercial budget for a drama documentary of this length - 60 minutes - to be in the region of £80 to £100k.
Sonya’s life of espionage took her around the world, from Germany, to China, Poland, the former USSR, Switzerland, and of course, Britain. The impact of the intelligence she passed on, some have said, prevented the Cold War from becoming ‘hot.’
Having already invested in extensive research and development, we were confident that if we pressed ahead and completed the film, it would be an attractive acquisition for international broadcasters.
We were also hugely inspired by the alternative funding paths taken by other creative projects to find their audiences, from E-published authors securing agents and publishers after the success of their first novels, to crowdfunded documentaries being picked up by VOD giants such as Netflix.
If sales allowed us to at least break even, it would give the company its first TV credit and that all-important 'foot in the door.'
Knowing that classy drama reconstruction would be crucial in bring Sonya’s story to life, we enlisted the skills of drama director Bill Thomas (The Berlin Wall, Churchill’s Toyshop, Nazi Megastructures) and DOP Gary Clarke (The Plantagenets: Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty).
Shooting in Oxford and making use of our close links with the university meant that we kept location costs down for our recon week, with little to no accommodation or travel needed for the cast and crew, many of whom were local.
Since Sonya actually spent most of her time in the UK in Oxford, it was also particularly exhilarating to be able to recreate scenes in the places they actually happened, such as shooting at the same gravestone she used for dead letter drops! All post-production including the VO and sound mix was completed in-house, again reducing costs and improving the workflow.
Without a broadcaster attached during production, we were constantly mindful of the absence of the external editorial hand. My experience in producing history documentaries for PBS, Smithsonian, NGCI and SBS Australia brought a knowledge of international tone and style to the edit.
Crucial to this was also our partnership with Drive TV, who saw the film's potential, and picked it up at post-production stage for distribution. They used their extensive contacts with commissioners to secure our first international sales, as well as giving us an important editorial steer to help maximise the chances of sales, especially in the US.
So far, Sonya has sold in France, Denmark, Germany and Australia - it is part of Drive's distribution catalogue so we assume they will be promoting it at MiPTV to secure sales in more territories. We are still chasing a UK and US sale, and have interest from a handful who hope to feature it as part of a larger espionage season, which invariably come around now and again.
Hannah Veale is Development Producer for Oxford Digital Media. She has worked on Channel 4’s Dispatches and a variety of factual entertainment, history and science programming. Producer credits include Grierson Award-shortlisted Jesus: Rise to Power and Channel 5’s Super Skyscrapers.