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The growth of Discovery in the UK

Discovery has become an increasingly important source of commissions for UK factual producers in recent years, helping in some part to make up for the decline in orders from the terrestrials since the downturn.

In fact, its UK commissions have grown by 50% over the past year, according to Dee Forbes, president and managing director of Discovery Networks Western Europe (pictured).

Speaking at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch today, Forbes stressed the importance of the UK market to Discovery, saying that it employed 770 people at its Chiswick Park HQ and invested over £200m a year in content and staff in the UK. “London is the most important hub outside the US,” said Forbes. “We work with over 70 production companies in the UK, and we want to work with more and more.”

Discovery recently hired former C4 head of programmes Julian Bellamy to spearhead growth in its international commissions, and several of his new shows are set to be announced this week. The broadcaster has just signed exclusive deals with Freddie Flintoff and James Cracknell to front documentaries next year.

The broadcaster operates 17 channel brands, from the male squewed Discovery Channel to the female aimed TLC which is currently rolling out around Europe.

The target audience of the Discovery Channel is, according to Forbes, known as “Discovery Man”.

Usually in his early forties, he’s married and has children and is ‘comfortably constrained’ in terms of his life. Whereas he might have spent time in the pub with his friends when younger, and is four times as likely to have owned a motorbike, he is now ‘happy with his lot’ at home but still has a thirst for life and experience.

Forbes said onscreen talent was increasingly important to help attract ‘Discovery Man’ to shows as well increasing co-viewing with his female partner, citing recent series Alone in the Wild featuring the likes of Freddie Flintoff and Joe Pasquale.

Fast turnaround docs on subjects such as the Norway massacre, the Haiti earthquake and the Japanese tsunami are also increasingly being commissioned. Discovery’s factual output, she said, had become more about entertainment and people - it’s now “more active and participatory.”

She said Discovery’s business in Europe had performed well this year, although there were signs of a dip in the ad market in the fourth quarter in the UK.

30% of Discovery’s international revenues come from advertising, and 70% from subscriptions.

Posted 26 October 2011 by Tim Dams

Filmmaking in the fourth dimension

If you thought that 3d was the next big thing, think again. Apparently 4d is now where it’s at. Tim Dams on the making of a 4d film that comes with its own smell, rain and snow

Blackpool’s legendary Tower reopened this autumn after a 10 month restoration programme, part of a £20m regeneration of the holiday resort.

Key to this revamp is a new 4d experience film shown to visitors ahead of their ascent to the top of the tower. A 4d film? Well, it’s essentially a 3d film shown in a specially constructed cinema that allows physical effects such as snow, rain, smells and a vibrating floor.

The film, made by Sharp Cookies, was commissioned by Merlin Entertainments Group, owner of the Blackpool Tower as well as Tussauds, Sea Life, Alton Towers and The London Eye.

Sharp Cookies’ film tell the story of the Tower and showcases Blackpool itself. It centres on a young boy obsessed with flying, allowing the filmmakers to make the most of the panoramic views from the tower.

Even before production began, though, the team hit a major challenge. All the main locations were being renovated, making them unfilmable. Director Michael Hall recalls: “The tower was covered in scaffolding, the promenade was being re-modelled and the tram lines dug up.” So all external shots of the Tower, promenade and illuminations had to be created digitally. Many of the shots were created in a green-screen environment at Black Island Studios in London. These were complemented by internal shots filmed in Blackpool, including scenes in the Tower Ball Room and Tower Circus as well as aerial sequences featuring the landscape around the Tower.

All this, of course, had to be done in 3d. David Cox, the project’s stereographer and post production supervisor, says: “3d can be used subtly to allow the audience a window onto another world, or it can be used more immersively by directly involving them in the action. Generally, a drama feature film would use the former, but an experience film such as this needs to be more engaging from a 3d perspective.”

The shooting kit consisted of a pair of RED MX cameras, an Element Technica 3d rig, a playback and data handling station as well as suitable 3D test and viewing monitors, all supplied by On Sight.

Two sets were built in the green screen studio, including a full-scale section of the Blackpool tower. By using both the live action from this set and cgi elements, a sequence depicting how the tower was built was created, featuring workers building the tower with hand tools and hot rivets. A game of beach-ball was also filmed in the green screen studio, and later set against the Blackpool beach. Also a donkey was filmed and placed in a similar location, the donkey being a key trigger for one of the 4d effects – smell. In all, the green screen element of the shoot took seven days.

Then, the unit transferred to Blackpool for two days of filming. The final element was to shoot the aerial sequences, which were filmed in 3d with a stereo rig attached to a helicopter. While the editing was underway, so too was the creation of the cgi elements by Splitt Ltd. Key shots included the essential opening sequence, which starts with a straight down view of the tower so that the top of the tower provides a big 3d hit by appearing to stand out of the screen. Immediately after, the camera follows a seagull as it drops vertically down the side of the tower, across the promenade just missing a tram and then out to sea. This entire sequence including the bird, sea, tram, promenade and people on it were all generated in cg by Splitt.

Once the edit began to take shape, Cox began completing the special effects work on the shots. Post production included green screen composites, set extensions, ageing of material, colour grading, sky replacements and graphic design. All of this was done in a single Mistika suite over about six weeks.

About a week before the public opening, the final pictures and 7.1 surround sound mix were handed over to Austrian company Kraftwerk, who were responsible for installing the 4d effects, including snow, smoke, wind, rain, aroma, vibration and lights.

Posted 26 October 2011 by Tim Dams

Which docs define 2011?

Which documentaries stand out from the crowd so far this year? Ahead of a keynote debate at this week's Televisual Factual Festival on the art of docs, four nominees and trustees of the Grierson documentary prizes offer up their view on the best films of 2011

Morgan Matthews, Minnow Films

In 2011, 10 years after Allied troops entered Afghanistan, Armadillo, one of the greatest war films of all time, was released in British cinemas. It’s an utterly compelling portrait of men at war. 2011 is a year of note for other big screen docs, such as James Marsh’s captivating Project Nim and Asif Kapadia’s Senna. On TV, 2011 is the year of profound docs focusing on the medical world, with particular attention to the moral and ethical issues around life and death. Charlie Russell’s Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, Nick Holt’s Between Life and Death and Amy Flanagan and team’s 24 Hours in A&E were all fantastic, moving and meaningful.

Simon Dickson, Dragonfly

Three shows stand out. C4’s 24 Hours in A&E brought emotional resonance to a sub-genre habitually mired in cliché. Our War doubled BBC3’s audience share by respecting the intelligence of its young and curious viewers. But it was Big Fat Gypsy Weddings that did what docs are supposed to do: tell it like it is. Passed over by BAFTA in favour of more traditional, lower-rating docs, purists thumbed their noses at this unimaginably successful mega-hit. The audience sure didn’t. The good news is that docs on all channels are rating their socks off again, as producers shake off the cinema-doc self-indulgence of the mid-noughties. Surely that’s cause for a big fat celebration.

Rachel Wexler, Bungalow Town

Poor Kids was a great documentary and the kind of film that is not often seen on British TV. The programme shone a light on the issue of child poverty by solely focusing on the testimony of children. It really allowed us to gain insight into the surprising and unobvious day to day problems that these kids encounter. I imagine the film was very hard to make and the access and trust they gained with their contributors was amazing. The programme was hugely emotive without being sensationalist or sentimental. There was a massive public response and in my opinion it represents the very best of British domestic documentary.

Christopher Hird, Dartmouth Films
Three achievements against the odds: Abuelas (Grandmothers), a nine minute animation by NFTS student Afarin Eghbal about the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. I saw it at the Quadrangle Film Festival and it reduced me to tears. Calvet, Dominic Allen’s feature documentary about former abused street kid and underground thug Jean Marc Calvet, now a successful artist coming to terms with his past, searching for the son he abandoned. It’s bold: Calvet’s is the only voice in the film. Beeban Kidron’s Sex, Death and the Gods, the story of India’s Devadasi – young girls married to the gods and then turned into sex slaves: subtle, sympathetic and surprising.

Posted 18 October 2011 by Tim Dams

Beyond Bin Laden TV

Al Jazeera English has ramped up its documentary output since hiring Oscar winning filmmaker Jon Blair to oversee a raft of singles and series. He talks about making docs the Al Jazeera way

Like many Brits, Jon Blair (pictured) was, until recently, aware of Al Jazeera English but had not really watched it. Now, however, Blair finds himself in charge of the channel’s burgeoning and acclaimed documentary output.

Rather like the Arab Spring that shot Al Jazeera English to prominence, it all happened very quickly. A veteran filmmaker, who won an Oscar for his doc Anne Frank Remembered, Blair was phoned out of the blue by Al Jazeera English director of programmes Paul Eedle last autumn. Eedle, who had admired Blair’s series The Age of Terror, subsequently hired Blair to help Al Jazeera get documentaries made.

It’s turned out to be a fortuitous move for Blair. Not only did his arrival coincide with The Arab Spring, but the very first film he steered through, Damian Clarke’s Tunisia - The Death of Fear, made it onto the longlist for the Grierson Documentary Awards.

In recent months Blair has greenlit films on 9/11, a six-hour ob doc set inside an Indian hospital, a 16-hour series on the history of the Arab world since Napoleon, a Rageh Omaar series on modern slavery and has launched doc strand Al Jazeera Correspondent.

“Most people think Al Jazeera is just a news channel,” says Blair. In fact, only 60% of its output is news – the rest is for more traditional programming, including doc series and singles which fall under Blair’s remit. “That’s a heck of a lot of original commissions,” says Blair.

They reach a lot of viewers too - Al Jazeera English is available in 250m households globally. Docs on Al Jazeera differ, however, to those on, say, the BBC and ITV, says Blair. They are not made through the prism of a British audience. “You have to totally rethink what your eyeline is. With an Al Jazeera audience you cannot use the word ‘we’. There is no such thing when it comes to a global audience of 250m."

Moreover Blair doesn’t expect his films to be as heavily formatted as, say, Discovery docs. He points to Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark (pictured above), made by May Welsh, who went undercover to record the smashing of the Bahrainian spring. “It’s a stunning film,” he says.

Budgets, he admits, are tight. "But there are no compromises editorially or in terms of quality."

Posted 14 October 2011 by Tim Dams

Week to go until the Televisual Factual Festival

There’s just a week to go until the Televisual Factual Festival at Bafta, now in its sixth year.

Over fifty speakers will be taking part at this year’s festival, including BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow and Sky1 controller Stuart Murphy, as well as most of the leading documentary commissioners and producers in the UK today.

The two-day programme (19-20 October) includes four Meet The Commissioner sessions, where all the UK’s leading commissioning editors in documentary, formats and features, specialist factual and from digital channels will outline their programming wishlists.

There’s also sessions on raising finance for factual shows, on compliance, cross platform, co-production and making programmes for the US and international markets.

Two sessions, The Future of Factual and The Art of the Documentary, also higlight the latest trends in factual and debate the future for the genre.

A few tickets are still available for the festival. See for full details.

Posted 12 October 2011 by Tim Dams

Full Production 100 survey now online

Televisual’s Production 100, our exclusive annual survey of the independent TV production sector, is now available to read in its entirety online.

Published in our September issue, the survey includes a round up of the top 100 independent production companies in the UK, including full contact details, financial info and a list of recent commissions.

There’s also lots of background about the state of indie sector and the outlook for the year ahead, with features on indies’ favourite and least favourite broadcasters, a peer poll of the most highly regarded indies and a piece about producers’ favourite distributors.

You can read the full survey here.

Posted 10 October 2011 by Tim Dams

Mipcom review: TV turns a blind eye to the financial crisis

There was plenty of concern going into this year’s Mipcom that business would be poor, with programme sales and co-pro deals adversely affected by the parlous state of the global economy.

In the end, however, the market proved to be surprisingly good for the majority of TV buyers, sellers and producers in Cannes, despite daily headlines about a likely Greek default and crisis in the Eurozone running in the background.

The market seemed busy, and the unusually hot weather for October in the South of France helped add to the sense of positivity.

"The TV world currently seems to be either oblivious or turning a blind eye to the Greeks, which is good news. We haven’t noticed a particular level of caution at this market at all. The stand and boat have been heaving, and attendance has been high," said Jane Millichip, md of Zodiak Rights.

In fact, there was something of a Blitz spirit about the market, with buyers and sellers determined to carry on as usual despite the economy.

FremantleMedia chief executive Tony Cohen said: "The economic climate is threatening. But we have been through this once before in recent times, so I guess everyone knows what to do and what is likely to happen. We are now a bit better organised and prepared perhaps. Everybody needs programmes - and we have got them."

The majority of business at Mipcom is for finished programmes, but format sales seemed notably brisk and stretched beyond the traditional sale of formats to big territories such as the US. Zodiak, for example, sold the Wife Swap format to South Korea and struck a couple format deals in Turkey.

Banijay International md Karoline Spodsberg added: "There's been a buoyancy about Mipcom 2011 which has been lacking in the previous two markets. We've noticed a more up beat outlook from broadcasters who are keen to find strong entertainment formats to reinvigorate their channel brands."

It's a point echoed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment md Maria Kyriacou: "Our focus on dramas which showcase fantastic acting and writing talent and formats which are relevant to global audiences set us up well for a good Mipcom. We've had an extremely positive market, great story telling will always sell and this week has been no exception.”

As always, it felt like there was a real mix of business being done at Mipcom, with the US studios out in force in their vast beachside stands right through to individual producers hawking one off docs around the Palais.

Electric Sky md David Pounds comments: "Mipcom seemed to have fewer people attending, but those that did attend seemed to be decision makers and keen to do business. There was little reflection of the global economic gloom and business was very much as usual if not buoyant. We agreed deals across a broad range of territories and platforms. Buyers seemed to be prepared to buy at premium rates even for shorter licence periods if they know the content will work. The understanding and sharing of what works and what doesn't is much more clearly defined."

Quite what happens now that the TV business has left the Mipcom bubble, few can say. But, notes Zodiak's Jane Millichip, there doesn’t seem to be too much caution around. "In fact, there was none at this market. But I think that businesses feel that there is nothing they can do about it other than plough on right now."

Posted 07 October 2011 by Tim Dams
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