Which distributors do indie producers use and respect? Ahead of next month’s Mipcom programme market, here’s a list of the distributors that indies tell us that they like to do business with (see below).
The findings are taken from Televisual’s Production 100. As part of the survey, we ask hundreds of indies which distributors they use – and also to tell us which companies they rate and to explain their thinking.
Most of the larger superindies have their own inhouse distribution outfits to sell their programmes. But plenty of mid-sized and smaller indies tend to work with a variety of distributors. This distributor poll picks out which those companies are.
It’s a worthwhile exercise because, clearly, producers view distributors with a mixture of suspicion and affection. Several indies hit out at the distribution sector. There’s a feeling that, as economic times are tough, distributors are holding on to producers’ cash for longer than they need to. “Receiving money and statements on time is a pretty widespread problem across all distribution companies,” says one indie. Other indies suspect that distributors don’t work their shows that hard but simply bury them in their back catalogue.
And the cost of working with the wrong distributor can be high. Target Entertainment, for example, went into administration in February, creating major financial problems for many producers with shows represented by the distributor.
That said, indies can be very positive about distributors they like. Just as it did last year, BBC Worldwide garnered the ‘most used’ and ‘most rated’ votes amongst indies. The corporation’s commercial division is admired for its “huge reach” and “contacts” around the world. “BBC Worldwide provide us with good market intelligence and are excellent at raising co-funding,” reports one indie. Others praise BBC Worldwide’s “ability to help find co-production partners” and for doing “good business” on dramas. Indies also cite its “excellent” communication skills. And indies seem to think that it is “supportive” too. “Over the years, we have developed a strong relationship with them,” reports one.
Zodiak Rights, meanwhile, takes second place – the same as last year. Adjectives used to describe the distributor formerly known as RDF Rights include “honest”, “professional”, “efficient”, “on the ball”, “responsive” and “helpful”. One indie reports: “We received a great advance from them and it felt like they really backed the series and did their best to sell it. They were incredibly flexible and understanding of the difficult nature of the series and were happy to adapt their terms to make it work.” Another producer likes Zodiak because “they are very easy to deal with and report on a regular basis.”
ITV Studios Global Entertainment comes third in the most used poll, again the same spot as last year. The broadcaster’s distribution arm is noted by one indie for “good people, good leverage and strong commercial nous.” ITV Global is “truly international, pays attention to client contact and is involved from early stages,” is the opinion of another producer. “They understand our company and our programmes, they support our strategy and take commercial and wider aspects into consideration,” reports one drama producer.
In fourth place is DRG, climbing one spot. According to one indie, DRG is “proactive, creative, hardworking, introduces us to contacts and looks hard for co-producers on our behalf.” Another producer, who professes to be sceptical about distributors, says she “rates DRG the most.”
Next up is Passion Distribution, in fifth – the same as last year. As its name suggest, the distributor – and particularly boss Sally Miles – really does have ardent fans among sections of the indie community. Asked for his most rated distributor, one factual indie says: “Only Sally Miles at Passion. The rest in my experience don’t care and you get buried in their back catalogue immediately.” Another comments: “Sally Miles is an outstanding figure in the industry working hard and passionately for the production companies that she represents. Highly motivated sales team, good reporting systems and great branding and marketing materials. Ability to close sales across all international territories.”
TVF is in sixth place, cited for being “passionate and enthusiastic about the films they promote” and for being “quick to respond.” Electric Sky comes next, picked out for its “friendly, helpful and impressive” sales team that “knows the international market well.”
In joint eighth place is Fremantlemedia Enterprises, Cineflix and All3Media International. Fremantle is picked out for its “very strong sales”, Cineflix for being “excellent with an aggressive sales approach” and All3Media “gives the most comfort that monetisation of your rights will be maximised and not lost in a catalogue.”
Which distributors do indies use?
Based on indie responses to the question in the Production 100 survey, “which distributor handles your international programme sales?".
1. BBC Worldwide
2. Zodiak Rights
3. ITV Studios Global Entertainment
5. Passion Distribution
6. TVF International
7. Electric Sky
8= All3Media International
8= Fremantlemedia Enterprises
Which distributors do indies rate?
Based on indie responses to the question in the Production 100 survey, “which distributor do you rate?"
1. BBC Worldwide
2. ITV Studios Global Entertainment
3= Zodiak Rights
5. Passion Distribution 6. TVF International
7. Sony International
8= Electric Sky
The UK economy may be in recession this year, but not so the independent production sector.
The TV business, say most producers, is as tough and competitive as ever to work in. Budgets are continuing to fall, costs are rising, margins are being squeezed, cash flow is a problem and many say the market is more crowded than before.
But, the majority of indies taking part in the Production 100 say their companies have grown over the past 12 months, and report a busy year in terms of new commissions.
The feedback builds on the cautious optimism that was apparent in last year’s survey, which revealed a distinct lifting in the mood among indies after the intense difficulties and belt-tightening of the 2008-10 downturn.
The figures back up the sentiment, revealing the upward trajectory of indie revenues over the past three years. The top 100 indies turned over £2.1bn from the UK market in 2011-12, up from last year’s £1.9bn and £1.75bn the year before. Full time staffing levels are up as well, reaching a combined 7,405 this year against 7,255 last year – all supported, of course, by tens of thousands of freelance production staff.
Significantly, several indies say that one of their biggest challenges is simply retaining and recruiting good and experienced staff, particularly series producers and production managers, in the face of stiff competition in a busy market.
Indies also seem to be looking to the future with more confidence than before. Only 13% think that business will be worse next year, while 36% say it will be better and 51% believe it will stay the same.
Producers give many reasons for their renewed sense of (cautious) confidence. In particular, they point to a broader customer base to pitch in to – beyond the usual suspects of the BBC, ITV and C4.
Many report that Channel 4 is, as it promised last year, commissioning from a wider range of indies and not just the same superindie suppliers. “The desire to commission from “true indies”, especially at Channel 4 is apparent,” says Keo Films’ finance director Simon Huntley.
But it’s the arrival of Sky as a commissioner of real scale that has boosted the fortunes of many indies. “The emergence of Sky as a major player in the market has been a key factor in maintaining and now boosting our production levels,” says Baby Cow’s finance director Jonathan Merrell.
In particular, drama and comedy producers, like Hartswood Films, Hat Trick, Kudos and Kindle, pick out the impact that Sky having on the market.
Sky has “increased opportunities and created a more competitive marketplace for popular content,” says Hat Trick’s director of operations Kate Wilson.
US broadcasters – nobably Discovery and Nat Geo – are also spending more with British production companies, say other indies. “Our area of factual programming is going through a boom with Discovery and Nat Geo commissioning more from London,” reports Windfall Films’ head of production Birte Pedersen.
Indeed, the international interest in British content, notably from the US, has provided a vital fillip to indies at a time of falling budgets here. Indies are winning commissions direct from international broadcasters, as well as selling a greater number of finished programmes and formats to international buyers. Production 100 indies make, on average, 12% of their revenues from selling the rights to their programmes.
Many producers, faced with the downturn of 2008-10, were forced to diversify out of the UK, seeking new customers abroad. That strategy, it seems, is now paying dividends and offers many producers exciting opportunities for growth.
“The UK commissioning environment has remained slow, appetite for risk is low and budgets are under pressure, but the US market has remained robust and keen for new ideas,” says Argonon’s chief financial officer Stuart Mullin.
Continuing with the positives, others point to the emergence of new revenue streams finally coming on tap. Twofour says there has been noticeable upturn in commissioning across the board, adding that ad funder Group M has “played a significant role in the financing of new series.”
Meanwhile, Big Talk’s finance director Sharon Martin says that digital income is “finally beginning” to become a reality – although plenty of indies also report that they are still struggling with how best to monetise new media. Figures from the Production 100 show that indies make 3% of their total revenues from new media.
Drama and animation producers are also upbeat about the forthcoming arrival of tax breaks for their sector. “Business prospects look good for the next 12 months,” says Neal Street Productions head of film and TV Pippa Harris, who says the proposed tax breaks for high-end drama “should give a real boost to our industry.” “The tax credit is a real opportunity for us, and we can see real positivity in the industry returning,” adds Oli Hyatt, md of animation outfit Blue Zoo.
For all the positivity, though, the challenges of being an indie remain considerable. And money seems to be at the heart of most of these challenges.
Financially, indies are facing multiple pressure points. Firstly, programme budgets have continued to fall over the past year. 60% of indies reported that budgets had declined in the past six months, while 31% said they had remained the same. Only 9% thought budgets had risen.
Reef’s director of production Paul Hanrahan speaks for many when he says: “The last twelve months has seen an increase in commissions across the industry, which is a plus, but terms and deals are being tightened up dramatically, which is a minus. Costs of staff, facilities and overheads are continuing to go up, but budgets are taking a 1-2% tumble series on series.”
Falling budgets mean that indies are struggling to maintain their margins on production. “With tariffs being at best flat, margins are always under pressure,” says Steve Nam, chief operating officer of Dragonfly Film and Television. Spun Gold’s director of finance Simon Gray adds, “Margins continue to be squeezed as broadcaster tariffs fall while costs of production are static or rising.”
The comments back up findings from Pact’s most recent census of the indie sector, which reported that overall profitability at indies weakened last year. Production companies across most parts of the industry reported declining net margins at 6.7% in 2011, down from 13% in 2010.
Yet despite budgets continuing to fall, indies say that broadcasters still want to see the same quality on the screen. The Garden’s chief executive Nick Curwin says that one of his big challenges is “dealing with increased pressure from broadcasters who want more for less – and want it now.”
It’s a point echoed by many producers. Modern TV director Clare Byrne comments: “Broadcasters have such a vast range of brilliant ideas presented to them from the many talented independent producers in the UK that they are spoiled for choice and consequently can demand production values and content that are completely unachievable within the tariff that they are prepared to offer.”
Mammoth Screen’s director of production and finance Jon Williams says it’s a real challenge “controlling broadcaster expectations for the licence fees they are willing to pay – both during the commission and production stages.”
Others simply point out that broadcaster tariffs aren’t reflective of the content they are commissioning. “Underfunding continues to be a huge business burden especially when the shared creative and editorial ambition remains high, but the channels expectation is that you can make a series for less money,” says Colette Foster, md of Remarkable Television.
The budget cuts are creating all sorts of problems during production, from reduced (and more pressurised) filming and edit schedules to less money being available to pay experienced production professionals (whose rates have come under severe pressure in recent years). The danger of overspends on production in the face of high editorial demands is very real for many indies, requiring even tighter management of budgets.
It also means that producers are increasingly having to seek other forms of gap funding to plug the holes in budgets such as distribution advances, co-production income and sponsorship.
“Programmes that broadcasters would have fully funded a year or two ago now require multiple co-production partners,” reports Tigress Productions md Dick Colthurst.
This is also eating into the time that indies might have spent actually making programmes. “Finance raising seems to take more time and effort than actually making the films,” says Bungalow Town director Jez Lewis.
“It takes a lot more work to make the same money,” says Wide Eyed Entertainment chief executive Jasper James. “Deals are more complicated and more effort goes into developing ideas.”
And it means that many indies have to surrender their rights to programmes just to raise the finance to get them made. “Gap funding productions is becoming a greater issue,” says Rondo chief executive Gareth Williams.
“Several companies seem to be gap-funding using financial sources such as grants, external investors and distribution advances. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to make any profits on the back end, other than on huge formats.”
Indeed, the struggle to hang on to programme rights is becoming a major issue for indies. Many report that broadcasters are moving away from the Terms of Trade. At the very least, aggressive deal terms are leaving indies with less back end. Indies like Lambent Productions, for example, say that a key challenge is securing commissions with IP, while Twofour says that “commercially aggressive broadcasters” are compromising their rights position, and Tigress adds that broadcasters are “demanding all rights for tight budgets.”
Spun Gold’s director of finance Simon Gray comments: “Broadcasters are seeking greater rights to encompass new media and methods of delivery without any increase in tariff while third party rights holders and on-screen talent seek to restrict these or insist on additional payments.”
As if the struggle to hold on to rights, deal with falling budgets and find extra funding for shows wasn’t enough, indies also flag up another major dilemma this year – cash flow problems.
Producers say broadcasters are increasingly paying late for programmes. Cash flow is an issue brought up by countless indies as one of their biggest challenges to face their business. “Cashflow is a recurring problem for any business our size,” says Rebecca Notman-Watt, director of operations at Back2Back Productions.
A competitive market
Funding aside, the key priority of all indies is to win commissions to build their businesses. And for many, the Holy Grail of indie business is to win a returning series that gives a company a degree of business security and allows them to invest in staff and kit.
For example, the ambition of ClearStory, says executive producer Russell Barnes, is, “to grow successfully from a very small boutique documentary production company into a medium-sized indie capable of delivering returning series and features formats.”
It’s crucial, adds Alexandra Kallis, business and development manager at CPL Productions, “to develop formats with more potential for ancillary and overseas sales” and “to invest in developing formats in other genres to reduce risk.”
The problem is that this is the goal of nearly every single producer – and there is a real feeling that competition is as intense as it has ever been for this kind of business.
One of the most successful producers of formats, Dragonfly, feels this acutely. Steve Nam says a priority is “maintaining and stabilising recent growth in a business environment that is generally uncertain and arguably saturated.” Thumbs Up head of development TJ Sherbrooke says that business is “not bad at all.” But he, points out, “the indie sector seems to be increasingly crowded.”
Certainly, in the drama and comedy sector there have been a spate of companies that have successfully diversified from the volatile film industry into the more predictable and financially secure TV market, like Big Talk, Ruby Films, Neal Street and Warp Films.
Meanwhile, many report the time-old complaint that superindies continue to dominate the market, providing massive competition for smaller and mid-sized companies. “It’s a struggle to compete against the superindies who essentially are extremely successful at developing returnable formats,” remarks Modern TV’s Clare Byrne. It’s a sentiment shared by other smaller indies such as Telesgop, First Look and Reef Television. Splash Media’s finance and commercial director Clare Nicholls says: “There are advantages in being a standalone indie, but they’re weighed against competing with very well resourced superindies.”
However, there is evidence that key broadcasters like the BBC and notably Channel 4 are ordering shows from a wider range of indies, a point echoed by the statistics emanating from the BBC WOCC figures and Pact’s recent industry census. “This means that the pressure to be under the umbrella of a superindie has diminished to a degree,” says Keo Films’s Simon Huntley.
The flipside of benefiting from a growing number of commissions is that many companies also have to fight harder for good staff. Broadcaster appetite for bigger, more stand out shows means that there is greater demand for highly skilled, experienced production execs to run them. Many of the big fixed rig factual shows, like 24 Hours in A&E and One Born Every Minute, for example, employ huge numbers of production staff and require seasoned managers to run them. And there is a feeling that there are not enough senior level, well-trained staff to go around at the moment.
Icon Films md Laura Marshall, for example, cites “attracting the right calibre of creative staff” as a key challenge, as does Remarkable Television’s Colette Foster. “We’re busy. It’s hard to find good staff, which must mean that everyone is busy,” Foster comments. Twofour says that “attracting and retaining the very best production staff in the face of increasing competition is a key objective.”
And, it seems, broadcasters are not making the life of indies any easier. There are familiar complaints about the time it takes for broadcasters to make decisions and to commission shows.
“It remains fairly tough as broadcasters take longer to make decisions,” says Love Productions creative director Richard McKerrow. Silver River md Samantha Lawrence also points to “delays on decision making” at broadcasters. This of course, can have a significant impact on the bottom line of production companies. “Commissioning timetables do not take company cash flows into consideration. It simply takes to long to win a commission,” says Matchlight md David Smith.
A few indies, like Betty CEO Liz Warner, say that commissioners are now starting to take more creative risks and are buying outside the predictable.
And indies can take heart from the fact that there are now many more places to take their ideas than ever before, beyond the usual suspects of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.
Crucially, indies realise that if they can get an idea away in the UK, then they have the chance to exploit it around the world for themselves. For all its difficulties, the UK remains perhaps the best springboard for taking a show into international markets. “The UK remains the premier territory to launch new TV ideas and for that we are grateful,” says Gogglebox md Mat Steiner.
All3Media has taken the top spot for the fifth year in a row in the Production 100, Televisual’s annual survey and ranking of the independent TV production sector.
The superindie behind Fresh Meat, Embarrassing Bodies, TOWIE, Midsomer Murders and Peep Show comprises 20 companies in the UK and abroad, and achieved UK revenues of £286m, up from £261m last year.
Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group climbed from fifth to second place this year on revenues of £190.7m, while Endemol dropped one place to third with revenues of £187m.
Elsewhere, there's been plenty of movement in the Production 100 rankings among medium to small sized indies. Many have had a very good year indeed.
Drama and comedy indies have done well, reflecting an upturn in commissioning by broadcasters in these genres. Baby Cow, for example, has almost doubled its turnover, while Sherlock producer Hartswood Films has trebled its revenues. Big Talk and Red have also posted solid gains on the year. Higher up the list, NBC Universal (owner of Downton Abbey producer Carnival Films), Hat Trick, Left Bank and Impossible have also seen impressive rises in turnover.
My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding producer Firecracker is clearly riding a wave with revenues up from £8.9m to £13.4m year on year. Other factual indies to do well include Raw TV, Jamie Oliver’s indie Fresh One, Love Productions, Betty, Keo Films, Blast Films and Minnow Films.
Fallers this year include the Ten Alps group, where turnover has halved to £9.5m, and Endemol where turnover has fallen by over £50m to £187m. Absent from 2012’s list is last year’s fourth biggest company Hit Entertainment, which was swallowed by US toy firm Mattel last October.
The highest new entrant this year is Call The Midwife producer Neal Street Productions. Fellow drama producers Warp Films and Ruby Films, who have diversified into TV from film production, are also new entrants. 24 Hours in A&E producer The Garden makes its first entry this year at number 50, less than two years since launching. Other new names to the Production 100 this year include Wide-Eyed Entertainment, Bigger Pictures, Rise, ClearStory and Airborne.
For the second year in a row, the indie business seems to be in distinctly better shape than the wider economy. Many of the indies surveyed say that business is good, and they expect it to continue being so next year. Although programme budgets remain under pressure and margins are being squeezed, producers say that they are winning commissions from a wider range of broadcasters both in the UK and abroad.
Since the list below was published, Sony has acquired Left Bank and ITV Studios has acquired So Television.
See Televisual’s September issue for the full Production 100 report. Note: the individual brands of superindies are listed in brackets.
The top 100 TV indies (ranked on turnover): 1 All3Media (inc Bentley, Company, Lime, Lion, Maverick, North One, Objective, One Potato, Two Potato, Optomen, Studio Lambert) 2 Shine Group (inc Kudos, Princess, Dragonfly, Shine TV) 3 Endemol UK (inc Remarkable, Initial, Tiger Aspect, Zepportron, Darlow Smithson, Tigress) 4 Zodiak UK (inc RDF, Bwark, IWC, Bullseye, Lucky Day, Comedy Unit, Touchpaper, Presentable, The Foundation, Red House, Mast Media) 5 IMG Sports Media 6 FremantleMedia UK (inc Thames, Boundless, Retort, Talkback, Newman Street) 7 Shed Media (inc Shed Productions, Wall to Wall, Ricochet, Twenty Twenty, Yalli, Renegade, Watershed) 8 Tinopolis (inc Mentorn, Daybreak, Pioneer, Sunset+Vine) 9 Avalon (inc Avalon TV, Liberty Bell, Tinderbox, Topical, Flame) 10 NBC Universal (inc Carnival Film & TV, Monkey) 11 Left Bank
13 Hat Trick 14 DCD Media (inc Prospect, September, Rize USA (jv), Matchlight (jv) 15 Boom (inc Oxford Scientific, Boomerang, Indus) 16 Argonon (inc Leopard Films, Remedy)
17 Impossible Pictures
18 Raw TV 19 Sony (inc Silver River, Victory, Gogglebox) 20 Nutopia
21 Neal Street
22 Pulse Films
26 Fresh One
28= Big Talk
30 Zig Zag
31 So Television
32 Mammoth Screen
33 Input Media
35 Baby Cow
37 Love Productions
38 Off the Fence 39 Ten Alps (inc Blakeway, Films of Record, Brook Lapping) 40 Hartswood
42 Spun Gold
43 Ruby Films
44 Somethin’ Else
45 Keo Films
46 Wag TV
49 Oxford Film & TV
50 The Garden
51 Blast Films
53 Electric Sky
56 True North
58= Blue Zoo
58= Tern TV
61 Wide Eyed
63 Green Inc
64 Sixteen South
65 Thumbs Up
69 Magnum Media
70 Walsh Bros.
75 Wild Pictures
80= True Vision
85 CTVC Ltd
88 Bigger pictures
89 HCA Entertainment
91 Seventh Art
92 Modern TV
97 Red Planet
98 ClearStory Ltd
100 Bungalow Town