This week's Televisual Factual Festival underlined how the factual television business continues to enjoy something of a golden age.
It is, after all, an era when factual comes in all shapes and sizes, from traditional ob docs like 56Up, through to huge rig shows like 24 Hours in A&E, stunts such as Plane Crash, UGC docs like Our War and cgi spectaculars like Discovery’s upcoming Strip the City.
And the Festival confirmed that there is still huge demand for factual content made by British filmmakers and production companies, from UK terrestrial broadcasters, digital channels, international operations such as Discovery, Nat Geo and A+E Networks, as well as the US networks.
There were, of course, voices arguing that the growth of the factual business hasn’t all been for the best, with profits often being put ahead of passion, an insatiable appetite for talent to front every kind of show, a factory line mentality that churns out returning series and fears that long-running series were crowding out original filmmaking.
For example, David Glover, senior commissioning editor of factual at Channel 4, said: “In the time that I have been in TV, production companies and producers have become more about business – they are more interested in big returnable brands and series and more professionalised. That is not necessarily bad thing. But it is a bit more cynical.”
Boundless managing director Patrick Holland noted that commissioning editors are still terrified of anything new – but “as soon as anything gets traction they say let’s get 40 of them.”
But a session with the UK’s top documentary commissioners agreed that overall it is a good time for the industry, with chair John Willis, the group creative director of Tinopolis, describing documentaries as the “most resilient and imaginative genre on television.” BBC head of documentaries Charlotte Moore concurred, saying that “things are going really well for documentaries.”
Rapid advances in camera and editing technology are helping to push the genre forward. Smaller and cheaper digital cameras are bringing documentaries closer to real life while desktop editing allows a much faster turnaround of programmes.
C4’s deputy head of documentaries Nick Mirsky said: “Technology and imagination can take us closer and closer to human experience.”
Perhaps reflecting the unease with so many heavily formatted shows on TV, the documentary commissioners said they were looking for authentic programmes that are about peoples’ lives today.
Celia Taylor, head of factual and features at Sky1HD, said that commissioners were looking to move the documentary genre on. She said she felt “slightly jaded” at any evidence of the “hand of the producer” to manipulate shows.
The BBC’s Moore said viewers no longer wanted to feel manipulated and that they are after storytelling that reflects back on their own lives. “People are quite hungry for authenticity and raw immediacy,” she said, citing docs like Our War and The Secret History of Our Streets.
ITV head of popular factual Jo Clinton-Davies picked out the Up series as an example of viewer appetite for truthful, quality documentaries that has been evident for over 50 years, most recently in 56 Up. “The innovative thing about that programme was its internal truth. When you push the documentary form you have got to make sure it complements and enhances the content."
However, the diversity of factual film-making was very much celebrated at the Festival. Award-winning film-maker Mandy Chang (The Mona Lisa Curse, The Camera That Changed the World) acknowledged that “a mixed economy” of series and singles is a good thing. “It works in nature, why not for television?” she said.
ITV’s director of factual Alison Sharman said that single docs should not necessarily hold the moral high ground compared to long running series. She cited hit drama Homeland, pointing out that long running shows allow characters to reveal themselves more and viewers to understand them better.
In the end, Sharman said “audiences just want a great story.” And the best way to find filmmakers who can tell great stories, she said, is to weigh up their passion for a project. “It’s all about people’s passions.”
Meanwhile, there was a strong sense that the success of British producers internationally, in particular America, has honed their business skills.
The US market is one of sizzle tapes, tough negotiations, market research, agents, lawyers, leverage - and rapid production to prevent ideas being ripped off.
“Unlike Britain, there are no terms of trade so every sale is a different deal,” said Studio Lambert chief executive Stephen Lambert. “In America it very difficult to sell a paper idea, unlike in Britain…You have to have your idea worked out and a tape to show for it. And then you go and show it to everyone. Buyers know that you are off to sell to someone else right after they have seen you.”
As evidence of the increasingly international outlook of British producers, Nutopia executive producer Ben Goold said that to succeed in the US, producers have to immerse themselves in the culture. “You’ve got to start thinking like an American, you've got to read American papers and magazines.”
Indeed, a consistent theme of the Festival was how the British factual production sector has become much more resourceful, entrepreneurial and international in outlook – even in the six years since the event has been running. This was on show throughout Festival with articulate and informed speakers discussing issues such as co-production, alternative funding, multiplatform, the US market and talent deals.
Little wonder that Channel 4’s chief creative officer Jay Hunt could confidently assert at the Festival that factual is a much more robust genre than most others today.
The Mill has taken the top spot in Televisual’s annual survey of the post production sector, The Facilities 50.
It’s the fourth year in a row that vfx giant The Mill, whose recent credits include the Guardian ad Three Little Pigs and Nike’s My Time is Now, has topped the Facilities 50 (see full rankings below).
Fellow vfx houses MPC (Ridley Scott’s Prometheus) and Framestore (Honda Spark, Wrath of the Titans) were in second and third place respectively.
Broadcast facility The Farm came fourth. Rated by producers and peers alike, it now has a presence in Soho, Bristol, Salford and Los Angeles. In fifth place was global film, TV and ad outfit Prime Focus, climbing one spot. TV post house Envy, which has expanded hugely in recent years, came sixth.
Envy also topped the producer poll in the Facilities 50, emerging as the most popular post house with producers.
The Facilities 50 survey isn’t just about the fortunes of the big facilities houses, though. It also includes many medium sized and boutique outfit which have climbed the rankings this year, including the likes of Lipsync, Halo Post, 422.tv, Clear Cut Pictures, Directors Cut Films, Factory, Storm HD and Azimuth.
New entrants this year included Onsight, Premier, BlueBolt, Hackenbacker, Nice Biscuits, Reliance Mediaworks and Jellyfish.
Post houses are ranked on four factors – turnover; kit and services; producer votes from Televisual’s annual surveys of TV, commercials and corporate production; and peer votes. It means that the Facilities 50 is the most comprehensive survey of the post production sector in the UK.
Many post houses say that the past 12 months have at least been busier than the year before.
The figures confirm this: the combined turnover of Facilities 50 companies this year stands at £539m, up from last year’s £460m. 67% of companies taking part in the survey said turnover had risen, while 72% said their profits had improved. Much of this turnover growth has come from the top companies, with three outfits – The Mill, MPC and Framestore – accounting for an additional £28m between them.
However, the survey reveals an industry in a state of flux, coping with multiple pressures such as falling budgets, huge changes in technology, a tough commercials market and the increasing trend for producers to take post inhouse. By all accounts the market is oversupplied, and ripe for further consolidation. This year has already seen a number of post houses fall into administration, or agree quick sales.
And the market is polarising. At the top, there’s a handful of huge facilities which are increasingly global in outlook. At the bottom, boutique outfits with low overheads continue to emerge. The difficulties seem to lie in the space between the very large and the very small, where facilities are being squeezed on all sides.
To read the full survey, see Televisual’s October issue.
The Top 50 Post Production Companies
1. The Mill
4. The Farm
5. Prime Focus
7. Deluxe 142
13. Films at 59
15. Smoke & Mirrors
16. Halo Post
17. Air Post
18. Gorilla Group
19. Clear Cut
23. Absolute Post
26. Crow TV
30. Big Buoy
32. Directors Cut films
33. Goldcrest & The Pavement
34. Golden Square
35. Stanley Productions
38. Reliance mediaworks
39. Storm HD
41. Wam London
42. Platform Post
43. Nice Biscuits
44. Rapid pictures
46. Big Bang Post
48. Lola Post
49. The Joint
Digital was one of the hot topics of conversation at this year’s Mipcom, with British producers reporting the beginnings of a significant market for digital content.
YouTube's Robert Kyncl (above) used the TV programme market as a platform to unveil 60 new channels, many of them from UK production outfits such as All3Media, Shine, Hat Trick, BBC Worldwide, Fresh One and Base79.
And Jason Kilar, the chief executive of online TV service Hulu, said in a keynote address that his company has spent $500m on content this year. To underline this, Hulu announced during the market that it was co-producing James Corden’s next comedy project with the BBC.
The big, set piece announcements were spilling over into business along the Croisette too.
Sally Miles, boss of distributor Passion Pictures, says her company was “35% up in terms of digital meetings this market”, adding that digital was likely to start to become a significant revenue stream next year.
Out of the 4,400 buyers at the market, 500 said they were making dedicated VoD acquisitions according to Mipcom figures.
There was a sense that YouTube’s announcement, in particular, could be game changer for the industry.
Producers who are involved in the channels admit they do not expect to make significant money from them in the next three years.
One says that YouTube offered $800k – the budget for one factual TV series – to provide a year’s worth of content for a channel, explaining that user generated content and clever planning would be the only way to make it work financially.
But many believe the investment in money, time and energy will pay off in the long run.
And they are often placing bets on the YouTube channel strategy as a result of observing the viewing behaviour of their own young children, noting that kids prefer to go online to search for and watch clips and shows they are interested in rather than tuning into channels like their parents.
Zodiak Media chief executive David Frank, speaking at a presentation to journalists about his company’s strategy, flagged up that Zodiak was launching a number of channels with YouTube and said he was confident that it would “see the benefits of collaborating” with the online video giant.
Elsewhere in Mipcom there were plenty of producers and sales executives pitching digital projects. I met up with Genevieve Dexter, the CEO of Serious Lunch, who was looking to drum up interest in Cr3eator, an online/TV project from creative content company Animal Vegetable Mineral. Cr3ator allows kids to build virtual robots and then battle with rivals online. The winners get the chance to go into the TV studio, where their robots are projected in augmented reality and they fight using Wii-like kinetic energy technology.
Dexter describes it as a digital version of Robot Wars – albeit one where you don’t need a dad who is handy in the shed. The project has already raised significant funding from South Korea and the UK to build the online platform and to make the augmented reality work.
But why are the South Koreans investing in a British digital project, when they have such a strong reputation for technology themselves?
Dexter says that it’s because the UK has such a good reputation internationally for storytelling and narrative, as well as for developing ground-breaking technology.
Her point was backed up by conversations with other British producers and distributors at Mipcom. You could detect a real sense of confidence amongst the British contingent, who were clearly buoyed by continued global demand for their formats, factual shows and drama. Indeed, producers alliance Pact released figures during Mipcom to show that British TV exports were up 9% in 2011.
Argonon chief executive James Burstall thinks that the Olympics has had a positive impact on the UK’s creative reputation at Mipcom too. The opening ceremony of the Games, he notes, underlined Britain’s ability to deliver huge projects on time and budget that tell a story and have a strong heart.
Elsewhere, there was strong evidence of the film industry muscling into television territory. Legendary film producer Harvey Weinstein was in Mipcom to unveil The Weinstein Company’s plans to grow its TV business with the likes of drama series Marco Polo, reality series Supermarket Superstars, documentary series Seal Team Six and new project the World Dance Awards, a live TV event with Michael Flately.
In a keynote speech, Weinstein explained his motives thus: “TV is such an exciting area at the moment and movies are shrinking to some extent. So it’s the right time for us to get into TV in a big way.”
Kevin Spacey and director Jane Campion were also at Mipcom to plug TV projects. Campion was promoting her first foray into TV, the drama series Top of the Lake. And Spacey was plugging the re-make of the classic 1990 British mini-series The House of Cards, directed by David Fincher.
And, as if neatly to confirm the growth of digital platforms, The House of Cards is being made for Netflix.