Advertising revenues are predicted to rise in 2014, providing some welcome respite for commercials producers. But nobody expects the business of making ads to get a whole lot easier.
AD SPEND UP
UK ad spending in 2014 is forecast to increase 6% to £14.8bn, according to GroupM research.
This bodes well for commercials producers in the UK, who go into 2014 on the back of a pretty good twelve months.
Television advertising is tipped to hit £3.9bn in 2014, up from £3.5bn in 2007, just before the recession kicked in.
Certainly, compared to a couple of years ago, the majority of commercials producers who took part in Televisual’s Commercials 30 survey in November, reported that they had enjoyed an upturn in fortunes.
“We’re feeling better,” said Nice Shirt. “Things seem to be getting better as we come out of recession.” Knucklehead commented: “It feels like things are on the up again.”
Still, there’s a strong feeling that the world of commercials production has changed since the pre-digital glory days of television advertising. Few, for example, can fail to note that digital is by far the fast growing area of advertising, accounting for 44.2% of the market, or £6.2bn, in 2013.
“While there has been some impressive creative, the quantity of such pieces does feel thinner on the ground, as does the script flow generally,” notes leading production outfit Rattling Stick. “All too often budgets are woefully inadequate merely because the content is to exist solely online.”
The increasingly fragmented media landscape looks set to provide both challenges and opportunities for commercials producers next year.
“An industry wide concern is how we reach a fragmented audience where the viewer’s attention is thinly spread,” says Rattling Stick.
But the tough commercials market means that many companies are taking their creative skills into new business areas. For example, Nexus’ interactive arts offshoot makes digital content, apps, interactive installations as well its own TV shows for the kids market and recently won BFI funding to develop its feature slate. Rattling Stick is co-producing its first feature and is developing TV drama ideas. Studio AKA, meanwhile, is making its first pre-school TV series for CBeebies.
Budgets – or the lack of them – will remain a key focus for commercials producers next year.
“There’s a great deal of underfunded work and more charity work around,” says ad producer Blink. “Agencies are not standing up to clients,” says Knucklehead and often expect production companies to cut their margins rather than explain to the client that the film can’t be made on the money offered. “A big concern continues to be trying to produce over ambitious scripts with budgets that don’t match the production’s needs,” says Caviar. “We’ve been sent some very creative and exciting scripts this past year, but have struggled to produce them without eating into our mark up.”
Pitch costs are also likely to escalate too, as will the amount of companies and directors going after the same job. They are both issues that have vexed many producers over the past 12 months. Business has never been harder says Believe, “with reduced lead times and budgets, and a hugely competitive market leading to escalating pitch costs.”
It’s as hard as ever for indie British films to get off the ground. Even so, the reputation of UK film-making is on a high going into awards season - and 2014 is set for swathe of big budget shoots here.
There’s a swathe of big budget inward investment films set to shoot in the UK in 2014, which should mean plenty of work and business for British film industry creatives and suppliers.
JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII (Lucas Films) will begin shooting at Pinewood Studios next year. The latest two superhero films from Marvel Studios, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Edgar Wright’s Ant Man, have also gone into pre-production, in the run up to shoots in and around London next year.
2014 will also see the release of a haul of big budget Hollywood films made in the UK. They include James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel) and Lana & Andy Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending (Warner Bros). Other big Warner Bros films now shooting include whaling epic Heart of the Sea (due for release in 2015) and Guy Ritchie’s The Man From UNCLE.
The list goes on. Paul King’s re-imagining of Paddington (StudioCanal), Matthew Vaughn’s comic book adaptation The Secret Service (Fox) and Gary Shore’s vampire tale Dracula Untold (Universal) shot in the UK are set for a 2014 release.
Meanwhile, Ridley Scott is working on biblical epic Exodus (Fox), which has filmed in England, Spain and Morocco. The Brad Pitt starring Nazi-hunting tale Fury is shooting in the UK, as is Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods (Walt Disney) starring Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep.
“It would be unwise to try to second guess what Academy voters both here and across the pond will respond to,” says Ben Roberts, the head of the BFI Film Fund. “But UK films have undoubtedly had a good response at international film festivals in 2013, with lots of acclaim for films like Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, Under the Skin, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and inward investment titles like Gravity have done so much to showcase the genius of the UK’s leading SFX companies like Framestore, so here’s hoping UK films will get some gongs this awards season.”
Bafta nominations will be announced on 8th January, with the awards on 16th February. Oscar nominations will be unveiled on 16th January, with the ceremony booked in for 2nd March.
British filmmakers will go into 2014 on the back of critical acclaim generated over the past 12 months, which has seen films like Philomena, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity lauded at home and abroad.
“I think there’s a renewed sense of confidence in UK film,” says the BFI’s Ben Roberts. UK productions shooting or set to shoot early next year include Matthew Warchus’ Pride, Christopher Smith’s Get Santa, Richard Bracewell’s Bill and Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette.
That said, it’s still a tough environment in which to raise money for film production, particularly in the independent sector. Roberts adds: “We know through our daily contact with producers that access to finance remains challenging for many.” Upcoming BFI –backed buzz titles in 2014 include Amma Asante’s Belle, Yann Demange’s ’71, Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, Lone Scherfig’s Posh and Ken Loach’s Irish-set project, Jimmy’s Hall.
Even for films that get made, though, distribution is tough in a very crowded market. “There are ongoing challenges in the distribution of British independent films and widening the audiences for these is a key priority for the BFI,” says Roberts.
Indie producers say the prospects for 2014 look good, with more money expected to flow into production and greater opportunities to win commissions in the UK and abroad.
SET TO GROW
On balance, the outlook looks positive for TV producers in 2014. In particular, there’s an ever growing number of broadcasters for producers to take their ideas to, whether in the UK or internationally. Put simply, more broadcasters are commissioning more programmes.
The terrestrials remain key customers. But Sky is now the fastest-growing source of investment in original British programmes, while other players like Discovery, Nat Geo, UKTV and Scripps have boosted their spend in the UK.
Indies look set to continue enjoy strong growth in international markets too, winning an increasing number of commissions from broadcasters in the US and other territories.
“The UK is seen internationally as the most dynamic and most creative TV market on the planet,” says Pact’s John McVay. “And that is because of the competition between all our broadcasters to entertain and engage audiences – and that is good news for producers.”
Sales to international markets are on the rise too. Studio Lambert, for example, has sold two of its formats, Gogglebox and Undercover Boss, to be remade in China. Shows like Midsomer Murders, meanwhile, are sold to over 150 territories. Some indies now earn over 50% of their income from outside the UK, adds McVay.
“The environment is still incredibly competitive,” says Atlantic Productions CEO Anthony Geffen. “But we see opportunities for ourselves and other indies across different platforms, not only from broadcast but also from our theatrical (Imax/Giant Screen), publishing, video on demand and apps business areas. We are also developing content with brands and we see this as a growth area of business.”
More money is expected to flow into TV in 2014. In the UK, TV advertising revenue is improving – and is predicted to hit a record high of £3.9bn by the end of 2014, according to GroupM forecasts.
The hope for indies is that this will filter through to broadcaster programme budgets next year.
Pact chief executive John McVay says commercial broadcasters need more than ever to invest in programmes: “They’ve got to maintain their programme budgets because the world is even more competitive than it was in 2008 and 2009 when the recession started. Most things fail because you don’t invest properly.”
Certainly, ITV and Sky have more money to spend on original commissions after recently losing out on the £900m rights to European football to rival BT.
Yet margins are likely to remain very tight in the UK for indies. “Producers are continuing to experience an erosion of the margins on their production budgets, and that is not helpful,” says Novel Entertainment CEO Mike Watts, who also fears BBC budget cuts at CBeebies and CBBC.
“The continuing pressure on budgets will remain the biggest challenge, so indies need to be creative about the ways films are financed,” says Atlantic’s Geffen. This means an increasing need to find co-production finance, or even money from outside the broadcast space.
The new tax credits are also set to become an important part of the financing jigsaw for drama and animation producers. Indeed, as our drama report (page 44) reveals, UK drama indies are set for a surge in business as a result.
Boom chief executive Lorraine Heggessey also urges broadcasters not to cut budgets to the bone. “The BBC underinvested for a while in Strictly and it started to look like a real poor relation to shows like The X Factor. Then they realised they needed to up the budget, and look at it now – it’s getting amazing audiences.”
There’s high hopes that 2014 will deliver a fresh new format or show that will break the mould, particularly in entertainment, after years of series like The X Factor, I’m A Celebrity and Strictly ruling the roost. “We are waiting for the next wave of programming,” says Heggessey. “Particularly in entertainment or a big factual entertainment competitive format, we’ve been poised for it for a few years.”
There’s a feeling among broadcasters too that it is time for the next big thing. “A lot of us broadcasters are in the same bloody pond and everyone is doing variations of the same big thing,” says Channel 5’s Ben Frow. “And I am really keen to jump out of that pond and create things that feel different to the other channels.”
The appetite is for something new is felt at Channel 4 too, says chief creative officer Jay Hunt. “I think Channel 4 specifically has to deal with greater churn than other channels. Because we deliver such a young audience, the schedule is voracious. There is a constant appetite for the new and the different and hits last less time than they do on channels with older audiences.”
Sky’s Stuart Murphy, meanwhile, says there’s an opportunity for a smart, broad studio sitcom – a UK version of 30 Rock or Frasier. “Nobody is doing it, so there is an opprtunity for us.”
Leading UK broadcasters offer up their thoughts on the outlook for 2014, setting out the key battlegrounds and likely highlights of the year to come.
The big battleground among UK broadcasters in 2014 is going to be in the drama genre. As shows like Broadchurch, Sherlock and Downton Abbey prove, a breakout drama hit can transform the perceptions – and finances – of a channel.
“There are a number of themes for next year, and the first thing is that we have a number of dramas coming,” says BBC director of television Danny Cohen. He cites the upcoming co-pro The Musketeers for BBC1, the return of Sherlock and the first series of Doctor Who starring Peter Capaldi. Over on BBC2, there’s “a number of high quality drama pieces” including The Honourable Woman starring Maggie Gyllenhall and follow ups to the Line of Duty, The Fall and Page Eight.
“The big thing for us in 2014 is scripted,” says Stuart Murphy, director of television Sky, who adds that the broadcaster has 20 new drama titles next year. From a standing start just a few years ago, it’s an impressive tally. The first to land is Sky Atlantic’s Ian Fleming biopic staring Dominic Cooper. Straight after that is Smoke, a ten part drama from Kudos, which Murphy bills as a ‘supersized London’s Burning.’ Then there’s Saving Mr Sloane, Sam Mendes’ Penny Dreadful and Fortitude. Viewers feel that proper broadcasters do scripted, says Murphy, explaining the drama push, adding that he’s aiming for “scale, emotion and humour” in Sky drama.
Channel 4’s chief creative officer Jay Hunt says she’s looking forward to new series from Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies to sit alongside Dennis Kelly’s Utopia and Peter Flannery’s period drama New Worlds. “Babylon which takes a sharp comedic look at London policing will land early next year and we’re thrilled to have Danny Boyle directing it. “
Even Channel 5 is getting in on the drama act, ordering its first original commission for eight years, Evidence, an improvised crime drama starring Fay Ripley, which will land in February. “It’s a way of doing drama that nobody else has done before, and it holds its head up,” says Ben Frow, C5 director of television.
2014 will be crowded with major events that look set to bring the nation together around the television (or tablet, or smartphone…). The year kicks off with the Sochi Winter Olympics (7 – 23 February). Then, this summer, the biggest event of the year plays out in Brazil – the Fifa World Cup (12 June-13 July) – which bodes well for ratings on the BBC and ITV. Almost immediately after comes the Glasgow Commonwealth Games (23 July-4 August). Commonwealth Games don’t traditionally perform well on TV, but Glasgow is expected to win viewers because it is a ‘home’ Games.
Elsewhere, the BBC is marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War with an array of programming across its channels.
The launch of some shows are becoming ‘events’ in their own right, like Netflix’s House of Cards, Sky’s Game of Thrones or the BBC’s Doctor Who. “I constantly think of scale – how we can get bigger and better,” says Sky’s Stuart Murphy. And the only way to get big scale programmes that pull in viewers is to co-produce, he says. “For everyone, there will be a really big issue about how you go bigger.”
Events will be big next year on Channel 4, with Stand up to Cancer returning to sit alongside national sporting moments like the Grand National and the Sochi Paralympics. Says C4’s Jay Hunt: “After Ramadan and Sex Box, we’ll be making some more noise next year with live testing of cannabis and an incredibly moving series on end of life care, My Last Summer.”
2014 will be more competitive than ever for broadcasters as they fight for audiences who have a greater array of content to watch than ever before – on a growing number of platforms. “We are in an age of strong competition,” says Cohen. “We know ITV has been on good form, but we also know that people have been watching Netflix, and spend a lot of time on Facebook. For me, it is all about understanding that we are in a battle for screen time, not just a battle for traditional television time.”
The year ahead, for example, will see the BBC focusing more on the iPlayer, now available on a mobile, an iPad or an internet connected TV, which Cohen has billed as the corporation’s fifth channel.
Channel 4’s Jay Hunt says it’s an ongoing challenge understanding how things like second screen technology are changing the way we all watch TV. “Apps like 4Now are helping us navigate that world better but we need to keep experimenting to really understand how the audience experience is changing. “
But, Cohen acknowedges, the heartland job of broadcasters is about making great content. It’s a point echoed by Channel 5’s Ben Frow. “It’s all about good ideas. I don’t care how they are watching telly. I don’t care if they are watching on an iPad, a iPhone or a computer. It all comes down to the content.”
Lorraine Heggessey broke new ground in TV when she became the first female controller of BBC1 in 2000, and later took on another high profile job running TalkbackThames. Since leaving The X Factor producer in 2010, she’s embarked a new stage in her career – as an entrepreneur, establishing Boom Pictures Group, which is now the UK’s biggest production group based outside London.
The creation of Boom springs from a meeting with Welsh indie boss Huw Eurig Davies. He had built up Cardiff-based Boomerang Plus as a diverse, Aim-listed Welsh indie group – one that had started to make inroads into network production with the acquisition of doc outfits Indus and Oxford Scientific Films. Even so, the company’s share price was languishing.
Heggessey saw in Boomerang an indie group which was largely off the radar of the London media scene that could form the basis of a new production entity. “The thing that impressed me about Boomerang Plus was that there was a fantastic spirit and lots of very talented people,” says Heggessey. “I could see there was so much potential there to turn into network ideas.” Eurig Davies, meanwhile, realised that Heggessey could help achieve his ambition of growing Boomerang further still. Says Heggessey: “All they needed was someone to open a few doors for them.”
Heggessey then went in search of funds to take Boomerang private. With advice from Deloitte’s Stuart Sparkes, she pitched to three private equity houses – and won backing from Lloyds Development Capital (LDC). The £7.1m MBO took seven months to wrap as due diligence was completed.
Heggessey then brought Graham Linehan’s Delightful Industries and former ITV drama controllers Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes’ MainStreet Pictures into the fold, giving Boom a presence in drama and comedy.
The pitch to both was the same: Boom didn’t aim to become a corporate superindie. “We have not got someone else pulling our strings on another continent – what you see is what you get,” says Heggessey. “We want to become an independent production company that is big enough to have a bit of scale and resource, to weather the ups and downs that you inevitably have, to invest in the development of great ideas and to have the time that it is going to take to get MainStreet’s first drama and Graham’s next comedy on the screen.”
But the biggest deal in Boom’s short history was finalised in October when it merged with Plymouth-based Twofour. She says Twofour ticked lots of boxes as a partner. Importantly, it was based outside London so fitted with the idea of trying to build a genuine nations and regions indie group. “We are not a brass plate out of London company, we are a genuine out of London company. It gives you a different perspective.”
As well as producing network brands like The Hotel Inspector and Educating Yorkshire, she says Twofour had also moved into entertainment with Splash! – a genre Boom was keen to expand into. Twofour also comes with a distribution business, a base in the US, and a digital operation too.
Heggessey and Eurig Davies went to see Twofour founder Charles Wace last October to declare an interest. The deal-making started soon after – but took ten months to complete.
Perhaps it took so long because, while the logic of the deal is clear on many levels, it’s also unusual: Twofour is much bigger than Boom, yet the deal is pitched as a merger. Heggessey won’t discuss figures or go into the deal in detail (which was reported to be worth in the region of £30m), but says: “The whole of Twofour is within Boom Pictures, but it is very much a merger. It is a partnership. One of our guiding principles is that Huw and I are a partnership, and we wanted to do everything within a spirit of partnership rather than ownership.”
Each of the companies will retain their own branding and leadership, while Boom provides them with financial and legal support so “the labels can focus on creativity and ideas and delivering them.”
She says that Twofour is producing a C4 celebrity version of a mini-winter Olympics, The Jump. MainStreet has “lots of exciting ideas in development”, and Delightful is producing Irish comedy The Walshes for BBC4 and RTE.
Entertainment, she says, is one of the big priorities for the company – and earmarked for investment. “If we could come up with the next Weakest Link or Deal orNo Deal, I would be a very happy person.”
Reflecting on the past three years, Heggessey stresses how much she has learnt. “You have to be able to live with uncertainty. You really have to dig in and persist because every deal gets tough. But to me it is all about the people that I am working with. I didn’t set this up to work with people I don’t want to work with. I set it up to work with people that I want to work with.”
CV 2012-present Co-founder and executive chair, Boom Pictures
2010–2012 Freelance media consultant and public speaker
2005–2010 CEO, TalkbackThames
2000–2005 Controller, BBC One
1994–2000 Various executive positions at the BBC, including director, BBC Factual and Learning, deputy CEO, BBC Production and head of BBC Children’s.
1979–1994 Various production roles, BBC, Thames Television and freelance.
The market for factual producers has changed dramatically in the past five years. When the economic downturn kicked in, many indies went in search of new markets around the world as UK broadcasters cut back spend. Their hunt for new business has now paid off.
Televisual’s latest Production 100 survey was full of examples of indies producing for clients in the US, in particular, as well as rising territories such as China and Latin America. The Production 100 revealed that a dozen or so well known British indies now earn more than 50% of their revenues from international broadcasters, including Wag TV (85%), Raw (78%), Darlow Smithson (87%), Studio Lambert (62%) and Blink Films (60%).
Wag TV, for example, has just produced its first Spanish language series, Misterios de la Fe, for Discovery en Español. Other indies are pressing into China. Three have recently picked up work with CCTV. True North is co-producing a series on Chinese fashion designers, Lion TV is co-producing a series on Confucius and North One is making a Chinese version of The Gadget Show.
But the US market has been the main focus. Discovery and National Geographic’s decision to set up production hubs in London has been hugely beneficial to many indies, with orders like Dragonfly’s One Car Too Far, October Films’ You Have Been Warned and Tigress’ Naked Castaway.
A swathe of entrepreneurial producers have also set up shop in the US. Studio Lambert has picked up a raft of US orders, among them Undercover Boss for CBS and The Pitch for AMC. Raw TV’s hit Discovery series Gold Rush, meanwhile, is available in 223 countries and in 45 languages.
Three reasons for growth
The global ambition of UK indie producers was clear to see at this autumn’s Mipcom programme market, where executives pointed to three key factors that are fuelling international growth.
Firstly, the market took place against a background of improving sentiment about the global economy, with key territories like the US feeling more confident than in recent years.
Secondly, the growing consumer uptake of paid-for video on demand is said to have strengthened the hand of content producers, spurring demand for quality programmes. “It’s created a demand for content that has re-energised the industry,” says Luis Silberwasser, EVP and chief content officer at Discovery Networks International.
And thirdly, there was a sense that the market for TV programmes is continuing to grow right across the world, particularly in key emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China. A rising global middle class, with increased leisure time and spending power, is choosing to do what many in the developed world have done in their spare time for the past 40 years: watch television.
Encouragingly, the UK is a key beneficiary of this growing global demand for new programmes. And that’s because the UK has a strong reputation for producing innovative, creative shows. British broadcasters, particularly the BBC and Channel 4, says Nutopia founder Jane Root, have innovation woven into their DNA. “Compared to the US, there’s almost an allergic reaction to doing anything copycat. There is such a premium on innovation in the UK…it’s like the world’s laboratory, a petri-dish for new ways of looking at the world.”
Discovery’s Silberwasser – an American working out of the UK – confirms this view, saying the thing that strikes him most about the UK production scene is “how diverse the output is, even more so than the US.” He observes, however, that US producers are better at “boldness of ideas”, citing the event production of Felix Baumgartner’s sky dive from the edge of space for Red Bull or daredevil Nik Wallenda’s crossing of the Grand Canyon on a high wire for Discovery.
“The UK does have a great reputation for innovation and for not being derivative,” adds Mark Reynolds, BBC Worldwide director of factual, content and production. British indies, he says, are known for their ability to find a fresh take on a subject and for uncovering new angles.
Plus, says Arrow Media’s John Smithson, UK indies have the advantage of working in the English language and can capitalise on a strong rights position, thanks to the Terms of Trade.
Casting an eye over the BBC Worldwide factual catalogue, Reynolds says there are three areas where sales are strong around the world. Blue chip science and natural history, like the upcoming NHU series Hidden Kingdoms, is “still incredibly in demand” particularly given the UK’s reputation for quality and innovation in story telling and technology; factual entertainment, where there is a huge appetite for character driven pieces or where experts are embedded in the action; and factual drama such as space shuttle tale The Challenger.
Behind the figures
Figures published in October by Pact and UKTI confirmed the global appetite for British TV. They reported revenues from the international sale of UK TV programmes stood at £1.22bn, a 4% increase from 2011. The US was the most important export market with sales up 11% to £475m – accounting for 45% of total export revenue in 2012.
Meanwhile, revenues from China grew the fastest at 90% to £12m. Sales to Indonesia were up 81% to £1.2m, and to India by 42% to £4.3m. The figures also revealed that co-productions showed the greatest percentage increase, up 60% from last year.
There was a time when British broadcasters and producers were reluctant to co-produce, preferring to work on fully funded shows that were the product of a single vision and financier. But with broadcaster budgets on the slide, the need to plug funding gaps with international co-production partners has become increasingly important.
UK broadcasters and producers have therefore become much more interested in partnering with international broadcasters on projects, says Ten Alps creative director Fiona Stourton. “They used to be suspicious about what would happen to their project, but that doesn’t happen now,” she says.
In fact, the UK market is now so tight that if a producer pitches a project to a UK commissioner with an international partner on board, their project is more likely to go to the top of the pile.
Working with international broadcasters can also enhance projects, she says. For example, Stourton was at Mipcom helping to raise funding for Norma Percy’s next BBC documentary series after The Iraq War. “Norma’s projects would not happen without international funding,” says Stourton, citing a two year long production schedule employing high calibre staff to help research and arrange interviews with world leaders. The international market contributes around 50% of the budget.
Meeting with producers, it’s clear that many are focused on the needs of the international market place. Jane Root, for example, calls Nutopia an “internationally focused company.” The former controller of BBC2 says it was her spell as president of Discovery Networks that opened her eyes to the potential of producing for a global audience.
And the opportunities are increasing as the number of middle class consumers grows. “You look at what is happening in countries like Brazil or India and you can see huge potential there,” she says.
Based in the UK and US, Nutopia has specialised in creating mega-docs – like America: The Story of US or Mankind: The Story of All of Us – that can play across the globe. Nutopia’s international contacts also helped it to bring in co-pro partners on its Algerian terror attack film Siege in the Sahara, which was funded by C4, PBS and CBC in Canada.
Factual producers are also travelling far more – to events like Real Screen, Mipcom and Sunny Side of the Doc (and to Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK) – to build contacts around the world. “You used to see very few British producers at Real Screen,” says Arrow Media’s Tom Brisley. “Now you can’t move for them.” Arrow Media is one of the UK indies which travelled with a Pact delegation to China in November to the Sichuan TV Festival – one of Asia’s major content markets. Brisley says the international market is hugely important for Arrow, whose recent credits include Terror in the Skies for C4 and the Smithsonian Channel and Animal Fight Night for Nat Geo Wild.
Travelling abroad to markets, of course, is not cheap. True North creative director Glyn Middleton estimates he spends £2,500-£3,000 attending Mipcom (and that’s not on top end hotels and or expensive airlines, he adds). “But I don’t think I have ever come away and felt I have not earned it,” he says. Middleton cites a recent meeting with Beyond Distribution at Mipcom. The distributor subsequently picked up True North series Dick and Dom Go Wild, selling it to Discovery EMEA and Discovery Pacific Rim. “That deal might have paid for our development for a year,” says Middleton.
Deals, particularly in China, can take years to come off. True North’s upcoming Chinese designer series for CCTV has been developed by exec producer Liz McLeod, who has spent ten years building contacts and trust in the country. “Whenever people come to me and say, ‘how do I crack China’, I say it takes ten years,” jokes Middleton.
Time and again, though, indies stress how important it is to invest time and energy building up international contacts, and how fruitful the relationships can eventually become. Something always comes out of visits to markets like Mipcom, says Ten Alps’ Stourton. “Sometimes it is two years later. But you need the continuity. As you build relationships with broadcasters, they trust you.”
“The writer is absolutely essential to everything we do,” says Nicola Shindler right at the outset of this interview. Certainly, her relationship with writers helps explain the emergence of her indie, Red Production, into one of the UK’s most singular drama production companies over the past 15 years.
The Manchester-based outfit has worked with leading writers such as Russell T Davies, Bill Gallagher, Sally Wainwright, Danny Brocklehurst, Paul Abbott, Tony Marchant and Matt Greenhalgh to produce acclaimed shows such as Queer as Folk, Clocking Off, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey.
Shindler says her most important role to work as a script editor with writers, and to fight for their vision. “My job is to enable those people to do their job well – to protect them,” she says.
And one can easily imagine her doing this very well. Determined, charming and level-headed, you sense very quickly that Shindler knows what she wants and how best to achieve it. She says she shares the same tastes with many of the writers she works with. Tellingly, she works with many of them again and again – notably Sally Wainwright, whose recent credits through Red include ITV’s Unforgiven, Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, new BBC1 series Happy Valley and Sky Living’s one-off Last Witch.
From the outside, Red seems to have moved from producing edgy, cult drama like Queer as Folk towards much broader, popular pieces – often with a distinct northern voice and setting. But Shindler says there’s no such thing as a typical Red show, even though many people outside the company might see it that way. “We inherently go with what we think we would like, and I am naturally drawn to certain kinds of material.”
And what kind of material is that? She says it’s good drama or comedy that’s powerful, slightly provocative, not shy or retiring, cheeky and that has a point of view. “But mostly, it’s truthful and funny,” she emphasises.
Red had something of a fallow period a few years ago – something Shindler puts down to the timing of scripts and a difficult commissioning market.
But now the indie is busier than it has ever been. Last year saw six Red projects on screen, and it’s won four new commissions this year – Wainwright’s Happy Valley, Danny Brocklehurst’s Ordinary Lies,Prey starring John Simm for ITV and a fourth series of Scott & Bailey. It also produced comedies Pat and Cabbage for ITV and Heading Out for BBC2. And last week, Channel 4 revealed that Red was teaming with Russell T Davies on a Queer as Folk follow-up project that comprises two drama series, Cucumber and Banana and one online factual series, Tofu, that between them explore gay life in the 21st century.
Red shows have picked up plenty of awards too: Last Tango in Halifax won two Baftas this year for best drama and best writer (a second series is now in the pipeline).
This success is reflected in Red’s business, which turned over £22m in 2012 – up from £10m two years before. Shindler runs Red with md Andrew Critchley. While he very much takes care of the business side, Shindler looks after creative production. It’s a lean operation with just 17 staff in all. And, unusually, it’s heavily weighted towards creating new projects, with eight of its team working in development. “We are really just a bunch of developers and accountants,” she says.
Shindler says she was interested in writing from a young age, reading widely, going to the theatre and watching TV. But she admits she is not a writer herself. Earlier this year she told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: “I absolutely think that writers are born. You know that thing that everyone has a story in them. I don’t think that is true and I have read enough bad scripts to know. Writers just are writers…I’m not very good with a blank piece of paper, but talk to me about an idea and where it should go and I can start talking straight away.”
She set up Red in Manchester “because I lived here and I wanted to work around here,” adding that there was a strong crew base and drama tradition to draw on. Fifteen years on, Shindler says she is now planning the next stage in the company’s development. It’s been known for a while that the company is effectively up for sale. Shindler says there is nothing specific to report yet, only that “we are talking to people.” Shindler says she is looking for a corporate partner who can help bring money to the table to fund dramas at a time of falling budgets, and who also can help take Red shows and formats into international markets.
In the meantime, she thinks that the future looks promising for drama production. She welcomes the new drama tax credit, although Red hasn’t yet applied as none of its shows have hit the £1m an hour budget market that triggers the tax relief.
And she plays down concerns that have been aired by some producers that the tax credit will put a strain on the base of craft skills in the UK, meaning there will not be enough trained talent to meet rising demand. Instead, she thinks that producers will have to take risks on new, upcoming talent. “It means that the next generation will come up – and that can only be a good thing,” she says.
CV Beginnings: Shindler’s career began in the theatre at the Royal Court. After two years she moved into TV, and things took off almost immediately: she was script editor on the awards laden Cracker in 1993 and then on Our Friends in the North.
Producing: She earned her first full producer credit on Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough in 1996, learning on the job, and using the experience to set up Red in 1998, aged just 29. She was, she acknowledges, incredibly young. “But the younger you are, the more foolish you are.”
Founding Red: Almost immediately Red found huge success with Russell T Davies’ cult hit Queer as Folk and then Paul Abbott’s Clocking Off. Since then Red credits include: Bob and Rose (ITV), Burn It (BBC3), Unforgiven (ITV), Scott & Bailey (ITV), Hit and Miss (Sky Atlantic) and Last Tango in Halifax (BBC1). Shindler was awarded an RTS Fellowship last month for outstanding contribution to TV drama.
Phil Clarke, Channel 4’s head of comedy, on the kinds of shows he’s looking for
What was your opinion of C4 comedy when you took the job in January? I thought it was in good shape. There were some very good pilots which we then took to series: London Irish, Drifters and Man Down. There was also Toast of London, which I had produced. It was a bit strange that one – as an ex-producer of the pilot it would obviously be nice if it was made, but I needed someone higher up, like Jay Hunt, to decide on that. There were also some very good series and shows being made: Friday Night Dinner 3, Derek and The Mimic.Cardinal Burns was also winning awards and Noel Fielding was doing his thing.
What’s your strategy for C4 comedy? C4 has always been an alternative channel. But the tone of C4 comedy has spread onto other channels. So the question is, as an alternative channel where should we be?
And where should you be? There are three strands to our comedy, including one particular strand which I currently want to push. Firstly, there is the truly alternative strand, something like Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy or Matt Berry and Arthur Mathew’s Toast of London. I don’t think you would find shows like that on another channel. Both are clearly alternative, authored pieces, weird and wonderful and deeply original. Shows that are not frightened to really push the boat out.
The second is the show with a strong comic voice, and big jokes. The IT Crowd is an example of that. And Father Ted.Man Down with Greg Davies has big jokes but is also well crafted and structured.
And there is a third strand that I want to do more of – clever, knowing, witty narratives that are adult and acerbic. Peep Show would have a foot in that camp. They are shows that are often witty rather than laugh out loud, that are clever and have an intelligence behind them. I want us to own that ground more. Other good examples of that would be The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve.
What’s the most important factor in a pitch? Well crafted writing. Traditionally a channel would attract top talent with a big cheque and then the work follows. But what I am saying is that the writing is everything, and the writing is what attracts established talent to do stuff that they haven’t done before. And also new talent.
What’s your budget? Around £30m for C4 and E4. We have 14 to 16 series running at any one time.
What has worked recently? An interesting show at the moment is London Irish. Some people are offended by it. My position is fine, be offended. Some people think that being offended is some kind of human right, which it isn’t. I think London Irish is brilliantly written. It appears to be one thing early on – quite crude and they swear a lot at each other. But if you watch the whole series you will see the subtlety of the writing. It’s very nicely constructed – there is a little love story and it slowly bubbles to the surface. It is also original and genuine.
What’s your target audience? C4’s heartland is 16-34 year olds, but I think we shouldn’t worry about that too much – we should just worry if it is good. If it is good, then they will come.
What are you looking for? The headline is narrative, scripted comedies.
And for what slots? Of old there would have been a comedy slot, but now the comedies are all over the place. There is an editorial freedom in that.
How about film? I do have a budget to commission film scripts, and I am working very closely with Film4 so we have buddied up. It is a brilliant carrot to be able to offer people.
How important are pilots? I am trying to make more pilots. A lot of shows, Peep Show being a good example, are coming to a natural end and we need to get some more shows up and running. So particularly this year and next year I want to make as many pilots as possible. It perhaps means directing funds that would have gone to a series into making six pilots. But I think it’s important that we get a new coterie of shows, a smorgasbord of stuff to choose from.
CV: Phil Clarke Jan 2013 - present Head of comedy, C4 2003 - 2013 Head of comedy, Objective Productions. Credits include Fresh Meat, Peep Show and Star Stories. 1999 - 2003 Producer, then comedy editor, Talkback. Credits included Bo Selecta, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Big Train, Brass Eye 1998-1999 Producer, Absolutely Productions 1990 - 1997 Producer, BBC Comedy
Top C4 comedy shows of 2013 Show (rating)
1. Derek (2m)
2. Black Mirror (1.9m)
3. Peep Show (1.6m)
4. The Mimic (1.4m)
5. Friday Night Dinner (1.3m)