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Realscreen: UK producers out in force in Washington

Some 80 British production companies and distributors are in Washington this week trying to drum up business at the Realscreen Summit. 

It’s the highest number of British producers that have ever attended the factual TV market.

Realscreen has emerged as an important market for British factual producers looking to win business from the 70 or so US broadcasters in attendance who commission original content.

The Summit has 2,500 attendees this year, and has taken over the entire Washington Hilton Hotel for the three day event. 

The hotel acts as huge market place, with several large rooms set aside as meeting spaces where projects can be pitched, ideas exchanged and relationships built. 

British indies here say that Realscreen is now like a mini-Mip and is a good place to do business – one that is worth the minimum £2,000 per person that it costs to cover the flight, hotel and delegate pass. Indeed, the weekend flights from London to Washington were full of British producers making the journey to the US capital. 

Many of them spent most of Monday locked in a procession of 30 minute meetings with US buyers in the delegates lounge or at the British Pub on the first floor.

The British pub is hosted by Pact, which has 50 British indies here under its banner. They include Wag TV, Reef, True North, Testimony Films, Icon, Keo, October, Shed, Tern and Raw Cut.

On Sunday night, the British ambassador – keen to show government support for the UK creative industries - hosted a reception at the Embassy for British companies attending Real Screen.

Meanwhile, US commissioners from AMC and Animal Planet right through to VH1 and WE tv are giving talks about their commissioning needs for the year ahead. 

And they are certainly open to working with UK producers, who have a strong reputation for making non-scripted and reality shows – like Gold Rush and Undercover Boss. The US, after all, is the UK’s largest television export market according to Pact figures – worth £475m in 2012, a 11% rise. Indies like Zig Zag and Firecracker now earn over 50% of their total revenues from the US.

Certainly, Realscreen seems more focused and personable for producers than the giant Mip markets. The Cannes markets are more distributor led and factual producers can get crowded out by their scripted and entertainment cousins. 

Prospects are already looking positive, say the producers that Televisual has spoken with here - and that’s only at the end of day one. 





Posted 28 January 2014 by Tim Dams

Explorer harnesses digital and TV for C4 Nile doc

Being an explorer in the 21st Century is a very different business to what it was during great age of exploration in the 1800s.

Levinson Wood’s bid to become the first man to walk the entire length of the Nile is a case in point. Wood, an expedition leader, writer and photographer, set off from the source of the Nile in Rwanda last month. His epic 4,250 mile journey through to Egypt is expected to take a year.

Along the way, though, he is tweeting (@walkingthenile), facebooking, and blogging (, providing a continual stream of updates, pictures and videos about his journey.

Wood will also be visited at key points by a crew from October Films, who are making a four-part television series, Walking the Nile, for Channel 4 to be aired in Autumn 2014.

As well as providing a unique record of the expedition, the multiplatform activity is designed both to inform and to raise awareness of the trip and TV series.

Mark Atkin, multiplatform commissioning editor at Channel 4, says Wood’s trip will provide “a first person view of contemporary Africa as he walks through the continent.”

On one level, Wood’s multiplatform activity will take in the wildlife, landscapes, people and challenges he meets along the way. But Atkin suggests that it could also influence his trip too – with followers providing encouragement when the going gets hard or advice in difficult situations. Some might even get physically interactive too, perhaps turning up en route to provide support. “It’s impossible to predict everything that might happen,” says Atkin.

Communicating with the outside world isn’t too much of a problem, says Atkin, who points out that “most of Africa is superbly connected.” The iPhone 5s, connected with a Thurya Sat sleeve to transform it into a satellite smartphone, is perhaps the key piece of kit. Wood also has a Sony NX30E, GoPro Hero3+ and Leica camera to film and photograph the journey. And he’s lugging around an iPad Air, power generators in the form of a Mini Power Gorilla and a portable solar panel (a Goal Zero Nomad 12). Plus, of course, a pedometer – a Fitibit Flex wristband.

Atkin is careful to put the multiplatform activity into perspective though. “His [Wood’s] primary goal is to be the first person in history to walk the Nile. His secondary goal is to make TV out of it.”

Walking the Nile is executive produced by Adam Bullmore for October Films and Melanie Darlaston and Tony Moulsdale for GroupM Entertainment. C4 commissioners are Atkin and John Hay.

Posted 22 January 2014 by Tim Dams

Producing for Latin America

The growing international reach of British programme makers is nowhere better illustrated than in a Spanish language documentary series made specifically for Latin American audiences called Misterios de la Fe – which is produced in London by UK indie Wag TV.

Commissioned by Discovery Latin America, Misterios de La Fe is a kind of Miracle CSI. The 8x1-hour series follows a Mexican Jesuit priest and female journalist as they investigate the truth behind some of Latin America’s most intriguing miracles.

So why is a British indie, rather than a Latin American outfit, making such a series? The show’s exec producer, Jon Stephens (pictured), says: “The reason they came to us was because we have a reptuation internationally for factual programmes and great storytelling.”

Stephens adds that Latin America is a fast growing, highly competitive market with lots of channels fighting for an audience. “So they need their shows to have compelling stories and formats that stand out and keep viewers hooked.”

Citing Wag’s long-running Discovery series How Did They Do It?, Stephens points out that the indie also has plenty of experience of producing shows for global audiences. Wag could refer to this international reach when it pitched the idea for Misterios to Discovery Latin America, based in Miami.

Discovery liked the concept, so Wag set about casting for the series in Latin America. After a long search, two Mexican lead presenters were found and flown over to the UK for a week of workshops. “Investing early on in the presenters paid dividends in the long term,” says Stephens.

Wag then sourced key crew – APs, producers and directors – in the UK. But they had to be able to speak Spanish, and Discovery insisted on checking that they could. Recruiting a Spanish speaking crew was one of the hardest tasks making the show, says Stephens. “I think I’ve met every Spanish speaking director in the UK.”

The British crew were then paired with local production teams to shoot the stories in Mexico, Argentina, Columbia and Brazil. All the rushes came back to the UK, where they were cut by Spanish speaking editors in Wag’s London office.

A single Mexican cameraman worked on the series, to give it a unifying, aspirational visual style. A key lesson, says Stephens, is that one of the last things Latin American audiences want to see is the “aesthetic of distress” so beloved by Western travellers. “That is not how Latin Americans see themselves – in fact, they are arguably more aspirational than people in the West.” Since Misterios, Wag continues to make content for Latin America.

Posted 21 January 2014 by Tim Dams

Olly Lambert on filmmaking in conflict zones

Olly Lambert, the director of the award-winning Channel 4 doc Syria: Across the Lines, on filmmaking in areas of conflict
"The hardest thing about making Syria: Across the Lines wasn’t bombs or bullets, but the isolation. I had people around me, but witnessing what people can do to each other was a profoundly lonely experience.
"It was the fear of falling short that woke me early every morning, rather than the physical dangers.  I could never believe that my little camera and I could ever do justice to the complex tragedy around me.
"As a filmmaker, I am not remotely interested in war or conflict. War is usually very dull, and at best slightly comic, and then occasionally painful and tragic. What I am interested in is how ordinary people’s lives are affected by vast, external events.
"All my films tend to focus on ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. They’re kind of the opposite of freak shows – I like to think that they feature beautifully ordinary people caught up in freakish environments or bizarre situations. 
"There is one scene in the film in which a double air strike kills almost 20 people and leaves many more injured. In the aftermath, I briefly filmed a family of refugees packing up their semi-demolished house, probably half deaf from the sound of the blast they just escaped. They were trying to work out whether to take the mop or not, and a little boy is upset because his flip-flops don’t match. I really regret not following that family in their search for refuge. I am not interested in the bomb. I am interested in how people can pick up the pieces of a life and carry on living.
"We are all story-consuming machines – it’s in our DNA to listen to them. And that’s an instinct for filmmakers to play with.
"I’m drawn to complex stories, but they easily overwhelm me. I’m always telling myself to simplify the story to allow the complexity to make sense.

"I look for the tiniest window with the biggest view, the smallest story about the biggest subject. Without that I feel very lost, and I think the audience does, too.

"Finding the right characters is instinctive, not scientific. It’s that gut feeling you get at a party when you meet someone who interests you. Do you like them? Are you interested in their life and, more than that, do you want to find out what happens to them?
"You need to have a quick mind, but slow feet. Chasing a story rarely works. The trick is to stay calm in the right place, and let the story play out around you.
"First and foremost, I’m a storyteller.  The directing, the journalism and camerawork all come after that. The Syria film was about the rise of sectarianism in Syria, but it begins like a simple fairy tale: “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a young man called Ahmed.

Posted 17 January 2014 by Tim Dams

Paxman aims to 'challenge received wisdom' with WW1 series

Jeremy Paxman unveiled Britain’s Great War at a press screening this morning - the first of over 130 specially commissioned programmes that the BBC will air across TV, radio and online as part of its huge World War One Centenary season.

Paxman’s series isn’t a conventional narrative of the conflict in Europe, but rather a look at the impact of the war on British men, women and children – and how it transformed British society.

Paxman said his series, which was full of fresh archive material and was well received at the screening, sought to explain how the war changed Britain.

He eschewed the traditional historical narratives of the First World War as a conflict in which “lions were led by donkeys” – that a governing class of military leaders wilfully threw away the lives of their men.

“I think a few moments though will convince you that that is a pretty silly analysis,” said Paxman, who stressed that British leaders and generals were dealing with an unprecedented kind of conflict, a form of total war in which government and state got involved in everyday life as never before. Paxman said: “I think the generals were like everybody else, confronted by something that hadn’t been seen before.”

Paxman said his series sought challenge received wisdom about the conflict. He said he wanted get back to how it felt for people at the time, ignoring ‘the filter’ of interpretations that has been put over the events of the First World War – including by TV series such as Blackadder.

“Blackadder was a brilliant comedy – but it was a comedy,” said Paxman.

Paxman stressed that his series had been made before a political row erupted earlier this month, when Education Secretary Michael Gove rounded on what he called a left-wing version of history that portrays 1914-18 as "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

Gove was then attacked by Labour for using the centenary of the First World War to sow political division.

Paxman added that he found the entire row, “a slightly artificial debate.”

The 4x60-minute Britain’s Great War is a co-production between BBC Productions and The Open University. It airs on the 27th of January.

Adrian Van Klaveren, controller of the BBC World War One Centenary, said that the pan-BBC season would span four years and would see 2,500 hours of programming air across TV, radio and online.

Other planned shows in the season include BBC1 dramas The Ark, about a fictional field hospital behind the trenches, and Tony Jordans’ The Passing Bells, about the story of WW1 through the eyes of two ordinary young men. On BBC2, drama 37 Days explores the politics behind the build-up to war.

Posted 15 January 2014 by Tim Dams

Broadcasters get set for the Sochi Winter Olympics

After the success of London 2012, broadcasters are stepping up their coverage of next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The scale of the broadcasting operation from Sochi will, of course, be smaller than London 2012 – mirroring the fact that winter games have fewer sports and events.

Nevertheless, UK rights holders – the BBC for the Olympics (7-23 February) and Channel 4 for the Paralympics (7-16 March) – believe that the impact of London as well as the fact that Sochi is in a relatively favourable time zone could translate into better than usual viewing figures for the Winter Games.

Regular Games host broadcaster Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) will film all the races and competitions at Sochi, sending out its footage to rights holders all around the world.

The BBC’s inhouse sports department will use this host feed as the basis for its own coverage, adding its own commentary, analysis, reports and features to produce more than 200 hours of network TV coverage presided over by Clare Balding, Jonathan Edwards and Hazel Irvine.

As in London 2012, the BBC has pledged to cover every single event, making them available on up to six live streams via PC, tablet, mobile and connected TV.

The BBC’s executive producer in charge of Sochi 2014 Jonny Bramley explains that planning for the coverage of such an event normally begins three years in advance. But the BBC was only confirmed as the Olympics rights holder 18 months ago, so planning has been a little tight this time.

Bramley says the budget for producing a Winter Olympics is “less than 50% of a summer Olympics”, reflecting the smaller scale of the Games, the lower viewing figures and the need to keep a lid on costs at the BBC.

Production will be divided between a team of just under 100 BBC staff in Sochi, including presenters, commentators, a film-making team, and those in the switching centre in the IBC.

However, there will be a bigger team back in Media City in Salford, which will house the transmission galleries for TV, the interactive operation as well as post production.

Still, it’s a bigger BBC operation than previous Winter Olympics – fuelled by the post-London effect and the fact that Team GB is in with a chance of its most successful winter games yet.

Snowboarder Billy Morgan is a medal hopeful in the first weekend after finishing fourth at the 2013 World Championships. Other serious contenders include James Woods in the freestyle slopestyle, as well as the UK women’s skeleton team as well as the curling team.

Bramley certainly isn’t expecting viewing figures to match the 24m who tuned in to watch Torvill and Dean in 1984.

But he does think that audiences will exceed those at most recent games in Vancouver and Turin, when peak viewing figures were around 4.5m and 5m respectively. More than 6m stayed up after midnight to watch Britain’s curling team win gold at Salt Lake City in 2002.

The BBC will be ramping up its marketing for the Games this month, with a campaign based on the theme of humans vs nature. Specifically, it will emphasise the dramatic struggle against the elements that’s a key feature of the Winter Games, highlighting the dangers of the ice, the slopes and the speed.  The BBC will also stress the breadth of its coverage on TV, tablets and mobiles.

One of the biggest challenges about producing a Winter Games, says Bramley, is the weather, which can disrupt even the best-laid plans. “Schedules can go completely to pot when events get delayed due to the weather. Generally it’s because there is too much snow or too much wind, rather than the lack of it.”

The BBC also has to depend on the footage provided by OBS. Encouragingly, Bramley thinks the Spanish-owned outfit is pushing the boundaries in terms of its coverage this year. He says that six cable systems have been built to carry tracking cameras to follow downhill races, twice the number of the last Games.

And a notable innovation this year is the introduction of RF mini-cams on a drone to fly alongside skiers and snowboarders, and capture the drama of the competition as close up as possible. It’s the first time that a small pilotless aircraft equipped with a camera will have been used at the Olympics.

C4 goes big on Paralympics

Back in 2010, the BBC was heavily criticised for its scant coverage of the Paralympic Games in Vancouver, dedicating just one hour of TV highlights to the event.

Coverage of the Sochi Paralympics will be huge by comparison. New rights holder Channel 4 is looking to build on the impact it achieved for the London 2012 Paralympic Games by broadcasting an unprecedented 55 hours of live coverage from Sochi.

Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage is being produced by sports TV indie Sunset + Vine, which won a BAFTA for producing the London 2012 Paralympic coverage with IMG Sports Media.

The 55 hours of coverage from Sochi is “another leap into the unknown”, just like London, says Gary Franses, executive producer at Sunset + Vine. “No one has done as many hours live from a winter Paralympics as Channel 4 is about to do,” he says.

The winter Paralympics feature just five sports: alpine skiing; Nordic skiing, curling; sledge hockey; and snowboarding. But Franses thinks that viewers will be able to witness some “pretty remarkable stuff”, including blind skiers careering down mountains with guides in front of them steering them by radio.

Production and presentation will be based in London, with a team of about 80 people, and another 45 in Sochi. Like the BBC, Sunset + Vine will use OBS footage as the basis for its coverage, providing extra reporting and commentary direct from its team in Sochi to give it a British focus.

The key challenge for Sunset + Vine at Sochi is to explain to viewers what they are they are seeing. In London, the production team used a graphic device on screen, called Lexi, to explain the classifications and why people with different disabilities were competing in the same race (over 140 were produced in all). Lexi will be used again for Sochi coverage.

“The biggest challenge is to make it viewer friendly,” says Franses.  “You can’t just chuck it out there – you really have to try to make it understandable and interesting by adding that layer.”

It’s difficult to tell how many viewers will tune in. Clearly, the impact of London is expected to boost the figures. But Channel 4’s coverage will play out live during the daytime, and will mostly be finished by lunchtime. There’s also only a small British Paralympic team going to Sochi, which means there will be fewer medal hopefuls to root for.

Whatever the figures, the sheer scale of the coverage will be historic for British audiences.

Posted 14 January 2014 by Tim Dams

Space emerges as key TV battleground in 2014

Space travel is fast emerging as a brand new frontier for TV producers in 2014.

Channel 4 announced today that it will broadcast a live two hour show in March from the International Space Station (ISS), as it orbits the Earth.

Produced by Arrow Media, the Live from Space Season “takes live event television to a new dimension” according to creative director Tom Brisely.

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Television is readying a new format called Milky Way Mission which sees ten celebrities battle to become one of the astronauts taking part in a space flight organised by the Space Expedition Corporation.

And NBC is teaming with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and veteran TV producer Mark Burnett on Space Race, a competition where the winner gets a ride on the space liner that is expected to begin commercial flights this year.

Posted 09 January 2014 by Tim Dams

John Battsek on producing feature docs

John Battsek, the Grierson-winning documentary film producer (One Day in September, Restrepo, Sugar Man), on the art of the feature doc

We would never do a bunch of films because there might be some revenue in it. That is not what we are about. We are, maybe to a fault, passionately connected to all the films we make.

If you are really starting out with an idea that you want to make as a feature doc, my advice would be to join forces with someone like us or another company. Whatever you think you might lose, you gain so much in the long term. Because you learn the ropes.

There are more people today in the business of financing feature docs than there were ten years ago, like HBO, A&E, Showtime, CNN Films, Neflix or Film4 and the BBC in the UK as well as private individuals and equity people.

There are about ten directors who are top of the league, like Kevin Macdonald or James Marsh or Alex Gibney. They are in a very good position to get their doc films made.

The subjects that doc financiers like are drama, tragedy, political shenanigans, miscarriages of justice, injustice in general – stories that make your jaw at one point or another hit the floor.

We try to bring cinematic ambition to all the films we make. We cut them, score them and shoot them in a certain way.

The edit is where it all happens. The edit is where you discover the real film, and craft it. That’s why we take five to ten months cutting these damn things. You wouldn’t believe it. It goes on and on and on.

I favour being very straight with directors. We are making truthful stories, so why the hell can’t we be truthful with each other about how we go about the process.

I am also very encouraging. I support my directors in as full a way as I possibly can and I feel that part of that support is saying, ‘That thing you just did is rubbish, let’s get rid of it’. As opposed to, ‘Yeah, it’s brilliant,’ when in fact I’m thinking it didn’t work.

I always tell directors it is just my opinion. Ultimately, the film is their film.

I fight with directors about the running time on every film – and I always lose. They are all too long. It drives me crazy. On a feature doc, any minute over 80’ and you are taking a risk with your audience. The perfect time is probably 85’. There isn’t a director alive who agrees with me. But I know I am right!

We always look to platform our films at a festival, hopefully Sundance, because it’s the mecca for feature docs. The market place loves Sundance.”

Posted 02 January 2014 by Tim Dams
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