Ex-RDF founder David Frank has big ambitions for his new company Dial Square 86. It’s going to be like ‘the Vice of content’, he tells Tim Dams
David Frank’s fledgling company Dial Square 86 is just a few months old, but one can quickly sense his drive to build something bigger. In fact, the business plan of the former RDF founder and Zodia Media boss sounds rather like that of RDF in the 2000s, which set the template for the consolidation trend in the indie sector.
Similarly, the aim for Dial Square is to grow a content business via deals with indie producers, digital outfits and rights specialists. Frank says he was “slightly pining for the more entrepreneurial experience” after Zodiak, which he admits he struggled to unify into a cohesive whole. “The most exciting days of the RDF period were when we were building the group – bringing new companies in, hiring new people. It genuinely felt like jumping onto a train that was on the move.”
Frank briefly mulled leaving the industry after Zodiak to become a writer, harking back to his early life as a journalist. It didn’t last long. “I thought it would be a bit lonely, that was the main deterrent. Working in this industry you have some crazy times, meet some weird people and it is fun. I love the interaction.”
And he started thinking of new ideas for a business. “The thing that struck me when I paused for thought was how dramatically the market had changed, certainly since I started RDF 20 years ago, but even in the last five years.” Most notably, programme prices have tumbled as audiences migrate to an increasing number of digital channels or online. Broadcasters, of course, still want the same quality – but at a far lower price. Says Frank: “The world does divide between those who have a response and those who don’t.”
He says many of the companies he looked after in Zodiak struggled to adapt to this new world. “They would typically be companies whose margins were eroding and they were having to lay people off at HQ and/or cut their overhead. But there was no strategy for growth.” Other companies, however, would embrace the challenge – cutting the cost of their programmes, but also finding new ways to finance and produce shows. “It’s not that there is less stuff being made, it is just being made in a different way by different people.”
And it is these kind of people that Frank wants to work with. “I didn’t want to start a production company again. I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt. But I do like engaging with entrepreneurial individuals.” To date, Frank has assembled a team that includes Goldcrest Media founder Adam Kulik; Nigel Pickard, the former ITV programmes chief; his brother Matthew Frank, former CEO of Zodiak Rights; and Charlie Caminada, the former COO of HIT. They will offer operational and strategic support as well as financial backing to companies that join the group.
Dial Square has raised “a couple of million quid” of seed capital. The team has also been building a list of target prospects, and is now fundraising to bring in major investors. Frank stresses that Dial Square is not, as some have said, an investment vehicle. Rather, he says, the business is a trading company that will expand through the acquisition of established businesses and early stage start ups – with a plan to seek an exit via a stock market listing or sale in a “reasonable horizon.”
Frank says Dial Square is looking to invest in companies in three specific areas. Firstly, in what he calls pure creative businesses, which includes TV production companies. Frank points out that Dial Square is not – as has been reported – simply a digital play. Secondly, he wants to invest in content enhancement businesses, ones that broaden the viewer experience via social media or interaction. The third area is around content exploitation – distribution, licensing and merchandising areas.
Dial Square’s first deal last month was with Red Hare Digital, which manages a network of about 30 YouTube talents in the beauty and fashion area and strikes deals for them with brands including L’Oreal, Maybelline, Rimmel, Max Factor and Topshop. Frank says the talent could migrate onto standard platforms. “It’s a very interesting area for me – the creation of brands out of individual names,” he says, citing names like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.
Frank also says he admires Vice, which has carved out an impressive business in news, an area previously dominated by a few global TV news providers. He says he wants Dial Square to be “like the Vice of content.” He adds: “I think we will have succeeded in three years time if people ask, ‘What is Dial Square?’ And they’ll say, ‘They do quite a lot of telly, but masses online – they dominate the YouTube market for talent, they make low cost content for international broadcast that they pre-sell, nobody ever commissions them they just make it and sell it…They are pretty cool and everybody wants to work with them.’ That is the dream. I want it to feel a very sexy brand – because that’s a brilliant way to attract talent. “ He concludes: “What I’m trying to do here is to constantly think of ways to disrupt what is happening today – and if you do that you create a meaningful brand.”
- Frank began his career in investment banking in the early 80s.
- After five years in the City he swapped banking for financial journalism. In 1989 he joined the BBC, becoming an on-air reporter.
- Frank founded RDF Media in 1993 having raised financing from business angels.
- On the back of hits such as Wife Swap and Secret Millionaire, and a series of indie acquisitions RDF became a superindie valued at £150m when sold in 2010 to DeAgostini.
- In 2010, Frank became CEO of De Agostini’s Zodiak Media which has operations in 20 countries.
- In 2013, Frank stepped down from Zodiak to set up Dial Square 86.
This interview was taken from the November issue of Televisual
A swathe of new TV indies has launched in recent months, with more set to come. What’s driving the start-up trend?
The big story of 2014 in indie production has been the takeover of a large part of the UK industry by US studio groups. Discovery, Liberty, 21st Century Fox, Warners, Sony and NBC are now key players in a UK indie sector that is 65% owned by foreign investors.
The spate of deal making this year sparked fears, aired by C4 boss David Abraham in his MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh, that the creative culture of UK production would be snuffed out by foreign owners who put profits ahead of risk taking.
Abraham’s fears about the changing TV landscape seemed to be justified by comments last month from 21st Century Fox co-chief operating officer James Murdoch last month, who said the need for scale in a globalised world was a key driver behind the merger of Endemol, Shine and Core. Murdoch’s words suggested that the world of TV production had changed for good, and that only the biggest producers with true global reach could thrive and survive.
Yet, in the past few months, there’s been a curious counter trend to all the indie super consolidation. A raft of execs, producers and directors have chosen to go independent, starting up their own fledgling production companies.
New companies to have launched include Little Gem, founded by former Maverick exec Ben Gale and ex-Princess exec Natasha Bondy; Hungry Bear (ex-Talkback producer Dan Baldwin); Curve Media (ex-Cineflix execs Rob Carey and Camilla Lewis); 7 Wonder (ex-Maverick CEO Alex Fraser, see box opposite). Producers alliance Pact says 77 new members have joined so far this year, up from 59 for the whole of 2013.
There are several reasons for the spate of start-ups. Many are director-driven production outfits set up to make their own projects and hold on to rights. Others are companies focused on branded content and AFP, taking advantage of the growing demand for video content and falling technology prices.
There’s also a swathe of start-ups launched by well-known TV execs who have worked for some of the biggest production companies and broadcasters.
“What we are seeing this year is a disproportionate number of new indies emerging,” says RDF founder and former Zodiak boss David Frank – who set up his own new company, Dial Square 86, earlier this year.
He argues that recent consolidation is a key factor in the new launches, and predicts that – based on conversations he has had – we will see some surprisingly big names soon choosing to go independent. “It is amazing how hard the tree is being shaken by what is happening.”
Many of them, one suspects, do not enjoy being part of large conglomerates where the emphasis is primarily on hitting financial targets and where the pressure will be to make shows for the broadcasters’ parent companies. Others believe they can earn more money outside the superindies.
Many indie founders who sold their companies to superindie groups are choosing to leave after the deals have expired – following the example of execs like Nick Curwin and Magnus Temple who sold their indie Dragonfly to Shine in 2007 and left in 2009. They then launched new indie The Garden in 2010 and sold it to ITV last year.
The sudden appearance of new start ups is “the flip side of uber-consolidation”, says Claire Evans, a former BBC exec who set up new indie Babygrand Productions last year. “The unspoken thing about our industry is the sustainability of some of the bigger companies and whether they actually have an implicit lifespan – because it is very, very hard to retain talent.”
It is not just the big inhouse departments at the BBC and ITV that struggle to retain talent, it is also the bigger indies. Evans points out that once an indie or superindie has been sold, it is no longer able to offer equity stakes to execs. “So if you are an emerging creative and want to develop great formats, why wouldn’t you go and start up on your own.”
Those who have set up on their own say that broadcasters are keen to work with them – if you have a good track record in the industry.
Natalka Znak (Hell’s Kitchen, I’m A Celebrity) and Simon Jones (American Idol) set up their Znak&Jones indie earlier this year. “The doors are completely open. We are pitching every day,” says Jones. “A good idea is a good idea. If they know you can produce it, I actually think a lot of broadcasters prefer working with boutique outfits. We’re not going to spend six months doing the deal, we aim to please and we want to get good shows on air quickly.”
Babygrand’s Evans confirms this: “Commissioners are hungry for new ideas. The competition between channels is so ferocious for hot new formats. Frankly, as long as you are someone they know, they will take a meeting.” Simon Jones adds that broadcasters can only benefit by encouraging new start-ups. “If I was a buyer I wouldn’t want to be only able to buy from Endemol/Shine, All3Media and Fremantle. Do I want to hear three ideas or 30 ideas?”
Indeed, C4 is encouraging relationships with new and smaller indies in a bid to work with a wider number of producers, launching initiatives like the £20m Growth Fund to back smaller indies.
Many new indies also say that it is a good time to start-up because of the sheer number of options open to them. There are far more commissioning broadcasters now in the UK, beyond the traditional terrestrials. The market is more global too with international broadcasters like Discovery and Nat Geo commissioning heavily out of the UK. British indies have also had great success pitching directly into the US market.
Indies are also producing for digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon right through to low cost shows for YouTube. Funding for content is available from brands too, with the likes of GroupM active in the market. There’s also a surge in drama and animation production thanks to new tax breaks. And distributors who are not aligned to the superindie groups are eager to work with credible new producers to secure a pipeline of new content to sell.
Carl Hall set up Warehouse 51 Productions to house and fund production talent in the UK after selling his indie Parthenon Entertainment to Sky in 2012. He says it’s a “sellers market” for producers who have the skills to negotiate the new international marketplace and put deals together.
“If you have a good idea that people want, there are lots of places to go to…You are not as exposed as you were even a year ago.” And that’s because the range of options open to people who want to build a business in ‘content’ is much, much greater than it ever has been.
Recent indie TV production company launches
7 Wonder Launched by former Maverick CEO Alexandra Fraser and colleagues
Archery Pictures Drama and film indie run by producers Liza Marshall and Kris Thykier
Babygrand Launched by former BBC execs Claire Evans and Sonia Beldom
Curve Media Run by former Cineflix creative director Camilla Lewis and md Rob Carey
Dial Square 86 New company set up by RDF founder and Zodiak Media CEO David Frank
Hello Halo Scottish indie launched by former STV creative director Wendy Rattray
Hungry BearMedia Set up by Celebrity Juice co-creator, Dan Baldwin
Little Gem Launched by former Maverick execs Ben Gale and Natasha Bondy
The Forge New drama indie launched by ex-Company Pictures founder George Faber
Merman Films Founded by Sharon Horgan and producer Clelia Mountford
Monumental Drama and film indie from Alison Owen (Saving Mr Banks) and Debra Hayward (Les Miserables)
New Pictures Drama indie launched by ex- Company Pictures boss Charlie Pattinson
Playground All3Media International md Louise Pedersen will set up UK arm of the US producer run by Colin Callendar
Plimsoll Productions Set up by former Zodiak USA boss Grant Mansfield (behind ITV's Prom Crazy, pictured above)
Riverdog Productions Factual indie launched by Come Dine With Me creator Nell Butler and ITV Studios exec Tim Mille
Sid Gentle Films Launched by Sally Woodward Gentle (Downton Abbey), ex-Carnival
Warehouse 51 Productions Founded by the former MD of Sky Vision Carl Hall
Znak&Jones launched by ex Zodiak Media USA CEO Natalka Znak and ex Talpa Media USA CEO Simon Jones
Bake Off star Sue Perkins called on UK broadcasters to do more to support female documentary talent at last night’s Grierson British Documentary Awards.
The Griersons are regarded as the leading documentary awards in the UK, but female winners were noticeably absent from the podium at this year’s Griersons.
Not a single one of the 13 Grierson awards was won by a female director.
The documentary presenter of the year category was also dominated by men, with four male presenters nominated.
Grierson insiders said that only one female presenter – Stacey Dooley – was put forward by broadcasters for best presenter category.
“It is 2014 for goodness sake. Less than five per cent of the total entry was female presenters," said Perkins.
"This isn’t the fault of the Griersons, but of the broadcasters. It’s time that broadcasters put their money where their mouth is and nominated more female talent,” she added, to loud applause from the audience of documentary makers in the auditorium at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, which also included stars such as Stephen Fry, Rupert Everett, Bettany Hughes, Davina McCall and Jamie Theakston.
The issue has been swiftly picked up on Twitter too. “Is it true that not a single female went on stage to get a gong at the #griersonawards last night? Seriously?”, said MediaParents.
Meanwhile, Wall to Wall founder Alex Graham – who won the prestigious Trustees Awards at the Griersons – used his acceptance speech to call for more broadcaster funding for documentary.
He pointed out that the BBC spends less on a whole season of Storyville than it does on a single hour of prime-time period drama.
“You should spend more on documentary not because documentary needs you, but because you need documentary. Otherwise, the genre – together with the young, smart, sassy audience that increasingly follows it around – will slip through your fingers. They’ll be watching YouTube. The Guardian. Vice. And you – rather than documentary – will be the losers.”