Blast! Films has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. In the cut and thrust world of independent documentary production, it’s an impressive milestone.
The Kentish Town-based indie made its name with distinctive, award winning docs and dramas including Tina Goes Shopping, The Death of Klinghoffer, The Year London Blew Up, Soundproof, Coppers, The Year the Town Hall Shrank as well as Steve McQueen’s feature debut Hunger.
In recent years, Blast has broadened out into popular factual, producing series such as The Tube, The Supervet, 999: What’s Your Emergency and The Route Masters: Running London Roads. It’s also making three series for US broadcasters, including two for Discovery.
As a result, Blast has tripled in size in the last three years, says founder and creative director Edmund Coulthard. This growth looks set to continue in to 2015. The indie has just picked up its first two rig show commissions from C4.
Both are firsts for the technology. Trawlermen takes the rig out on to the high seas, chronicling the aspirations of young crewmen trying their hand out in the high-risk fishing industry. London Night Bus sees a London bus rigged up with 12 cameras and a vision mixer to catch the lively atmosphere of late night transport across the capital. It’s billed as a window onto nighttime London as the capital becomes a 24-hour city. Blast is also making ob doc series The Post Office for BBC2.
And Blast has just hired C4 commissioning editor Nick Hornby as head of programmes, with a brief to “take us to the next stage”, says Coulthard. He’s joined a team that includes md Claire Bosworth, head of factual Alistair Pegg, head of development James O’Reilly and exec producers David Hodgkinson, Nick Cory-Wright and Alex Sutherland.
Asked to describe Blast, Coulthard says the indie is focused on making “high quality, passionate filmmaking that has a purpose to it.” Blast’s films are, he adds, “about something.” He believes this is one of the reasons Blast has grown recently. Television, he thinks, has moved out of the “Wife Swap era” when formats were king. Now, there’s “quite a strong demand for quality factual,” he adds. “It genuinely feels like a productive time for factual production.”
“You feel the audience are much more interested in authenticity, and docs are having their time in the sun.” This has played into Blast’s hands. Even though the indie has diversified into popular factual, Coulthard insists it hasn’t lost sight of its core values.
Docs like Routemaster, The Tube and 999 are about the state of the nation. “We use the access to hold a mirror up to Britain – who we are, how we’re changing,” says Coulthard, who explains that Routemaster isn’t just about buses but also about issues such as immigration. ‘I’m not interested in television that isn’t about anything,” he says.
Coulthard says the turning point for Blast in terms of growth came when it started to concentrate on producing big series. Coulthard, who had made his name directing docs and dramas (he won Baftas for BBC2 drama Tales from Pleasure Beach and Soundproof), moved out of making shows to help run the development of series.
Production budgets have not gone up for the past 10 years, he notes, which means the only way to survive and thrive as a TV indie is by generating revenue from international sales. And the demand in the international market is for series. “Series can put your company on a different footing,” he says.
That doesn’t mean Blast isn’t interested in single docs. He points out that there have been a spate of “brilliant” single docs on TV – including The Paedophile Hunter, The Murder Trial and Baby P: The Untold Story. Single films are a good platform to nurture talented directors, allowing greater freedom to express themselves than a series where the executive producer is the dominant voice.
Blast, has, however moved away from producing drama such as Soundproof and Hunger. “It’s not something you can do on the side,” says Coulthard, adding that there is only a small pool of writers who broadcasters want to work with and that it is very difficult to compete with specialist drama indies.
That said, he says Blast doesn’t feel challenged by the fact that it is not part of a superindie group. “Broadcasters want quality programming – they don’t mind where it comes from,” he says. Back in 2007 RDF Media Group took a 20% stake in the indie, but Blast bought this back after RDF was sold to European superindie Zodiak Media. It means Blast is one of very few mid-sized true indies remaining after the huge round of indie consolidation.
Coulthard says one of the reasons for its longevity is that Blast moved away from being a production company that pursued only filmmaker interests. “To survive you need to have a sense of humility about what viewers are interested in,” he concludes. CV Born Swansea 1961 School Bishop Gore Comprehensive, Swansea Universities BA in English at King’s College, London; MPhil at Jesus College, Oxford Career Researcher on After Dark and The Media Show 1992/3 Director of The Promised Land for BBC/Discovery 1994 Founded Blast! Films to make doc I’ll Be Your Mirror 2001 Wins Bafta for best new director for BBC drama Tales From Pleasure Beach 2006 Wins Bafta best director for BBC2 thriller Soundproof 2008 Blast produces Steve McQueen’s feature debut Hunger 2010 Blast produces police C4 doc series Coppers 2012 Blast produces The Tube and first series of 999: What’s Your Emergency 2013 The Route Masters nominated for Bafta doc series; The Year the Town Hall Shrank wins Grierson for best doc series 2014 Blast produces two series of The Supervet for C4
Are single docs having a mini-revival? At first glance, it seems they might. BBC2 is bringing back single documentary strand Modern Times strand this month, with a short run of four films including Sue Bourne’s The Vikings Are Coming (pictured above).
BBC1 won also plaudits for playing powerful single doc Baby P: The Untold Story in primetime. ITV has just devoted an hour of primetime – uninterrupted by ads – to Tsunami: Survivors’ Stories. C4 has enjoyed strong coverage for singles, notably controversial titles The Paedophile Hunter, The Paedophile Next Door (pictured below) and Meet the Police Commissioner. C4 recently unveiled a slate of new singles to play out at 10pm, including Sex Party Secrets from James Newton at Minnow Films and The Escorts from Amos Pictures’ Dan Reed.
Single docs certainly seem to be creating more noise in the schedules. While they might not always be ratings winners, they can provide a reputational boost to broadcasters. “They can punch above their weight,” says C4 head of docs Nick Mirsky.
“The single documentary is extremely important in the mix,” adds acting BBC head of docs Maxine Watson. “It’s the way in which we get to tell a variety of pertinent stories... When we get it right, they can be as impactful as a drama in terms of audience.”
And it seems there is untapped demand for the thought provoking, challenging material offered by such docs. Research by Ofcom suggests viewers want to see more original content. ”There appears to be an emerging concern among audiences about the levels of original and innovative content being produced relative to more tried and tested programmes and formats,” the regulator said in its recent PSB review.
But it is no easy task for broadcasters to attract viewers to single docs in the competitive digital world. Audiences might say they want more original single docs, but when faced with a choice between the unfamiliar and a recognisable format or series, they will often opt for the easy option.
For this reason, doc makers don’t buy into the notion of a single doc revival. “There are lots of single films you’ll never hear of. I wouldn’t take the small number that create a huge impact as necessarily being representative of a revival,” says Colin Barr, creative director of Minnow Films, which has won Baftas for single docs 7/7: One Day in London and The Fallen.
“There’s always been the occasional single film that breaks through, but I do think it is harder and harder for them to do so,” says Magnus Temple, chief exec The Garden, which produces series like 24 Hours and A&E and 24 Hours in Police Custody – as well as singles such as The Merits of Ferrets.
“In the past there were a lot more singles. Now there are far more two and three parters,” adds Sue Bourne, the director of acclaimed singles such as My Street, Mum & Me and Fabulous Fashionistas.
The problem for producers too is that it is very difficult to make money from single docs, which have budgets of around £150k at the top end. Says Colin Barr, “They make absolutely no money and suck up huge amounts of exec time. It is very difficult to have a business model based on single films.” Series, by comparison, provide far greater revenues and stability.
Sue Bourne says she survives by running “the smallest production company in Britain” – she works from home with no overheads and no staff.
“It’s often completely pointless to do single films,” says Magnus Temple. But, he explains they are vital for the creative culture of The Garden. “If you imagine being an upmarket shop – a cool boutique – and all you sold was one particular product. That would be slightly dull, even if the product were really great.
“We often talk about having a mixed ecology slate, which is really important as company. People that come to work here like to feel that there all sorts of different things going on.”
His point is backed up by Richard McKerrow, creative director of Love Productions, which produces hit series Bake Off and Benefits Street through to upcoming Modern Times single A Big Night For Warwick Davis. “If we gave up the notion of doing single docs, we’d be dead. They are really important for the creative culture of the company.” He points out that they are an excellent way to nurture talent – and can also lead to hugely successful series. He cites My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which began as a one off Cutting Edge and went on to spawn a run of hit series.
The documentary sensibility learned on singles, he believes, lies at the heart of British success with constructed docs and features. Bake Off, he adds, was commissioned through the docs department at the BBC – and is ultimately about access to great bakers.
Certainly, broadcasters don’t seem to be hugely upping their number of singles. The BBC’s vaunted return of Modern Times is actually very cautious – there are just four films in the initial run.
Mirsky says that C4 will broadcast around 40-50 singles each year. He acknowledges that the number is not rising or falling year on year. But he does think the channel’s singles are sharper and better defined, helping them to stand out more. It used to be, he says, that directors delivered singles that “felt a bit in the same territory as some of our big series”. But because they didn’t have the rig, longevity of access or scale of production, they could feel blander than the series.
However, shows like The Paedophile Hunter “give you a singular vision of something that is a phenomenon in Britain today.”
Certainly, it’s not all doom and gloom for the single. Bourne thinks the future of the single doc “lies on the shoulders of the very good self-shooters” rather than expensive teams. Younger filmmakers, she adds, are finding other outlets for the films they want to make. So they self fund via Kickstarter campaigns, or look at alternative outlets like Vice, Al Jazeera and YouTube. BBC3 also plans to air more online short form one-offs this year.
“The internet may not provide you with money, but it does get you noticed.” She says her most recent doc Fabulous Fashionistas was uploaded onto YouTube and had a million views, mainly in the US, before it was taken down. “The film has had a remarkable life after its one 10pm TX on C4 – more widespread than any other film I have done.” Proof indeed that singles can still punch above their weight.
One-slots: where singles can find a broadcast partner BBC1 plays singles at 10.35pm. Acting head of docs Maxine Watson says it’s a ‘lively space for films that deal with harder edged subjects’, including Bafta winner Between Life and Death. However, producers say singles can struggle to get noticed in such a late slot.
BBC1 will occasionally play reputational singles in the heart of primetime – like Baby P: The Untold Story.
BBC2 brings back single doc strand Modern Times this month, with a run of four films and a further five in the autumn.
BBC2 controller Kim Shillinglaw told the Televisual Factual Festival she would like more singles on the channel, citing the success of Dan Reed’s Terror at the Mall.
BBC3’s future is up in the air as it prepares for an online relaunch in the autumn, although factual is at the heart of its plans. The BBC3 Fresh strand has commissioned six single films a year from up and coming directors.
BBC4 is the home of the acclaimed Storyville. “No turkeys, no worthiness, no dullness,” says the Storyville commissioning brief.
ITV will occasionally open up its schedules to singles, like last month’s Tsunami: Survivors Stories. “If you offer us single films, they have to be singular films. They have to be inherently noisy and somehow talked about,” commissioner Jo Clinton-Davis told the Televisual Factual Festival.
Channel 4 plays most of its single films through three established strands: Cutting Edge - contemporary, newsworthy stories from established directors; True Stories - often stranger than ficition, authored stories from the UK and abroad; and First Cut, for new directors. “A single doc”, says C4 head of docs Nick Mirsky, “will often capture the total 100% all absorbing commitment of the director. It can give space to their creative vision.”
Sky has had success with feature docs on Sky Atlantic, and runs 12 a year. They’re a mixture of commisioned, co-produced and acquired, like Known Unknown and No Good Reason.
The 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann – one of the key architects of the Holocaust – was the world’s first global TV event.
A prominent Nazi, Eichmann had been in charge of transporting millions of European Jews to death camps. He fled to Argentina after the War, evading justice until he was abducted by Israeli agents. He was put on trial in Jerusalem, with proceedings filmed for a global audience.
Described as the “trial of the century”, it was filmed live over four months by a crew led by American producer Milton Fruchtman and director Leo Hurwitz. In a hugely complex operation, the footage was then distributed daily to 37 countries, including the US, UK and Germany, where it was broadcast in prime time, often just the day after proceedings.
It was a seminal moment in the world’s understanding of the Holocaust. For many people, it was the first time the horror of the death camps had been heard live, directly from its victims. It’s said that 80% of the German population watched at least one hour a week.
The story behind the filming of the trial is now the subject of a single drama on BBC2, starring Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia.
Feelgood Fiction producer Lawrence Bowen stumbled across the idea for the drama while looking into the Eichmann trial, and came across a thread about Fruchtman. “I thought that’s interesting, partly because I am a producer myself. When you see famous trials of the past, you don’t think about someone operating the equipment, you think about the trial.”
As an entrepreneurial young producer in his early 30s, Fruchtman had read about the capture of Eichmann and flew to Israel to pitch the idea of filming the trial to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. He won the contract, ahead of more famous networks, and then hired director Hurwitz – who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era in the US.
Bowen followed the story further, looking at the archive itself from the trial. “As I started watching it, two things made me think we have got a film here,” says Bowen. Firstly, Eichmann was, he says, like the Bin Laden of post-war Europe. “When he was found, it was a huge event for the world. Add to that the enigma of Eichmann. He sat in a [bullet proof] glass box during the trial, and played the ‘I was just following orders’ card.” Secondly, the witness testimony was hugely affecting. Prosecutors chose just over 100 of the best witnesses they could find to tell the story of Holocaust.
The black and white archive from the trial plays a prominent role in the BBC2 film. But the film breathes new life into the archive by taking the point of view of the producer and director in their control room, all filmed in colour, and then zoning on the black and white trial footage they can see on their monitors. “It really legitimises the use of the archive I hope, because you are with the team watching,” says Bowen.
Bowen pitched the idea as a new way into the Eichmann trial to BBC history commissioner Martin Davidson and then to BBC2, which was planning a Holocaust memorial season for January 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.
Simon Block (The Shooting of Thomas Hurndell) was commissioned to write the script. This drew on the archive of director Hurwitz, who regularly wrote to his wife during the filming, and also several of the trial crew and participants who are still alive. This includes Fruchtman – who is now in his mid-80s and lives in California.
The court room scenes were shot in Lithuania, in a former Soviet cinema. The film also shot in Malta, which stood in for Jerusalem. Both countries offered tax breaks to supplement the BBC budget, while Indian producer Vistaar Productions also invested.
Paul Andrew Williams, who’d won acclaim for BBC3 drama Murdered by My Boyfriend, was hired as director. He received the script in the summer of 2014, and signed up almost immediately.
But tight deadlines meant he had no rehearsal time with Martin Freeman or Anthony LaPaglia. “It’s easily the toughest shoot I have ever done, and the toughest job.” He had two months of prep, before a 22 day shoot. “We were shooting scenes in an hour that normally would take half a day or a day.”
Throughout he has sought to incorporate the trial footage as seamlessly as possible, citing the work of Oliver Stone as an inspiration in mixing archive and contemporary material. “I didn’t want to just film it, I wanted to shoot our own archive, to blend in as much of our drama footage with other stuff around from the time.”
This thinking clearly informed the entire project. Says Bowen: “I want people to feel how audiences felt in 1961 learning about the Holocaust for the first time.”
The Eichmann Show airs on January 20th at 9pm on BBC2
The Eichmann Show is a Feelgood Fiction production for the BBC
Paul Andrew Williams Writer
Simon Block Producers
Laurence Bowen, Ken Marshall Commissioning editor
Martin Davidson Director of photography
Carlos Catalan Production designer
Grenville Horner Casting director
Julie Harkin Make up
Egle Mikalauskaite Costume
Daiva Petrulytre Co-producer
Sheetal Talwar Executive producer
2015 trends: Expect to see plenty more dramatic, sweeping aerial shots in factual, comedy and drama shows in 2015.
The era of affordable drone filming is very much upon us, thanks to advances in remote aerial platforms and gimbals. The launch in 2013 of the Movi gimbal, in particular, revolutionised the look of aerial shots – allowing producers to acquire super-smooth, filmic shots from the air that didn’t require huge amounts of image stabilisation in post.
For 2015, says Emma Boswell of the Helicopter Girls, the emphasis is going to be less on the aircraft and gimbals – and more on the cameras and what they can do. In particular, advances in wireless lens controllers mean that drone operators will be able to focus more on the quality of the shots. This will allow aerial footage to be better integrated into sequences.
“It means we can go back to the quality of the images rather than just being dazzled by being able to have an aerial view,” says Boswell, whose Helicopter Girls has worked on shows including The Detectorists, Teens and Da Vinci’s Demons using cameras like the Red Epic, Panasonic GH7 and Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.
The regulations surrounding drone filming also look set to tighten this year, particularly around cities and congested areas, as public concern increases over the number of unmanned aircraft in the sky.
There have been plenty of reports about operators losing control of their drones, including one where a drone fell onto an athlete at a sports meeting in Australia. A widely reported near miss between a drone and an airplane at Heathrow last year also focused attention on drone safety. Current Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules mean that anyone flying the aircraft on a commercial basis – ie for filming purposes – must have the correct CAA permission and be able to demonstrate basic flying skills.
The number of organisations given permits to use drones in the skies over Britain, including police forces and filmmakers, increased by 80% in 2014. The CAA currently authorises 359 operators using drones weighing under 20kg for work purposes.
The signs are that the CAA is becoming stricter in enforcement too, monitoring TV and internet footage for evidence of illegal drone filming. In 2014, it pursued two successful prosecutions over illegal drone flights, including one of a man who pleaded guilty to flying a quadcopter over rides at Alton Towers theme park.
At the moment, unmanned craft cannot be flown within 50 metres of structures, vehicles or people that are not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft. They cannot be flown within 150 metres of a congested area or large crowds of people. The maximum altitude is restricted to 400ft.
Boswell thinks new regulations around drone filming will also mean it becomes more expensive as permissions become more complicated. Current prices for drone filming are around £1,500-£1,600 a day for many projects. Still, the fact that aerial filming adds so much to a show – in terms of scale, space, perspective and the ability to travel to previously inaccessible areas - means that its popularity will only increase in 2015.
The latest predictions from analysts at Deloitte about the global TV market will make comforting reading for traditional broadcasters.
In its predictions for the media sector in 2015, Deloitte’s TMT practice plays down the impact of competition from short form video on YouTube, as well as from online VOD services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
The report says ad revenues from short online videos will be worth over £3bn globally in 2015 - a spectacular achievement for a format that barely existed a decade ago.
However, Deloitte points out that short form video from vloggers like Zoella (pictured above) will represent only a tiny fraction of the revenues and viewing generated by traditional, long form broadcasters.
It says that overall revenues from online video will account for about 1% of the over £260bn that traditional broadcasters generate from advertising and subscription revenues. The professional services firm predicts that broadcasters will take £134bn from long-form advertising on television. Pay-TV subscriptions should approach £128bn.
In terms of viewing, the report says that online short-form video should generate ten billion hours of viewing a month.
However, Deloitte estimates that in an average month over 360 billion hours of long-form video will be watched, principally on television sets, and mostly live.
Meanwhile, Deloitte also predicts that online subscription video on demand (SVOD) services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video will generate about £5bn globally this year - around 3% of the £168bn pay-TV market.
“SVOD should not be considered solely as a competitor to pay-TV but more as a complementary service and replacement for DVD box sets. In addition, SVOD players will struggle to match TV broadcasters’ investment in brand new high-end content,” said the report.
2015 trends: After years of false starts, virtual reality looks set for a bigger stage.
Asked recently about the technology he is most excited about, 21st Century Fox boss James Murdoch didn’t even hesitate before replying: virtual reality.
There have been years of false starts for the technology, which has been held back for several reasons – chief among them that it made users feel nauseous and that the environments weren’t real enough. But these problems are slowly being overcome as tech companies invest huge sums in virtual reality.
The nascent technology was thrust into the limelight last year when VR pioneer Oculus Rift was acquired by Facebook for an eye-watering $2bn. Facebook has been investing heavily in the Rift headset, which is expected to start selling to consumers this year.
Sony is seen as a key rival to Oculus Rift in the VR arena. Last year it unveiled its Project Morpheus prototype headset, but has not specified a price or release date for the device. There’s also great excitement around new VR outfit Magic Leap, which has secured $542m in funding from investors including Google.
Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus and Magic Leap’s technology are linked to computers or gaming platforms to create powerful VR experiences.
Other players have gone down the cheaper mobile route – which allows content to be played via VR apps on phones which can be slotted into cheap, specially designed headsets.
Google has launched Google Cardboard. Users download Google’s Cardboard VR app onto their phone, build their own headset with cardboard, and start watching. Samsung has produced a mobile phone based headset, Gear VR, which went on sale to developers last month for $199. And lens manufacturer Carl Zeiss is already selling the VR One, a smartphone-enabled mobile headset that is selling to developers for $99.
As well as gaming, VR presents plenty of possibilities for film and TV. This month’s Sundance Film Festival will be awash with VR installations, showcasing the technology to filmmakers. Sky plans to conduct VR trials on up to 15 shows, following investment in VR start up Jaunt.
British companies Atlantic Productions and Framestore have already pushed into the VR space. Indie producer Atlantic is pioneering VR content with a range of manufacturers and developers. They include two David Attenborough narrated projects, about the ancient seas (pictured above) and the world of insects, as well as projects about the ancient pyramids and life in the oceans. “2015 is going to be a very exciting year. A lot of projects are going to come out and I think people are going to be very excited by them,” says Atlantic CEO Anthony Geffen.
Framestore, meanwhile, launched a VR studio last year. It has produced several VR projects including one for Paramount Pictures based on the film Interstellar.and a VR ad for Volvo.
Relatively affordable devices that can deliver immersive experiences to consumers means that VR will be far more accessible than 3D. “Within two years the tech will be so far advanced and costs so low that millions of people will be able to have these experiences,” says Phil Harper, head of digital at Atlantic Productions.
2015 trends: Moves to overhaul the terms of trade will be hard fought by producers this year
The independent production sector goes into 2015 off the back of a year of huge structural change – and will be dealing with the implications for the next 12 months.
Deal making was unprecedented in 2014 in terms of size and scale, led by the £550m takeover of All3Media by Discovery and Liberty Global, and the £2bn merger of Shine, Endemol and Core Media under the ownership of 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global Management.
Consolidation, which has gathered pace over the past three years, has fundamentally altered the character of the production sector.
Ofcom reported last month that “seven of the biggest 12 UK independent production companies are vertically integrated with broadcaster owning companies that have significant global scale.”
Ofcom welcomes the fact that the production sector has become a fast growing and profitable market that is attractive to investors. The sector has grown 3.4% on average each year since 2009, generating £2.8bn in revenue – largely as a result of increasing overseas revenue. (Ofcom notes, however, that margins are not particularly high, and have fallen in recent years as broadcaster spend has dipped.)
But, given such significant structural change in the sector, Ofcom has said it will review the terms of trade. It says it will look at whether the relationship needs ‘rebalancing’ between production companies and broadcasters which offer terms of trade.
This follows calls by Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham and BBC director of television Danny Cohen to overhaul the terms of trade. The BBC, for example, is working on plans to introduce distinct terms of trade models for different indies, as part of wider proposals to scrap commissioning quotas and open up inhouse programming to indies.
However, it’s questionable whether a fundamental change to the terms of trade is needed.
Several of the major superindies, such as All3Media and Endemol, will gradually lose their qualifying status because they have been acquired by broadcaster-owning companies. The only remaining superindies whose commissions will qualify as indie productions are Tinopolis, Zodiak, Fremantle and IMG Sports Media.
Moreover, there appears to be little evidence that consolidation has led to fewer opportunities for smaller producers to win commissions. Indeed, Televisual recently reported that there had been a slew of new indie launches.
Despite the trend of consolidation and increasing concentration in the market, smaller independent producers have actually increased market share, according to Ofcom.
The terms of trade have been a key contributing factor to the success of the indie sector – and moves to change them will be hard fought by producers in 2015.
What do people do after they have spent most of their career working in post production in Soho?
It's a question that's often asked at the start of each new year, when people reassess their careers and think about exploring new opportunities.
One person who has already done so is Andy Barmer, the former managing director of The Mill and Absolute Post.
In 2013, Barmer went back to university to study an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at LCC (London College of Communication).
After many years of managing creatives, Barmer says he felt it was high time he gave it a go himself and the LCC course gave him the chance to develop his hobby of photography and explore his interest in the documentary form.
Barmer’s graduation piece, Abide With Me, is a 14 minute short he shot, edited, graded and produced himself. It looks at the lives of three generations of one family, and how the past has shaped their present.