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Sony goes shopping

Sony Pictures Television's president of international production, Andrea Wong tells Jon Creamer why the UK is crucial to the US studio's search for ideas and production partners

Mergers and acquisitions are not a new phenomenon in the UK's indie scene. The rise of the superindie is a story at least a decade old.

But the latest chapter in this tale has been the emergence of international buyers, particularly US studios, who have begun to take a greater interest in UK production companies of all stripes - NBC Universal bought Carnival, Warner Bros bought Shed, Newscorp bought Shine and Sony Pictures Television (SPT) got into the game too.

And at the tail end of last year, SPT made a big statement of intent by announcing that Andrea Wong, the US exec behind the development and commissioning of hit formats like Dancing With the Stars, The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover during her tenure at ABC, would be moving to London to run SPT's international production operations and hunt for new indie acquisitions and joint ventures.

SPT had already made a start on that with a stake in fact ent indie Gogglebox Entertainment and the launch of Victory Television, a joint venture with ex-Sony Pictures exec Victoria Ashbourne. But Wong has recently stepped things up a gear, buying Daisy Goodwin's Silver River earlier this year in a deal rumoured to be worth £12m. There are also ongoing talks to buy Andy Harries' drama indie Left Bank in a deal worth something north of £40m although all Wong will say about that deal is that she "can't comment on that, so there's nothing really to say right now."

She's more forthcoming on SPT's continued ambitions to buy, and help start up, UK indies. "Our goal is to build in the UK because Sony has not had as strong a presence as it would have liked to in the past," she says. "So you'll see us acquire companies and initiate start ups in all areas of television."

SPT already has a group of 17 production companies in 15 different countries but the focus is now to build up the UK side. "The UK market is the most important market in terms of content creation," she says. And that's down to the UK's unique television ecosystem. "The independent sector's thriving here. You've got commissioners who would rather commission a paper format than a hit show from another country. You get a lot more new ideas tried here and the runs of shows are shorter so there's more time for new ideas."

And that means "creativity abounds here" across the genres and all genres are in her sights. All kinds of deals are on the table too. "We're very flexible on our deal making. It could be start ups with established people or already established companies. It varies depending on the opportunity and it’s really about the people.” And the right fit is a hard thing to define. "It's chemistry, it's culture. We have to see eye to eye on what we want out of our partnership."

She says part of what she can do for those indies is firstly "taking all the operational burdens off of them that they want. Whether it’s IT or finance or HR, all those things that distract from being creative, we can do for them."

But there are creative benefits too, she says. "Wayne Garvie is here as the chief creative officer. His role is to help them be even stronger creatively whether its through cross collaboration among the group, taking our central development fund and infusing some of those resources into what they're doing or just connecting people and helping them with their ideas." The other offer from a big US studio is of course sheer scale and “leverage. Everything from a strong distribution system to helping these companies enter the US through our US studio."

What Sony wants from the deals it makes is simple: content, and content that travels, whether it's factual shows, entertainment shows or scripted shows. As to what defines what shows travel well, Wong says at the core it is something that "touches people emotionally. The human experience is very relatable no matter where you are in the world. So with The Bachelor, everybody knows what it feels like to be in love, everybody’s been dumped, everybody's dated, so it's a very relevant and resonant emotion." And the same is true of scripted shows that get remade elsewhere. "With Everybody Loves Raymond, the essence of that show has worked in other countries because it's about the family and the stories are relevant no matter where you are in the world."

But, in the end, it's not an exact science. "I'm not usually surprised by what is a hit but I'm sometimes surprised by a show you think's really good that doesn't work. You need a great idea, great execution. It has to be scheduled properly, marketed properly, be on the right network. In order to have a hit show all the stars have to align."

This interview was first published before Sony Pictures Television's acquisition of Left Bank was finalised

Posted 12 September 2012 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes: BBC3's Be Your Own Boss

Exec producer of Be Your Own Boss Tamara Abood tells Jon Creamer about creating a new business show while leaving the spectre of The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den behind

Every commissioner in TV land spends restless nights dreaming of bringing the next Apprentice or Dragons' Den to the screen. A long-running business format with big entertainment values has long been the pot of gold at the end of the telly rainbow.

But there's also a danger inherent in the quest for the next big business show. The shows that have come before cast a long shadow. They are formats that have created their own grammar and any series that doesn't break out of that can end up looking like just a pale imitation.

So Tamara Abood, exec producer of BBC3's new entrepreneur show, Be Your Own Boss knew the series had to walk a fine line. “This is BBC3’s response to the glut of business shows that are out there,” says Abood. And the drive was "what do we do to mark it out as different and that also reflects the BBC3 demographic?"

But the spectre of business shows past was always there. "What I was really worried about was it could be a show where it's reduced to a series of sequences of people going to branding experts and marketing experts and all the grammar of what's needed to produce content," says Abood. So instead, the push was to do "something a bit more nerve wracking" by having "a very light hand on the producer tiller. We actually said 'let's see how this plays out a bit'. And the truth is [the budding business people] were so motivated they pulled us along. They brought their own momentum to it."

The action on the show starts with an 'expo' that was shot over a bank holiday weekend at the Truman Brewery where 500 budding entrepreneurs were invited to pitch their ideas to Innocent Smoothies co founder, Richard Reed. Each episode then starts with Reed picking three groups or individuals and handing them a few grand in seed capital before sending them off to prove to him that the idea works. The end of each episode then has those entrepreneurs finding out if any or all of them will be winning a much larger investment from Reed.

The format itself was very much guided by the central talent, says Abood. And the difference between a Reed and a Sugar or a dragon provided much of the difference between this show and those that have come before. "In the course of our conversations with him the idea evolved," says Abood. "It reflects who he is and his ethos. That runs through it so it marks itself out." And the lack of the "nasty" edge that typifies most shows is evident. "That's a massive part of it, it goes back to that thing of who he is. Richard's blunt at times when he needs to be but it has a very different feel," says Abood. "He even hugs people."

Another break from The Apprentice is the series' closed episodes, helpful for repeatability on a digital channel, but also a helpful way of following more participants and providing a point of difference. "We're not going to follow a few people across the series. He wanted to be able to give an opportunity to as many people as he could and we didn't want to be constrained by only following X number over the series. It makes it a potentially more interesting show because we're used to the grammar of seeing people eliminated in many of these business shows."

It's also a show more rooted in reality than others. "It's very much rooted in the real world. It is an entertainment commission that has all of the fun of the fair, but we are watching young people in their back bedrooms trying to make their business idea work. There's no house they share, they're not competing against each other so he can invest in all the businesses or none at all."

In terms of production, avoiding accusations of borrowing from The Apprentice were also important. "There are no helicopter shots in this and skylines we don't do," says Abood. And the reality parts of the show look "lightly produced so it feels real. Not gritty and hopefully not ugly but real." But the show is an entertainment commission. "For the big set up stuff - the expo and the ending, those things have a look and feel that's a bit more luxuriant. It still has the high-end gloss factor of a big entertainment show. At the expo we had Steadicams, jibs, Sony PDW 800s and Canon C300s. It was camera-tastic. The overall impression is of a glossy show with some scale. There's a lot of fun in it."

Be Your Own Boss is a new Twofour/BBC3 business format that has the co-founder of Innocent Smoothies, Richard Reed, picking groups of entrepreneurs to hand a small amount of seed capital to who are then filmed as they go out and prove their business idea can work. Those that make the grade are then in line to pick up major funding from the businessman.
Production company
Commissioned by
BBC3 controller Zai Bennett and executive editor, entertainment comissioning, Alan Tyler
Exec producers
Tamara Abood, Dan Adamson and Andrew Mackenzie for Twofour
Series producer
Juliette Murray-Topham
Kim Wechter
Canon C300s and Sony PDW800s for the set pieces and Canon 305s for the director shot stories

Posted 12 September 2012 by Jon Creamer

Making factual TV multiplatform

At the upcoming Televisual Factual Festival, a panel of digital practitioners will give their take on how to form multiplatform strategies for factual productions. Here is a preview of what they'll be talking about

Dan Jones,
head of multiplatform,
Maverick Television

Multiplatform has been on broadcaster's agendas for a good ten years now, so every indie has a thriving multiplatform arm and a solid new revenue steam, right? Well not quite - limited budgets, squeezed margins and a difficult rights environment make business very tough - but new models and approaches are beginning to bear fruit. Creatively, the space is thriving, from tracking foxes and spying on hippos to fighting for fish's rights and monitoring worrying moles (your own). Apps and social media activity are starting to usefully drive editorial, accessible technology is allowing new forms of interaction, and successful new factual formats are finally being generated from original multiplatform ideas.

Adam Gee,
multiplatform commissioning editor, features
and factual entertainment, C4

The focus of my attention is on creating factual multiplatform television with two key characteristics - (i) highly integrated (ii) with ambition and impact. The commission which best captures what I'm trying to achieve is probably Embarrassing Bodies Live from the Clinic. If you remove the interactive, digital dimension from the show it barely exists; and if you had the Skype stuff with no peaktime TV presence that too would be a far lesser being. Here's a tweet from Dr Christian during this last series: "Radiologist made contact to say 5 women came in after watching @EmbBodies breast check. 3 turned out to have cancer, thankfully caught early" It captures the impact and ambition aspect perfectly.

Simon Meek,
creative head,
The Story Mechanics

For a while now, you could be forgiven for thinking the TV industry has been chasing its tail with its multiplatform ambitions... it has! Thankfully, there are now a few clear markers as to where the industry is heading and what commissioners actually want, with an array of new acronyms for good measure. IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) are the letters on most people's lips, where new forms of interactive entertainment are only a finger press away; and the potential for dual-screening is huge, particularly in the factual market. The big question is whether it's the TV indies that should be producing the next wave of digital content?

Nick Underhill,
Keo Films Digital

At KEO films we place digital media at the heart of the multiplatform production process to avoid it becoming an inconvenient afterthought. This approach has been central to our recent successes, enabling the engagement of large and loyal audiences despite the chalk and cheese approach to production. For it to work well, both sides need to be open and pragmatic around content and trust in their shared goals despite different perceptions of value.

Posted 05 September 2012 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes of Sky Atlantic's mega doc The British

Indie Nutopia follows up its mega doc about the history of the US with a series for Sky Atlantic on the British. Exec producer Ben Goold tells Jon Creamer about televising 2000 years in seven hours

You have to look pretty far back to a time when the history mega doc packed with drama and cgi was an almost constant feature of the primetime schedules.

But Jane Root's indie Nutopia has managed to revive the genre, first with the enormous ten-parter America: The Story of Us for the History Channel US, the upcoming Mankind: The Story of All of Us and now with the equally ambitious The British for Sky Atlantic - a big budget mix of high end drama, cgi and interviews with well known Brits.

But the seven hour series that runs through British history from the Roman invasion to the TV age is a different beast from those big budget history series that existed a few years back, says exec producer Ben Goold. "Those early big factual dramas were great but they were telling single stories and had ambitions to be factually led feature films. But we're doing something different. It's more multi-layered. The drama carries character-led stories but we also have cgi, documentary, interviews."

It's also a series that's not being approached as a "history" says Goold. "We never call it the history of Britain. What we try to do is tell a story of Britain. It's not aimed at an audience that would necessarily watch history." Because a big budget show has to have more mainstream ambitions. "We wanted to take history out of the history documentary slot. It's a story that's meant to appeal to a wide audience and a younger audience used to Hollywood movies and computer games."

Which is why the scale of the show is so important. "That allows us to be more entertaining and to create a more real and visceral world that draws you in and has the qualities of drama or film. It's about creating a world that feels authentic and real so the characters don't feel like historical cut outs."

The drama itself was shot partly in the UK, partly in Morocco (when the focus turned to the Crusades) and partly in South Africa and is made on the same scale as any big budget pure drama, says Goold "except we have less time." He describes the shoot as "exciting but punishing. We're shooting a different story in a different period in a different location with a different cast and a whole different set of costumes and art department requirements every day." The speed is aided by the lack of dialogue but there's still "a lot to do" and "there are few economies of scale." But with America already completed and the even more ambitious Mankind still in production, the team have developed a "creative machine. We learnt a lot from our mistakes on our first one. We have a model for how you set it up and how you do it." And the production teams have stayed relatively constant from project to project. "It's great to have new people and fresh talent but also we don't want to re-invent the wheel every time." The production model is being honed so it can be shifted to the stories of other nations with either Nutopia producing or, possibly, with Nutopia just consulting.

The drama itself is shot "in a very particular way, " says Goold. "The mid shot is our enemy." It also has to look real. "In an ancient world things are dirty. We've got an eye to that real sense of grittiness and earthiness. We don't want everyone to look like they've stepped out of an oil painting." The constant drive is for it not to feel "like a perfect costume drama full of bonnets. The moment people feel the characters are wearing a costume then we haven't done our job."

The cg, created by Rushes, also has a particular job to do. "It's not classic drama enhancement. It's not reveals of cities in the background or Rome on the seven hills." The cg is both explanatory and purposely fantastical. "In a way we're breaking the rules of the cgi houses whose first instinct is to create cgi that you don't know is cgi." The mantra is "if the audience doesn't know it's cgi then we're wasting the money." The drive is to create something closer to animation. "We're zooming through landscape, linking between stories and crossing history and time at an incredibly fast pace so we're seeing towns appear, buildings build themselves and landscapes transform." And, as with the rest of the show "it's supposed to be fun and entertaining as well as tell a story."

The British follows on from Nutopia's US mega doc, America: The Story of Us. The Sky Atlantic seven-parter tells the history of Britain and Ireland from the Roman invasion to the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, using drama, CGI and commentary from historians along with well known names from the worlds of entertainment, politics and science.
Executive producers
Ben Goold, Peter Lovering, Phil Craig, Jane Root for Nutopia br /> Celia Taylor for Sky
Series producers
Sam Starbuck, Michael Waterhouse
Nick Green, Louise Hooper, Jenny Ash
Production designer
Birrie le Roux
DoP's Mike Snyman, Giulio Biccari
Composer Ty Unwin
Jonathan Privett and Louise Hussey at Rushes
CGI producer
Nicola Kingham
Line producers
Lareine Shea
Peter McAleese
Interviews shot on Sony PDW F800 and a variety of cameras for the drama shoot

Posted 05 September 2012 by Jon Creamer
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