Subscribe Online  


Britannia: behind the scenes

Druids and Ancient Britons battle it out with Roman invaders in Sky and Amazon’s big budget Britannia. Tim Dams reports

In many ways, Britannia symbolises the new era of high end drama production in the UK.

A tale of British tribes and druids uniting to resist the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD, this sword and sandals spectacular is clearly pitched at the global audience that has lapped up Game of Thrones.

A co-production between broadcaster Sky and streaming giant Amazon, it comes with the necessary big budget and high production values too, and was shot in Wales and the Czech Republic. Sky won’t reveal the exact figure, but the broadcaster bills the series as its ‘most ambitious ever.’ Amazon has US rights.

And finally, it boasts the kind of on- and off-screen talent needed to make a drama stand out on the international market – including writer Jez Butterworth (Spectre, Jerusalem), Star Wars producer Rick McCallum and actors Kelly Reilly, David Morrissey and Zoe Wannamaker.

A filmic approach
Britannia is also the first TV drama for British film producer Vertigo Films, which has dozens of features to its name including Streetdance, Monsters and Walking on Sunshine. Vertigo is just the latest in a line of film companies to produce for the small screen, a move that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago before the rise of high end television drama.

As such, says executive producer James Richardson, it was a baptism of fire for him and for Jez Butterworth, for whom Britannia is his first TV project too.

“You have no idea how much respect I have for my colleagues in the TV business,” says Richardson. “It’s the length of it. When you think it is all over, you have got the next script and episode to make and to edit. It is a relentless process.”

Richardson traces the genesis of Britannia back to a trip to the AFM (American Film Market) four years ago – a time when Netflix was on the rise and starting to disrupt the industry. “There was something in the air that said the indie film business was in a very different place, a declining space.” He and his business partner Allan Niblo decided there and then to launch a TV division.

It wasn’t just a business decision though, but a creative one too. “I had made 35 films and I felt I wasn’t getting inspired by film like I used to.” Film, he says, blossomed creatively in the 1970s. But it is rare to find films that are really surprising today, he says. “We have got this three act structure where you kind of know what is going to happen at the end of the first, second and third act.” TV drama is where the creative boundaries are being pushed now, says Richardson.

Richardson started to develop a project about the warrior queen Boudicca, which morphed into a project about the Romans, Celts and Druids – an area he felt had never been properly explored on screen. “I was pitching as a bit like Star Wars, but with ancient Britons,” he says.

At this point, he talked to Jez Butterworth (who happens to be his brother-in-law) about the project. “Jez is one of my oldest friends, and he is also married to my sister. We always said we would never work together.” But the pair started to talk about projects more seriously a few years ago. “With someone like Jez, he is so brilliant and extraordinary you kind of just have to surf with him, catch one of his crazy waves and see where you go with it. It’s incredibly exciting.”

“And he just said, I know what to do with this – it is going to be my first TV show.”

Butterworth was interested in exploring the ‘myth angle’ of ancient Britain, particularly the cultures that had been irrevocably altered by the Roman invasion, having been inspired by a book called A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.

Britannia explores the lost world of ancient British tribes, imagining how they might have lived. But it is a freewheeling romp through the period, rather than an historical piece. The focus, stresses Richardson, is very much on story, not history. “We had a brilliant historical advisor, Jonathan Stamp, who had worked on Rome, and we asked him to tell us about the druids. He said the great thing about what you are doing – we know about 40% of what the Romans did, 20% of what the Celts did, and we know nothing about what the Druids did. You can do whatever you want.”

Richardson says that Vertigo, which has executive produced the series with Neal Street, approached Britannia as it would one of its movies. He describes Vertigo films, whether Bronson or Pudsey the Dog: The Movie, as ‘not normal, classical fare’.  “If we are making a show about Britain in 43AD, let’s make it look and feel very different and extraordinary – let’s challenge it and push it and tell a story that has scale, but not just visually. This show goes mental as it goes on – what you started watching at the beginning is totally different by the end.”

The push into television looks to be paying off for Vertigo. The company is also making new police drama Bulletproof, starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke, for Sky, together with Company Pictures. Another project is soon to be announced, adds Richardson. “There is so much opportunity and disruption in TV, which creatively is the most exciting place to be.”

Distributor Sky Vision has invested heavily in Britannia, taking international rights outside the US and UK.  Sky was marketing the drama aggressively at last month’s Mipcom programme market, with a red carpet premiere screening and a lavish beach side party for international buyers.

The scale of funding now needed for standout drama means that the risks have increased for investors like Sky Vision. “It used to be that drama advances were at best top up funding and an advance against distribution rights. Now our advances have gone from 10% of budget up to 60%,” says Jane Millichip, managing director of Sky Vision, who stresses that “managing risk” is key for distributors. “Good is no longer good enough in the drama field. Only excellence is, and that means putting in more risk funding and producing brilliant drama.”

For Millichip, however, it all starts with the writing – and the involvement of Jez Butterworth as a writer and director, making his TV debut after huge critical success in the theatre with plays like Jerusalem, was a clear attraction. The ‘common thread’ that Sky Vision looks for in dramas, she adds, is really bold, flavourful worlds and precincts. “We are creating worlds that are very confident in themselves,” she says.

The writer is also key to drawing in top acting talent. “My big attraction to a drama like Britannia is the writing,” says the show’s star, David Morrissey. “If it is someone like Jez – he and Tom (Butterworth) are like showrunners – that is a great carrot, but also a level of comfort for me.”

“You are signing up with those people. And that is where you are putting your trust, and then you as an individual can get in there and get busy as well. You want to be part of the creative team – that is important.”

The drama boom fuelled by Netflix and Amazon that has given risen to large-scale projects like Britannia is, admits Morrissey, rich in opportunity for actors.
Television, he says, has become like a “long form novel” with multiple characters and storylines unfolding over many episodes which viewers can binge watch whenever suits them.

Viewers want to watch over many series too, and this has had an effect on acting talent. “For me, the one difference compared to ten years ago is that when I come into a TV project, they are probably looking for a three year option in your contract. In America if you go and do a TV pilot, you will sign a seven year deal – that has been the case for a long time. But now in the UK that is coming in a bit, particularly for a two or three year option. Britannia is a three year option, but whether they use you for three years …but you are not surprised if it comes at you.”

Morrissey says the other attractive factor about the drama revolution for actors is that it is “creative driven”, citing shows like Narcos, Gomorrah and The Crown. “You hear people talk about the creative licence they got to make their show – and it is true of Britannia as well.”

When the Romans invade Britain in 43AD, Kerra (Kelly Reilly), daughter of the King of the Cantii, is forced to put her differences aside with arch-rival Queen Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker) to face their invaders. The Romans, led by General Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey), are determined to succeed where Julius Caesar failed and conquer this mythical land at the far edge of the Roman Empire. As tribes and Druids unite to fight the Romans, Kerra spearheads the resistance against the might of the Roman army.

Co-produced by
Sky and Amazon
Production companies
Vertigo Films, Neal Street
Created by
Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson
Executive producers
James Richardson, Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Nicolas Brown, Jez Butterworth and Anne Thomopoulos
Rick McCallum
Jez and Tom Butterworth, Richard McBrien

Posted 19 December 2017 by Tim Dams

Report: the huge growth of the UK's studios sector

New studios are going up all over the country thanks to the boom in TV drama. Tim Dams reports on the expansion of the UK studio sector

Last month, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan confirmed his backing for a new studio in Dagenham East – the first new TV and film production studios in London for at least 25 years. The move followed publication of a study, led by the economic consultancy SQW, which confirmed that there is more than enough demand for a brand new studio in London. The next step is to find investors to back development of the 20-acre site – nine acres of which is industrial land purchased from Sainsbury’s for £12m last year.

Production figures certainly prove that demand for studio space is high. The production of high-end TV – shows that have a core expenditure of more than £1m per hour – is growing over time. In 2016, 450 scripted original shows aired on American TV, a figure that has doubled since 2010. (It is expected to be even higher in 2017). Netflix’s total spend alone on content is expected to be more than $8bn this year.

Many are choosing to shoot in the UK, attracted by the talent base, attractive tax benefit and the weak pound. The UK production spend of qualifying high-end television programmes was £726 million in 2016.

Around 65% of this expenditure comes from overseas, principally the United States, on shows such as Netflix’s The Crown and HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Studio bosses confirm that business is buoyant, with many benefitting from the rise of high end television drama – which has often made up for a collapse in lower budget film production. Elstree, is home to The Crown, Humans and Grantchester; The Crown uses three stages including George Lucas Stage 1 and the Backlot. Meanwhile, Belfast’s Titanic Studios hosts Game of Thrones, Space Studios Manchester is the base for Cold Feet and Bristol’s Bottle Yard has hosted Poldark, Trollied and Broadchurch.

The Dagenham East study found that TV and film productions typically need large, permanent studio spaces of at least 125,000 sq. ft of stages to meet their needs. But it concluded that demand is so buoyant that a number of major productions are having to be turned away.

Number 9 Films producer Stephen Woolley (Made in Dagenham, Their Finest, On Chesil Beach) said: “The UK is witnessing a real production boom for film and TV and it shows no signs of slowing, so new studio space to complement sites like 3 Mills, Pinewood and Shepperton is terrific news. When we shot Made In Dagenham we actually had to film part of it in Wales – if this site had been an option maybe we could have made the whole film in 
east London”

New studios are, of course, being developed in all corners of the UK to meet demand. In Northern Ireland, the £20m Belfast Harbour Studios project includes over 120,000 sq ft of studios, workshops and offices.
It secured its first production this summer, a Superman prequel Krypton for Syfy channel from Phantom Four in association with Warner Horizon Scripted Television.

Scotland looks set to get its first studio complex, after proposals for six sound stages on the outskirts of Edinburgh were approved this year.  The £230m Pentland Studios project will sit on a 106 acre site and offer studios ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 square feet along with a water stage and workshop and office space.

A new studio, Wolf Studios Wales, is also being readied in Cardiff, in a deal between indie Bad Wolf and the Welsh government. Bad Wolf will film all of their upcoming shows in the studio including the series A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials.

There are also proposals to build more studios at Purfleet (Quartermaster Studios) and North Greenwich.

Meanwhile, existing studios are busy expanding. Pinewood recently applied for planning permission to build another three sound stages. This comes on top of the five it opened last July.

Elstree has finance and approval for a 21,000 sq ft stage on its backlot area. It also intends to build a smaller stage of approximately 11,000 sq ft.

Space Studios Manchester is in the midst of building a sixth stage, measuring 30,000 sq. ft., part of a £14m expansion plan. Leavesden Studios plans to extend facilities at its site by a quarter.

Not all TV dramas, of course, are heavy users of studios – many will be based at a studio, but will shoot on location.

Traditional studios also face competition from warehouses on industrial estates which have been adapted for filming. For example, a former council depot in Hartlepool is set to be converted into a film studio. Screen Yorkshire has converted a former aircraft hangar at Church Fenton into a studio, home to ITV hit Victoria.

Established studios stress their onsite facilities, such as art departments through to camera and lighting hire.  They are also air-conditioned and acoustically treated.

The studio building boom is predominantly focused on sound stages for drama and film, where record growth is taking place. By comparison, fully equipped TV studios – with galleries and shiny floors – are finding business more challenging. They may be busy, but many TV studio execs say that budgets for TV shows remain under pressure (although production aspirations are higher than ever) with studios taking a hit.

At the same time, running a TV studio is expensive; the cost of upgrading them to ever higher technical standards continues to rise.  Television studios say they are having to squeeze in ever more shows and to work harder to make a decent return.

Many well known TV studios, like Fountain and Teddington, have closed after being sold to property developers – an indication that its owners think they can make more money elsewhere. The London Studios also closes next year when ITV redevelops the space.

The plans for a new studio in Dagenham are welcomed by producers because they address a real shortfall of studio space in the UK’s creative hub, London.  However, it is difficult to build new studios in the capital – the demand for housing land in particular is intense, constraining new supply. 
The authors of the report on building the Dagenham studio called it “a rare chance to build a world-class film studio within the boundaries of Greater London. It would support the long-term success of the UK’s booming film and TV production industries while also contributing to the ongoing regeneration of east London and the Thames estuary.”

It concluded that a studio with at least 125,000 sq. ft of stages at Dagenham could generate around 780 full time equivalent jobs and £35m of gross value added (GVA) per year for the economy.
The report concluded that some industry execs believe Dagenham might be a ‘hard sell’, given its distance from the west London heart of the London film business. The report also said that the social aspects of the area, such as its retail and leisure offer and its public realm, will need further thought as part of wider regeneration plans if it is to appeal to such workers. Other challenges need tackling too, not least a noisy railway line running along its southern boundary.

That said, there is strong political support for the project, plus the transport links are good too. The Dagenham studio would also be part of a regional film/TV cluster that included existing studios, such as 3 Mills and Maidstone, and proposed ones at Purfleet (Quartermaster Studios) and North Greenwich.

More importantly, there is the question of demand. Film London estimates that over the past two years the UK has lost between five and ten major productions due to a lack of large-scale (i.e. 125,000 sq ft-plus) studio space. It estimates that a new facility in Dagenham could accommodate anything between three and five of these projects per year.

Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London and the British Film Commission, said: “This is a golden era for London’s screen industries, and the city’s success helps drive growth in film and TV production across the UK as a whole. However, such success brings its own challenges, and if we’re to maintain our position then we need to make sure we can continue to remain competitive and meet global demand.”

3 Mills

Set amid period buildings on an island in East London, 3 Mills has been busy thanks to high-end TV drama from the US and the UK. It also attracts animation features, plus theatre rehearsals. Facilities 9 filming stages (3,219 sq ft to 13,483 sq ft); 11 rehearsal spaces; production offices,62 seat screening room; make up, dressing and costume rooms; workshops  Credits The Royals (E!), Guilt (ABC), Jekyll & Hyde (ITV)

Bottle Yard

Series four of Poldark is now in production at Bristol’s Bottle Yard, which also recently hosted BBC4’s Eric, Ernie & Me. They add to a raft of dramas which have shot at the studios in the past year.  Facilities Eight stages from 7,000 – 22,000 sq ft; min height 27 ft, max 70 ft; green screen; back lot; costume & make up rooms; offices. Credits Broadchurch (ITV); Ill Behaviour (BBC2); Poldark, (BBC); The White Princess (Starz)

Ealing Studios

Ealing opened for business in 1902 and has been in use ever since - most recently with dramas like The Durrells and Taboo. Stage two was built in 1931 and is a classic sound stage, while stages 3A and 3B can combine into an 11,900 sq ft space. Facilities Five stages, ranging from 924 - 11,900 sq ft; wardrobes, dressing rooms, hair and make up rooms, prop stores,  workshops & office space. Credits The Durrells (ITV), Taboo (BBC1)


Elstree is popular because of its close proximity to London and because two of its stages are some of the biggest in the UK. Facilities Seven film and TV stages. Its two biggest stages are 15,770 sq ft each, and 50ft high. Studios have production galleries, wardrobe, make-up and dressing rooms. Credits The Crown (Netflix), Grantchester (ITV), Humans (C4)

Pinewood Group
Iver Heath

Pinewood now has 40 film and TV stages across three sites: Pinewood, Shepperton and Cardiff. Five new stages opened last July at Pinewood. Facilities 40 film and TV stages; digital and post services; three dedicated TV studios; water facilities; sets and props. Credits When Bowie Met Bolan (Sky Arts) The Collection (Amazon); The Child in Time (BBC1)

Space Studios

A purpose built production stage complex, Space Studios Manchester is investing £14m to expand. A new 30,000 sq ft sound stage opens by the end of the year. Facilities Five stages (9,000-11,000 sq ft); dressing and make up facilities; laundry; prop storage; workshops; offices; canteen. Credits Cold Feet (ITV); The A Word (BBC1)


Best known for hosting Game of Thrones, Titantic Studios is based on the site of a former shipyard in Belfast. Facilities The Paint Hall - four 16,000 sq ft “cells” set out in a square and connected by an internal road and streets. The Hurst and MacQuitty stages comprise two 21,000 sq ft spaces with an eaves height of 43ft Credits Game of Thrones (HB0)


With a good location, a boutique atmosphere and excellent facilities, Twickenham is a popular home for UK indie features and high-end TV drama. Facilities Three sound stages; three Dolby Atmos sound mixing theatres; one Foley/ADR theatre; 2K/4K Baselight theatrical and TV grading facility.Credits Black Mirror (Netflix), Howard’s End (BBC2), Josh (BBC3), Hold the Sunset (BBC1)

Warner Bros

Originally a WWII aircraft factory, Leavesden began a new life as a film studio in 1994 – going on to be the base for all eight Harry Potter films. Warner Bros bought the studios in 2010 and has invested heavily since. Facilities 13 sound stages; 100 acre clear horizon backlot; external water tank and indoor heated water tank; offices, dressing room, workshops, mill. Credits Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Wonder Woman, Justice League; The Conjuring 2

Wimbledon Studios

Wimbledon offers two stages close to central London. It’s also home to a purpose built, permanent exterior street set which has terraced housing, a fully dressed pub, shop and takeaways. Facilities Two sound stages: Studio 1 is 7,000 sq ft, Studio 2 is over 8,000 sq ft; office suites; workshops; costume facilities; dressing rooms; hair and make up facilities. Credits Bad Education (C4), Drifters (E4), Cuckoo (BBC3)

Posted 14 December 2017 by Tim Dams

Focus 2017 report: the impact of the global production boom

From high-end TV dramas such as The Night Manager, The Crown and Game of Thrones to big budget movies such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Justice League, there has been a well-documented boom in international production in recent years.

Money has poured into film and TV production, with tech giants such as Netflix and Amazon backing lavish shows that are shot all over the world.  It’s not just scripted content though; video production of all kinds is on the up, whether factual TV, commercials or branded content, as consumers around the world embrace new ways of viewing content on mobile platforms. Demand for talent and crew as well as production services and facilities has shot up as result.

The impact of this global production boom was the big talking point at FOCUS 2017, the annual show for the creative screen industries held at the Business Design Centre in London (December 5&6) which has Televisual as a media partner.

Exhibitors at the show included film commissions, location providers, service companies and production technology outfits from over 60 countries. They were all there to tap into this production boom, looking to attract the interest of hundreds of attendees, such as producers, directors, location managers, unit managers, financiers and writers for films, TV, commercials and branded content. (Delegates this year included Spectre executive producer Callum McDougall and Star Wars: The Last Jedi supervising location manager Martin Joy).

One of the reasons so many exhibitors from around the world were there is that the rewards for attracting a high profile project are greater than ever in this era of big budget production. Securing a location shoot for a show like Game of Thrones, with its reported budget of $10m an episode, is a major prize, and can significantly boost a local economy, providing spillover employment and spend throughout a region.

All this explains why there was, for example, a large contingent of Sri Lankan companies at the show. One of them, production service outfit Asian Film Location Services, was keen to explain the merits of shooting in a film-friendly country that in the past hosted features such as The Bridge of the River Kwai or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but lost out as a result of the Civil War which finally ended in 2009. “We’re now going out to tell the world that Sri Lanka is operating as normal,” says director Jayantha Jayatilaka.

So too was Uganda’s Talking Film Productions, which has worked on features such as Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe and Marvel Studio’s upcoming Black Panther. Derrick Kibisi’s company offers a full range of services from securing locations to casting and moving gear in and out of the country. For a long time, Uganda was known as Idi Amin country, he explains. But that’s changing, and more productions are drawn by Uganda’s landscape, security, good weather, friendly people and competitive prices. “The only thing it lacks is incentives, but it is still the cheapest place to shoot in East Africa.”

Even Film LA, based right at the heart of the global film industry, was at FOCUS. The Los Angeles region is vying to win back many of the Hollywood films that shoot outside the state, attracted by generous government incentives and cheaper labour rates. “We’re here to let people know that California is competitive again,” says Film LA’s Paul Audley, citing its tax credit and a single shooting permit that covers 20 cities in the state. It’s Audley’s third year at FOCUS; in his first year he says he attracted a $30m film to Los Angeles. “It’s my only foray into Europe and a good place to be and to meet people.”

Other stands showed off the latest in new production technology from around the world, explaining how they can help film-makers. Netherlands-based WeMakeVR was at the show, displaying its virtual reality experiences. VR, says lead producer Diede Bron, is great for showing locations, saving on travel costs. Because it is seen as so cutting edge, VR is also gaining popularity for commercial shoots, for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger.

There were plenty of financial and tech companies at FOCUS too, offering clever solutions to help make productions more efficient. Fair FX, for example, is an expenses management platform; it allows productions to hand out pre-paid debit cards to travelling cast and crew, instead of cash. “It’s the most cost effective way of doing expenses,” says chief commercial officer James Hickman.  Tripgrid, meanwhile, uses technology to help productions to organise complex international travel schedules. “It means you never need get a call from a crew member saying, ‘Help, what time is my flight?” explains Tripgrid’s Bartek Podkowa.

There was also a strong UK presence at FOCUS, with companies selling specialist services to the film and TV industry such as logistics, security, legal advice and travel expenses management through to locations, temporary studios, drone filming and lighting gear.

Many of them agreed that the industry is enjoying a purple patch, and that they have benefitted as a result. Tony Scott, operations director of logistics provider Dynamic International, says it’s the busiest period in his company’s 30-year history. It sent out a convoy of 56 vehicles to Tenerife for the movie Jason Bourne. It has also been shipping and arranging customs clearance for kit and equipment for the last six seasons of Game of Thrones, which shoots in Northern Ireland, Croatia, Iceland, Morocco and Spain. “It’s a boom period,” says Scott, citing the rise of the streaming platforms and explaining that terrestrial channels have upped their game too as a result.

The boom has also rippled through to companies such as Above the Line, which offers security for film and TV productions in studios and on location. The company had 150 security guards a day working on Jurassic World. Its offer extends from traffic management through to terrorist training management control. “It’s very busy because there are so many films coming over here,” says Above the Line’s Lamorna O’Toole. “And next year is shaping up to be very good too,” she adds, citing features such as the next Star Wars. 

The pros and cons of this boom was explored in depth at FOCUS’s programme of seminars and keynotes.

Many of the speakers acknowledged that TV appears to be supplanting film, once considered the highest of the screen artforms. Producer Robert Jones (The Usual Suspects, Dirty Pretty Things, Babylon) said: “TV has matured and developed in a way that is easily comparable to film in terms of its scope and ambition and its production values. It represents an enormous creative playground and challenge.” Writer/producer Dominic Minghella (Knightfall, Doc Martin) added: “Great movie talent is moving into television, and the distinction between film and TV is becoming blurred.” It was a point picked up by David Shepherd, the director of the Vancouver Film Commission: “Feature film was the Holy Grail, but that has now flipped. Now high end TV is the bedrock of the industry. For us, it is all about building the crews and multiplying the resources to take care of what they need.”

All were quick to acknowledge that demand for content is booming. “There is an absolute insatiable demand for content which doesn’t seem to be waning at all, as more and more platforms are opening up,” noted agent Elaine Steel.

As a result, there are more opportunities for producers to create and sell new projects to a host of new buyers, such as Apple, Facebook, Hulu and YouTube Red. Some even acknowledged that they were struggling to keep up with demand. Einar Sveinn Thordarson, partner at Icelandic production services outfit Pegasus Pictures, has worked on shows such as Game of Thrones and Fortitude in recent years. Citing Iceland’s population of 320,000, he said that if more than three big TV projects shot in the country, “we are depleted.”

But competition has intensified as more companies look to tap into the production boom, with many film indies pushing into the TV market. Scott Free Films executive producer Carlo Dusi said the TV drama boom had pushed up prices for crew, talent and facilities, making it harder to produce independent films. Many speakers warned that the boom was only benefiting top level talent, particularly writers, stars and showrunners, whose names can help sell a project in such a crowded marketplace.  Others feared that big scale projects were drowning out innovative, local dramas which struggle to stand out. “I feel like everyone has been hunting for projects like The Night Manager as far as UK broadcasters are concerned,” noted Katie Spence (Peaky Blinders, Luther), the managing director of Fifty Fathoms.  Nicolas Brown, the director of film and TV at Neal Street Productions (Penny Dreadful, The Hollow Crown) added that very few shows are now made for a budget of less than £1m an hour.

There was also an undercurrent of fear that the tech giants are slowly but surely disrupting local broadcast ecologies with their big spending ways. “Eventually they will commission direct and own everything. The UK is in grave danger of becoming a service industry for them,” said agent Elaine Steel.

Other speakers stressed that the content boom isn’t just confined to film and TV. Lindsey Clay, the chief executive of TV advertising body ThinkboxUK, noted that TV advertising revenues had increased in each of the seven years leading up to Brexit, when growth had ground to a halt.  But the outlook for next year is more positive, she said. “I’m cautiously optimistic for 2018,” said Clay. Meanwhile, Steve Garvey, the founder of Moving Image, talked about the growing demand for corporate film and branded video in recent years.

This content boom has, however, revealed shortcomings in the skill bases in lots of countries, with many productions struggling to find experienced and trained  crew. Rob Alcock, head of training at the BBC Academy, cited key skills shortages in four specific areas: digital, production leaders such as executive producers, craft based skills and broadcast engineering. “This is an industry marred by dependency on short term contracts, which impacts on training,” said Alcock. “Where in the system is the time and money being spent on training people?”

His point was picked up by Magnus Temple, chief executive of The Garden (24 Hours in A&E), who said that attracting and retaining talented staff is a major challenge for his TV indie. “Rarely a day goes by without some conversation about retraining or developing talent.”

The chief executive of Directors UK, Andrew Chowns, said the film and TV employment market is malfunctioning, citing long hours, job insecurity and lack of diversity. The industry, he said, was fortunate to be trying to deal with this during a boom time. “Every studio, warehouse and airbase is full – demand is exceeding supply,” he said. Despite this, hirers were reluctant to move out of the circle of people they trust to search for new talent. “There is a lack of confidence in trying people who are new or unfamiliar.”

Inevitably, Brexit was also a key talking point, although views were split on what it means for production.

Dan Films producer Julie Baines said that all producers are desperately worried about Brexit. “It impacts right across the board, from development through to distribution.” Others, however, said Brexit had not affected business – yet. Rob Stapledon, director commercial banking at Arbuthnot Latham & Co, who acts for many media companies, said: “From my perspective, in all honesty, I haven’t seen that much impact to my UK clients. Everybody has just been getting on with it.” Ben Barrett, the joint managing director of programme funding outfit Drive, said “Day to day, we’re not seeing any differences.”

Looking ahead, though, there was concern from many producers that Brexit would affect the free movement of people and the ability of the UK to attract talent from Europe to work on projects.
This is rightly a worry for the British industry, and one that is made all the more stark at a show like FOCUS where so many countries and companies compete to attract footloose, big-spending international productions.

Posted 14 December 2017 by Tim Dams

Showtime for drama

The drama market is more dynamic, but also more competitive, than it has ever been. Tim Dams reports on the reality of scripted’s golden age

It’s a heady time to work in drama production. The genre is arguably more lively and exciting than ever before, say producers, writers, directors and talent. This is largely being driven, they say, by the growing number of companies investing in TV drama. Streaming services have become major backers of the genre as they seek must-see content to attract subscribers.

Netflix announced last month that it will spend as much as $8bn on content next year, with a significant proportion of this going on original commissions, much of it on drama. “Our future largely lies in exclusive original content,” said CEO Reed Hastings. 

Facebook and Amazon have each pledged to invest $1bn in content, much of it on drama. Last month, Facebook announced new shows for its Watch platform, including an English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam.

Apple is also making a $1bn a year push into original production and recently hired former C4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt (who has credits including Black Mirror and Sherlock to her name) to lead a new programme commissioning team based in London.

Meanwhile Hulu, which found success with The Handmaid’s Tale, plans to invest $2.5bn on content this year. YouTube Red is stepping up its investment in original content too: last month it greenlit Origin, a sci-fi thriller from Left Bank Pictures, the indie behind Netflix’s The Crown.

This investment by streaming services comes on top of continued funding by the traditional UK broadcasters in drama. Indeed, the BBC, C4 and ITV have been able to increase budgets for their shows by co-producing with SVoD players on upcoming dramas like Good Omens (BBC2/Amazon) and White Dragon (ITV/Amazon). However, there are concerns that this co-production funding may soon dry up (see box, below).

Multichannel services such as Sky and Virgin have also stepped up their spend on the genre in recent years. Sky, for example, has backed big budget plays like Fortitude, Riviera and Britannia. Other US broadcasters have invested heavily in original drama aimed at the international market, including Nat Geo, Discovery and Fox Networks. Fox, for example, has fully funded upcoming espionage thriller Deep State (pictured, below) from Endor Productions, its first regional commission for Europe and Africa.

Distributors have also significantly increased the amount of money they invest in drama, particularly for projects with potential to sell widely on the global market. In the past, distributors might chip in around 10% of the budget to top up funding. Now, as competition and ambition, has increased “we will often be asked to come in and deficit fund up to 60% of budget,” says Liam Keelan, director of scripted at BBC Worldwide, whose current slate includes McMafia (pictured, top) and Split. Like many distributors/superindies BBC Worldwide has invested in a swathe of drama indies, including Clerkenwell, House Productions, Two Cities, Lookout Point, Baby Cow and Expectation to secure drama content.

Private equity money is also making itself felt in the genre. Drama commissioning ‘club’ Atrium TV, spearheaded by former Sony boss Sir Howard Stringer, plans to produce 10 drama series over the next five years, with budgets at around $5m per hour. Meanwhile, former BBC director of TV Danny Cohen chairs a new commissioning entity at Access Entertainment that can greenlight scripted TV series without backing from a network or platform. Access is owned by billionaire industrialist Len Blavatnik, and it plans to invest hundreds of millions into high-end TV, film, digital and theatrical productions.

Add all this to the generous tax credits available to productions shooting in the UK, and it’s understandable why there is so much industry focus on drama.

A raft of new production companies have launched in recent years, looking to take advantage of the drama gold rush. They include Sister Pictures (Jane Featherstone) and House Productions (Tessa Ross). Leading film producers have also moved aggressively into the genre too, including Working Title, Vertigo, Blueprint and Cuba Pictures.

“There’s an incredible amount of competition – and ambition,” confirms producer Hilary Bevan Jones of Endor Productions (Deep State). “A lot of our friends from the film world are swimming into TV, something they wouldn’t have contemplated a few years ago when TV was very much a second class citizen.” On the plus side, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are no longer the only major investors in UK scripted. “You are not just shut down after three meetings,” says Endor producer Tom Nash. “But the sheer weight of great projects out there is just incredible.”

The drama market is both “incredibly dynamic and incredibly competitive, adds Kenton Allen, CEO of drama production company Big Talk (Living the Dream). “There are lots and lots of very high-level projects looking for finance. I don’t think it has ever been more competitive. And nor have expectations ever been higher.”

Streaming services have been swamped with pitches, receiving up to 40-50 a week – many of them fully packaged with an A-list cast attached. But there are signs the SVoD players are struggling to cope with the deluge. “They now seem much more interested in engaging with you at an earlier stage, and not being offered things and asked to get the cheque book out without any creative engagement,” says Allen.

A-list writers continue to be in big demand, particularly as producers are increasingly financing the development of scripts themselves – and want to do so with recognised writers who can pique the interest of commissioners.
Writers themselves say the sheer number of dramas being made is helping to spur creativity in the genre. Tony Grisoni (Red Riding) has just adapted China Mieville’s The City and The City for BBC2, made by Mammoth Screen. He says audiences are “hungry for something different, new and extraordinary.”

Directors also recognise the need for projects to stand out and to look and feel different amid a plethora of choice available to viewers. “There’s a hunger for material that will challenge and provoke,” notes Tom Shankland, the director of The City and The City, whose credits include The Missing and 
Ripper Street.

That doesn’t mean that anything goes now. To achieve success, a drama needs to be “completely culturally authentic”, warns Kudos chief executive Diederick Santer. “Specific works. If something is too generalised, or too calculated or cynical, the audience smells it.” Santer points to Kudos productions Broadchurch, Gunpowder and The Boy with the Top Knot as examples of dramas where “specificity is a universality.”

Kudos’ next big project is about a very specific place. Troy: Fall of a City is a big budget co-production between BBC1 and Netflix, which is produced by Wild Mercury in association with Kudos, and exec produced by Derek Wax and David Farr. It is, says Santer, the biggest drama that Kudos has been involved with, with hundreds of vfx shots. “For years, we made shows like Spooks, Hustle and Life on Mars – contemporary UK shows. Broadchurch and Humans are in that model.” Earlier this year, Kudos launched the big budget Tin Star. Troy is a step up again, symbolic perhaps of an arms race in scripted production budgets that shows no sign of abating.

Big is not always best
Big budget, lavish shows like Game of Thrones and The Crown have become the emblematic of the new era of scripted production.  As a result, many producers are pitching very expensive shows, packaged with top 
on- and off-screen talent and high production values.

Yet big is not always best. “There is still a lot of extremely good drama that sells everywhere and performs everywhere that is made at very modest price points,” says Cathy Payne, chief executive of distributor Endemol Shine International.  She cites Silent Witness. “It sells everywhere, and is not made with a huge budget.”

Expensive shows, with budgets of say £3m an hour, can be a risky prospect for distributors like ESI to recoup their investment on the international market.

“The area that most interests me is what we call ‘domestic plus’ or ‘super domestic’ – shows that are made around the £1.4m (per episode) mark – where you can still get great writers and good talent.” They can be funded simply with one primary broadcaster, a generous distribution investment and the tax credit.  “Our shows made around that level are the most successful,” says Payne, citing Grantchester, Peaky Blinders and Broadchurch. For example, Broadchurch has been sold right around the world. “There are only about five territories left where you are not able to watch it.”

The end co-pro honeymoon?
The ‘honeymoon era’ of co-pro dramas funded by UK broadcasters and SVoD players is over, according to Jane Featherstone, the founder of Sister Pictures.Delivering the annual BAFTA lecture last month, Featherstone warned: “The co-production tap is going to be turned off, or at least reduced to a trickle.”

“Already some shows on the BBC are funded 80% by Netflix, and many more have around 20 to 30% funding from the likes of HBO or AMC. ITV has followed suit – with the recent Netflix-supported Marcella – while C4’s Humans was only made possible at all because AMC stepped in.”

“The SVOD’s are going to start ramping up commissioning of only fully owned original programmes, meaning that they won’t need to co-produce any more. Why keep investing in shows where they don’t own the territory most likely to make that show a hit, it doesn’t make sense for them.”

Featherstone noted that top talent like Shonda Rimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) have jumped ship to Netflix. “More will follow. And what will follow that will be a slow – or not-so-slow- starvation of the quality mainstream on free-to-air platforms and channels. While networks waste away, Netflix is fighting fit. Some great mainstream TV will emerge, of that I am certain. They will be the first truly global channel.”

This article is taken from the November issue of Televisual. To subscribe, click here

Posted 28 November 2017 by Tim Dams

Plimsoll makes its mark

One of the fastest-growing indies in Televisual’s 2017 Production 100 survey, Plimsoll has scaled up rapidly since launching four years ago.

The Bristol-based outfit, run by former RDF managing director Grant Mansfield, now has around 240 people on its payroll and reported a turnover of £14.5m over the past year. Focused on non-scripted programming, Plimsoll has produced over 40 series for UK and international networks, including Nat Geo’s Earth Live!, ITV’s Life at the Extreme and C4’s Rescue Dog to Superdog (which has been remade for Animal Planet in the US).

Speaking from Plimsoll’s Los Angeles office, Mansfield says that right from start he wanted to build a proper TV indie rather than a lifestyle business. “I always wanted to build a company of longevity,” he explains. He also wanted to do it outside London, in Bristol, where he began his career at the BBC.

Mansfield says he traded in a minority stake in Plimsoll to an investor to raise money to get started. This allowed him to make exec producer and development hires immediately, with Plimsoll adopting a build it and the commissions will come approach. “It meant that from day one I had collaborators…that money bought us time, but it also bought me expertise.”

Plimsoll’s team now comprises a who’s who of well known producers, from former BBC NHU boss Andrew Jackson through to the series producer of blockbuster Planet Earth II, Tom Hugh-Jones. “We hired producers with fantastic track records. The production talent is as important as the idea.”

The indie has also ploughed money into development. “You have to speculate to accumulate. And in TV production that means spending big on development – spending smart as well as spending big.” For example, the indie has three full time sizzle reel producers. “They can turn a tape around so quickly that we quite often use them to work out if an idea is strong enough to pitch.”

Plimsoll’s first commission was a single film for ITV, and then a big natural history order Predators, for Discovery. “Those two commissions were significant, because they pointed to the direction we were going – to be a multi-genre, non-scripted company.”

Despite all the talk about the drama boom, Mansfield believes the non-scripted market is primed for growth. “I genuinely detect a renaissance for non-scripted in the international market. The market is strong. There are lots more clients now,” he says, citing Netflix, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Hulu.

He points to demand for big landmark shows run by big name show-runners, citing Plimsoll’s Earth Live! for Nat Geo. “In the multi-channel world, there is so much white noise out there that a live event can become emblematic of a channel’s ambition.”

Plimsoll now focuses on all non-scripted sub-genres, working across factual entertainment, specialist factual, natural history, live and daytime. The growth of Plimsoll’s natural history output has been ‘a pleasant surprise’, admits Mansfield, who is best known for fact ent shows like Ladette to Lady, Dickinson’s Real Deal and Driving School. Head of natural history Martha Holmes, a former BBC NHU producer, was one of the first Plimsoll execs. “It seemed daft to be in Bristol and not be making natural history. I thought we will do a bit on the side and we have become one of the biggest producers of natural history programming in the world in terms of hours.”

Mansfield says another key moment in the company’s development was its decision not to strike a deal with a big distribution company but to take a stake instead in start-up distributor Magnify Media, run by Andrea Jackson. “I wanted to keep control of our IP,” he explains.

Most of Plimsoll’s staff are based in Bristol, working out of a building it shares with post house Films@59. Another 16 are based in LA, while a new Cardiff office is staffing up. Mansfield claims Plimsoll is now the biggest TV indie in Bristol. “The thing that I am proudest of is the work that Plimsoll has brought to the city. We have grown the Bristol market by all the shows we have had commissioned.”

Citing companies such as Icon and Aardman, he says there are now over 150 media companies in Bristol. “I am sure Manchester might dispute this claim, but I think outside London that Bristol is now the main media city in the UK. It is a hugely 
creative place.”

Should Channel 4 move any of its departments out of London, he believes that Bristol should be the place they move to. But he thinks that where Channel 4 spends its commissioning money is more important than where the channel is located. “Personally, I think the best place for Channel 4 is London. But if it is not in London, it should be in Bristol.”

Grant Mansfield is the CEO and founder of Plimsoll Productions, which he launched in September 2013. Before that he was CEO of Zodiak USA. Previously, as md of RDF in London, his credits included Ladette to Lady, Holiday Showdown and Dickinson’s Real Deal. Before that, he was head of programmes at Granada TV. He began his TV career at the BBC, first as a TV news reporter and latterly as creator and producer of documentary series such as Driving School and Vets in Practice.

(Plimsoll leadership team, top, pictured left to right Rachel Morgan, head of specialist factual; Jonathan Jackson, financial director; Martha Holmes, head of natural history; Grant Mansfield, CEO and founder; Christine Owen, chief operating officer; James Smith, head of Plimsoll Wales; Karen Plumb, head of factual entertainment; Andrew Jackson, president of international production, Kate Beetham, head of development)

Posted 20 October 2017 by Tim Dams

Blue Planet II: How we made it

The producers of Blue Planet II tell Tim Dams how tech advances and military planning helped them capture the secrets of the deep

If any show can comfortably be predicted to become a blockbuster factual hit in the UK and around the world, it is Blue Planet II, made by BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.

The original David Attenborough-narrated series about the world’s oceans aired back in 2001, winning two BAFTAs, two Emmys and nearly 10m viewers in the UK. It also sold to 240 territories around the world.

The NHU argues that there have been so many scientific discoveries in the oceans since then, as well as huge advances in camera and diving technology, that a sequel is justified. 

“A generation on from the Blue Planet stories, it is an opportunity to tell a bunch of new stories,” says executive producer James Honeyborne. He won’t reveal the budget for the seven part series, but some of the stats about the making of the show hint at its size. Blue Planet II has been four years in production and involved 125 expeditions to 39 countries. 

Initially, Honeyborne worked with series producer Mark Brownlow and a small team of researchers and producers to find the stories and to script Blue Planet II. This was done by plugging into a network of contacts among marine scientists for information about the latest discoveries about the oceans. “The basis of all these big, new stories are the relationships we have with our scientists,” stresses Honeyborne. “For something that ends up as entertainment telly, it does have an absolute scientific core to it.”

Over the course of a year, the team worked up and planned seven specific episodes: a big opening film, One Ocean, to introduce the audience to the central premise of the series, which is, according to Brownlow, that “you’re going to see things you’ve never seen before.” This includes footage of animal behaviour that has never been filmed, such as a fish that leaps out of the water to snatch birds on the wing through to a tuskfish that uses a tool to open clams.

Then come five habitat based programmes, each overseen by a specific producer: The Deep, shot from a manned sub in the hidden depths of the ocean; Coral Reefs, about the home of a quarter of all marine species; Big Blue, about life out in the middle of the vast open ocean; Green Seas, focusing on underwater forests of kelp and seaweed; and Coasts, where two worlds collide. The final episode, Our Blue Planet, has an environmental focus.

As these stories were refined over the course of the first year’s planning, the BBC pitched the project to co-production partners who stumped up a significant part of the budget. The show is co-produced with BBC America, China’s Tencent and CCTV9, France Televisions and Germany’s WDR. “They are part of the journey,” says Honeyborne.

Once the narrative arc of each episode had been planned, production began in earnest. “We had a core team of 25 people when we were really going full throttle with the filming,” reflects Brownlow. 

Almost immediately, though, came a stark reality check – and a demonstration that a natural history show can never simply follow a script like a Hollywood shoot, no matter how detailed the planning. The very first shoot ended in “abject failure, scuttled by El Nino”, says Brownlow. “You think OK, there’s a hole in the narrative, we have got less money now, we’re five minutes short, we’ve got to find another story that makes a similar point.”

The logistics of filming were akin to a military operation, with kit and crew being dispatched around the world – from the Antarctic peninsular to the Galapagos Islands and Great Barrier Reef. Each episode comprises 10 or 11 stories of about five minutes length, all shot in a different location. “We spent the best part of three years filming,” says Honeyborne. The final nine months were spent in post production, whittling down a shooting ratio of about 100 minutes of filming to one minute of final film. 

As so many of the marine stories took place in specific seasons, the production schedule allowed for crew to return to sites the following year. “You want to give yourself a chance to hit the story twice,” says Brownlow. Occasionally stories were filmed over three years, such as one sequence about orcas and humpback whales feeding on herring off Norway. 

Technological advances have contributed hugely to the stories in Blue Planet II. Rebreather diving kits, for example, meant that its underwater teams could dive up to four hours at a time, far longer than traditional scuba dives. Rebreather diving also produces no bubbles – which means fish aren’t scared off. “Rebreather diving gives our teams time to sit silently and watch, with no bubbles or disturbance underwater, and really get to know new creatures and their behaviours,” says Honeyborne.

Meanwhile, in The Deep episode, a crew led by producer Orla Doherty, filmed for over 1000 hours from a high-tech submersible at depths of up to 1km. Carrying UHD and extreme low light cameras, they captured previously unseen events such as hunting packs of Humbolt squid through to bubbling brine lakes at the bottom of the ocean.

The “bread and butter” camera for the series was the Red Epic Dragon, but this was supplemented by over a dozen others. For example, the Sony A7S and Canon ME20 were picked for their low light properties to film Noctiluca ‘sea sparkles’ glowing at night, around the wing beats of shoaling mobula rays, as they gather off the Mexican coast. “Lowlight technology is moving on so fast that we have scenes we have only just filmed because the technology didn’t exist just the year before,” says Brownlow.

The team also built an underwater probe lens that could squeeze through tiny cracks to give a wide angle, immersive view of life right inside coral reef. “We wanted to immerse the audience into the subject, so they could see what it was like to live as a clown-fish,” says Brownlow. “It has never been done before underwater. They are so light hungry. We have used them above water on projects like Hidden Kingdoms. But the camera sensors had never been sensitive enough to work with these light hungry lenses – until now.”

Infrared underwater cameras were also used to film the hunting technique of the bobbit worm. “If we’d shone a white light on this nocturnal ambush predator, it would have just stayed in its hole. But it can’t detect infrared light,” says Brownlow. “Even though we’re filming in complete darkness and can only see what is going on through the viewfinder, we can capture behaviour that’s never been seen before.”

A CATS Cam suction cup camera was also placed on the back of an orca, gripping on to the killer whale so the crew got a ‘fish-eyed’ view during a hunt. Between 12-48 hours later, the camera gently detaches to be picked up at sea later with its footage.

The Blue Planet team also worked with California firm Gates to build a brand new, underwater split screen lens, dubbed the megadome, which allows camera crew to film above and below water at the same time. It lets viewers see, for example, a walrus sitting on an iceberg above water as well as what is going on underneath. “It’s all down to sensor technology,” says Honeyborne. “You can expose above and below the water so everything is in focus. It looks and feels totally fresh.”

Drones also allowed the filmmakers to capture animal behaviour that had never been filmed before, including chains of plankton-feeding manta rays looping round and round to form a cyclone effect.

“The original series would have shot aerials on 16mm film, from helicopters,” says Honeyborne. “Now we have ultra HD drones that can be deployed anywhere they are permitted, and they have revolutionised the way we can immediately witness oceanic events from above.”

All this technology has helped the Blue Planet team get up extremely close to marine life, revealing previously unseen behaviour and allowing the viewer to empathise more easily with the challenges they face. Traditionally, this has been a big problem when filming marine life underwater – all too often things can feel very big and very blue. 

“It’s not our job to humanise them, and we are certainly not anthropomorphising them. But what we are showing you is that they have characters,” says Honeyborne.

One iconic sequence in Blue Planet II – of a bird-eating fish - neatly sums up how each individual story was put together.

A rumour came to the NHU in Bristol from some South African fishermen that they’d seen Giant Trevally – a big, aggressive fish – jumping out of the water and catching sea-birds in mid-air. But there was no scientific confirmation, or a single picture of this happening. “I was sceptical, to say the least,” says producer Miles Barton. But further research convinced the team it was worth trying to film. So they chartered a plane to an island close to the Seychelles. A team of four was on board, including cameraman Ted Giffords with a Cineflex gyro-stabilised camera and 800kg of equipment.

Barton continues: “We arrived and got very excited because yes, the fish were leaping out of the water and they did seem to be grabbing birds. But it happened very randomly and very fast.” The crew started out using the stabilised camera fixed to a boat, but the attacks happened so quickly and randomly it was difficult for Giffords to frame up on.

After a frustrating week with just a few shots filmed, the boatman suggested going to a remote beach where the Giant Trevallies gathered near the shore. It was a vantage point from which they could see the fish stalking the birds, and even predict the ones most likely to attack. “So we ended up going from a very high tech approach to the simple use of a camera on a tripod with the best local advice.”

The footage was amazing. Exec producer Mark Brownlow picks up the story: “They came back with the rushes, and we thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible’. But we knew it could be even better and said we have to go back and film it with a super high speed [Phantom] camera.” The crew returned a year later (to catch the right season for the action) to shoot the sequence. The results are astounding, and are sure to become iconic images from the series.

Executive producer 
James Honeyborne
Series producer 
Mark Brownlow
Miles Barton, Orla Doherty, Kathryn Jeffs, Will Ridgeon, John Ruthven, Jonathan Smith
Associate producer 
Joe Stevens
Rachel Butler, John Chambers, Sarah Conner
Series researcher 
Yoland Bosiger
Sophie Morgan, Katrina Steele, Joe Treddenick, Georgina Ward
Production co-ordinators 
Jodie Allt, Nicole Kruysse, Sandra Forbes, Jennifer Foulkes, Sylvia Mukasa, Karmen Summers, Joanna Verity
Production team
Amirah Daley, Jack Delf, Alexandra Fennell, Joseph Fenton, Jack Johnston, Abbey Kaye, Francesca Maxwell, Chiara Minchin, Mohan Sandhu, Zeenat Shah
Production manager 
Katie Hall
Principal camera team 
Dan Beecham, Barrie Britton, Rod Clarke, Ted Giffords, Rafa Herrero, Rene Heuzey, Roger Horrocks, Hugh Miller, Roger Munns, Espen Rekdal, Gavin Thurston, Alexander Vail, Richard Wollocombe, David Reichert, Didier Noirot, Rod Clarke

Posted 20 October 2017 by Tim Dams

The rise of the streamers

Digital players were out in force at this month’s Mipcom TV programme market.

There were keynotes speeches from Facebook and Snapchat, while Mipcom execs revealed that 1,700 VOD and SVOD buyers from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu through to China’s Youku and Africa’s Showmax were at the market.

The growing presence of streaming players on the international stage comes as they invest ever more aggressively in new content.

Facebook and Apple have each pledged to invest $1bn in content. Facebook announced a number of new shows for its Watch platform at Mipcom, including an English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam.

Both Amazon and Facebook have been touted as likely bidders in the next round of Premier League rights sales, which is expected to open by the end of this year. Last month, YouTube’s fledgling SVoD service Red greenlit its first drama from a UK indie, 10-part sci-fi thriller Origin, which is being made by The Crown producer Left Bank.

Netflix, meanwhile, says it plans to spend a staggering $8bn (£6bn) on content in 2018, up from $6bn this year.

A significant portion is being spent in the UK, on factual and drama commissions. Last month, for example,  Pulse Films was commissioned to investigate the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in an eight parter for Netflix, while Fifty Fathoms is making The Eddy, directed by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, billed as the biggest scripted SVoD commission for a UK producer since The Crown.

The steady increase in spend on UK content by streaming players is proving a boon for indies. Pact’s recent indie Census, for example, reported that producers are seeing strong growth from the international commissions, worth £486m in 2016, thanks in part to orders such as The Crown and Black Mirror from streaming services.

Producers, it seems, not only like the pay cheques that the streaming giants offer. They also say the likes of Amazon and Netflix are good to work with.

The Crown producer, Andy Harries, warned at last month’s RTS Cambridge Convention that UK broadcasters are in danger of losing more top talent to streaming services because they are too interfering during the making of shows.

Speaking ahead of the launch of the second series of The Crown in December, Harries noted that Netflix has signed up talent such as Shonda Rhimes, David Letterman and the Coen brothers to make shows.  “They are attracting all this talent because this is what they are saying to them: ‘Come and make stuff for us. You can do it the way you want to do it. We are going to finance it, you make it.’ And that is what talent wants.” His point was backed up by fellow speaker Andy Wilman, the exec producer of Amazon’s The Grand Tour, which airs its second season next month. Wilman said: “We have no notes – none.”

The streaming services’ increasing investment in the UK market is paying off too, with recent Ofcom figures suggesting they will soon be taking an increasing share of the broadcasting industry’s £13.8bn revenues.

In its 2017 Communications Market Report, Ofcom charted the growth of streaming services, and noted that for many viewers, the days of being tied to a TV schedule are fading. It found that the BBC iPlayer and the ITV Hub were the most popular on demand services, used by 63% and 40% of respondents respectively – followed by YouTube (35%), Netflix (31%) and Amazon (20%).

A recent report by OC&C Strategy Consultants argued that broadcasting could soon be controlled by one or two “super-aggregators” who would act as viewing gateways for consumers looking for a simple way to access a plethora of content.

Traditional broadcasters are starting to feel the pressure. 21st Century Fox chief executive James Murdoch last month acknowledged that Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Netflix are “raising the bar” in terms of the amount that companies spend on content. In a sign that Sky is worried about the rise of streamers, he hit out at them for their lack of investment in jobs in the UK creative industries.

Murdoch said SVoD players make a lot of noise about how much they are investing – but don’t do so over the long term. “They show up, they do a big splashy deal with something and everyone fawns over them and says this is a great thing. There are very few companies that...really invest in thousands and thousands of people on the ground in TV and creative markets like the UK.”

Sky execs also complain that online companies face none of the scrutiny or regulation that affect UK broadcasters. Calling for a level playing field, Sky’s group chief operating officer Andrew Griffiths said at the RTS Cambridge Convention: “Not so many years ago, these companies were small and probably lacked influence. Today, they are some of the largest companies on the planet, with a reach and scale of financial resources far larger than anyone in this room combined. It is a lop sided contest and left unchecked represents a real challenge.”

Indeed, Sky’s proposed takeover by 21st Century Fox deal arguably no longer worries senior broadcasting execs as it once would have. Their focus of concern has shifted over to the digital giants instead.

C4’s outgoing chief executive David Abraham commented: “When I see the scale of the digital giants, my strategic question is: “Is any type of agglomeration of existing legacy media companies ever going to match the scale of what we are confronting?’ I very much doubt that is the case.

“If you are running a media company in this country, you spend more time thinking about how internet TV is going to change the shape of what we are doing.” Abraham added that the “huge global changes” arising from the growth of Amazon and Netflix “have perhaps not been as widely considered by politicians – maybe because they feel they can’t do much.”

It certainly feels like traditional broadcasters are on the backfoot right now. Some commercial channels are cutting programme spend because of falling ad revenues, a point noted by many indies in Televisual’s 2017 Production 100 survey. However, any big drop in broadcaster content spend at this crucial moment may prove a serious mistake, encouraging even more indies to look for business with the deep pocketed SVoD players.

This article is taken from the October issue of Televisual. To subscribe, click here. The article has been updated since first publication to account for deals announced at Mipcom.

Posted 12 October 2017 by Tim Dams

Production 100: indies face up to a changing TV market

The indie sector is being reshaped by the rise of streaming, a fall in budgets and the muddle of Brexit. Tim Dams on the findings of Production 100

, Televisual's annual survey of the indie TV market

The turnover of the top 100 indies in the Production 100 has risen 11.8% to £2.17bn this year, proving there is still plenty of life in a TV market that is being fundamentally reshaped by changing viewing habits.

 Indeed, the prizes are bigger than ever for many producers thanks to the rise of global SVoD commissioners like Netflix and Amazon.

Left Bank, for example, climbs to second place in the Production 100, growing its turnover from £101m to £148m thanks to mega-budget Netflix commission The Crown.

Many other indies have registered decent growth. Sports producer IMG retains its number one spot for the fifth year in a row, with revenues climbing from £175.3 to £197.1m. IMG diversified into non-sports production this year with the launch of a new entertainment, factual and formats division – which has already picked up a handful of volume commissions.

Third-placed Avalon became one of a handful of UK indies to cross the £100m turnover mark; the entertainment producer and talent manager’s revenues are up from £93.2m to £114.6m. It now supplies all channels in the UK, as well as a wide range of networks in the US.

Indies working in multiple genres have done well, such as Studio Lambert and Raw. Both have built on their strong reputations in factual to push into drama, earning themselves places in the top 10.

Dramatic moves 
The drama boom was the big trend of last year’s Production 100, and it’s an important factor once again. Indies such as The Ink Factory and House of Tomorrow posted strong results, buoyed by big budget shows with global backers like The Night Manager and Black Mirror. But it has not been plain sailing for all scripted producers. The market has been flooded with new drama indies, and there has been a hiatus in scripted orders because of drama commissioner changes at the BBC, ITV and C4.

Factual perks up

The factual genre has been eclipsed in recent years by the drama gold rush. But many established factual  producers have done surprisingly well, such as Boundless, Blast! Films, ITN Productions, Keo and Nutopia.

Blast!, for example, has grown turnover from £15.5m to £25.5m, on the back some strong returning series such as The Supervet; the Sky Vision-owned producer also topped our Peer Poll as the most respected indie.

ITN Productions is growing at a clip too; its turnover is up by almost £20m to £42.8m.

Nutopia has nearly doubled turnover to £21.7m following a slew of big commissions from international broadcasters. Newer factual indies like Plimsoll, Knickerbockerglory, Label1, Primal Media and Naked Entertainment have also put in robust performances, many on the back of long-running series wins.

The core UK market

The average indie earns 64.5% of its revenues from UK broadcasters. ClearStory is typical of many when it says that “UK broadcaster commissions are still our core business.”

So too is Plimsoll: “Our relationships with UK commissioners are paramount to the growth of our business.” Indeed, the majority of indies (46%) say the UK is where they are seeing most growth in their business. However, this is down significantly on last year’s figure (72%).

Rise of the streamers
Instead, many indies cite the international market – in particular from SVoD players like Amazon and Netflix – as a key growth area. Eleven Film says: “SVoD buyers are proving transformative – buying programming that typically UK broadcasters would shy away from.” Bandit Television adds: “The opportunities for scripted production are obviously increased with SVoD commissioning.” Neal Street points to growth in secondary drama sales, particularly to Netflix.

It’s not just dramas they are after. Pulse says SVoD companies are “aggressively buying in the factual space.” Specialist factual indie Icon Films says “its greatest potential for growth” comes from streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Curiosity Stream and Blue Ant.”

A global focus

The international market has become a key source of revenue for many producers. Eleven indies – Wag, Neal Street, Nutopia, Icon, DSP, House of Tomorrow, Double Act, Arrow Media, Pacific, Raw TV and Leopard – generated more than 75% of their business from international commissions.

The US remains an important focus. Nutopia, for example, plans to expand its client base in America, and to open an East Coast office this year to produce local content. 

ITN is also aggressively targeting the US market. In the last year, ITN took on eight full time roles in the US; it is aiming for 10% of all revenue from the US by 2020.

DSP, notes there is a ‘resurgence’ in demand for premium factual in the US, particularly in light of Nat Geo’s new commissioning strategy.

Eleven Film, meanwhile, has three projects in development with US cable networks being developed out of the UK.

The flip side of working for international broadcasters is that indies mostly do so on a work for hire basis, rather than retaining rights as in the UK. It means many indies are worried about the long term. Knickerbockerglory says: “The rights position does make me think it’s the last days of Rome”.

The road ahead 

Looking ahead, indies seem sanguine about their prospects. Most, 58%, say they expect business to remain the same, while 29% think it will improve. 13% believe business will get worse.

 That said, many are vocal about the challenges ahead – from Brexit through to increased competition, rising costs and to an advertising downturn which looks set to reduce the budgets of commercial broadcasters.

Budget crunch
Falling budgets are a particular concern this year, more so than usual. Indies say that budgets have fallen an average of 2.4% over the past year, following years of decline. Several indies say they have noticed commercial broadcasters battening down the hatches ahead of what they perceive to be a challenging year for ad revenues. CPL, for example, is expecting production budgets to be “much tighter.”

7 Wonder says budgets have “never been more squeezed” yet “editorial expectations are sky high”.  Keo speaks of “a constant battle against falling real terms commissioning budgets while costs rise thus making margins harder and harder to maintain. It’s definitely very difficult to rest on one’s laurels.”

Rising costs

With costs and on-screen expectations rising, many indies are having to be more inventive about how they produce and how they raise money for shows. There is “more emphasis on producers finding finance,” says Thumbs Up. Dragonfly, meanwhile, says it is having to deficit fund shows more often because of “diminishing budgets and higher production costs/ambitions.”

On and off-screen talent costs are widely acknowledged to have risen because of the boom in drama, film and animation production. “The availability of off-screen production talent is scarce and on-screen talent expect greater participation” says Voltage. Sixteen South adds that 
it is harder than ever to staff up because so many animated shows are being made. “All of the great people are already working. It has been a challenge to crew up to 130 people.”

Commission challenges

Securing a commission seems to be more difficult too. Changes among broadcaster commissioning teams have long been a problem for indies, creating periods of hiatus when it is difficult to win orders. It has been no different this year. Adding to the problem, however, is the increased complexity of commissioning now that multiple funders, rights and deliverables need to be juggled.

Nutopia says securing commissions with big budgets can take “very many months” to finally agree on all editorial, budget and contractual terms.

Furthermore, “eleventh hour signatures on contracts mean it’s very difficult to locate, attract and secure the very best high-end talent in a timely manner.” Says Remedy: “With every commission taking longer to achieve and every contract renewal requiring more work to secure, operating costs have continued to increase, which has affected the rate at which turnover becomes profit.”

Sugar Films likens broadcaster-funded development to a parking lot. “Projects that would previously have gone into pre-production with an agreement to resolve minor outstanding issues are now parked in further rounds of development.”
Commissioners and broadcasters “seem to have little understanding of cash-flow and the true cost of delay for a small business.”

Competition issues

At the same time, there’s a perception that the market is becoming ever more competitive following a spate of indie launches by senior execs. The momentum has continued this year, with launches including Expectation (Peter Fincham and Tim Hincks), House Productions (Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell) and 72 Films (David Glover and Mark Raphael).

Chrysalis Vision says there “seems to be one new TV drama indie announced every week.” 

Firecracker notes there are “more and more new factual companies continuing to open all the time and not enough work to go round for them all to succeed.”

Established players like Talkback speak of “increased competition from the wave of new indies”. Adds Chalkboard: “It sometimes feels like there is more money for start-ups than there is for commissioning itself.

Still, smaller producers say that the dominance of the super indies continues to squeeze small producers out. Popkorn, for example, speaks of “a lack of ambition” by broadcasters to commission outside the small pool of larger companies.

Others note that ITV and C5 have boosted their commissioning from inhouse producers, while the launch of BBC Studios means more competition (but also the potential to win more BBC business).

The Brexit effect

The realisation that Brexit is likely to have a significant impact on business really comes to the fore in this year’s Production 100. Last year, the exact impact of the vote to leave the EU was still being worked out by indies.

Currency fluctuations have already affected the cost of overseas filming for many producers (but made UK shows cheaper for foreign buyers). 

Many fear that the government’s protracted Brexit negotiations are affecting business confidence, depressing ad revenues at commercial broadcasters.

Like many indies, Blue Zoo is worried about the implications for the 35% of its workforce who are non-UK residents. Neal Street says Brexit is “already causing some problems with the weak pound and talent concerns.”

Indies also worry that Brexit will affect the ability of UK companies to strike co-pro deals and international sales, particularly for companies looking to sell into European markets which have quotas for European content. Says Woodcut: “If we no longer count as European that will have a massive impact on us and other production companies working in the international market.”

Some fear an exodus of production out of the UK, particularly in sectors like animation. Lupus Films says: “European financing is likely to be reduced and US studios are likely to take more commissions to Ireland rather than the UK."

Sixteen South comments: “Brexit has been a scary proposition.  Since we fund most of our shows through pre-sales, we need to make sure that our content remains EU produced to meet the EU quotas from broadcasters. We have set up an Irish company to be sure that we continue as a European producer.”

To read the full Production 100 survey, visit the Reports and Surveys section of

Posted 25 September 2017 by Tim Dams
Showing 1 - 8 Records Of 370

About this Author

  • Contributing Editor, Televisual
    Tim Dams is contributing editor of Televis...
  • Total Posts: 370

Recent Posts by This Author



Televisual Media UK Ltd 23 Golden Square, London, W1F 9JP
©2009 - 2017 Televisual. All rights reserved
Use of this website signifies your agreement to the Terms of Use | Disclaimer