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Michael Moore: a life in docs

Sheffield Doc/Fest kicks off today with Oscar-winning activist film-maker Michael Moore opening the festival with the UK premiere of his new film Where to Invade Next.

Michael Moore, now 61, has clocked up three decades of hard-hitting, funny and box office friendly feature documentaries.

Where to Invade Next sees Moore confronting some of the most pressing issues facing America today and finding solutions in the most unlikely places, including gourmet school lunches in France and Finland¹s homework free education system.

He has made seven doc features  - writing, directing, producing and narrating on the biggest issues in US life.

Roger & Me
His first feature doc chronicles his attempts to interview Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors, at a time when the behemoth had closed car plants in Michigan impacting hugely on the local economy. In its time, it was the highest grossing documentary feature ever.


The Big One
The film follows Moore as he tours around the US to promote his book, Downsize This, a critical look at the power of US corporates and their negative effect on the country¹s economy. It shows Moore attempting to get answers from the chiefs of giant US companies and talking to people let down by the system.

Bowling for Columbine
Moore stirred a hornets¹ nest with his personal take on the causes of gun crime and the nature of violence in the US, with a focus on the Columbine High School Massacre that took place in 1999. He picked up an Oscar for best Documentary Feature.

Fahrenheit 9/11
Probing the politics behind the war on terror, the Bin Laden family¹s links to the establishment and the leadership of George W Bush, Moore argues that the American corporate media were ‘cheerleaders’ for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and that there was insufficient rationale or analysis. The movie won the Palme D¹Or at Cannes in 2004 and is still the highest grossing feature doc of all time, having pulled in over US$200m at the box office.

This time healthcare comes under the spotlight as Moore examines America¹s health-care crisis, asking why millions are without coverage. He visits Canada, France and the UK to compare their systems of delivering a free-to-all health service.

Slacker Uprising
Focused on the 2004 US elections, Moore tours swing states in an attempt to galvanize young voters to get behind John Kerry and the Democratic party as an alternative to George W Bush as president. It was one of the first feature docs to be released as a free download in the US and Canada.

Capitalism: A Love Story
Centred on the economic crash of 2007 - 2010, the documentary is also an indictment of the current economic order. It contrasts 50s archive images about free enterprise with the economic disaster of the new century.

Posted 10 June 2016 by Pippa Considine

How to make a doc for binge viewing

Making A Murderer film-makers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi recently gave a masterclass at BAFTA on the run-away international documentary hit that Netflix launched in December of 2015.

Ricciardi, a former lawyer and Demos, a documentary editor, were graduate students on Columbia University’s film programme in 2005; they had also been dating for two years.

They read a story in the New York Times and decided to follow the story of Stephen Avery, who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In October 2005 two years after his exoneration and as he was filing a lawsuit against county officials for $36 million, a woman disappeared and Steven Avery was once again accused of murder.

The story gradually gathered momentum and the show morphed into a 10-parter across 10 years of on-off filming and editing. It was picked up by Netflix in its later stages and Netflix scheduled the series launch during the holiday period, so that audiences had time to watch in one go. Part one was put up on YouTube as a teaser campaign to drive Netflix subscriptions.

Here’s a list of the 10 critical elements of Demos and Ricciardi’s epic series.

1. Give the story structure.
Demos and Ricciardi agree that screen-writing is ingrained in them. Whilst the series is strictly documentary, they thought of the structure in terms of having written it and they understood how each of the main characters went on a journey. The over-arching journey was to give the viewers an experience akin to the one that they had experienced as they followed the story. The decision not to have a narrator was taken early on.

2. Pick a story and stay with it
The documentary was inspired by a newspaper cutting in 2005, which prompted Demos and Ricciardi to travel to Wisconsin with a camera. But the film was put together across 10 years. There were many dramatic, even surreal moments caught on camera, but there were also long periods of waiting. There were plenty of challenges, including the central fact that Avery was in prison throughout the shoot and there was minimal outside financing for the project for many years.

3. Make sure the stakes are big
As well as the personal jeopardy for Steven Avery and his co-accused, the series takes some massive themes, including how history gets written, the power of accusation and where accountability comes from.

4. Find a subject with plenty of conflict
The documentary is based on the history of two murders and centres on the inherently dramatic trial process. It also takes on the stories of family tensions, class tensions and the combative nature of the justice system.

5. Collaborate
Demos and Ricciardi knew that they were outsiders: two New Yorkers arriving in rural Wisconsin. They relied on collaboration with local media, family, lawyers and many others.

6. Use every source available
The series uses a wide variety of sources, including plenty of archive. It helped that there was an expansive law in Wisconsin allowing use of public footage, including interrogations by police.

7. Ask about perspectives not facts
The documentary relied on family and lawyers to speak for the accused. The many interviews that the pair recorded were focused on finding points of view, drawing out different perspectives. This also made sense when speaking with Avery as the ‘facts’ of the case were a legal no-go area.

8. Have the patience of a saint
The editorial process was one of the biggest challenges. There was over 1000 hours of footage and over 1000 hours of phone calls, as well as thousands of scanned documents.

9. Keep up the inspiration
The list of film makers who inspired Making a Murderer includes James Marsh, Joe Berlinger, Errol Morris, Barbara Gordon and Frederick Wiseman.

10. Find a broadcaster who will take it to the people
Initial talks with distributors framed the story in terms of a two-hour one-off or a four-parter. But Demos and Ricciardi wanted to avoid too much slick cutting and to take a deeper dive. The first meeting with Netflix was in the spring of 2013 when they already had an outline for an eight parter and rough cuts of the first three episodes. Netflix loved it, but the ink dried on a contract only in August 2014.  Although Netflix allowed for a few weeks’ extension to the 52-week agreed final schedule, they wanted it to air in the Christmas holidays.

Here is the first episode of Making a Murderer

Posted 08 June 2016 by Pippa Considine

Chinese broadcaster looks to work with UK talent

Pippa Considine takes a look at UK and international shows that have been appealing to Chinese audiences ahead of the Factual Festival (BAFTA 11, 12 November) where Chinese state broadcaster Zhejiang Satellite TV will be represented by formats director Summer Zheng.

Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School is a BBC documentary that caught the zeitgeist in both the UK and China. The series saw five teachers from Chinese take over the education of fifty teenagers for four weeks in a Hampshire school to see whether the Chinese education system can teach the UK a lesson. 

Following its broadcast in August, Chinese social media went wild, sparking a debate about China’s own educational system. 

Summer Zheng is formats director at Zhejiang Satellite, the fourth biggest TV network in China. She points to the series as the sort of show that she could be interested in. She’s certainly interested in developing relationships with UK producers and broadcasters. “The UK's creative industry is remarkable, TV, film, design, and so on, gather the best talent in the world,” says Zheng. “It would be brilliant to work with producers and broadcasters in the UK.” 

Based in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, Zhejiang Satellite TV is a government run station that has had a number of hits with imported formats, especially The Voice of China which has been a huge success for the network. 

Last week's Sino-British creative forum in London saw Chinese broadcasters build on the successful relationship between Lion Television and Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, which resulted in the direct commission of 90-minute documentary Confucius.

Chinese broadcasters are still keen on formats, but these include factual entertainment hits, with Renegade’s Don’t Tell the Bride recently selling to Shenzen Media Group and Studio Lambert’s Gogglebox in a deal with production group Zhejiang Huace Film & TV Group to make a 12-part local version. These follow Chinese treatments for Top Gear, Supernanny, Secret Millionaire and Dragon’s Den. There are also plans for a new Bear Grylls fronted celebrity survival show from Betty, while CCTV issued a co-production brief in June, looking for city-themed factual programming.

Last week also saw the announcement of a deal between Chinese producer and broker IPCN and STV Productions for a format inspired by Celebrity Antiques Roadshow.

As well as The Voice, Zhejiang has had success with Celebrity Splash, The Choice and 101 Ways To Leave A Game Show. The blockbuster shows have also raised production standards and qualities, “bringing a new era of aesthetics to our audience” says Zheng.

Zhejiang’s own format I’m Not a Star Yet, where the children of celebrities compete, has been a seven season hit. Zhejiang is now selling it in other territories. 

The broadcaster is still keen on finding formats based on celebrity and competition, but also reality shows and possibly documentaries that can get social media buzzing.

Summer Zheng will be appearing on the International Hotspots panel on the first day of the Factual Festival and will be available for meetings with delegates at lunchtime on the same day.

To find out more and to buy tickets, go to the Festival website -

Posted 01 November 2015 by Pippa Considine

Natural history TV report: animals go primetime

Natural history television is surging ahead, bringing new experiences to audiences hungry for more. There’s growing demand for content at every level of the food chain, from blue chip and hybrid formats to clip shows and volume production, with new approaches underpinned by technical advances.

“Demand for the genre both in the UK and worldwide has never been stronger, it’s a thriving industry,” says Wendy Darke, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, which delivers around 150 hours of original content each year.

One new player in the market is Netflix, which is working with the UK’s Silverback Films on landmark series Our Planet – a follow up to Planet Earth. The production will be led by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey who were behind Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and Blue Planet at the BBC. Those three titles have performed well for Netflix, with Planet Earth being the best-selling factual DVD ever. With DVD sales being replaced by downloads, it’s an obvious strategy for Netflix to follow-up on this success. For Silverback it’s a welcome change of process. “It frees you up from the need for broadcast success,” says Fothergill. “Netflix cares about longevity.”

While Netflix’s move into natural history isn’t about to become a landslide, it’s part of a shift that’s seen broadcasters acknowledging that in a crowded market there’s a need for epic, stand-out shows. “It’s a great time for companies who produce high-end natural history because Discovery and Nat Geo have both said that they are looking for brand defining programming, they want big showcase series to go along their smaller vets and pets series,” says Lucy Middelboe, commercial director at Icon Films.

Nat Geo aired mega doc T. Rex Autopsy this summer. Working with Impossible Factual, it involved the build of an anatomically complete 40-foot T.Rex replica that was dissected at Pinewood Studios using chainsaws. The high budget show was commissioned by Nat Geo heads Tim Pastore and Hamish Mykura.

At Discovery Networks International, evp and chief creative officer Phil Craig wants to bring back some of the classic genres that built the Discovery brand; he wants natural history “front and centre.” Earlier this year Discovery announced Life of Dogs, a five part series that Craig describes as “new chip,” which is being made by Grant Mansfield’s indie Plimsoll Productions.

Craig anticipates looking for between 10 and 12 hours a year of landmark natural history. The brief is “energised storytelling – twists and turns – we like to keep our viewers informed with a variety of styles.” Discovery series The Lions of Sabi Sands: Brothers
in Blood about a notorious pride of lions has been a natural history hit. “We applied a slightly Hollywood approach” says Craig, mentioning Game of Thrones. “A fun family watch that feels like a modern TV show and yet is also classic natural history.”

Bringing drama and dramatic technique to natural history has proved to be a powerful approach. Seven- part series The Hunt for BBC1 is, according to exec producer Alastair Fothergill, “shot more like a drama than a natural history show.” The Hunt was devised to take a new approach to predation, while also taking the viewer into amazing habitats. “In the past there have been bitey teethy type shows where the predators are the villains,” says Fothergill. “Actually what’s interesting is they usually fail, they are the hardest working animals in nature.”

The series, narrated by David Attenborough, is subtitled The Outcome is Never Certain and each sequence lasts from six to
eight minutes, so that the
viewer gets involved in the
point of view of the predator
or prey. “I want people to
run with the hunting dogs,
crawl with the leopard, to get
involved with that dilemma,” says Fothergill.

Taking natural history into other genres has been one way of delivering to a wider audience. “We’ve definitely evolved creatively across much more hybrid areas, inspired by features and formats,” says Darke at the NHU. Its wide-ranging slate will soon feature the fishing world’s answer to the Great British Bake Off. The Big Fish will see eight anglers challenged to fish in different locations, with blue-chip content in the form of the anatomy of the fish and their habitat.

ITV has recently announced three-part series Nature Nuts, a search for Britain’s most fanatical wildlife lovers, presented by Julian Clary. The series, made by Oxford Scientific Films, will use starlight, high speed, mini aerial and underwater cameras to treat the nature nuts and the TV audience to a view
of their favourite animals. “Sometimes bringing new audiences to natural history has to be done through the back door, through entertainment rather than pure natural history,” says Middleboe at Icon, which is behind Discovery’s long running River Monsters.

At the BBC, Tom McDonald, head of Natural History commissioning, orders around 120 hours of the genre each year. He is looking for innovation, whether that be through mixing genres, finding new approaches or engaging new technology. “I think t’s really important for programme makers to be constantly thinking how they will bring something new to the audience,” he says.

While blue chip series on both BBC One and Two are “in fine fettle,” according to McDonald, the BBC has also had success with its pop natural history shows, like Animal Odd Couples, Animals in Love and Super Cute Animals - “balancing jaw-dropping YouTube visuals with high end specialist factual content.” The next move is to think about developing a branded magazine show for BBC One, “hopefully something that can become something a la Countryfile or Antiques Roadshow.”

Wildlife on Channel 5 stretches from four parter, Loch Lomond: A Year in the Wild with Tigress Productions, through celebrity-fronted pet rescue series and successful one-offs, such as Doghouse Media’s Psycho Pussies: When Cats Attack and clip show Cats Make You Laugh Out Loud.

Clip shows have enduring appeal and YouTube provides a constant stream of user generated content. Barcroft Media is a leader in this space with its Barcroft TV channel featuring massively popular wildlife clips. Barcroft is now developing shows inspired by its YouTube channel; its clip showing ‘the only man in the world who can swim with a polar bear’ led to a series commission for Preposterous Pets from Discovery’s Animal Planet channel.

The continued popularity of shows that draw parallels between animal and human behaviour has proved a rich seam
for broadcasters, with the BBC’s pop natural history shows playing to mainstream audiences and ITV recently commissioning three-part series Animal Mums from OSF.

Rob Pilley is a producer at John Downer Productions, which is working on a major new
BBC series for 2017, Animals Like Us – Super Spy. “You realise that the chemical pathways that are in everything from humans to amoebas, protozoa have only evolved once. So essentially they have the same abilities and senses, albeit to a lesser degree.“

Finding new approaches to natural history will often now involve getting to the heart of the action. “One of our key words is proximity,” says McDonald. The presenter and camera may well be very close to the wildlife, but producers increasingly need to be
in there too. ”I’ve always embraced jumping in the mud, being in the thick of things with the animals,
it’s something I’ve always loved,” says Pilley. It’s also important for him to have a hands-on attitude to the tech. “I’m quite often sitting there with a desk lamp and my magnifying glass getting inside the cameras, working out how I can adjust the focus.”

Technology has allowed productions to get closer and closer to wildlife, but it’s not just the 4,6 or 8K and super-adaptable cameras that are inspiring producers. The BBC’s up coming The Great Race will tell three big migration stories, with advances in tagging adding a new dimension. Tagging will track where the birds and their predators are and feed back details about their behaviour. “The technology is allowing us to be in the heart of the action and identify with individual animals and the ate of their journey, ” says McDonald.

Technology is sometimes a way in to natural history for indies that don’t normally occupy this territory. Dragonfly TV has dipped a toe in the natural history water; last year it used the rig to take a new look at mammals that live underground, with The Burrowers for the BBC; more recently ITV has commissioned the indie to make a single film, The Hedgehog Hotel.

There are opportunities across the genre. Alongside landmark and hybrid formats, there’s
 also a growing demand for high quality, volume natural history on a budget. At Icon, Lucy Middleboe believes that the market is divided. “At Mipcom everyone wants to buy your natural history, but no one is prepared to pay proper money for it, so it feels like the natural history world is being polarised.” There’s the big budget production world with only
a few players and then a growing demand for large amounts of natural history to supply new channels and online services worldwide. Blue Ant is ahead in this market; the Canadian distributor and producer set out to create 200 hours of 4K a year. It sounds
 like a new world of natural history, but the jury is
 still out on how this can make commercial sense for independent producers.

Tech and bravery help shows get to the heart of the action

Natural history audiences now expect to be at the heart of
the action; so productions are finding new ways of getting into the thick of it.

Discovery and Animal Planet’s Predator’s Up Close relies on former Navy SEAL Joel Lambert spending up to 24 hours living among exotic and dangerous predators in a specially-built transparent pod. Wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan is another who
gets in as close as possible
for shows such as Snow Wolf Family & Me, sometimes using a defended camera unit and dispensing with protection.

Another approach is to send the technology in alone. John Downer Productions has had successes with its Spy shows first concealing cameras in inanimate objects such as logs and rocks, then branching into more complex animatronic animal cameras in Spy in
the Huddle. It’s now working on BBC series Super Spy, deploying the same technical ingenuity to capture footage
of animals that behave like
us. Earlier this year its series Wild at Heart used minicams, attached to pets alongside roving stabilised cameras, to document pet behaviour.

Stabilisation has been
the key to ground-breaking approaches to shooting in the wild. Silverback’s new BBC series The Hunt filmed full- head close-ups of a hunting dog running at 45 mph by mounting a camera onto a vehicle using an advanced stabilisation system. “You feel as if you’re running with the pack,” says exec producer Alastair Fothergill.

How the BBC created a natural history event series

The live relay of marine life gathering in California’s Monterey Bay for a feast of feeding at the end of August was an editorial, technical and ratings success story to inspire. “What worked for the audience is that it really did feel like an event,” says Tom McDonald, head of natural history at the BBC.

The show, anchored by
Liz Bonnin, Steve Backshall and Matt Baker, went out in primetime on BBC1 on three nights, with a corresponding show Big Blue UK, presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, airing for five days on BBC daytime. Plus there were live links from the ocean into The One Show and Newsround. The main show reached 10m across the week, Big Blue UK exceeded its slot average by around 1.3m a day and online
it has so far reached around 23m. “It felt like we were using the full force of the broadcast BBC to amplify the main show,” says McDonald.

Big Blue Live was the first big co-pro between the BBC’s NHU and PBS in the US. NHU head Wendy Darke says the production was the Unit’s most ambitious yet, drawing on its experience with landmark blue-chip, live programming and digital elements.

New use of technology included the complex live link to under-the-ocean filming and recording numerous 360 degree videos that were posted on YouTube. “It was crafted
to appeal to audiences in terms of new science and new stories, but also unashamedly to indulge in the beauty of the natural world.”

Posted 16 October 2015 by Pippa Considine

The documentary report

Docs of all stripes are bringing in the numbers and the rig show goes from strength to strength. Televisual Factual Festival producer Pippa Considine reports

Serious factual in 2015 is in a good place. Factual TV has been a big success story for broadcasters globally and for producers, particularly in the UK. Documentary has always been at the table, but there’s been a recent upswing in commissioning documentary makers to make hybrid factual entertainment and lighter formats, as well as the serious factual that they know best.

“Everybody is really looking to documentaries again,” says Debbie Manners, ceo of Keo Films, who also reports transatlantic demand. “The US Channels like Nat Geo and Discovery are going back to big, expensive, often auteur-led documentary series or one-off seasons and away from formatted more derivative stuff.”

In the UK, the one less certain area is the BBC, with the impending move online by BBC3 and the interregnum at the top of documentaries commissioning at a time when Kim Shillinglaw was just establishing herself at BBC2, all in the shadow of charter renewal uncertainty. “Opportunities elsewhere are really blooming,” says Nick Kent, creative director at Oxford Film and TV. “Channel 4 really feels like it knows what it is, ITV is very robust, Channel 5 is in the process of raising its game quite significantly.”

Patrick Holland’s arrival from Boundless to head of documentaries at the BBC is widely welcomed. It’s early days for him to make a mark, but speaking at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June he said that he was keen on making documentaries into events, citing Minnow Films’ three-parter The Detectives that followed sex offence investigators. Scheduled across three nights on BBC2, it brought in an audience of two million.  It’s a move, however, that might come as bad news to indies trying to land five-or six-parters like The Met, with their promise of more impact in the schedule, as well as economies of scale.

Holland also agreed on a need to grow new directing talent. There’s a dearth of directors with the experience and vision required to take on challenging authorial documentary projects, in part caused by the big rig series. Channel 4 this year launched a new Cutting Edge documentary training scheme that aims to redress the gap and help to feed the channel’s singles strands.

BBC3 has been a place to experiment with ideas and talent for a younger audience. Its migration online has been viewed with an air of finality; there’s certainly cynicism about future budgets. “One thing BBC 3 did really well was find great factual content for that age group,” says Manners at Keo. Wary of this, controller of BBC3 Damian Kavanagh has sought to quell fears, asserting that if the BBC Trust gives the go ahead, the channel plans to spend even more of its £30m content budget on documentary than before and that new shows will run on BBC1 and 2, as well as BBC3 online.

The BBC has finally bitten the bullet with the rig, commissioning Wild Pictures to put cameras into a divorce clinic for BBC1 and Keo Films to use the rig to record lives of people coping with cancer for BBC2. The move will help to keep Channel 4 on its toes.  “It’s our job to experiment and innovate, the rig is not [a form] in and of itself anymore,” says Nick Mirsky, head of documentaries at Channel 4, who likens the BBC’s absence of rig documentaries to continuing to shoot in black and white when colour TV arrived. The technique has, he believes, shed new light. “It felt to me that putting the rig in The Tribe was a completely different way of making anthropological programmes.” The latest subject is fishing fleets, with The Catch from Blast Films! and the next iteration of Twofour’s Educating, this time in Cardiff.

“It’s worth noting that The Island, Gogglebox and First Dates that have got rising audiences are constructed,” says Mirsky.  “We’re thinking about what we can learn from those.” He says that The Island works, despite being having the tripod marks of former formats, because “they went in and made it with energy and pushed everything to greater heights of intensity, so the whole experience felt much more modern, fresher and more extreme and dramatic.”

Over at ITV, controller of factual Jo Clinton-Davis points out that the top 20 factual shows at 9pm are all Gogglebox, MasterChef and Long Lost Family. ITV’s new attempts to win the prize for next great format lie with The Garden’s Saved, telling the stories of people rescued by strangers, and The Miracle from Optomen, which draws confidence from massive online hits for films showing personal transformations. Clinton-Davis says about winning formats: “They all do what they say on the tin, they’re all bleedingly obvious in hindsight.”

While the BBC has become slower to give the green light to commissions, Clinton-Davis has a reputation for speedy decisions. But there’s some doubt about what the channel really wants in factual. Celebrity-fronted travelogues are central: going forward, Trevor MacDonald moves from the Mafia to exploring Vegas, Joanna Lumley is now seeking the story of her heartthrob Elvis and Alexander Armstrong – a new talent for the channel – heads to the Arctic. “There’s a sniffiness sometimes that you’re defaulting to presenter led,” says Clinton-Davis. “But it can enhance the content and deliver something fresh about the life of the presenter and if it works for the audience...”

Clinton Davis’ watchwords are “emotion, drama, character.” Police shows Rookies and The Nick have both been winners for the channel. Clinton puts the success down to a sense of humanity, a journalistic approach and drama. “The Nick is done completely differently. It feels like you’re in the room with a human drama with a beating heart.”

Drama is more and more key to the success of documentary. At Sky, where entertainment is at the core of everything, the big cinematic approach of David Attenborough: Conquest of the Skies hits the spot. Its first rig series, about children learning the skills of debating, was The Kings and Queens of Speech. “We were keen to do something about social mobility, with heart and warmth and big emotional stuff,” said Celia Taylor at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

The rig allows for more drama. “If you’ve got an interaction between a kid and a teacher, you might have three cameras on him,” says Mirsky. “All of a sudden the rig has enabled you to to cut actuality like drama.”
Documentary makers have proven their cross-genre abilities, making compelling features with narrative arcs as strong as anything in drama. At Blast Films! chief executive Ed Coulthard has experience as a drama director. “It’s story-telling and there are big lessons of narrative story-telling that apply to factual in the same way as drama.”

Documentary’s ability to deliver is reflected in its deployment in more unexpected schedules. Discovery’s TLC is behind singles First Heartbeat, a self-shot personal account of miscarriages and Tina Malone: My New Body, about her experience of surgically removing 12lbs.

This year’s Grierson shortlist included newcomers and CNN and the reappearance of Channel 5 after five years, with Knickerbockerglory obdoc GPs: Behind Closed Doors. “It’s a very honest take on what life is like in general practice, and as such is probably a very pure form of documentary film making, “ says Jonathan Stadlen, md of Knickerbockerglory.

Channel 5 has been using smaller independents, a move which in part accounts for PACT figures showing a significant rise in smaller company commissions. This goes some way to reassuring the smaller players in the industry, not only unnerved by the increasing consolidation, but by the perceived threat of ITV Studios and now BBC production gearing up.

There are also new opportunities from online, which are more eagerly seized by small operations, given the nascent budgets. Stadlen believes that online provides a great platform for testing new ideas. But there is also now money available for straight documentary commissions online. At The Guardian, the documentaries department hopes to soon commission one documentary short each week. However budgets are pegged at about £1K per minute, in line with other web content budgets. Channel 4 is on the hunt for online content alongside BBC3. And Red Bull is looking for content for a TV service launch in the UK in 2016.

Despite the PACT census this year showing a decline in international revenues, many indies rely on returns from outside the UK and are positive about US interest. “The US is a fantastic opportunity for UK programme makers,” says Coulthard. “We are welcomed in America and in some ways they are much more straightforward to deal with than our own broadcasters.” Kent at Oxford Film and TV sees the US as a definite area of growth. And UK indies are forging relationships with different cable channels across America.

One of the less expected areas of growth is how far the documentary sensibility is being stretched into other areas of the schedule. Perhaps most surprising so far is Mentorn bringing its serious factual experience of Question Time to bear in TLC’s new format If Katie Hopkins Ruled the World.

A changing skillset?
A new sort of doc talent rises to the top
Great documentary makers need to have a voice, but the stars of today are also supremo organisers with commercial acumen. Volume series and big rig require more than just one creative leader. It’s increasingly rare that a single creative genius director rules a production; the role of exec producer, series producer and edit producer have gathered more magic dust, alongside the heavy lifting.

The trend towards unmediated shows puts a new spin on the role of the film-makers: if the documentary is self-shot by the contributors the roles of director and producer change again. Alisa Pomeroy is a rising talent brought up in the new tradition. Nominated for a BAFTA and two Griersons this year and recently hired by C4, she’s worked as series director on The Garden’s 24 Hours in Police Custody and as series producer on the BBC’s obdoc on Iceland: Life in the Freezer Cabinet. She’s more than able to find her authorial voice; but she can also master the organisation and savvy that will be required as a commissioning editor.

Vision is still crucial. Chief executive at Blast Films! Ed Coulthard describes how its new rig series The Catch for Channel 4 has key team leaders in the shape of series producer Jo Hughes and himself and Nick Hornby as exec producers, but there’s still a single vision: “With series director James Incledon it’s a very authored series; he’s been the one living on the boats and forming relationships with the key contributors.”

The Televisual Factual Festival runs on 11th and 12th November at Bafta. More details here

New directions
Channel 4 and 
Shine’s Hunted
The pressure is on with Channel 4’s new format Hunted, being made by the same team at Shine that worked on The Island. The idea is bang in the middle of the sweet spot where an unmediated format with documentary sensibility finds an audience that includes the elusive YouTube generation.

The cast of individuals, recruited from the general public, have attempted to stay off grid, while self-shooting their efforts to evade capture from a team of expert hunters.

At first glance it might not be obvious, but it follows in the tradition of the BBC’s The Great British Bake Off and Channel 4’s First Dates. It’s no accident that it’s officially a co-commission between the formats and documentary departments.

“Formats that really work often have quite a lot of documentary in them, a realness that can make them feel that bit more genuine,” says Nick Mirsky, the head of documentaries at Channel 4. “The audience on First Dates is quite happy to accept that we’ve made it happen, but there’s something quite authentic, it feels real.”

Described by the channel as ‘part documentary, part thriller,’ it could even have been a three-way commission, including the drama department, with a heightened sense of jeopardy cut to give it shades of Blair Witch. And it’s a natural for multi-platform, since it’s predicated on an internet society where people can be traced via their digital footprint.

Posted 03 September 2015 by Pippa Considine

10 ways to get your project noticed

Here are 10 ways to prepare for getting your film idea closer to finding an audience.

BECTUs recent panel on Marketing your Project, held at Ravensbourne College, heard from Christopher Hird, md of Dartmouth Films, Sarah Mosses from Together Films, which helps film makers to market their work, producer/director Lily Murray, director Jonathan Pearson and writer/producer and pitching expert Sasha Damjanovski.

 1. Have an asset, not an idea
"It's not enough to have an idea you have to have an asset." Christopher Hird's advice was not to present an idea without at least one of the following:
Unique access
Compelling talent
Rights to a successful book 

2. Skill up
For any initial project, you will have to be producer as well as director, probably writer, possible editor and take on a few other roles.

3. Plot a micro business plan of your life
As a fledgling director, you'll need to fit the aspiration to film with the day job. So work out when you're filming and how you will afford it. Schedule it in.

4. Park any squeamishness about selling 
"You're not selling yourself, you're selling your excitement about the idea," says Sasha Damjanovski, who runs workshops on how to pitch. He recommends practising on family and friends; if they glaze over then you're on the wrong track.

5. Shrink your idea to two sentences
"It has to be so concise," says Sarah Mosses. "If you can't condense it, then you don't know what your film is about."

6. Practise a two- to three-minute pitch
Nail your elevator pitch and prepare a PDF two-pager. So when you get the chance to tell it or send it to someone who matters, you can deliver just whats wanted and follow up seamlessly.

7. Work with an established indie
Identify a production company that works with projects like your own and take them something worth having. And dont go into stasis with fear that they'll steal the idea. "Come with something so well developed that they wont want to steal it off you," says Hird.

8. Be ambitious, but realistic.
If you need to get credentials with your first film, then make something close to home, in every sense. You do want to show your original thinking and personal style. You don't want an international travel budget. Many films dont make a profit, often they cost more than they make.

9. Keep back money for marketing
A film doesn't exist til someone sees it, " says Mosses. With fiction it's common for one third of the budget to be kept for marketing, but it's not just drama that needs a fuss made to get it seen. It's not down to distributors or sales companies, you need to earmark production money to get your film a bigger audience, 

10. Take care with tasters
More often than not an investor will want to see footage - a taster tape, perhaps more of the characters, some scenes. Make sure you don't spend too much time and money shooting footage that won't come to anything. It might be the best calling card, but it also might never get made.













Posted 17 June 2015 by Pippa Considine

Doc/Fest: What online commissioners want

The packed out Alternative Platforms commissioning session at Sheffield Doc/Fest got the low down on short form online commissioning from The Guardian¹s Charlie Phillips, Elliot Reed from BBC Three, Channel 4's Jody Smith and Jennifer Byrne from the Dazed Group. Vice didn¹t make it. 

Top line messages included a loud and clear: this is not TV, catchy titles are crucial,  the pace needs to be relentless and the films need to hook people in straight away. With budgets, they are all paying roughly £1K per minute for short form. Most of the short form is between three and 15 minutes, with a lot at the bottom end of that scale. The audience is mainly millennials and the commissioners like to collaborate with suppliers. Some want all rights in perpetuity, others are happy with a window. A few traditional indies are working with volume commissions. 

Channel 4  - multiplatform and online video commissioning editor Jody Smith explained that one reason for the strategy of commissioning shorts for All 4 was the shift from watching shows in snippets on mobiles. So why not make films that run for five minutes? They are looking mostly for docs about youth culture and sub cultures, often commissioning in series. The plan is for an in house team to film news reactive films, while suppliers are a mix of established indies including Firecracker, Watershed and Twenty Twenty, as well as newer outfits. Films will run on the Channel 4 platform which aims to be a new advertising revenue stream for the broadcaster.  

BBC Three  - commissioning editor for features and formats and documentaries Elliot Reed said that there was still a lot to decide about the channel, which is due to go online in January, if a celebrity-backed outcry doesn¹t force a U-turn. That said, he confirmed that much of the commissioning  - around 80 % - will be long form, with a significant chunk left for shorts. This will include web discussions, blogs, games and short doc series; he pointed to Vice as a reference point. While the BBC3 budget is being halved, he argued that this is less concerning for original commissions as there wont be the same spend on acquisition or repeats. They are still negotiating about what rights they will want to acquire.

Guardian - head of documentaries Charlie Phillips is looking for globally resonant contemporary stories, ideally something that the audience hasnt seen or read about elsewhere. Not just serious social issue docs, we also want funny and intelligent. They plan to commission about 50 short films a year and are paying between one and 10k each. The initial strategy is to publish across a variety of platforms in order to build an audience for the Guardian brand. Hes not really thinking in terms of acquisitions.

Dazed Group - video commissioning editor Jennifer Byrne is commissioning around fashion and culture stories, with a lot of personal POV. She finds that film makers keen to be on Dazed & Confused will often invest their own money on top of what she can pay. They also publish across a variety of platforms, including Vimeo where their films are often included in the coveted Vimeo staff picks. They are flexible about rights, often claiming a window rather than blanket ownership. She will consider acquisition.










Posted 15 June 2015 by Pippa Considine

Sheffield: What the Fact Ent commissioners want

Sheffield DocFest Factual Entertainnment commissioning panel heard from Liam Humphreys, Channel 4, Alison Kirkham, BBC, Andrew O'Connell, ITV and Sarah Thornton for Discovery.

The trends across the panel were for formats with the format taken out and real lives reflected and respected. There was a universal welcome for light touch mediation: presenters, including celebrities, are only interesting if they are immersed in the show. Gogglebox is still the show on everyone's lips.

ITV commissioning editor Andrew O'Connell showed clips from new shows Trip Advisers and Big Box Little Box where Gogglebox meets Watchdog. He said that ITV had more shows in the pipeline featuring ordinary punters, "real people with everyday stuff." He confirmed that ITV was doing Flockstars - celebrity One Man and his Dog.

Discovery/ TLC - vp lifestyle and entertainment Discovery Networks International Sarah Thornton showed clips from shows that were more traditional documentary than some of the docs on Sheffields docs commissioning panel. A turn-around from the Jodie Marsh body building clip that she showed last year. One commission - a self-shot film about miscarriages, came out of an approach made by a producer after the Sheffield session last year which was nade on the back of Thornton committing to spending more on female factual. Another show, Too Ugly for Love from Betty, is set for a second series. She didn't get grilled on her Katie Hopkins chat show, perhaps the wrong sensibility for a Sheffield audience. What she wants is shows that producers can see on TLC, she's open minded.

Channel 4 head of entertainment and factual entertainment Liam Humphreys said that the commissioning team at the channel had looked at other ways of morphing Gogglebox but decided against it. Instead, they've hatched Hunted from the same Shine team as The Island and they revealed that they are in the second of a five week shoot for a Michel Roux Junior format where the chef teaches catering skills to groups of disabled students. More evidence of the talent at the heart of the idea, rather than presenting. Asked about Bear Grylls' role in The Island, Humphreys said, "I don't think it would work if he was on the island. What he brings is credibility and context."

BBC - Alison Kirkham, head of BBC formats, features and events, who is currently acting controller of factual  for the corporation, had a food theme to her showreel. Eat Well for Less and Back in Time for Dinner are recent hits and she showed a clip from upcoming two-parter on spending with Anne Robinson, where an 'immersed' Robinson, dressed in designer black puffa jacket, shares a stew made from bin salvage with eco hippy Jedi in his reclaim camp in Berkshire woodland. "One legacy of Gogglebox is that people seem to like their lives reflected back to them, if told in an unpatronising way," she says. While Eat Well for Less is a format, Kirkham pointed out that it's only lightly mediated. She's looking for shows that borrow heavily from another genre and has just commissioned a couple of shows that she described as quite enty. Ideally characters in a BBC fact ent show will go on a transformative journey.

Posted 10 June 2015 by Pippa Considine
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