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Twickenham set to rejoin dynamic studio sector

Twickenham Film Studios has been saved from the brink.

In February, it looked like the end of an era, when it was announced that the studios had to go into receivership and would close in June, one year before its centenary.

The legendary studios was home to some of the best known films of the 60s, including Alfie, The Italian Job, Roman Polanski's Repulsion, and The Beatles’ Help and A Hard Day’s Night. More recently it was used by Stephen Spielberg for the filming of War Horse and for the making of The Iron Lady.

At a time when there’s been significant investment in studios, including the MediaCityUK Studios in Salford and the recently relaunched Warner Bros’ Leavesden Studios, it seems right that one of the oldest studios in the country should be getting a reprieve.

More than that, the new owner, Twickenham Studios Ltd, led by property magnate and film buff Sunny Vohra, promises a new lease of life.

"There will be increased employment opportunities at the studios with investment in additional staff to make the studio a hive of creativity and an exceptional place to work," says Vohra, who will be TSL's new managing director.

It had looked like the studios, which originally opened in 1913, would close in June, after having lost money for the last three years. But a petition to save them was started in March and within one week had over a thousand signatures, including Steven Spielberg, Michael Apted, Terry Jones, Peter Medak, Stephen Daldry, John Landis and Terry Jones.

The petition read, “We have no time to waste! Twickenham Film studios has gone into administration and word has it that property developers are moving in. Please sign our petition to help stop the developers in their tracks!! We don't need more executive homes! Twickenham has been at the forefront of the British film industry for 99 years - let's help it make to 100 and beyond.”

As a reward for her passion and mobilisation, Maria Walker, a post-production supervisor and Twickenham resident who led the campaign to save the studios, will take over the job of chief operating officer and will oversee sales, marketing and business development. “There is a lot of goodwill towards the studio and many people want to see Twickenham return to the top, where it should be.

“The industry is changing. We are looking at tapping other revenue streams such as gaming. We are looking to expand the IT department and to bring in technicians, sales and marketing knowledge.”

It looks as though Twickenham will remain as a production force in a dynamic sector where there is clearly still an appetite for investment.

Posted 25 July 2012 by Pippa Considine

Now is a good time to be an indie

The independent sector is thriving.
This week’s BBC Annual Report revealed that independents produced 83 per cent of the 25 per cent of programmes that fall within the Window of Creative Competition. This represents an 11 per cent rise from last year. Overall, 42 per cent of eligible BBC programming was made by indies.
Pictures of Hartswood Films’ Sherlock are all through the Annual Report and it talks about the independent sector as “responsible for supplying some of the UK’s most valued programmes, such as Earthflight, Call the Midwife and Birdsong.”
Pact’s annual census showed the independent sector revenues growing by 2.3 per cent to £2.4bn in 2011. Growth in 2011 is shown as coming from overseas revenues, but in 2012 there is also more money in the UK.
Sky is putting its money where its mouth is, following its pledge that it is increasing its investment in British content over three years, so that by 2014 it expects to invest £600 million a year in British programmes.
Hardly a day passes without an announcement about a new Sky commission. It might have started with sport, but now it is producing more comedy than Channel 4. Stuart Murphy, the broadcaster’s director of entertainment channels, says that it’s looking to change the game across genres. At Sheffield, it announced a new investment in feature-length documentaries.
Pact’s census did, however show profitability weakening, with production companies across most parts of the industry reporting declining net margins at 6.7 per cent in 2011, down from 13 per cent in 2010.
It also showed that primary UK commissions from broadcasters were down from £1.36bn to £1.25bn, the result of recessionary broadcaster cuts, especially at the BBC and ITV, which saw their indie spend fall 13 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.
But, the recessionary blood letting seems to have stopped. And spending by multichannel broadcasters increased from £130m to £163m in 2011.
On top of what currently seems to be a good UK market for indies, there’s been a big increase in overseas revenues as indies exploit their programming rights, selling and reversioning for different markets. International buyers spent £625m on UK indie productions in 2011, up from £495m in 2010, according to Pact.
Given that the BBC weather forecasters are insisting that the sun is about to come out across the UK, there’s never been a more apt time to say ‘make hay while the sun shines’. Now is a good time to be an independent producer.

Posted 19 July 2012 by Pippa Considine

Is Entwistle the right man for BBC director general?

George Entwistle, the next director-general of the BBC, is a highly respected BBC lifer. Apart from an initial stint as a journalist at Michael Heseltine’s Haymarket Magazines, he’s worked his way through a number of key posts at the BBC, largely in factual programming, and has taken on huge responsibilities, most recently as director of BBC Vision.

He is definitely a safe pair of hands.

But is he too entrenched in the Corporation, too much of a traditionalist and will he have enough political nous when confronted with Whitehall demands and the huge sea changes that broadcasters are experiencing.

Today’s Financial Times reports that analysts are pointing out that he has no corporate experience and little management experience. One media analyst, who asks not to be named, noted that Mr Entwistle had no great political links in his cv.

Nick Thomas, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media says, “The fears are that he is not enough of a digital bod to understand that for millions of its consumers, the BBC is now as much a provider of digital content as a broadcaster."

Thomas goes on to say: “The DG’s job now seems to be more political than ever, too. It’s all about managing up, working effectively (and forcefully) with Whitehall to fight
the BBC’s corner. Other candidates – such as Ofcom boss Ed Richards and BBC chief operating officer Caroline Thomson – seemed to have more experience in those circles.”

Others are dismayed that the post has once again gone to a man.

Answering questions about Entwistle’s qualifications for the post on Radio 4’s World at One today, BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten said, “George showed us in his interview that he’s capable, as an insider, of standing back and seeing the changes that need to be made.”

The Trust has put creative excellence at the top of its list of priorities, while acknowledging the importance of technological changes and BBC Charter discussions. “The most important thing is to make even better programmes with less money around,” said Patten.

Posted 04 July 2012 by Pippa Considine

The Televisual Documentary Report

Ahead of next month's Televisual Factual Festival, Pippa Considine examines the documentary genre, finding it in good shape with strong films achieving high ratings at a 
low cost to broadcasters

The last 12 months has been something of a golden time for broadcast documentary in the UK. The boom in factual, commissioned as a value-for-money tactic during recession, has resulted in some big success stories.

There's more money to invest in documentary and more channels vying for the best ideas, while theatrical documentary rides high with celebrated films such as Senna.

At Channel 4, the budget for documentary has gone up, the result of money freed up by the absence of Big Brother. "For me, it's been a story of scaling things up," says Hamish Mykura, the head of documentaries at Channel 4. "When I came to the channel [in 2001], the spend was a fraction of what it is now and we didn't have the big blockbuster documentary series. In 2010, we spent £17m and made 115 hours; in 2011, we spent £24m and made 138 hours.

In the last 18 months at Sky, Celia Taylor, head of factual has added Sky 3d, Sky Living, and Sky Atlantic to Sky 1 and Sky Arts in her portfolio. Her department will be boosted by its share of the pledged increase in original UK programming by the broadcaster, which should jump from £380m this year to £600m by 2014. "It's been a significant landscape change," says Taylor. "There's been exponential growth in our commissioning and opportunites for factual content".

Clearly the BBC is facing cuts, but documentary on the BBC is still thriving, with head of documentaries Charlotte Moore overseeing a pot of over £30m, making 240 hours of documentary each year. The documentary department won a trio of Baftas this year and has more powerful films coming through.

Over at ITV, it's generally acknowledged that documentary is strong for the channel at the moment, with success stories such as Strangeways from Wild Pictures and Wall to Wall's Long Lost Family.  "For us, it's the breadth and depth of what we've been able to bring to the channel in the last 12 months," says Alison Sharman, ITV director of daytime and factual. She is clear about the commercial advantage: "Obviously factual provides excellent return on investment when it delivers audiences at those good value for money prices."

Adding to this positive picture, Channel 5 is commissioning more factual and is eager to reassure independents that it's interested in new proposals. 
And a slew of digital channels are actively commissioning, notably Discovery - another broadcaster on the look out for charismatic presenters, strong formats and fast turn-around one-offs. AETN's History channel has five series in production, Current TV has been on a commissioning round in the last few months and there are plenty of other channels in the market for documentaries.

Of course, the budgets aren't always going to be gilt-edged; factual producers are getting used to a shortfall. However successful on UK television, it's often hard to make money unless some comes in from overseas. "Producers are increasingly reliant on programmes having an afterlife beyond primary broadcasters," says Nick Curwin, creative director at the Garden, which has recently had 24 Hours in A&E picked up by US broadcasters.
For big shows with an international life, co-production has now become the norm. John Smithson, creative director at newly launched independent Arrow Media, has been involved on 
many co-productions. "You have to have an exceptional story or talent to get a big budget, but most of the time you've got to work a bit harder to come up with the money to realise the ambition," he says.

With everything to play for at Arrow Media, Smithson is optimistic about the continued demand for documentaries. He points to Big Fat Gypsy Weddings (from the factual entertainment department at C4), which had almost 10 million viewers for its last episode: "You wouldn't necessarily think that it would be TV gold, but the public loved it and the rest is history. It shows that we have inordinate curiosity about the worlds that exist in our bigger world." At the BBC, Moore backs that up, saying that there is a resurgence in observational documentaries at the BBC, with a number in the pipeline.

Although the opportunities for documentaries seem to be everywhere, broadcasters are often looking to take a low risk option, using tried and tested talent, both on-screen and behind the camera. The BBC depends on known presenter talent, such as Louis Theroux or Bruce Parry, while ITV is keenly anticipating travelogues with Joanna Lumley and Trevor McDonald.

There's room in the schedules for celebrated filmmakers to make big films - the BBC is working with Minnow Films founder Morgan Matthews on a film about the 7/7 London terrorist attacks, while Channel 4 is backing Nick Broomfield's film, You Betcha, about Sarah Palin.

The opening up of the BBC's Wonderland strand to independents has added to the opportunities for 'witty and relevant' documentary, mainly from established filmmakers. Matthews at Minnow says: "There are still the single big hitting documentaries, films tackling important subjects... For single documentaries there are two of probably the best strands in the world with Storyville on BBC4 and True Stories on Channel 4."
Broadcasters are keen to stress that they are also willing to take risks and actively want to support programme makers and bring on new talent. It makes straight commercial sense – with the high volume of demand, more is needed and the risks are relatively low when compared with other genres.

Mykura says that First Cut has been performing well for C4, with first-time filmmakers going on to make other shows on the channel. BBC3's strand Fresh, which has had several hits including Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 and My Brother the Islamist, is also designed to give opportunities to new filmmakers. Meanwhile, big and ongoing documentary series across the schedules are providing a training ground for production talent.

The fixed rig shows that have scored hits for C4 and helped to fill the gap left by the departure of Big Brother on the channel, are viewed by many as a welcome addition to documentary. "Rig shows have been good for the industry and have rejuvenated documentary to a certain extent, giving people a new way of looking at subjects," says Matthews.

The fact that C4 now has a series of fixed rig shows, including One Born Every Minute, 24 Hours in A&E and hybrid Seven Dwarves is part of Charlotte Moore's reasoning behind not running fixed rig on the BBC, since she aims to be distinctive. And Mykura is quick to point to the fact that although they have bolstered the C4 schedule, they are only part of a wide range of documentary.

This has to be heartening news to the factual production community. Of course, the bar is still high for landing a well-funded commission and budgets remain as tight as a drum, but there's business to be had. "I would say definitely there's still a massive appetite from audiences and commissioning editors for singles as well as series," says Curwin. "It feels like a really good time to be in documentaries."

Charlotte Moore
BBC Commissioning editor for documentaries

“I’m trying to have a conversation with the audience across four channels about the things that really matter in a way that feels contemporary and relevant.
For BBC1, we want to identify the next territory for observational documentary - hidden worlds, or a world that we know well, but where we can shine a new light in a way that's entertaining or engaging. I'm particularly looking forward to Chatsworth and a season on disability in the new year. What I never get enough of is presenter-led journeys. We have series from Michael Palin and Griff Rhys Jones and of course there's Who Do You Think You Are?, but who are the next generation of national treasures?
On BBC2 we have the child protection series and some witty, more entertaining observational documentaries coming up. But where are the next big social issues and concerns that only the BBC would tackle? And, after Lambing Live and Welcome to Lagos, we'd like to find different approaches, different techniques - but not necessarily live.
On BBC3, Our War and Kids Behind Bars have shown that there's no story you can't tell on the channel. Two years ago these films might have been surprising on the channel. But where next?
BBC4 is about counter-intuitive takes on often traditional subjects, but with a strong directorial voice. Good examples include Agony & Ecstasy: A Year With English National Ballet and Sandhurst."

Alison Sharman, 
ITV Director of factual 
and daytime
"The past 12 months at ITV in terms of perception and in terms of audiences for factual have been very successful.
If I was to point to some of the biggest success stories it would be Strangeways and Long Lost Family. We worked closely with Wall to Wall and had huge audience feedback and great numbers. Both series were critically well received, which is really important.
We launched arts series Perspectives, with great story telling and great authors.
Coming up for us we've recommissioned Long Lost Family and we're going to do more Perspectives. We've got a really fantastic documentary - Leslie Woodhead's The Day that Changed the World, marking the anniversary of 9/11. And we've got some authored journeys: Joanna Lumley goes to the Greek islands... she's a great great story teller... and Trevor McDonald with Mighty Mississippi.
We've been able to open up the early evening slots, where it's more observational documentary and there's investment later at night, as well as plenty of opportunity at 9pm.
At 9pm, the ambition is to make a documentary that we think will deliver at least 4 million, that's the bar. Because we're a mainstream channel, the areas where we focus must have universal appeal, they 
can never be niche."

Hamish Mykura
C4 Head of documentaries

"The big series that reflect the state of the nation with quality are really the benchmark of Channel 4's output. At the moment I'd say that 24 Hours in A&E is probably the best example, a series that was able to take an area familiar to TV cameras and tell stories in a new way. Also, Coppers, which did a similar thing with the police force.
With presenters, the things that work best for us are cases where the presenter is deeply involved with the subject matter that they're presenting, like Katie Piper whose whole life is bound up with facial disfigurement. Quite a few we've been working with have come through, Hayley Taylor, for example, who began as a star of Benefit Busters.
Seven Days was a brilliant thing to do and we're looking for things that take a leap on the same scale and that are as successful in their interactive take-up. The great advantage of a documentary department that's growing is that you can make advances all round.
I would say that supporting filmmakers in their own way of story telling is a big part of our output, so Cutting Edge, True Stories and First Cut, which has been working tremendously well for us, gives people the opportunity to make their first proper authored documentary and they might go on to make other films on the channel."

Celia Taylor
Sky 1 HD Head of factual

"On Sky 1, the strategy of a fresh take in mainstream territory has worked well. An Idiot Abroad - celebrity travelogue turned on its head - was the ninth highest-rating show in Sky's history. A sense of scale and boldness as well - Inside Gatwick, where each episode is a year's development around a theme or Obese - A Year to Save My Life.
Our documentary strategy on Atlantic is in its early days, but we're going to see some big things. Fish Town is the first commission. On Atlantic, it's about how we make factual feel as slick and sophisticated as the scripted stuff. Authorship and creativity are important and we're showing big things, like Flying Monsters.
Sky 3D is about creating the best 3D content globally, it's about big event pieces. We're doing The Bachelor King and a new three-part documentary about Kew, both with David Attenborough.
Sky Living has had an increase in budget and we're ambitious to make the channel the destination for females. The next thing is a five-part strand looking at pushy parents. And we're thinking about how we give heart and meaning to campaigning and issue-led stuff.
With Sky Arts, we also have great ambitions. How do we broaden it out, while maintaining its integrity? Currently, we're looking at something with antiques and working with some of Britain's contemporary artists. never be niche."

Posted 21 September 2011 by Pippa Considine

The faces of factual

Finding and keeping presenter talent can be a golden ticket. But, with a relentless demand for new faces, how do you discover or attract talent or is it a game of chance?

Open up any TV listings page and it’s the same story. Across the top of each channel listing there are pictures of people, mostly celebrities. Factual programmes get that picture billing if the presenter’s face fits.

Talent can be the making of a production company. Take Jo Frost and the Supernanny franchise at Ricochet, or Optomen’s celebrated presenters, including Gordon Ramsay and Mary Portas.

There’s a common perception that talent has become more important to factual programming; an idea that needs a presenter is unlikely to be given a second glance if pitched to a broadcaster without a credible presenter. Jobbing presenters have been all-but side-lined by charismatic experts with passion and celebrities with enthusiasm for travel or Victorian culture. “Next they’ll discover that Stephen Fry is an engineer and that Joanna Lumley is a seamstress,” comments one agent looking to place new talent.

Naturally, demand has driven up the price and power of many presenters. Jeremy Paxman is, according to The Guardian, believed to be on a £750,000 deal covering Newsnight and University Challenge, with a £20,000 ‘presenter bonus’ for each documentary that he fronts. Meanwhile, Richard Hammond is thought to be in the BBC’s £1m plus league.

Commissioning editors aren’t shy about their talent cravings. “My first priority is talent, talent, talent,” says Channel 4 commissioning editor for specialist factual Ralph Lee. While Channel 4 is jealous of the BBC’s stable of popular and respected presenters, the BBC is anxious to carry on attracting those presenters, whether they are well-known faces or the next discovery. It’s the same story with broadcasters the world over – good presenters are vital, they win audiences and help to sell a channel.

“Talent is very, very important,” says BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow. “I’m not sure if it has become more so, but talent, particularly in factual, is a really important part of how we engage audiences.”

Hadlow has a reputation for finding talent, having brought David Starkey and Simon Schama to the small screen and, more recently, encouraged both Mary Beard and Amanda Vickery to front successful productions for BBC2. “As a channel controller I feel as interested as I was when I was a producer,” she says. “However, I do have a day job, so I need to make it very clear to inhouse producers and independents what kind of talent would work for the channel.

“The key thing for BBC2 is authority, our audiences want someone that they can identify with and they want to spend time with – someone who has the authority to be telling them things.” She also insists that risk-taking is vital. “We have to be prepared to give new talent a try and be prepared for the long haul…Part of my job is to have the ability to recognise talent and be willing to put it on screen.”

At Channel 4, Lee admits that “in specialist factual, we haven’t been as bold and adventurous as we should have been in backing new talent. We want both new and established talent.” Discovery, with its cabbie-turned-presenter Harry Harris, alongside Bear Grylls (Born Survivor) is saying the same thing. As is Channel 5 – on the hunt for new experts, especially engineers, as well as celebrities who can live their dreams, like Robson Green in Extreme Fishing.

But how does a producer find the right face to fit the brief? How much time and resource should they commit to relationships with talent agents, reading the words of academic experts or combing restaurant kitchens and market stalls to secure the charisma that might underpin a programme idea?

Gareth Malone’s arrival on screen was a case of idea first, talent second; the producer that found him, Ana de Moraes, now head of development at Twenty Twenty, says that a commission wouldn’t happen that way around five years on. Former commissioners at BBC2 Ben Gale and Richard Klein had liked the idea of taking a school choir to the Choir Olympics, but only with the right talent attached.

De Moraes started to hunt around and the first person she found, through the London Symphony Orchestra, was Malone. “The minute we played the taster tape everyone said he’s going to be eaten alive in the kind of school that we want to film. But he was confident and good, so he had a good chance of pulling it off.” The fact that he seemed like a lamb being fed to the lions gave him the edge. “There needs to be that extra something. There are so many experts, but if they don’t have charm, it doesn’t really work,” says Moraes.

Having spotted Malone, she’s often asked who will be the next Gareth. “It’s very hard to find someone special and you have to think why haven’t they done TV before. It’s very rare.”

Guy Martin, the new face that recently presented BBC One series, The Boat that Guy Built, was a story of talent-first, idea second. Neil Duncanson, CEO at North One explains that he was spotted during the company’s coverage of the Isle of Man TT racing. “One of the TT race producers said, ‘can you look at a feature I’ve done because I’m having a big row - the editor says it’s too long’ …It was a long diatribe [from Guy Martin] about tea and what makes proper tea and what is an emulsion. It doesn’t happen very often in our business that you’re hit by a bolt of lightning, but this was it.”

North One sent the tape of Martin to the then controller of BBC One Jay Hunt who came back to them 24 hours later, agreeing that Martin was brilliant; together with Alison Kirkham at the BBC, North One channelled Martin’s passion and enthusiasm into The Boat that Guy Built.

Duncanson says that he’s always keeping an eye out for potential presenters, it comes with the territory. Over at Leopard Films, Charlie Bunce, recently appointed head of features and formats and former head of factual at Talkback Thames, says that looking out for talent is part of the job and has been ever thus. “Talent has always been important in factual, always at its heart. As a producer, you are thinking about talent the whole time…through the books you read, the papers, even the people you meet when you’re dropping your kids at school.”

Having worked with Kevin McCloud and Michael Portillo (Great British Railway Journeys), as well as recently “pounding the streets” to cast unknowns in Channel’s 4’s Four Rooms, he makes a crucial distinction: “Either people already exist and you have a pretty good idea, or there’s the perfect person and you don’t know where they are and you have to go out and find them.”

Working with existing talent is obvious and might make so much sense for a programme idea, but the reality of booking an already well known presenter is another matter. In the past, professional presenters were more flexible, but the rise of the expert presenter has seen the emergence of a whole new cult. With recognised talent, such as the Top Gear and Gardener’s World alumni or celebrities transferring their talent from other walks of life, getting them on board may require large amounts of money, as well as artful persuasion. It’s also, of course, down to who you know.

Spun Gold is behind an array of talent-led programming, including Prince William’s Africa, When Piers Met Lord Sugar and The Alan Titchmarsh Show. Managing director Nick Bullen describes how he knew Titchmarsh’s agent – Annie Sweetbaum at specialist talent agency Arlington Enterprises – from his first job in television.

Bullen started out in TV on This Morning, with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, where his contacts book swelled and he learnt the importance of maintaining relationships. When Sweetbaum and Titchmarsh talked to ITV about producing an afternoon show, they chose to come to Spun Gold, in part because Bullen had the ability to produce a live, daytime show, but a lot was down to trust.

“We’ve never done anybody over,” says Bullen, who is well aware of the often fragile trust between celebrity and TV company. “Every programme we’ve done has always been with talent approval, though not editorial control….I show them the final production and I’m happy to discuss it with them.” Working with talent, sharing ideas and sharing profits are all part of the game. “You do have to give the love,” he adds.

While Bunce clearly got on well enough with Portillo to be trusted to write the book of the TV series, Ana de Moraes describes how she and Gareth Malone are a team: “It’s quite a close relationship, he trusts us and we’ve become friends…he’s been to my son’s birthday parties. We come up with ideas together with him and he knows that we have his best interests at heart.”

Malone has an exclusive TV deal with Twenty Twenty, as does Guy Martin with North One. In the case of Alan Titchmarsh and James May they have agreed deals with their production companies, on top of their fee; Titchmarsh through Spun Gold and May through Plum Pictures.

Sweetbaum recognises that their celebrity gives them a right to a stake in any show’s IP. “Of course you can only do that when they’re right at the top,” she says. And even with high profile presenters, many of the bigger production companies are protective of rights and not interested in cutting a deal beyond a fee.

While Arlington represents the likes of Kirstie and Phil, Ben Fogle and James May , for the newbies on Arlington’s books it’s a different game. “With rookie presenters you have to try and keep pushing them in front of producers until someone somewhere says yes,” says Sweetbaum.

If and when they do say yes, there’s every chance that a rising star might change production company or channel. Or they might decide to start their own production company in the mould of Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer with Raise the Roof Productions or Jamie Oliver’s Fresh One Productions.

If you do find talent, hanging on to it is another trick altogether. Producers are agreed that it has to be about building trust. Hadlow points to the myriad opportunities for talent on the BBC. While Bullen at Spun Gold suggests that it’s also down to the feel-good factor: “If you look at talent that leaves production companies, it’s hardly ever about money and very rarely about the quality of shows. Invariably they leave because they haven’t been getting the love.”

Posted 03 August 2011 by Pippa Considine
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