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The great indie start-up craze

A swathe of new TV indies has launched in recent months, with more set to come. What’s driving the start-up trend?

The big story of 2014 in indie production has been the takeover of a large part of the UK industry by US studio groups. Discovery, Liberty, 21st Century Fox, Warners, Sony and NBC are now key players in a UK indie sector that is 65% owned by foreign investors.

The spate of deal making this year sparked fears, aired by C4 boss David Abraham in his MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh, that the creative culture of UK production would be snuffed out by foreign owners who put profits ahead of risk taking.

Abraham’s fears about the changing TV landscape seemed to be justified by comments last month from 21st Century Fox co-chief operating officer James Murdoch last month, who said the need for scale in a globalised world was a key driver behind the merger of Endemol, Shine and Core. Murdoch’s words suggested that the world of TV production had changed for good, and that only the biggest producers with true global reach could thrive and survive.

Yet, in the past few months, there’s been a curious counter trend to all the indie super consolidation. A raft of execs, producers and directors have chosen to go independent, starting up their own fledgling production companies.
New companies to have launched include Little Gem, founded by former Maverick exec Ben Gale and ex-Princess exec Natasha Bondy; Hungry Bear (ex-Talkback producer Dan Baldwin); Curve Media (ex-Cineflix execs Rob Carey and Camilla Lewis); 7 Wonder (ex-Maverick CEO Alex Fraser, see box opposite). Producers alliance Pact says 77 new members have joined so far this year, up from 59 for the whole of 2013.

There are several reasons for the spate of start-ups. Many are director-driven production outfits set up to make their own projects and hold on to rights. Others are companies focused on branded content and AFP, taking advantage of the growing demand for video content and falling technology prices.

There’s also a swathe of start-ups launched by well-known TV execs who have worked for some of the biggest production companies and broadcasters.

“What we are seeing this year is a disproportionate number of new indies emerging,” says RDF founder and former Zodiak boss David Frank – who set up his own new company, Dial Square 86, earlier this year.

He argues that recent consolidation is a key factor in the new launches, and predicts that – based on conversations he has had – we will see some surprisingly big names soon choosing to go independent.  “It is amazing how hard the tree is being shaken by what is happening.”

Many of them, one suspects, do not enjoy being part of large conglomerates where the emphasis is primarily on hitting financial targets and where the pressure will be to make shows for the broadcasters’ parent companies. Others believe they can earn more money outside the superindies.

Many indie founders who sold their companies to superindie groups are choosing to leave after the deals have expired – following the example of execs like Nick Curwin and Magnus Temple who sold their indie Dragonfly to Shine in 2007 and left in 2009. They then launched new indie The Garden in 2010 and sold it to ITV last year.

The sudden appearance of new start ups is “the flip side of uber-consolidation”, says Claire Evans, a former BBC exec who set up new indie Babygrand Productions last year. “The unspoken thing about our industry is the sustainability of some of the bigger companies and whether they actually have an implicit lifespan – because it is very, very hard to retain talent.”

It is not just the big inhouse departments at the BBC and ITV that struggle to retain talent, it is also the bigger indies. Evans points out that once an indie or superindie has been sold, it is no longer able to offer equity stakes to execs. “So if you are an emerging creative and want to develop great formats, why wouldn’t you go and start up on your own.”

Those who have set up on their own say that broadcasters are keen to work with them – if you have a good track record in the industry.

Natalka Znak (Hell’s Kitchen, I’m A Celebrity) and Simon Jones (American Idol) set up their Znak&Jones indie earlier this year.  “The doors are completely open. We are pitching every day,” says Jones. “A good idea is a good idea. If they know you can produce it, I actually think a lot of broadcasters prefer working with boutique outfits. We’re not going to spend six months doing the deal, we aim to please and we want to get good shows on air quickly.”

Babygrand’s Evans confirms this: “Commissioners are hungry for new ideas. The competition between channels is so ferocious for hot new formats. Frankly, as long as you are someone they know, they will take a meeting.” Simon Jones adds that broadcasters can only benefit by encouraging new start-ups. “If I was a buyer I wouldn’t want to be only able to buy from Endemol/Shine, All3Media and Fremantle. Do I want to hear three ideas or 30 ideas?”

Indeed, C4 is encouraging relationships with new and smaller indies in a bid to work with a wider number of producers, launching initiatives like the £20m Growth Fund to back smaller indies.

Many new indies also say that it is a good time to start-up because of the sheer number of options open to them. There are far more commissioning broadcasters now in the UK, beyond the traditional terrestrials. The market is more global too with international broadcasters like Discovery and Nat Geo commissioning heavily out of the UK. British indies have also had great success pitching directly into the US market. 

Indies are also producing for digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon right through to low cost shows for YouTube. Funding for content is available from brands too, with the likes of GroupM active in the market. There’s also a surge in drama and animation production thanks to new tax breaks. And distributors who are not aligned to the superindie groups are eager to work with credible new producers to secure a pipeline of new content to sell.

Carl Hall set up Warehouse 51 Productions to house and fund production talent in the UK after selling his indie Parthenon Entertainment to Sky in 2012. He says it’s a “sellers market” for producers who have the skills to negotiate the new international marketplace and put deals together.

“If you have a good idea that people want, there are lots of places to go to…You are not as exposed as you were even a year ago.” And that’s because the range of options open to people who want to build a business in ‘content’ is much, much greater than it ever has been.

Recent indie TV production company launches

7 Wonder Launched by former Maverick CEO Alexandra Fraser and colleagues

Archery Pictures Drama and film indie run by producers Liza Marshall and Kris Thykier

Babygrand Launched by former BBC execs Claire Evans and Sonia Beldom

Curve Media Run by former Cineflix creative director Camilla Lewis and md Rob Carey

Dial Square 86 New company set up by RDF founder and Zodiak Media CEO David Frank

Hello Halo Scottish indie launched by former STV creative director Wendy Rattray

Hungry Bear Media Set up by Celebrity Juice co-creator, Dan Baldwin

Little Gem Launched by former Maverick execs Ben Gale and Natasha Bondy

The Forge New drama indie launched by ex-Company Pictures founder George Faber

Merman Films Founded by Sharon Horgan and producer Clelia Mountford

Monumental Drama and film indie from Alison Owen (Saving Mr Banks) and Debra Hayward (Les Miserables)

New Pictures Drama indie launched by ex- Company Pictures boss Charlie Pattinson

Playground All3Media International md Louise Pedersen will set up UK arm of the US producer run by Colin Callendar

Plimsoll Productions Set up by former Zodiak USA boss Grant Mansfield (behind ITV's Prom Crazy, pictured above)

Riverdog Productions Factual indie launched by Come Dine With Me creator Nell Butler and ITV Studios exec Tim Mille

Sid Gentle Films Launched by Sally Woodward Gentle (Downton Abbey), ex-Carnival

Warehouse 51 Productions Founded by the former MD of Sky Vision Carl Hall

Znak&Jones launched by ex Zodiak Media USA CEO Natalka Znak and ex Talpa Media USA CEO Simon Jones

Posted 12 November 2014 by Tim Dams

Griersons throws a spotlight on lack of doc diversity

Bake Off star Sue Perkins called on UK broadcasters to do more to support female documentary talent at last night’s Grierson British Documentary Awards.

The Griersons are regarded as the leading documentary awards in the UK, but female winners were noticeably absent from the podium at this year’s Griersons.

Not a single one of the 13 Grierson awards was won by a female director.

The documentary presenter of the year category was also dominated by men, with four male presenters nominated.

Grierson insiders said that only one female presenter – Stacey Dooley – was put forward by broadcasters for best presenter category.

“It is 2014 for goodness sake. Less than five per cent of the total entry was female presenters," said Perkins.

"This isn’t the fault of the Griersons, but of the broadcasters. It’s time that broadcasters put their money where their mouth is and nominated more female talent,” she added, to loud applause from the audience of documentary makers in the auditorium at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, which also included stars such as Stephen Fry, Rupert Everett, Bettany Hughes, Davina McCall and Jamie Theakston.

The issue has been swiftly picked up on Twitter too. “Is it true that not a single female went on stage to get a gong at the #griersonawards last night? Seriously?”, said MediaParents.

Meanwhile, Wall to Wall founder Alex Graham – who won the prestigious Trustees Awards at the Griersons – used his acceptance speech to call for more broadcaster funding for documentary.

He pointed out that the BBC spends less on a whole season of Storyville than it does on a single hour of prime-time period drama.

“You should spend more on documentary not because documentary needs you, but because you need documentary.  Otherwise, the genre – together with the young, smart, sassy audience that increasingly follows it around – will slip through your fingers.  They’ll be watching YouTube. The Guardian. Vice.  And you – rather than documentary – will be the losers.”

For full list of Grierson winners, click here

Posted 04 November 2014 by Tim Dams

Mapping movies around the UK

Locations around the country are benefiting from the high levels of film production in the UK, as filmmaking ripples out from studios around London.

Film is now a major economic driver for the UK. Recent BFI figures show that £1.1bn was spent on film production in the UK in 2013, up 7.5% on 2012. The picture is of a thriving film production sector, one that is increasingly geared to large scale inward investment films. Indeed, 37 inward investment films last year accounted for 81% of the total UK production spend, including Guardians of the Galaxy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Imitation Game and The Monuments Men.

This spend is largely concentrated on London and the studio bases around the capital that house the films. But it is also rippling out across the UK, with films shooting on location throughout England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Listed below are many of the films that have recently shot or are shooting outside the capital.

Creative England, which helps productions arrange location shoots around England, says its Production Services team supported a record £80.5m of location filming in the 2013/14 financial year, including 95 feature films (29 inward investment) and 89 TV dramas (11 inward investment).

As has been well documented, the big budget inward investment films are attracted here for various reasons, including the skilled production talent base and infrastructure in the UK as well as the competitive tax reliefs on offer.

Location managers confirm that it is a busy time. “We are enjoying a bit of a boom time at the moment, says Jonah Coombes, whose credits include Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, Rush, The Social Network and Paddington. “I’m getting lots of calls about projects and enquiries about my availability.”

In fact, he says it is so busy that it is becoming difficult to crew up. “There seems to be so many high pedigree projects running at the moment that it is really quite difficult to find the right people. It is frustrating – but obviously great at the same time.”

Location manager James Grant, whose credits include 
Alice Through the Looking Glass, World War Z and Skyfall, also says it is busy time for film production in the UK. “It’s very often feast or famine. But, for the time being, location managers find themselves in the position of being in demand.”

However, he adds: “It will be interesting whether it continues to be busy.” Grant says he worries that some departments might be taking advantage of current demand, becoming increasingly work to rule in terms of overtime and hours on the clock.” He warns that the industry musn’t “bite the hand that feeds it,” pointing out that the US studios could quickly shift production to rival territories if the UK is perceived to be too difficult and expensive to work in.

That said, location managers say that the UK remains a pretty good place to shoot, with local authorities increasingly recognising the value of attracting film productions. London, however, is now very expensive to shoot in. “If you want to film in central London on a large feature film, you would have to budget £50k-£60k a day,” says Grant.

Coombes says that the likes of Film London and Creative England regional film offices have helped put measures in place to make shooting on location a more accountable, predictable and generally smoother process. Coombes recalls working on 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and having to make London look like it had been abandoned for six months. “What we achieved on that project let me to believe that, given the right approach, anything really is possible.”

Coombes says that once productions get out of London, there is a “tangible difference in terms of how you are received when you propose to bring the circus to town.” Perhaps because large-scale shoots are much rarer, they are more likely to be received with more interest and enthusiasm, he says.

He stresses that films can – and should - make themselves more welcome on location by opening up to the local community, where appropriate offering employment and work experience on the production. Says Coombes: “It’s not always viable or required, but if it’s an ambitious proposal and you are moving into a small community, it is important for the production to recognise that and offer something back over and above a donation to their residents association.”

Films that have shot outside London
Producer Crab Apple Films
Lancashire, Merseyside, Yorkshire

Alice in Wonderland: 
Through the Looking Glass
Producer Walt Disney Studio Elstree
Locations Gloucestershire

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Producer Marvel Studios
Locations Hampshire, Surrey, Kent, Norwich

Dracula Untold
Producer Universal
Locations County Down, Antrim, Omagh, Beflast
Edge of Tomorrow
Producer 3 Arts Entertainment
Studio Leavesden
Producer Davis Ent/Twentieth Century Fox
Aberdeenshire, Manchester, Greenwich

Producer Le Grisbi/Columbia Pictures
Locations Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire

Girls Night Out
Producer Ecosse Films

Guardians of the Galaxy
Producer Marvel Studios
Studio Longcross
Location Essex, Hertfordshire

How I Live Now
Producer Cowboy Films
Locations  Carmarthenshire

Producer See-Saw Films
Locations  Isle of Skye, Cambridgeshire

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Producer Warner Bros
Studio Leavesden
Locations  Kent, Surrey, Sussex

The Monuments Men

Producer Columbia Pictures
Locations  Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Hampshire, Kent & Oxfordshire

Mr Turner
Producer Thin Man
Locations Cornwall, South Yorkshire

Muppets Most Wanted
Producer Walt Disney Pictures
Studio Pinewood
Locations Kent, Oxfordshire
Producer Heyday/Warner Bros Studio Elstree
Locations Hertfordshire

Producer  Warner Bros
Studio Leavesden Studios
Locations Buckinghamshire

Producer Calamity Films
Locations Neath Port Talbot, Berkshire

Robot Overlords
Producer Tempo
County Down, 
County Antrim, Belfast

Spooks: The Greater Good
Producer Kudos Film and TV Studio Shepperton
Locations Warwickshire, Isle of Man

Star Wars Episode VII
Producer Lucasfilm Studio Pinewood Studios
Locations Gloucestershire

Producer Ruby Films Studio Elstree
Locations Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Kent

Producer Warner Bros Studio Leavesden
Locations Derbyshire, Gwynedd, Berkshire

Testament of Youth
Producer Heyday Films
Vampire Academy
Producer Angry Films Studio Pinewood
Locations Buckinghamshire, Surrey

Posted 22 October 2014 by Tim Dams

Interview: Ken Burns on documentary making

For almost his entire working life, documentary maker Ken Burns has been told that viewers no longer have the attention span to focus on the kind of long form, complex films he makes.

His legendary 11-hour series on the Civil War came out in 1990, during the prime of MTV and fast cut music videos. More recently, in the era of YouTube, he has produced lengthy films on American subjects such as baseball and prohibition.

Yet his films remain startlingly popular, like his latest The Roosevelts, which chronicles the lives of US Presidents Theodore and Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The 14-hour series launched last month with over 9m viewers on PBS in the US. “The relationships you care most about benefit from your sustained attention,” says Burns, who reckons there is a hunger for complexity and depth among viewers, most evident in the trend for binge viewing box sets of long series.

The Roosevelts features the now trademark Ken Burns effect, immortalised by Apple, of the camera energetically panning and zooming across still images from the archives. At a time when factual TV favours hyperactive onscreen presenters and fast cuts, The Roosevelts is also reassuringly measured: there’s a traditional ‘voice of God’ narration and interviews with historians, while the voices of the Roosevelts are read by a stellar cast including Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and Edward Herrman.

Critics have called it “Tolstoyan” in its sweep, and it’s a fitting epithet for a meticulously researched series that has a great story to tell and is surprisingly moving.

Burns says the series was made over seven years and cost a generous $15m. Despite being the most famous documentary maker in the US, he still has to fundraise extensively. His method, he says, is to plan ten years ahead, building a ‘skein of films’ so he can sell more than one idea at a time to potential backers. He currently has five series in various stages of production, including an 18 hour history of the Vietnam War.

All of his films are part funded by US public service broadcaster PBS. He then raises the remaining 70-75% of the budget himself – from corporations, foundations and private individuals.

Burns works from the same rural town in New Hampshire he moved to 35 years ago to keep overheads low. The location seems to symbolise his independence as a filmmaker. “I don’t work for anyone, I work for myself,” he says. Fortunately, too, he works in a very different way from most people in TV, who rush to turnaround projects on ever-tightening budgets and timescales.

By way of example, consider the production process of The Roosevelts. Burns says the series thanks a “couple of hundred people in the credits” but was essentially “handmade” by a dozen key people. “It is like a detective piece, and doesn’t take six or seven years for naught – we are not idly waiting there. We collect 25,000 photographs even though we only use 2,250. We collect hundreds of hours of footage, even though we might use five hours. We go to all the locations to film for days, often in different seasons…”

“It is about marshalling and collecting the material, and not limiting research – too often research is for a fixed primary period,” says Burns, who adds.  “We are educating ourselves during the course of it. I am not telling you what I already know...The biggest thing is that process means everything to us. We are not wedded to the superimposition of preconception. If you never stop researching, then you are corrigible to the end.”

The result, admits Burns, is “very dense, written films.” But he doesn’t think audiences have a problem with this, despite many documentary makers feeling that narration is a no-no and the enemy of the picture. “Who makes these rules? Did this come down from Mount Sinai?” he asks.

This, of course, goes back to his earlier point about audiences having a hunger for complex subjects. And it makes you wonder why, in a country like the UK that is well served by public service TV, there are not more filmmakers like Burns who can – in his words – “deep dive into a subject.”

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History airs from 19 Oct on PBS America (Sky 534 and Virgin 243)

Posted 17 October 2014 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: The Great Fire

It’s one of the most well known events in British history. Yet, the story of the Great Fire of London has never been the focus of a British TV drama before. You quickly realise why this is when you find out more about the making of ITV’s new four part series, The Great Fire.

“It is an incredible undertaking to take on something as epic as this,” says executive producer Douglas Rae of Ecosse Films. “There have been documentaries on the fire before but never a drama because people thought, ‘This is far too difficult to do.’”

Written by ITV political editor Tom Bradby, The Great Fire focuses on the circumstances that led to the catastrophic fire, how it took hold and Londoners’ attempts to overcome the flames.

Bradby bills The Great Fire as a hybrid – a thriller, relationship drama and disaster movie. It weaves together the stories of characters including Thomas Farriner (Broadchurch star Andrew Buchan), who owned the bakery where the fire started, through to King Charles II (Jack Huston) and Samuel Pepys (Daniel Mays).

But the real star of the show is the set, which authentically replicates the streets of London from 1666. Designed by Dominic Hyman (Rome), the set took four months to build and included the infamous Pudding Lane where the fire started as well as streets along the Thames and a refugee camp in Moorfields. Rae says: “One of the biggest challenges was recreating the scale of London in a way that was convincing. We initially looked at filming in places like York, which has streets of this period. But it’s one little part of the city and you would have had to close it down for a month.”

Rae wont reveal the exact cost of the set, which was built on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Henley, but says it cost about the same as an episode of drama (putting it in the possible realm of £700k-£900k).The show’s budget was boosted by the new drama tax break, as well as a significant advance from distributor ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

The set construction was carried out by Totem Construction, which prefabbed it in their workshop before assembling on site. Producer Gina Cronk says it took about nine weeks to build the set and then three weeks to plaster and finish.

To create an authentic look for the drama, the production team also decided to work with real fire rather than CGI.  “We were looking for veracity – we wanted to be able to put the cast in the flames,” says executive producer Lucy Bedford.

By the end of the series, the production crew had burnt down the entire set. “It’s an amazing thing,” says ITV director of television Peter Fincham, “to be given an enormous amount of money by a broadcaster to build a set – and then to burn it down.” Some of the sets were built with fire bars and gas pipes running through them, linked to large gas canisters. It meant the crew could control the fire from a big control panel, and were able to choose exactly where would go up on flames. These complex fire sequences were overseen by SFX supervisor Colin Gorry.

Producer Gina Cronk says The Great Fire could only go ahead with a “massive health and safety assessment.” There were two fully crewed fire engines on ‘big burn nights’, as well as medics. Cast and crew were given safety briefings at the start of each day.

The director Jon Jones was particularly keen to get the actors right up to the fire. This, of course, was a real challenge for the actors, acknowledges Cronk, who recalls one scene where Andrew Buchan has to run up a flight of stairs that is being lapped by flames to rescue his children from the floor above. “He really wasn’t very sure about it,” she says, adding that the final result was much stronger because it looked so much more authentic. “The best decision we took was to build the set and not rely on CGI,” adds Rae.

That said, the producers and Bradby are quick to stress that the fire itself is a backdrop and catalyst for the story. “My main aim was to write a damn good story,” says Bradby, acknowledging that “too much fire is tedious.”

Bradby previously adapted his own novel Shadow Dancer as a feature for director James Marsh and was approached by Lucy Bedford to write The Great Fire script. He says he drew heavily on his journalistic experience of civil disorder that has left him “with a lifelong fear of crowds, particuarly in circumstances when the green light of anarchy is flashing hard.”

The Great Fire begins on Thursday (October 16) at 9pm on ITV.

The Great Fire is a 4x60-minute ITV drama that unfolds over four days as the historic fire takes hold of London and the people attempt to overcome the flames

Broadcaster ITV
Production company Ecosse Films

Cast Andrew Buchan, Jack Huston, Rose Leslie, Daniel Mays, Charles Dance
Exec producers Douglas Rae, Lucy Bedford
Producer Gina Cronk
Line producer Michael Robins
Director Jon Jones
Writer Tom Bradby
DoP Kieran McGuigan
Production designer Dominic Hyman
Art director Will Newton
Costume designer Sheena Napier
Make up designer Kirstin Chalmers
Location manager Chris White
Sound recordist Billy Quinn
Stunt co-ordinator Paul Kennington
SFX supervisor Colin Gorry
Editor Alex Mackie
Casting director Sarah Crowe

Posted 16 October 2014 by Tim Dams

The talk of Mipcom: from Cowell to millennials

The weather in Cannes alternated between heavy downpours and bright skies, perfectly reflecting the mood among many participants at this year’s Mipcom.

On the one hand, TV executives gathering at the annual programme sales market were in an optimstic mood.

Demand for content is booming around the world, fuelled by an increasing number of channels as well as the growth of OTT players like Netflix and Amazon.

Figures released by producers' alliance Pact during the market showed that UK television exports rose 5% in 2013/14.

Sony Pictures president of television Steve Mosko summed up the mood of confidence: “Because of the digital explosion we have pretty much doubled the buyers we have around the world,” he said.

Sony was talking up its new superhero drama Powers, which it is releasing on its PlayStation platform. Meanwhile, Netflix was pushing its new big budget drama Marco Polo which chief creative officer Ted Sarandos said was of the same scale as Game of Thrones.

The importance of the international market was also underlined by the presence of high profile keynote Mipcom speakers such as of 21st Century Fox co-chief operating officer James Murdoch and The X Factor creator Simon Cowell.

Cowell’s production outfit Syco was one of many companies to throw lavish parties on the Cannes beach front to highlight their success in the TV business – in Cowell’s case the fact that the UK version of The X Factor has swept the world and is now shown in 147 territories worldwide.

Yet below the surface, there was a sense of anxiety about this Mipcom. In particular it centered on the viewing habits of millennials, who represent the future of the industry.

Millennials, those born since the turn of the millennium, are watching less linear television than previous generations as they find an increasing array of other things to do with their time – social media, gaming and watching short form content.

Former Endemol boss Ynon Kreitz, who now runs the Disney-owned online video platform Maker Studios, took to the stage at Mipcom to claim that millennials were watching one third less linear television than adults aged 25-49, and less than half of what adults 50-65 watch. “It’s not that they watch more as they grow older, but that they watch less as they grow younger,” said Kreitz.

“There’s a massive shift from linear to online video – short form in particular,” said Kreitz.

Many, of course, question the ability of the likes Maker to be able to effectively monetise this surge in online viewing by the millenials.

And few think that traditional TV is on its way out. Instead, it’s widely recognised that people are now consuming lots of TV content but in different ways — in particular via OTT networks that can be watched on the web, mobile apps, streaming devices and gaming consoles.

Consultancy group PWC predicts that internet advertising is poised to overtake TV as the largest advertising segment by 2018. But it thinks that TV revenues will still continue to grow, just not as fast as digital.

Marcel Fenez, global leader of PWC’s entertainment & media practice, said: “We are not saying TV is declining – the fact that it is losing its number one spot doesn’t mean that revenues are declining.”

But the new money and real growth is in digital, he said.

Which is perhaps why Simon Cowell revealed at Mipcom that the next project Syco makes will likely be released digitally instead of with a broadcaster.  He said he was developing a High School Musical-style scripted series.

And, it was interesting to hear James Murdoch describe his company in the following terms: “The business at the end of the day is a digital video business.”

It spoke volumes about how he sees the direction of travel for the TV industry in the next few years.

Traditional broadcasters, facing increased competition from digtial disruptors, look set for a difficult period. And the winners are likely to be agile, internationally focused content producers with their eye firmly on the evolving digital landscape.

Posted 16 October 2014 by Tim Dams

C5 owner Viacom to boost UK content spend

Viacom is to invest more money in UK programming and content.

That was the message today from Viacom president and CEO Philippe Dauman, who is visiting the company’s operations in the UK this week.

Viacom completed its £450m acquisition of Channel 5 last month, and today Dauman announced the launch of new channel Spike, which will roll out on Freeview next Spring.

Dauman said Viacom – whose TV brands include Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, VET, VH1 and Paramount Channel – viewed the UK as its second home and “a hub for international expansion.”

Speaking to the Broadcast Press Guild this morning, Dauman said that 10% of Viacom’s employees now reside and work in the UK - 1,100 in total. “The vast majority are in New York, LA and London. London is in our top three cities.”

Dauman said Viacom’s UK networks spend £300m on programming, with almost half that figure on original UK commissions.

“The topline number will continue to grow, and the UK commissioning part of it will continue to grow faster. We think that is the way to go in today’s world, where our viewers want more original fresh content.

“We believe that the UK is a great creative hub…that content we are producing for the UK will also be an important part of what our viewers watch in the rest of the world, including the US.”

Dauman said that Channel 5 “has a lot of room to grow” and that Viacom would continue to invest in the channel.

Asked if one of his ambitions was to see Channel 5 overtake Channel 4, Dauman commented: “That is the first step. We do not have bounds on our ambitions. But we are also not arrogant about our intentions. We know this is a very competitive business, and we respect our competitors. Competition makes you stronger.”

Channel 5 has closed the gap on Channel 4 in terms of ratings in recent years, largely thanks to the acquisition of Big Brother.

“We think Channel 5 has made great progress over the last few years from where it was, it has a long way to go and we will climb up the ranks.”

He said he would leave programming decisions to the commissioning team at C5, but said he would like the average age of the C5 viewer to fall – which would put the broadcaster in closer contention for the 16-34 demographic favoured by C4.

“We do think there is an opportunity to create programming that will bring the average age of the Channel 5 viewer down a bit than it is today. We do think there is an opportunity to target younger audiences on the Channel 5 group.”

Unlike other US studio groups, Dauman ruled out Viacom making a major acquisition of a UK content production company.

Rather, he said Viacom was focused on organic growth through investment in its existing brands and companies.

“We are now a scale player in the UK, we are a major media company in the UK and we want to be bigger. And we are going to be bigger by growing the business.”

Dauman is holding a ‘town hall’ meeting with Viacom’s UK staff this afternoon.

He has also visited Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, who he said welcomed Viacom’s investment into the UK.

Dauman comments follow hard on the heels of Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August, in which he voiced fears about the takeover of the British TV industry by US media firms.

Referring to the speech, Dauman said: “I can understand how some people are afraid of competition, and strong competition, but we are here to compete, we are here to win more viewership and we will be focused on providing great content on every platform that people want to use.”

Posted 08 October 2014 by Tim Dams

British talent takes centre stage at London Film Festival

The London Film Festival (8-19 Oct) is always a strong platform for British films, but it’s more so than ever this year. Some 39 British films are in the festival’s main programme of 245 features, 10 more than last year.

They include this week's festival opener The Imitation Game, which has already established itself as the Oscar front runner after winning top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. The biopic about gay code-breaker Alan Turing who pioneered the Enigma is a UK/US production directed by Norway’s Morten Tyldum with British stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

James Kent’s Testament of Youth (pictured below), based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I and starring Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander, world premieres at the LFF with a gala screening. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the legendary artist J.M.W. Turner, also has a gala screening.

Meanwhile, there are two British films in official competition – Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, a dark melodrama which follows the intense relationship between two women, and Carol Morley’s coming of age tale The Falling (pictured below).

And four British films will vie for The Sutherland Award, the LFF’s First Feature competition. They are Yann Demange’s Troubles-set drama ’71 that premiered at Berlin; Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy, which first played in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight; Guy Myhill’s The Goob, a social realist drama set in Norfolk which debuted at Venice; and Second Coming, the feature debut of playwright Debbie Tucker Green (pictured below).

“This year feels very exciting in terms of the volume of new and emerging talent that is breaking through in the programme,” says festival director Clare Stewart. It’s the third year that Stewart, an Australian, has led the LFF.

“One of the things that profoundly stands out is that the UK industry has both a culture and an industrial framework that supports real risk taking which we are seeing across the board in both the bigger, more populist-orientated productions through to independent filmmaking.”

She describes official competition directors Strickland and Morley as “two visionary filmmakers” who are “really being supported by the industry.” The four British films competing for the Sutherland Award are, she adds, risk taking both in terms of their story and the way that have been made.

There are clear threads of British social realist cinematic traditions running through the UK selections, such as in Duane Hopkins’ Bypass and Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy (pictured below). “In both cases, there is no way you would describe them as having a gritty realist approach. They are taking a lot more stylistic risks than that,” says Stewart.

The selection also emphasises the British fondness for adaptations and war focused stories, notably Testament of Youth. But within them, says Stewart, there is “really fresh and inventive storytelling and performances.”

Stewart also points to real festival discoveries like Rebecca Johnson’s Honey Trap and Simon Baker’s Nightbus, which both world premiere at the LFF.

“We’ve been greatly impressed at the volume of truly independent work that is coming through…and they seem to come through very much with the vision of the filmmaker intact. That is a very defining aspect of British production.”

Stewart says the festival has changed its programming process in the past two years, bringing in new deputy head of festivals Tricia Tuttle from Bafta and introducing programme advisors over each of its nine strands. “What that means is more active curatorial research going on…I do feel that the increase in British work represented is in part because we have a confluence of new influences, ideas and voices in the programming team. And of course, it’s reflective of the work itself in that we have more that we wanted to champion.”

Peter Ho-Sun Chan, DEAREST
Peter Strickland, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (European Premiere)
Carol Morley, THE FALLING (World Premiere)
Céline Sciamma, GIRLHOOD
Daniel Barber, THE KEEPING ROOM (European Premiere)
Andrey Zvyagintsev, LEVIATHAN
Christian Petzold, PHOENIX
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, THE PRESIDENT
Julius Avery, SON OF A GUN (European Premiere)
Abderrahmane Sissako, TIMBUKTU

Yann Demange,‘71
Josephine Decker, BUTTER ON THE LATCH
Daniel Wolfe, Matthew Wolfe, CATCH ME DADDY
Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, DIFRET
Franco Lolli, GENTE DE BIEN
Guy Myhill, THE GOOB
Adityavikram Sengupta, LABOUR OF LOVE
Sudabeh Mortezai, MACONDO
Debbie Tucker Green, SECOND COMING
Ester Martin Bergsmark, SOMETHING MUST BREAK
Naji Abu Nowar, THEEB
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, THE TRIBE

Posted 06 October 2014 by Tim Dams
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