Delivering this year’s BAFTA lecture, founder of drama indie Sister, Jane Featherstone warned last night that SVoD co-production money for UK drama was about to disappear. “That honeymoon period? Consider it over,” she said.
“The co-production tap is going to be turned off, or at least reduced to a trickle,” she said. “It’s already happening with The Crown and The Innocents, I reckon we have a year or 18 months before the big FAANG [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google] players stop co-producing entirely, except maybe for very specific talent-driven content. With such deep pockets to reach into, why go through the hassle of sharing with traditional British broadcasters.”
In a call to action for producers and broadcasters to invest significantly in new talent and to campaign for better creative education in our schools, Featherstone described a poorer mainstream UK TV drama landscape in the near future, where many top writers are lured by international FANG budgets and the scope for creativity, outside of strict terrestrial schedules.
“What will follow will be a slow – or not-so-slow- starvation of the quality mainstream on free-to-air platforms and channels,” she said, warning of the consequences for our creative ecology.
“Imagine a world in which Sally Wainwright worked exclusively for Apple. Or you could only watch Peter Bowker’s output on Netflix. Or Mike Bartlett was Amazon-only. Because exclusivity will be the next stage of this battle for talent. Our system of writers working on three or four things at once isn’t going to fly in the new world.”
She argued that the industry needs to drop any snobbery about the mainstream and encourage writers from all backgrounds who have a relevant voice for today’s audience. “Now, more than ever, we need shared stories that challenge us, unite us, remind us of the ties that bind, recall that fundamental truth that there is more that we have in common than not.”
She called for the industry to do more than pay into the Skillset fund. Whilst paying respect to Skillset for “a remarkable and important job,” she voiced concern that “sometimes it’s a bit like paying a direct debit to a charity.”
With the demise of series that involve writers’ rooms, she called for a junior writer on every series by a single author. She announced a writer-in-residence programme at Sister, saying “perhaps we can’t start a trend.” She imagined a world where Apple invested in new writing for theatres, Netflix sponsored scholarships at the NFTS and YouTube funded a scheme to place new writers in production companies for a year.
Featherstone painted a picture of drama in the UK flourishing in part because of heavy subsidies in the form of UK tax breaks, virtual advertiser monopolies in free-to-air commercial TV and hefty deficits from distributors, as well as the high-end returning drama series and soaps that have provided nursery slopes for writers, directors and producers, courtesy of Public Service Broadcasting. This has been followed by SVoD money in recent years. “Already some shows on the BBC are funded 80 percent by Netflix, and many more have around 20 to 30 percent funding from the likes of HBO or AMC. ITV has followed suit – with the recent Netflix-supported Marcella– while Channel 4’s Humans was only made possible at all because AMC stepped in.”
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