Danny Fenton, chief exec of indie producer Zig Zag, offers up his tips for how to win access to celebs and individuals for fly on the wall documentaries.
For a fly-on-the-wall documentary, you need access to people and places that are unique, interesting and ones that other people haven’t got access to already.
That’s easier said than done, because ‘people’ and ‘places’ can mean very different things. If you want celebrities, the chances are you will have to deal with agents/ publicists before the talent even knows you exist. By the same token, when approaching non-celebrities who are unique individuals with something special about them – if they don’t have an agent it can be tricky to reach them. In fact, it can be more difficult approaching a non-celebrity because at least with an agent, you have a way in. But if it’s someone like The Girl with Eight Limbs who we filmed for Channel 4 and Nat Geo, you find that such unique individuals in remote locations are very difficult to contact – sometimes you have to literally go to the middle of nowhere.
As far as places and organisations are concerned, if they are of a size – the ones that usually matter – they often have in-house and external PR. Approach with caution as they will use stringent checks on your editorial line to protect their image.
We have a relationship with CAA in the US, which means we can get in front of the Hollywood A list. So in that sense, it’s definitely worth building relationships with such companies if you want to target the world’s biggest names.
But for every day non-A list talent, you need to contact the relevant agency with your idea. Very often they will ask to see the idea in writing, but if the idea is that good, you will get the meeting.
In fact, once you have a reputation for certain programming or you have built a good relationship with agents, they will ask to come in to see you for a brainstorm on how you can work with their client. However, if the subject is hot, the likelihood is other producers will be chasing it.
I don’t believe in cheque book journalism, but some do. Remember the story about the Pregnant Man? When the story broke, the world’s media was parked on his lawn. A British producer walked through the crowd, knocked on the door and presented the pregnant man and his partner a rumoured $200k. That’s one way of doing it.
Still, there is no harm in meeting the subject’s out of pocket costs/expenses up front and offering them some revenue share from sales of the finished product.
The best way of increasing your chances is to have face-to-face conversations with the subject. The reason is you must have their trust, because if they are granting you access, they will be wary.
The term “fly-on-the-wall” itself has become negative. Warts and all shows like Airline, The Hotel and The Cruise meant subjects became reluctant to participate in the future and we experienced this at Zig Zag. When the infamous Channel 4 doc about former England football boss Graham Taylor called An Impossible Job came out, we were negotiating a key sports doc and we were met with “I don’t want to be another Graham Taylor”. You might consider re-naming them as observational documentaries to avoid negative connotations.
When you sign the all important access agreement, make it clear they are making a legal obligation with you to partake in the film. If they renege on that commitment, there are financial penalties for both parties.
Do also get your subject on tape as part of a sizzle reel. We showed Channel 4 that we had access to Prince Naseem Hamed and so the broadcaster gave us some money to make a tape. It was a mere 30 seconds long, but all it took was for the boxer to say: “I really want to do this doc.”
Finally, do not pitch a programme with any person or place without having made contact with them first. The worst thing is to promise something you don’t have, or worse, something someone else already has.
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