With the Televisual Factual Festival fast approaching, Pippa Considine takes a look at documentary and finds a genre where broadcasters increasingly want ‘noisy’ docs with entertainment values that stand out in the schedules.
It is no longer enough just to make serious documentary. Entertainment is as much the job of a documentary filmmaker as it is for a drama producer. Making enough noise to attract an audience is as critical as finding an authentic story.
Producers associated with the most serious of documentaries acknowledge the importance of appeal. “You can’t just go into a pitch and say we’ve got access,” says Fiona Stourton creative director at Ten Alps TV. “Every broadcaster is saying will it be noisy, how will it be noisy, will it be noticed?”
Ten Alps TV is the umbrella for Films of Record, Brook Lapping and Blakeway, some of the most respected documentary making labels. Facing the future, the company has broadened its range – alongside Norma Percy’s renowned current affairs documentaries, the company has made successful inroads internationally and its slate now includes volume programming, such as C5’s Benidorm ER.
If you’re going to put a foot in the commissioner’s door and keep it there, it’s more important than ever to have an idea of what the broadcasters are looking for. But it’s also perhaps easier than ever. “Factual television is increasingly like watching eight year old boys play football,” says John Willis, ceo of Mentorn Media. “They don’t keep their positions, everyone just chases the ball and so you get a scrum of kids around the ball …Once a couple of access docs do really well, suddenly there’s 20 of them. If a series about benefits does well, suddenly there’s 20 of those.”
This year’s stand-out series Benefits Street led to a C5 debate show, featuring characters from the C4 series. C4 has commissioned a follow up, Immigration Street, while C5 has ordered a series from the Garden on the culturally diverse community of Cheetham Hill. BBC2 has its own ‘riposte’ to Benefits Street lined up, in the shape of Family Saga.
Although there have been some small victories for new iterations in docs in recent years, the genre is crying out for something to move it on. “There’s a need for innovation,” says Jes Wilkins, head of programmes at Firecracker, who believes that we’re in a moment of rigs and ob docs. “What comes next is the question that occupies our conversations.”
Bolstering BBC docs
This is undoubtedly a central question for Emma Willis, head of BBC documentaries. Docs on BBC1 need bolstering; BBC Productions’ six-part ob doc on the Metropolitan Police and Wild Pictures’ access doc on KFC are coming soon. “We will always be looking for observational documentaries,” says Willis. “But as all the broadcasters enter this territory the bar will be that much higher at the BBC. It needs to feel extremely privileged access and we want to move away from institutions to find the precincts without walls where we can find a more raw and less mediated slice of modern Britain.”
On BBC2 Willis is on a mission to be bolder. Minnow Films’ upcoming documentary follows the sexual crime unit of Greater Manchester Police; a single film, directed by Vanessa Engle, tackles domestic violence. On a lighter note, The Garden is making a four-parter on the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai and an ob doc on Tatler for 2015. “We are also keen to reinvent formats as another way of interrogating modern Britain,” adds Willis. “Formats that absolutely have that key documentary sensibility of character and narrative but that raise the game.”
What’s next at C4?
C4’s Murder Trial was widely admired by documentary makers, after Windfall Films gained access to a complete UK murder trial for the first time. C4 has taken a few risks recently. It went ahead with Gogglebox after poor ratings for the first shows. This year it has attempted to move the rig show forward with a digital rig set-up for ob doc, The Secret Life of Students from Raw TV.
After C4’s success with crew-turned-cast for its Bear Grylls series The Island, head of docs Nick Mirsky is looking to try out film-makers in front of the camera. “I do think we are sometimes in worlds in which an immersive documentary maker could help make a story come alive,” says Mirsky, who worked with Louis Theroux on BBC2. “I would like to think we had a small number of on screen documentary makers to whom we could turn for this kind of film, and we have some plans to see if we can develop those filmmakers.”
2014 has seen some new opportunities for documentary makers opening up, while other doors have closed. The cuts at BBC3 and plans to take it online will have an immediate effect. As well as its Fresh strand for new film-making talent, BBC3 has produced a range of powerful documentary, finding new and diverse voices.
Digital channels in the UK have boosted their budgets for original commissioning, with the latest figures showing annual spend up to £597m on first-run programming. As well as producing for ITV and C5, Title Role Productions has made a number of shows for A+E’s Crime and Investigation channel in the UK and has sold shows to Netflix. Md Helen Tongue believes that there are increasing opportunities with new digital platforms: “I think they are demanding more and they’ve got budgets as well. Gone are the days when it’s just a couple of channels that have budgets to spend.”
Another growing digital force in docs is Vice. Although the youth-skewing media phenomenon keeps much of its production in-house, its UK operation has been inviting film-makers to bring ideas for its Rule Britannia strand and is beginning to talk to indies about co-production. Vice head of development Max Gogarty says: “More and more we’re talking with freelance filmmakers and having early conversations with indie production companies to collaborate and co-produce doc content for Vice.”
Channel 5 creates a noise
C5 is commissioning more docs and is showing itself to be a master of creating noise, particularly with tabloid headlines. Although you’d be hard put to find a serious doc maker saying that they were making award-winning programming for Five, many of them are at it. The Garden, Century, Blakeway North, all have respectable series on the fifth channel. “They’re fantastic to work for,” says Brian Hill at Century.
Simon Raikes is commissioning editor for factual at C5. He believes that the channel has upped the ante for high quality, serious documentary; and it can pay a reasonable tariff by making the money work across the schedule. Ob doc commissions include GPs Behind Closed Doors or Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away. What he describes as ‘propositional’ shows include its Autopsy: Last Hours of… series. “Whatever the form – even for popular, less serious, docs (like She’s 78, He’s 39: Age Gap Love) we are on a drive to lift production values,” says Raikes. “ The bar at C5 is getting higher.” The move seems to be paying off with ratings which are challenging C4 and BBC2. Several docs have topped two million, including the series Autopsy, OAPs Behaving Badly and Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away.
Demand from the US for UK docs is still riding high. The US market now accounts for a greater share of British TV exports than ever—up 50% since 2007, to make up almost half, or £475m, of all export revenue last year, according to Pact. A number of British production companies – like Raw TV, Studio Lambert, Blink and Firecracker – now earn some 50% of their revenues from the US market.
China is also looking more possible, after a number of UK production companies have made inroads. Ten Alps has been working on The Secrets of Branding for CCTV 2 through Blakeway. The commission has involved shoots around the world and a two-year schedule, with the broadcaster keen to learn from experienced UK hands. But the reality of how much foreign production China is looking for in the future is another matter. “Whether they long term will want to commission from us I don’t know, I doubt it,” says Stourton. “But once trust is built hopefully they will be interested in co-productions.”
A question of trust
And so much in docs is based on trust. But this is one area where some producers feel that there are cracks developing with audiences. Time pressures and tough budgets have led to producers massaging the truth and contributors claiming that they’ve been badly treated by TV companies. This climate makes it harder to recruit contributors. C5 show Blinging up Baby suffered from the fall-out after Benefits Street aired, with potential contributors scared off. Stourton says lower budgets can lead to less time in the field. “Sometimes people are encouraged to make it more exciting or dramatic than it actually was because they haven’t had the time to get those moments.”
All this leads to more hoops for doc makers to climb through in order to get access. It’s unlikely we’ll see an ob doc like The Royal Opera House. That said, persistence and negotiation skills keep the ball rolling with access docs. Educating Yorkshire, for example, captured the public imagination. “It is still fantastic that an Asian boy in a Yorkshire comprehensive school overcoming a stammer seems to grip a large slice of the nation,” says Willis. “It shows the power of documentary, the power of surprise.”
Broadcasters are edging presenters out of docs
The words authentic and experiential have been bandied about liberally by TV people in the last few years. As broadcasters strive for a direct approach, where viewers feel involved in the programming, one of the side effects has been the edging out of the presenter.
Documentaries that don’t have a human mediator are in the ascendant. The rise of obdocs and rig shows is testament to this, but it holds true for other types of documentary. When Secret History of Our Streets was first commissioned, Century Films had to argue with the BBC for a presenter-less approach. Century md Brian Hill says about presenters: “Personally I think they’re over-used and overpaid. Unless they really have a specialist knowledge I don’t think they add very much.”
Just a couple of years ago finding TV talent in the shape of the perfect front person seemed critical to the next factual programme idea. Now, it seems, the presenter represents a barrier to the subject; only presenters that can become one with their material are worth entertaining.
The BBC’s Emma Willis has said that celebrity presenters must be protagonists. At ITV, which is unlikely to give up its celebrity-fronted documentaries in a hurry, director of factual Richard Klein is focused on ITV faces, not just any old celeb, but someone that has a connection with the channel. At the Sheffield Documentary Festival, the direct approach was most clearly discussed among the arts commissioners. Rather than watch art, they are looking for shows where art is created. Arts presenters are the artists themselves, a la Grayson Perry – painting, filming and chiselling as they interview contributors.
Big indie, little indie
Doc producers ride the indie consolidation boom
The companies behind two of the highest profile documentaries of the last year- Benefits Street and Educating Yorkshire – have both become part of the latest round of indie consolidation. But how much will the latest wave of production company merger-making affect documentary makers in the UK?
BSkyB recently acquired Love, the producer of Benefits Street. Love has had an epic year – The Great British Bake Off is about to reappear on BBC1 and its series My Last Summer found a new way to tackle the subject of death. Meanwhile, Twofour, the makers of Educating Yorkshire and Royal Marines Commando School, now finds itself leading the growth strategy for Boom Pictures’ group of indies.
Apart from the spoils for the company owners, the obvious advantages to being part of a bigger group are to do with resources and development funding. But arguably this affects factual entertainment more than documentary, where formats and volume programming ideas need to be worked up to a point of greater sophistication before they can win any pitches.
The disadvantages? They certainly won’t get the encouragement that the BBC promises to reserve for smaller indies and that C4 also pledges for nascent production companies.
Perhaps it makes little difference. John Willis, ceo of Mentorn Media, says: “Documentaries are led not by companies but very often by individuals, by directors, passionate film makers who find their way forward even if working in small companies or their own companies or out of their front bedroom.”
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