C21 feature: Digging up funds
Coproductions are increasingly common in factual series, forcing producers to become deal makers and accountants. Clive Whittingham explores clever deals and how they affect the creative process.
Coproductions, long the standard in scripted, once accounted for only a fraction of factual projects. Feature docs with a public service broadcaster attached looking for another 80% of their budget at IDFA Forum, for instance. Or The Plane Crash from the UK’s Channel 4, a one-off special that the network’s then chief creative officer Jay Hunt described as “the budget that dare not speak its name.” Discovery Channel had to come in and help meet the costs of crashing an actual airliner.
But as budgets have tightened, creative ways are being found to fund more everyday unscripted series. Matt Graff, MD at UK indie Zig Zag Productions, says the days of walking into a broadcaster and “have them greenlight something fully” happens less and less. “We have to be more internationally minded, think more about coproductions. Sometimes turning a maybe into a yes is about coming up with a good model for financing to go with the great idea.”
Ben Barrett has seen the change happening first-hand since setting up funding and copro facilitator Drive with Lilla Hurst in 2013. “When we started, this was a trend we felt was going to increase,” Barrett says. “At the time it mostly happened in high-end specialist factual, with a broadcaster in the UK attached and then a range of free-to-air channels in markets such as Australia, France, Germany and the US. Those projects still exist but we see this second tier of commissioning a lot more.
“Broadcasters like the idea of a show but have a price point, so they’ll come in but understand we need to bring in as much as 70% from international. For an increasing number of channels, that has become a way of getting shows. There are now a lot of series that a few years ago would have been commissioned by the BBC, Channel 4 or Channel 5 where they now come in with a lower tariff, accept they won’t get the same deal and task the producer and us with raising the rest internationally.”
This has created a gap in the market for companies like Drive, or Paul Heaney’s TCB Media Rights. “Distributors are now mini commissioners,” Heaney says. “No two deals are the same, but one way we work is sending a couple of ideas to a broadcaster, I know roughly what they’ll pay, so if they like it we ask the producer for estimates on budget, delivery dates, milestones of when they want to be paid and so on. We’ll then put together a greenlight pack detailing what’s required.
“Say it’s £80,000 [US$105,000] an hour for a 12-part series. In the new world, we can go ahead if the sales projection says we’ll bring in enough sales and back end to cover the producers while making it.”
The number of channels looking to get involved in such deals is growing all the time too. These include Science, American Heroes and Smithsonian in the US and, according to Heaney, “up to eight in the UK, three in France, three in Germany, a couple in Italy and the Nordics, one or two in CEE and three or four in Australia and New Zealand.”
But Heaney and Barrett both point out that selling into too many territories up front can affect the back end, which makes things tough.
Without sounding too worthy, where does this all leave the creative process? Are producers spending more time cutting deals and scrabbling around for money than developing ideas?
“On original production, the margins get tighter and tighter,” says Simon Andreae, the former Fox and Discovery commissioner who launched Naked Entertainment with backing from FremantleMedia in 2015. “We would like to make a profit on the first run of a show, or at least clear the production fee, and that happens less and less. If you’re developing a show you want to make and think has great potential, you’re more forgiving, but it’s going to push producers into only developing concepts they think are returnable and exportable. There isn’t much point in making a one-off British documentary film, however creatively fulfilling it might be, in that environment.
“That’s not to say it’s entirely a financially driven business but it is difficult to stay alive. We think of the UK as one of the few territories that can fund, or nearly fund, a new concept that you can then put on tape and use as a returner or an exporter. It’s almost like the UK network is paying for your sizzle reel.”
But he points out formats that have emerged recently, such as Seven Year Switch, 60 Days In, First Dates and Married at First Sight, have been creatively strong projects because they need to cut through in an environment where everybody is trying to create returnable series.
Graff at Zig Zag also says producers are increasingly focused on the deal. The company is coproducing Ancient Games, a format that pits celebrities against each other using historical methods of combat, with 3C Media in China. It also did a deal with financier Krempelwood to provide the budget for football talent search show The Next Jamie Vardy for Sky.
“We have to think about alternative funding models,” he says. “Coproductions can provide top-up funding from a distributor or SVoD platform, or you can work out a windowing strategy so you can get multiple players involved in the same territory. We need to be wilier and business-savvy when it comes to working out how to make budgets work.”
There is also the ‘too many cooks’ issue to contend with, where all the broadcasters putting money in require some editorial say and their own version. When Drive put together the funding for Barcroft Media’s The Day the Dinosaurs Died, it was a BBC commission with PBS Nova in the US, France 5, ZDF in Germany, ABC in Australia, NHK in Japan and BBC Worldwide all involved – seven partners.
“However many partners are involved, there is a finite number who can have editorial input,” Barrett says. “We do a lot of deals where broadcasters ask for a level of editorial comfort that involves looking at the first couple of rough cuts and, as long as they’re happy, they let us go with it, even on a six- or 10-part series.”
For some, though, the changes to factual funding need to be more drastic, with the traditional model of an upfront payment from broadcasters no longer fit for purpose.
Formats veteran Jan Salling, CEO of Missing Link, has been shopping ethical clothing format The Fashion Hero on behalf of Canada’s Beauty World Search. The eight-part series was funded up front by the producer and is often given to broadcasters for free with payment via revenue share.
“It is the model for the future of distribution,” Salling says. “Many distributors are dinosaurs who are about to go extinct. They have to react to the realities of the industry. Linear channels are looking for excuses to say no as they don’t have budgets. So, do you keep on pushing until they say yes and strike a deal for a low amount because you’re so desperate to do a normal sale? Or do you do a new deal, give them a product with no risk and revenue share?
“Don’t desperately hold on to the old ways and think everything will be better tomorrow, that linear will come up again and it will change for the better. It won’t.”
But he admits: “It’s got to be a good show. When I heard about Caroline Bernier [president] at Beauty World Search investing her own money, and money from investors, to make eight episodes with no broadcaster attached, I thought it was either the stupidest thing in the world or brilliant. The next 12 months will tell us, and could spark a lot of copy and paste for the Fashion Hero business model.”
While producers funding an entire series up front isn’t practical in many cases, Salling’s point about the business changing and people needing to adapt is valid. Producers and distributors must craft ever-more creative deals to meet the demand for ambitious and impactful factual in an era of tighter margins.
Published 12-01-18 by Clive Whittingham on www.c21media.net