Special Report on the Sheffield Documentary International FestivalÉ Brits Go Copro: U.K. production looks outside for financing

You only have to look at the list of sponsors to realise how much impact the Sheffield Documentary Festival has had in its brief life....
October 1, 1997

You only have to look at the list of sponsors to realise how much impact the Sheffield Documentary Festival has had in its brief life.

This year, Channel 4, the BBC, Yorkshire Television, Carlton, Granada, Discovery, The History Channel, Kodak and independent producer’s association pact have all lent their name to the event.

All told, 350 delegates will gather from October 13 to 19 to debate the state of the documentary maker’s art. Screenings throughout the week and sessions on the weekend are intended to be ‘a celebration of documentary in all its forms,’ says festival director Kathy Loizou.

All of the U.K.’s senior decision-makers attend Sheffield, though Loizou stresses that ‘the emphasis is on the craft.

‘At a time when filmmakers are constrained by formats, strands and budgets, we are interested in talking about how films were made – and why. In previous years the screening rooms have always been packed out.’

Granada controller of factual programming Charles Tremayne underlines the importance of the programme issues: ‘Events like the Edinburgh Festival and the Cambridge Convention are too wide-ranging. It’s nice to go to Sheffield and talk about the documentaries rather than the finance for a change.’

The forum is intended to be as democratic as possible. There’s a student/newcomers’ day of workshops and an open-minded approach to what constitutes a documentary. ‘We are Catholic in our thinking,’ says Loizou, ‘We don’t beat ourselves up whether something is documentary or isn’t.’

Among the many sessions over the weekend, there’ll be a strong focus on the question of impartiality in filmmaking, says Loizou. This theme is reinforced by sessions which look at how the truth can be twisted to sensationalize historical documentary. A keynote speaker will be renowned filmmaker Sir Jeremy Isaacs.

The debate will also focus on changes impacting filmmakers. Aside from questions about coproduction financing, the festival will look at whether ‘the growth in factual soap spells the death knell for popular drama,’ according to Loizou.

Although the Festival is primarily a gathering of U.K. executives, there will be a smattering of international filmmakers present, says Loizou. ‘We have invited people from places like Canada, Latvia, France and Germany.’ The international element has an important role to play, she says. ‘This festival is definitely here to promote documentary as film as opposed to just television. We hope U.K. documentary makers can learn from some of the international feature-length films on show.’

For the British documentary producer, international coproduction has become a fact of everyday life. Although it’s still possible to get a fully-funded commission for domestic strands on the major u.k. networks, ask for more than £160,000 an hour and you’ll probably be expected to bring some money to the table.

The pressure on budgets is a result of increased competition in the U.K., and most key players have responded pragmatically. ‘As the market fragments, the most expensive programmes in the genre need non-domestic partners or they won’t be made,’ says Simon Willock, the managing director of Primetime, a distributor.

Independent producers like Wall to Wall managing director Alex Graham agree: ‘We work on top-of-the-range science and natural history where budgets begin at £160,000 and rise to £340,000 an hour. It’s difficult to raise the whole budget for these series in one country.’

Wall to Wall’s introduction to the complex world of international financing was an Emmy Award-winning series called Baby It’s You (1994), which was made for Channel 4 with funding from U.K. distributor itel. Subsequently, the show appeared on TLC in the U.S. and sold to 60 countries.

That experience forged a close working relationship between Wall to Wall and ITEL which has acted as the springboard for further expansion. ‘There are no guaranteed sums involved,’ says Graham. ‘But over three to four years itel has probably contributed a six-figure sum a year to our development and financing.’

Graham says, ‘Our dream project is one where the budget can be funded out of the u.s. and U.K.’ He admits that this is hard to achieve without relinquishing key rights to broadcasters. ‘Typically, if we produce a £1.5 million six-part series, the U.S. will provide 25% to 35% of the budget and the likes of Channel 4 will provide 40%. That’s why it helps to have a friendly distributor who can help top up the budget.’

Since the success of Baby It’s You, numerous high-budget series have rolled off the Wall to Wall production line. Typical of these have been Anglo/American coproductions such as The Science of Sex which was delivered for mipcom. More recently, the company has begun work on Body Story for Discovery and Channel 4. ‘That will cost around £340,000 an hour for 6 x 30 minutes,’ says Graham, adding that it will involve a large deficit from ITEL.

At the same time, Wall to Wall has also won a £1.5 million commission from PBS and the bbc to produce African Journeys, a six-part coproduction about the pre-colonial experience in Africa presented by U.S. academic Skip Gates. ‘pbs is paying $200,000 an hour and the BBC has matched it,’ says Graham. ‘We have distribution rights outside the U.K. and U.S.’

For British producers, piecing together financing overseas can still seem daunting. However, Graham says, ‘Even though a project isn’t as easy to fund, by going to two or three places, and backing it with a distribution advance, you can do a deal and not give away the backend. It can be two or three years before you begin to recoup, but then it’s nice to get a cheque every three months.’

Wall to Wall’s key relationships have been with u.s. broadcasters and Graham expects that to continue. ‘The U.S. accounts for 40% of our turnover, but we have only just scratched the surface there,’ he says. ‘We’ve done deals with A&E, PBS, Discovery and TLC, but it would be a mistake for us to sit back.’

The appeal of the U.S. is a common language. This also makes Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada popular partners, though Canada is regarded as over-complicated. Despite substantial funding opportunities, most producers hesitate at sharing creative control. In the U.K., coproduction usually refers to co-financing.

Increasingly, there’s co-operation between U.K. and European partners. Pilot Films has a long-standing coproduction partnership with Gedeon of France and Paneikon of Italy. Simon Nashte, joint managing director of Pilot, says of the rationale, ‘We want to access each other’s markets at coproduction rather than acquisition level.’

He regards this as a preferable route to teaming up with a distributor, because then they ‘can access local subsidies and we appear as local as possible when broadcasters want a butt to kick. Distributors are not as well-placed as local partners to answer questions.’

Nashte is regarded as one of the ‘canniest operators’ in coproduction, though he admits, ‘It can be a pain in the arse. Get two broadcasters in a room and you get an argument. Get three, you have a coproduction.’

Current projects for Pilot include an unspecified commission from pbs’ Nova, and an A&E/Channel 4 coproduction about Iraq in which C4 and A&E are equal partners, but take completely different approaches in presentation, says Nashte.

One of Pilot’s key successes is the travel series Lonely Planet (soon to be 52 x 45 mins), which derives funding from eight international sources. Three of the coproduction partners – Channel 4, Discovery International and The Travel Channel (U.S.) – each pay around 25% of the budget which grants them considerable rights over location, presenters and director. C4, for example, didn’t want an Australian presenter and required a half-hour format instead of the hour supplied internationally.

While there’s potential to recoup from worldwide sales deals, Nashte warns that, ‘as a rule of thumb, coproduction costs 30% more than a commission, which means you’d better be sure it’s going to work.’

Another well-known coproduction player in the U.K. is Cafe Productions which specialises in the sort of anthropological, historical and travel pieces that require coproduction money. Managing director Andre Singer estimates 50% of his output goes to the international market without a U.K. partner.

The classic example of a Cafe coproduction is The World of Geo, which couldn’t be financed by one market because it was high-quality programming shot on 16mm film in different locations, according to Singer.

The idea originated with the non-fiction division of German producer/distributor ufa, which came to Singer to help produce the series. Between them they put together a package for Discovery U.S., Canal+ and ZDF. Pay-TV operations Premiere and BSkyB helped complete the financing. ‘It was very complex for us because when people are spending serious money on a project, the cultural differences get emphasized.’

Distributor Primetime came on board for the second series which was renamed Eyes on the World. The partnership also changed, with ndr replacing zdf in Germany. ‘Editorial requirements change,’ explains Singer, ‘but we are now trying to put together a third series.’

Singer is developing various projects with Little Bird in Eire, including a pilot about sainthood which has support from rte and Bavarian Television. Another five-part project on the Irish diaspora awaits a decision from rte, the bbc and abc in Australia, which would see them split the budget equally. ‘We approached the u.s. but found them more insular in their demands,’ he says.

Singer has had successes in the u.s., such as the current coproduction about the 1898 Spanish-U.S.. War, which involves tlc (u.s.), Canal+ Spain and The History Channel in the U.K. But he warns that, ‘u.s. networks are looking for fresher approaches to subject matter and style. Discovery has highly qualified executive producers present at all stages. You don’t just deliver and hope they’ll like it.’

Senior vp programming at The History Channel, Abbe Raven has spent the last 14 years as part of the A&E family. She confirms that, as A&E developed, it has moved from acquisition to meticulously planned original and coproductions. At the same time, ‘We have developed long-standing relationships which go back a dozen years,’ says Raven. She expects The History Channel to follow that model.

A&E tends to prefer long-term relationships with major U.K. groups like the BBC, Granada and Channel 4. According to Raven, ‘We do many projects in the coproduction vein but there are limited numbers of slots available that haven’t been commissioned or planned well in advance. There are exceptions, but it would be misleading if I said that a&e was the home of the small independent.’

The U.K. remains the most popular partner. ‘The proportion of programmes we acquire or coproduce from the u.k. is still higher than anywhere in the world. That’s not going to change,’ she says.

Raven expects A&E’s relationship with the bbc to continue, despite the U.K. broadcaster’s recent link up with Discovery. Evidence of that is the recently announced eight-part coproduction Planets.

However, major players like Granada expect the realignment of international partners to present increased opportunities. Traditionally a supplier to the U.K.’s ITV network, Granada has already expanded its output considerably. ‘When I joined Granada, we made documentaries for ITV on a guaranteed basis,’ says controller of factual, Charles Tremayne. ‘It doesn’t work like that now. Instead, we see ourselves as a super-independent. itv is still our most important customer but we have other partners in the u.k. and internationally.’

Coproductions include ‘culturally neutral brands such as Savage Skies which was a coproduction for ITV and PBS/WNET,’ says Tremayne. ‘We’re now making Savage Earth with plans for Savage Seas. They could only be financed by coproduction.’

Another Granada project picked up by wnet is the social travelogue Twain’s World (a.k.a. Following the Equator with Peter Ustinov), which now has Channel 4 on board. ‘We are also doing a project for Discovery,’ says Tremayne, who adds that mainland Europe is not such a high priority, except as a potential outlet for programme sales.

Underpinning all of Granada’s activities is ‘the need to be a trusted supplier to both ITV and the international market,’ says Tremayne. ‘A lot of international programming doesn’t look right on ITV. It will be interesting to see whether the BBC/Discovery deal introduces a coproduction mood to the output on bbc schedules.’

Regardless of the high-profile Discovery/bbc deal, Discovery Network’s Europe vp commissioning, coproduction and productions, Chris Haws believes his operation will continue playing a pivotal role for producers in the U.K. and Europe.

‘Coproduction is half my output and we have dealt with small countries like Estonia and Iceland, as well as u.k. broadcasters like Channel 4, Channel 5 and the bbc. I have seen producers develop into extremely confident operators who find it as easy to deal with ZDF, France 3 and TV2 in Denmark as U.K. broadcasters.’

Not only can Haws play a facilitative role for producers within Europe, but he fights in their corner in the U.S. ‘If independents don’t have a relationship in the U.S. they could come to me. We lobby long and hard for projects over there – like Cafe’s Uncharted Africa which we have pushed for six months.’

Primetime’s Willock believes that broadcasters locked out of the BBC/Discovery deal will source programmes from elsewhere. Likely beneficiaries are companies such as his own with strong track records. ‘We have worked with A&E and PBS on coproduced series like Blood and Belonging,’ he says. ‘We also arranged an A&E presale for Millenesian Films’ Love in the Ancient World.’

Willock foresees further alliances between producers and distributors. ‘The distrust is disappearing because distribution is increasingly part of the production process,’ he says. A recent example of how lines blur has been Primetime’s involvement in The Liners, a project that originated with Australia’s rga Productions. ‘They brought 25% of the money from ABC,’ says Willock. ‘We put together presales with TLC (U.S.) and C4 and brought in Pathe film footage which equated to 35% of the budget. After doing a publishing deal with Boxtree, the series had gone into profit.’

If there is an overall trend in the U.K., it is the need for producers to be part of increasingly formidable partnerships in order to prosper. ‘Production entities are becoming bigger and more powerful,’ says Singer, ‘and that will continue.’

Wall to Wall’s Graham agrees. ‘If I was starting out in today’s environment,’ he says, ‘I’d be very wary about trying to build an international presence from scratch. I remember going to my first mip seven years ago and cringe to think how out of my depth I was. It must be even tougher for emergent producers with their shoulder bags full of tapes.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.