Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And where there’s an audience and a broadcaster, there’s a producer. As the natural history genre continues to prove a ratings-winner for broadcasters globally, the supplier pool keeps getting deeper and more diverse. RealScreen checks in on four production companies: four different philosophies, four different dimensions, four different locales…
In September 1997, two of the most prestigious names in natural history production, Partridge Films and Survival, were brought together as one stand-alone business: United Wildlife.
The combination of the two has created a formidable force in wildlife program-making. With 40-45 hours of new programs a year and an archive of 10,000 hours, UW is poised to take advantage of the explosion of interest among broadcasters in natural history content.
UW came about following United News & Media’s takeover of ITV producer/broadcaster HTV earlier in 1997. For United, which already owned Survival, the acquisition of HTV’s Partridge Films was a way of consolidating its position in the front rank of wildlife production.
The man in charge of the merged operation is managing director Mark Broughton, who had previously overseen HTV’s rights division, Harvest Entertainment. In that role, he was a key figure in transforming Partridge from a loss-taking independent company with good contacts and reputation into a fast-growing and profitable international business.
As boss of UW, Broughton has now been charged with the delicate task of forming a single business out of two culturally distinct production units. Although they have worked in the same field for decades, Bristol-based Partridge and Norwich-based Survival have always made films in different ways.
Despite this apparent hurdle, Broughton stresses that UW is now a ‘fully integrated business entity with its own board and management team. By bringing Partridge and Survival together it has allowed us to take out any duplication of effort and create economies of scale.’
At the same time, however, Broughton is conscious of the need to ‘play to the strengths’ of Partridge and Survival. He says: ‘We have two very strong brands and creative teams which have built international reputations during the last 25 years. We have been at pains to build on the base of those companies – not rip them back to their foundations.’
As a result, the management of UW has been structured so as to provide both a corporate overview and creative focus. Broughton, financial controller Mervyn Warner, and head of development Andrew Buchanan, oversee the whole UW operation while the individual production units are led by Michael Rosenberg (creative head at Partridge) and Petra Regent (executive producer at Survival). The involvement of United Broadcasting & Entertainment boss Roger Laughton as chairman of UW is indicative of the significance with which the company is viewed.
According to Broughton, the UW structure allows Rosenberg and Regent to concentrate on developing their own projects. However, it is not meant to imply that they do not swap ideas. ‘There is a cross-fertilization of ideas between the two,’ he says. ‘We sit around the table on a regular basis and discuss work in progress. There is no danger of duplication of creative effort because I sign off on all development work.’
In terms of the range of output, UW is continuing down the path that had already been pursued by the two separate companies. Broughton says that the real benefits – in terms of increased production – are not likely to come on stream for at least another year, and even then growth will be gradual.
Currently, both production units are committed to making blue-chip natural history films for the international market – an area of output which Broughton calls ‘schedule drivers’ and regards as the ‘staple diet for UW.’ At MIP-TV, for example, UW’s distribution partner ITEL unveiled a wide range of new 52-minute projects. These include Crocs Down Under, Yellowstone Otters and Forest Tigers from Partridge; and Lion Queen, Red Kangaroos and Venom from Survival.
In addition, however, growth in UW’s volume of production is being driven by shows derived from the UW archive – with kids and daytime magazine programming seen as key opportunities.
The best example to date is the 52 x 30-minute Emmy-nominated series Amazing Animals which is produced by Partridge with London-based Dorling Kindersley Vision for Disney Channel U.S. In addition, however, Survival has long-term arrangements with Jim Henson Productions and Warner Bros. to provide footage for wildlife shows involving their characters.
Broughton’s insistence on the importance of schedule-driving blue-chip films has cost implications. With top-end natural history costing in the region of £400,000-£450,000 per hour, funding films requires complex international partnerships.
However, UW can boast a ‘full range of partners,’ he says. ‘Coproduction is a very significant part of our business and we are producing content for a whole range of outlets.’ WNET, WGBH, BBC, DCI, National Geographic, Canal + and German broadcasters all figure as pre-sale or copro partners, says Broughton. In the case of Canal +, MIP-TV saw the launch of a 5 x 52-minute coproduced series called Forces of the Wild.
This international network of contacts is underpinned by continued success in the U.K. domestic market. Survival has a long-standing and well documented relationship with ITV and is also a regular supplier to Channel 4. In addition, UW also provides original programming to the other two main terrestrial players in the U.K., the BBC and Channel 5 (which, incidentally, is part-owned by the United group).
To date, Broughton claims that UW has not suffered from the increasingly close ties between Discovery (DCI) and the BBC. Current projects from UW include new films on sharks and buffalo for the BBC’s Natural World strand. Two more projects on the subject of bugs and dolphins are also in production for the Animal Planet global network.
In fact, Broughton believes the main impact of the BBC/DCI deal will be to open up opportunities ‘to work more with the likes of WNET and [WGBH]. I think that as a consequence of the deal they are developing a greater appetite to work with non-BBC partners.’
While at Harvest, Broughton’s key ambition was to develop Partridge as a company capable of holding on to and exploiting multimedia rights. Now that he is part of a US$4 billion conglomerate, this strategic goal is even more urgent. ‘We are not producers for hire,’ he insists. ‘United has a strong commitment to this business from the top down because it recognizes the importance of retaining long-term rights to content. We try to raise the maximum finance in exchange for the minimum rights. It is a delicate balance.’
UW does not have its own distribution arm but is helped in its fundraising efforts by sister company and ‘preferred distribution partner’ ITEL (a 50-50 joint venture between United and HBO). ITEL also manages the UW catalog, which includes a raft of properties which were licensed to HIT Entertainment five years ago but reverted to UW in February.
According to Broughton, ‘ITEL has become closely involved in helping finance development and pre-sales.’ In return, it receives a recoupable advance rather than equity in the show.
Although ITEL is a preferred partner, UW is not prevented from doing deals with other distributors, says Broughton. ‘It makes sense for us to keep the commission within the corporate family, but if a deal with an outside distributor stacks up in business terms, we will do it.’ Amazing Animals is an example, with DK Vision acting as distributor. So is the series Hidden Worlds, which is made for PBS and distributed by Washington-based Devillier Donegan.
Broughton stresses his preference for long-term partnerships with coproducers and broadcasters. ‘Last year, ITEL did a huge output deal for Survival with Animal Planet, and as part of that there is a commitment to ongoing original production.’
With new players such as Carlton entering the market in partnership with National Geographic, Broughton believes that the boom in demand for wildlife will continue. ‘There is a tremendous opportunity for content providers. All these new deals are about the launch of channels which need more content.’
Although Broughton sees prospects for ramping up high-volume, low-cost production, he is adamant that it is the intelligent use of rights which is the key to UW’s growth. ‘Doubling production volume is not the same as doubling profits. We have to look at the growing number of television and video windows as well as opportunities in licensing, music, publishing, CD-ROMs and the internet.’
As for the complex structure of the company with its two production centers, Broughton will not hypothesize on whether it makes sense to centralize activities in one place. He does anticipate change, however. ‘There is bound to be a natural evolution in the business as we go forward,’ he says. ‘I believe that anyone who says they will have the same structure in ten years will be out of business in three.’
Producer Profiles -
Scandinature Films (pg. 16)
Asterisk Productions (pg. 22)
Wild Visuals (pg. 24)