Nose for Cash

Sue Temple is perhaps one of the best known figures in U.K. documentary co-production and distribution. Since forming her own consultancy, Temple International, in 1990, she figures she has raised over $20 million in production finance....
September 1, 1998

Sue Temple is perhaps one of the best known figures in U.K. documentary co-production and distribution. Since forming her own consultancy, Temple International, in 1990, she figures she has raised over $20 million in production finance.

Temple is best known for her collaborations with producer Brian Lapping on some of the most important landmarks in modern factual television. The realization of series such as the Emmy award-winning The Second Russian Revolution, bafta award-winning The Death of Yugoslavia and the story of the Israel-Arab conflict, The 50 Years War, all owe a great deal to her prowess as a budget raiser.

Prior to launching on her own, Temple worked as a senior sales executive at Granada International – which is where she developed the notion of going solo.

‘After the U.K. government introduced a 25% independent production quota in the late 80s, indies would come to me at Granada to see if we could put up a proportion of their program budget,’ she recalls. ‘As more and more leading producers left the broadcasters, I realized there was a niche market for someone like me who knew how to put together deals and had contact with international broadcasters.’

Shortly after leaving Granada to test out this theory, she was approached by Lapping who had himself gone independent after working inside Granada. ‘Brian had sold The Second Russian Revolution to the BBC but needed extra finance,’ says Temple. ‘So he came to me and asked if I could look after him in the way I had done inside Granada.’ Temple managed to secure Discovery and nhk as partners on the series and has worked closely with Lapping and his head of production Norma Percy ever since.

In those early days, Temple quickly took the view that ‘to do the job properly I would really need to focus on one genre. You have to know who the commissioning editors are – and if there are any key changes in personnel. You can’t do that across more than one sector.’

Temple applies a similarly focused approach to the way she works with independents. She still enjoys a close relationship with Lapping now that he is part of a merged production company, Brook Lapping Associates. However, she also works with another of the creative forces within the merged group, Philip Whitehead, who has made high profile series such as The Windsors, The Churchills, The Last of the Tsars and The Ghandis. In recognition of Temple’s contribution to the group, she was recently made a non-executive director.

In addition to Brook Lapping, Temple also works with October Films, Paladin Films and Wilton Films. She is reluctant to extend that list much further. ‘These are all companies which I enjoy working with and who trust me,’ she says. ‘It is difficult to represent someone really well unless they are honest about how much a production will cost and will tell you all their future plans. Some producers I have dealt with are not willing to discuss these matters for fear that I might blab out of turn.’

Temple takes great pains to avoid conflicts of interest between her existing clients. ‘If three people have the same idea, I work with whoever tells me about their plans first. If someone else then begins to tell me about something similar I tell them to stop right away and look for someone else to work with.’

Of Temple’s many credits, she picks out the critically-acclaimed Death of Yugoslavia as a particular highlight. Of a £2.25 million series budget, Temple raised more than half.

The project was initiated by Austrian public broadcaster ORF and managed to secure support from the BBC and Discovery. Even then, however, it didn’t provide the total budget to cope with such a mammoth endeavor, says Temple. ‘It was a hugely expensive series and the buyers we talked to thought that either it would be boring or that we wouldn’t get the interview access we needed.’

Despite that, the company entered production and gradually began to bring people on board when they saw the quality of the rough cuts. In the end, the six part series secured 11 pre-sales thanks to Temple. Since then it has gone on to be broadcast in 43 countries and is used by various armed forces as a briefing tool for troops being sent to the Balkans.

Typically, Temple limits her role to raising finance in advance of production – rather than engaging in the time-consuming business of picking off minor territories after completion. However, this is not always possible. ‘I sold Yugoslavia because distributors don’t like having projects with a lot of strings attached – that can be a nightmare for a sales executive.’

A preferable scenario for Temple was Paladin’s 2 x 50-minutes film on biological warfare, Plague Wars. ‘In that case, PBS Frontline and the BBC came in and rushed the project into production. As a result BBC Worldwide was happy to come in and do the distribution,’ says Temple.

Plague Wars was commissioned by the North American partner PBS – a trend that Temple is witnessing more and more. ‘I was at MIPCOM two years ago trying to sell an idea about China to Discovery which they weren’t interested in,’ she recalls. ‘At the end of the conversation, they said they would really like a film about the Great Wall of China – so I rushed home and told Tom Roberts at October.’ That project is now in production with NHK Japan and China Central Television as partners.

Temple’s role as an independent financier is rare in today’s coproduction business – though there appears to be no shortage of people who would like to emulate her. ‘Two or three people a year ask me how they can do what I do and I tell them that it can’t work unless they have a strong relationship with a production company.’

Even then, it can take ‘an awfully long time,’ she says. Currently, Temple can boast a list of 57 companies with which she has negotiated sales or pre-sales. She estimates that, ‘Every MIP or MIPCOM, we pick up one more buyer who then sticks with us.’

Whether there is room for more specialists like Temple is unclear. Currently, the U.K.’s leading independent factual producers such as Wall to Wall, Mentorn and Lion Television are turning to larger distributors like Carlton International and itel because they can offer marketing muscle and cash advances. Temple says: ‘I am glad I started when I did. I do believe it is getting harder.’

Currently, she is busy on a number of projects including a 3 x 60-minute Lapping series called Hostage – for which she is seeking a French pre-sale. Other high profile (though yet to be revealed) projects involving Channel 4 and Discovery are on the slate with coproduction and pre-sale partners in place. A landmark millennium project is also being prepared.

While the reputation of the Temple/Lapping axis is primarily what drives the interest of buyers, Temple acknowledges there have been significant changes in the marketplace which affect the way she works. ‘Increasingly, broadcasters are going global and want to negotiate rights for large parts of the world, not just the U.S.,’ she says. ‘Some have said they don’t like us to be working with their rivals – but won’t stop us. I just hope we don’t reach a situation where they are so powerful they can tell me that I have to stop working with people.’

Temple is also concerned that some broadcasters are pushing the international finance market too hard in order to reduce their own costs, ‘Sometimes, it feels as though we are working harder than ever just to save money for the broadcasters and are not helping ourselves. I’m hoping we have reached a point where people realize that we need the money to go into the production budget to make the programs as good as possible.’

See also:

Intro. – Feathering their Niches pg. 22

Marathon’s race to the top pg. 23

Close to Home: Vision Films pg. 25

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