Feathering their niches

The tide is turning for distributors as a new emphasis is placed on attracting and serving producers who have the programs buyers really want. In the weeks leading up to MIPCOM, JOHN KENNEDY finds out how small and medium size distributors...
September 1, 1998

The tide is turning for distributors as a new emphasis is placed on attracting and serving producers who have the programs buyers really want. In the weeks leading up to MIPCOM, JOHN KENNEDY finds out how small and medium size distributors are staying in the game…

Depending on who you talk to, distributors are having the best of times or the worst of times. But most agree, the distribution landscape for docs is changing.

Some distributors say they are victims of vertical integration at big broadcasters like Discovery, A&E, BBC and Channel 4 Ð former customers who have started coproducing and distributing their own programming. Others say new digital channels and a growing number of specialty cable channels have resulted in more business than ever.

‘It’s a challenge. You have to hang in,’ admits Jim Hayden, president of Planet Pictures, a decade-old distribution company based in Calabasas, California. ‘A huge segment of the marketplace for distributors has gone away. The role that we were playing is being taken up by [broadcasters'] own productions.’

However, Sandra Green, managing director of Edmonton, Canada-based Great North International, can’t concur. ‘We’re having the best year we’ve ever had,’ she boasts. ‘There are a lot of new specialty channels that seem to be buying new things.’

Green says in its first quarter Great North has already achieved more than 50% of its annual broadcast projections. ‘Maybe it’s our time in the sun,’ she adds.

Hayden says it’s true the specialties and digital services are shopping for programs, but they don’t have a lot of money to spend. He says Planet Pictures, which has about 5,000 hours of programming in its catalog, is working harder to make less lucrative deals with more buyers. Hayden says a series that would have fetched US$150,000 six years ago from Channel 4 in the U.K. can now only earn about $20,000 from a U.K. cable channel.

‘We’re making far more deals per year than ever to stay in the same place or to grow a little bit,’ he says, adding that Planet Pictures currently has gross sales of about $2 million a year. ‘We just want to be able to be here in a few years when the small channels have more money to spend.’

Myles Spector, chairman and ceo of Los Angeles-based Whamo Entertainment, thinks distributors who have lost some of their customers in recent years probably aren’t selling the types of programming the big broadcasters want.

‘If you have the product the market wants you can sell it,’ he explains. ‘If you don’t have the shows they want you can work as hard as you want and you’re not going to do business.’

Planet Pictures focuses much of its resources on pitching programs from Knowledge Television, the Englewood, Colorado-based broadcaster that is part of the Jones Education Companies. The specialty channel produces 700 new shows a year, spending in the range of $25,000 to $30,000 per half hour. These programs sell for as little as $1000 per hour in Middle Eastern countries, for example, and up to $5,000 in markets like Germany and the U.K.

If you’re a distribution David competing with a number of Goliaths, the key to staying alive is to find a niche, build a catalog with a specific type of programming and maintain good relationships with both producers and buyers. Building a niche allows a small distributor like Vision Films, which operates from owner Lise Romanoff’s California home (see story p. 25), to compete in the same arena as big companies like Unapix and GRB.

Sandra Green at Great North says the key word for distributors now is ‘service.’ Producers will stick with smaller distributors, she explains, if they are being treated well and receiving detailed reports of who’s buying – and not buying – their programs.

Fostering good relationships with buyers is also key to success. Hayden says his company goes into markets like MIPCOM with as many as 250 meetings with buyers already scheduled. He explains it is virtually unheard of to make a sale to someone you don’t already know.

‘What we do is not brain surgery. We make contact with every buyer,’ says Hayden. ‘We’re on a first name basis [with buyers] around the world. They know us. We know them. We let them know what we have to offer.’

In a market crowded with distributors, how does a producer decide where to sell his program or film?

‘It’s the same as selling a hammer,’ explains Hayden. ‘You want that hammer in a hardware store. You don’t want it in a jewelry store. People don’t shop for hammers in a jewelry store.’

Hayden says placing your programming with a niche distributor ensures it gets the attention it needs and gets seen by the buyers who want this type of programming. ‘You don’t have to go with us, but go with somebody who has a specialty in the kind of programming you have,’ he recommends.

Giving your product to a huge distribution company means it could easily fall between the cracks. He says commissioned sales people with a program like Baywatch in their catalog aren’t going to spend much time pushing a doc at the low end of the price scale.

‘The guy who’s pushing it drives a really nice car and wants to keep it,’ says Hayden. ‘I don’t have a really nice car. We work on a much smaller margin.’

See also:
Marathon’s Race to the Top pg. 23
Close to home: Vision Films pg. 25
Nose for Cash: Temple International pg. 26

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.