There used to be a magic formula:
One major American partner, a significant international partner, and maybe a distributor thrown in for good measure, and everything would be okay in your production (at least financially).
Apparently, that only worked in the ’90s, and in the new global village, a year or two might as well be a decade, things change so quickly. Witness recent problems at U.K. champion of copros, Café Productions. A company built on the premise that international coproduction was the silver bullet to put a doc-maker’s worry about money out of its misery, Café could now be facing the tender attentions of a liquidator – this only two months after the same happened to Jane Balfour Films.
It’s no mystery that the U.K. factual landscape is in a mess, but when a company that has as many fingers in as many international projects as Café faces bankruptcy, there’s more to the story than just local upheaval.
As Andre Singer of Café suggests in our news story, it now takes so many companies to flesh out the budget on a coproduction deal that the margin for any one participant is tiny. And then there’s the fear that with things so tight, if anything goes wrong during the production, it can cost some of the participants their profits. (So if Café does go down – being that it is such an important copro partner – what kind of ripples will that send out in the industry?)
To me, the recent turn of events says one of two things about the state of the factual industry: either the parties being brought to the negotiating table can’t really afford the programming they’re getting involved with, in which case they aren’t the right people for the coproduction; or, there are parties at the table taking more than their fair share and the rights they leave behind aren’t enough to finance what they won’t pay for. I believe the second is the more likely of the two theories. How many complaints have I heard about broadcasters that want all the profitable rights in return for coughing up 40% of the budget?
I’m frequently asked why RealScreen has to print budgets and percentages, and now I have another argument: Café. If the business has become untenable or predatory, it’s better that it’s out in the open. Better to have the facts to address what might be happening, and therefore be able to adapt to a self-sustaining system.
Or we can just keep watching as internationally recognized players like Balfour and Café slip under, and wonder who’s going to be next.