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Nonfiction Survival

In the last year, cash flow and deadlines have ruled my life, and those of many of my friends and colleagues. This can violate producers and their programs, and is a wrenching way to work. I decided to write a future survival guide, which I am happy to share with those of you who may identify with my predicament.
March 1, 2002

In the last year, cash flow and deadlines have ruled my life, and those of many of my friends and colleagues. This can violate producers and their programs, and is a wrenching way to work. I decided to write a future survival guide, which I am happy to share with those of you who may identify with my predicament.

First off, true survival is not about staying out of the red, it’s about retaining program quality, enjoying the job and upholding professional standards. We develop, finance, produce and sell non-fiction globally, so from this vantage point I’ve devised the following:

Remember why we’re doing it

In one of my blackest moments, I raised the question of why I should put up with all the worry. A friend responded that I had obviously forgotten that producing non-fiction films is a privilege.

Generalism sinks the ship

Broadcasters, producers and distributors are specializing in niches, many with specific non-fiction genres. At a time when broadcasters want higher-than-ever production values at rock bottom prices, specialization ensures that we, the makers/sellers, can predict and manage our budget without delivering borderline quality. Developing a niche-specific brand creates comfort with the broadcasters and a higher probability to score the coveted slots. The result of specialization is, therefore, more security and better content, and there are many examples to prove it.

Independence means multi-tasking

Not being part of a broadcaster or a production entity requires the approach of a well-organized vigilante. Program-makers should know everything about rights management, and salespeople should know all aspects of how and why non-fiction programs are made. Broadcasters contend with an enormous volume of project submissions, not to mention plummeting ad revenues and endless internal meetings. They generally appreciate the concise multi-option approach of a salesperson as well as the producer’s in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. Whether one is a die-hard producer or devoted distributor, creating more of a hybrid out of one’s job is a wise thing to do. Producers and distributors need to work together much more closely now as they need each other more than ever.

There’s not much time to shop around

Identify your key broadcasters, distributors and coproducers. For a distributor, global cable/satellite broadcasters like National Geographic or Discovery are absolutely vital. They are our most consistent partners and companions. Our free tv broadcasters, however, determine the ‘extra mile’ in our budgets, and our future financial survival. If we cannot produce a program that works for cable/sat as well as free tv, we tank. Regardless of the growing size of many broadcasters, the individuals make the difference between business or no business. In the same vein, loyalty to great creative teams helps build international brands and, most importantly, makes daily work life a lot more pleasant.

Slow down and work globally

For a distributor, covering all the world’s sales and coproduction territories methodically is far more effective than becoming too reliant on one country or broadcaster, or taking the high program volume buckshot approach. The unpredictable market response to non-fiction programs plus territories suddenly going flat can and does cause over-expansion and a hard fall: it’s better to test the world market before embarking on a trip from which never to return. We concentrate on programs with global appeal and heavily presell.

Keep your dignity

Financial gain is certainly no longer a reason to be in the non-fiction business, so who are we fooling? It’s important to produce and distribute things we’re proud of. In turn, this positive experience helps us contend with the worries – after all, working in non-fiction is a privilege.

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