In the early days, everything was easy. Ninety-nine point nine percent of coproductions consisted of two broadcasters – one US and one UK – a bit of top-up money from a distributor, and away you went. Editorial ambition was straightforward and the money men were kept happy with a decent return from international sales.
Oh, how things have changed! A general decline in TV advertising revenue has meant that broadcasters’ hands are tied. They still need to keep the quality up but have less money to put into programs. A greater chunk of money from a distributor is fine, up to a point, but eventually even that won’t fill the deficit, and it makes the money men smile a bit less.
So, where next? Reduce the editorial ambition? Unfortunately, a bit of a no-go. Broadcasters may be slightly tighter on the purse strings, but they also expect great programs, and in the proposal you promised you could deliver the best-ever everything – and winning the commission is now based on you being able to deliver it. In addition, ever-fickle audiences expect quality reconstruction and CGI, and you don’t get that by cutting corners.
The quickest way to plug the gap is to bring a third broadcaster into the mix. But now the narrative needs to be agreed upon by three commissioners – all of whose audiences have different needs. You end up making three different versions, extending the edit in the process, and now there is one less territory for the distributor to sell to and the money men are breaking out in a cold sweat.
It’s quite possible that the situation spirals on until there are 10 coproducers, as many different versions, all at different lengths, a distributor who is putting up £10,000 (US$20,000) an hour as a goodwill gesture, and the money men have turned grey and fainted.
Yet coproductions remain a crucial part of the industry – and it’s not just because we all love a good challenge.
They are still the only way to achieve big, hugely ambitious programs. You may have licensed a window to the kitchen sink to get them fully funded, but it’s these programs that stand out and create impact for the broadcasters, and kudos and awards for the producers.
Then there is volume. US broadcasters show a current trend for long-running returnable series, and these always keep the money men happy. However, with the UK market not wanting the same volume, the challenge then becomes how to fully fund these projects. The good news is you don’t need to chip away too much at the coproduction boundaries until you find them. Just beneath the surface you will find: international arms of US broadcasters that have a similar appetite for volume; the Canadian coproduction route, which is becoming increasingly popular; and distributors who are prepared to contribute significant sums for world rights, excluding US.
The traditional coproduction route may be gone, but it’s been replaced by something even better: flexibility. Now there are many more ways to get a program funded – you’ve just got to go out and find them.