Five years ago, UK-based distrib Parthenon Entertainment was just finding its feet, with six employees and 250 hours of non-fiction in its library. Now, Parthenon has made its mark internationally, with headquarters in Hertfordshire, a new office in Bristol, and operations in London, South Africa, Washington and Germany. Three years ago it began producing its own programs, and built a state-of-the-art production facility. In all, it has delivered over 700 hours of factual, mostly in HD, to broadcasters such as National Geographic, TLC and Discovery.
Behind it all is MD Carl Hall, who launched the company with the non-fiction catalog of his prior employer, HIT Entertainment. The production side belongs to Natalie Humphreys, the CD of Parthenon who came onboard 18 months in to set up the in-house production arm. They both weigh in on why Parthenon has been successful, and what the future holds.
What’s been your best decision since launch?
Natalie Humphreys: At the time, the temptation is to build your business quickly. The temptation is to say, ‘Where can I go for some quick hits? Where am I going to get some cash in the door quickly?’ We could’ve made high-volume, very low-cost hours for a number of people and we resisted that from the beginning, because we wanted to maintain the quality of the brand.
Carl Hall: I think the best one of all was to have the tri-party business (production, distribution and in-house facilities) that we have. By having an almost vertically integrated business, what we’ve managed to do is be able to ride out all the storms in the broadcast business.
What’s been your hardest decision?
Hall: I’ll be incredibly truthful with you, it’s that we don’t take on any projects if we don’t like the producers. No particular program is going to be that important that I’m going to deal with people I don’t like. Sometimes you get some painful producers; we’ve avoided working with them basically.
Five years is the length of time it takes most companies to see profitability – where is Parthenon on that time scale?
Hall: Almost from year one, we turned a really nice profit. One of the most strategic things was to have our own facilities in this business. We do 70 hours of programming a year. If you think about what the post-production element of that costs, quite a bit of that goes to our own facilities. That gives us a hell of an opportunity to help the cash flow.
How else has in-house production helped?
Hall: When I took the building over we had it wired with the latest HD cabling so everybody can access everything in the building from their pcs. We haven’t had to upgrade it because nearly every production is in HD. When we started we did the odd one but now every single production is HD, and that’s up to 70 or 80 hours a year. I put in the infrastructure in the first place to allow that; I was just keeping my fingers crossed that the demand would meet it and it has.
Humphreys: You can control your own schedules much better. We’ve got an HD sound studio and access to graphics as well. The scheduling element keeps you flexible and light on your feet.
Did previous roles make it easier?
Hall: What I brought from being a director of hit into my own company was to keep as many of the rights as possible. We’ve got a unique library that is basically open on a global basis for VOD, downloads, mobile phone. It’s almost unheard of that anybody’s kept almost 800 hours of programming that’s only about five years old so widely open.
Parthenon was built on natural history and history programming. What’s your take on those markets?
Hall: There really is no point in doing cheap or mid-range product, especially in wildlife. I think broadcasters don’t need massive amounts of volume, they just want original stuff, and they’re willing to pay for it.
Humphreys: I do feel like natural history and history are definitely enjoying a resurgence now. Broadcasters, the ones I’m talking to in the UK and the US, are now starting to put serious money and serious thought back into having factual in their schedules.
How are you dealing with the renewed interest in wildlife?
Humphreys: I reckon it will always be about 50% of what we do, and we’ve got our Bristol office now. We see that as the hub for the animal and natural history side. We’ve got three big new animal series in production: Baby Planet, which is 5 x 60; there’s something called Big Game Diaries as well, which is 6 x 60; and something called Caught in the Act, which is 3 x 60 and that’s just three examples.
Hall: We just finished the most awesome film… about three cheetah brothers. We shot the whole thing in high-speed, using the latest HD, which is a coproduction with Aqua Vision in South Africa. And this thing is just a work of art. It’s just beautiful because, can you imagine cheetah footage in high-speed, high-definition? It’s just total eye candy.
What’s your approach to programming?
Hall: Buyers these days are swamped by so many individual companies coming to them. We’ve digitized our entire library. With the press of a button we can call up any program in our 800-odd hours within seconds. We also send out these things called V-mails, which basically put clips [in emails]. For example, if Castro dies, our program on Castro will be on V-mail the very next day, saying this program is available.
What advice do you have for others starting their own company?
Hall: Don’t do it. To enter the distribution business now would be absolute madness. You have to think about MIPTV, MIPCOM, flights, people’s salaries, screeners, the whole thing, and that’s all going to come out of the 30% distribution fee. I’d say that even 800 hours are the absolute minimum number of shows you need to have a viable distribution business – anything less than that, you’re never going to be able to make it pay.
What’s next for the company?
Humphreys: I think that if I’ve got any aims right now, my first one would be to consolidate the production business. We want a period where we balance making one-off specials with making a few new series; we need to create some signature brands for ourselves. Genre-wise, we’re definitely going to continue to build on popular science and history, and on the kids’ side. Coproduction is a major calling card for us.
Why the name Parthenon?
Hall: I’ll tell you the truth: the reason I named the company Parthenon was it just sounded a bit more established than we were. Fortunately, I think we’ve grown to fill that expectation now. I didn’t want to name it Carl Hall Enterprises because I suspect that the company has a lot more legs whether I am here or not in the future, because I think we’ve actually built something now.