Letter from London: Mentorn managing the madness

Carol Nahra spoke with John Willis, chief executive of Mentorn Media, about how the company is coping in today's perilous program-making climate.
April 23, 2009

Carol Nahra spoke with John Willis, chief executive of Mentorn Media, about how the company is coping in today’s perilous program-making climate.

How is Mentorn doing these days?

Considering the arctic wind blowing in through most of television throughout the world we’re doing very well; we’re very busy with lots of new projects happening. But like everyone else there’s more uncertainty; there is more downward pressure on budgets, which makes things difficult.

What new projects are you working on?

We’re making three single documentaries about the impact of the recession, so I suppose we’re trying to turn it to our advantage. We’re making one film for ‘Cutting Edge’ for Channel 4 which is called My Wall Street, about the impact of what happened on Wall Street USA on the 23 different Wall Streets in the UK.

We’re also making some very upbeat, positive and aspirational programming. We made a very successful factual entertainment program called Hairspray: The School Musical for Sky One. We took the end of year school musical in an ordinary English high school and with the help of some professionals we turned that ordinary school play into something that could play in the West End of London. The format is selling very well around the world. And we’ve just been commissioned and are currently making another series of that with a second musical.

How is the credit crunch impacting program-making?

Lots of broadcasters are fighting for oxygen, and in the UK, particularly, the commercial broadcasters are going through a pretty torrid time. It means that either they’re not commissioning much or if they are commissioning it’s at lower budgets. So you’ve got to be pretty inventive to make things work. But the test of all independents will be to be inventive in these times.

Just how much are budgets being reduced?

It really varies from broadcaster to broadcaster, but I would say for an hour-long documentary the price has probably gone down by 10%. There are some series where the prices have gone down by 30 to 40%. There are lots of pressures there, but you’ve got to deal with it.

In what ways are you doing things differently?

We’re looking at our production methods: how we make programs, how much you shoot yourself, how long you edit, what kind of equipment you need to edit on, those sorts of decisions. At the same time, our hallmark is good quality. We think that we represent intelligent quality in what we do and we don’t want to deviate from that. We’ve got to manage to protect that reputation while obviously sometimes thinking, ‘We’ve got 10 percent less to make it, how are we going to do that?’

We’ve also been trying to spread our work as widely as possible so that we’re not dependent on a small number of broadcasters. So we’re working for a very wide range of broadcasters in the UK and some in the US and I think that is really important to survival. In the UK, there is real concern in the independent production community about the financial health of the three main commercial broadcasters. On the other hand, compared with some other parts of the world, we’ve actually got pretty healthy program budgets. And there are opportunities for factual producers. If there is less drama made for example, it may mean that there are more factual programs replacing those slots. So you’ve got to see it as an opportunity as well as a threat.

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.