Survivor: Indie

Even in challenging economic times, some indies are finding room to grow. We talked to the MDs and CEOs of three such companies about how they're moving forward in their markets.
May 1, 2009

Roger Bolton, chairman, Flame TV [London]

As a small company that has recently produced both a range of series and a number of dramatic docs, such as The Double Life of Dickens and Churchill’s Mother, how are you faring in this economic climate?

We have the very good fortune of having some returning daytime series [including the third series of Heir Hunters]. Although there’s pressure on price because [of] the absence of competition – the BBC can always provide the best value for its license fee payers – these returning series, as long as you can get them right, [have] slots available to them. We’re in a relatively comfortable position.

Of course, other areas in which we want to deliver, like documentaries and historical documentaries, have been severely cut back.

What is the commissioning climate in the UK?

It’s very slow but it can’t be that slow in the sense that you’ve got to make sure to have shows to put in the schedule. With ITV, Channel 4 and to a degree, at Channel Five, there’s a concentration of commissioning in peak, and also a lot of pressure on one to try to set up coproductions. There’s been a small squeeze from the BBC but it’s still relatively well-funded and it is still committed to daytime so that’s basically where we’re at.

There has been reorganization going on within the BBC, [with] all its commissioning. In that area, it’s difficult to see how much of the slowdown in production commissioning is a result of particular changes within an organization and how much is due to the recession itself.

Are you looking into more coproductions?

I think the first thing to do when you’re worried is to take a good holiday. Second thing is to get out of the office, travel around a bit and talk to people. It’s clear that there’ll be an increasing amount of coproduction and it’s vital to start talking to people, even if there isn’t a lot of commissioning going on, because you have to develop those relationships for the future.

How have you adapted your business plan over the past 10 years?

We had a situation where we had a lot of high-end documentaries and we decided to focus on daytime returning series for the obvious reason that if you do a good documentary you might get some good reviews, but you might not get a commission for the next six to eight months. Our responsibility now is that if we’ve got five returning daytime series we have to translate them into peak if we can.

We try to say that, 20% of the time, pursue your passions, but 80% of the time you pursue the commissioning editors’ passions.

As a small company, how important is nurturing relationships with broadcasters and commissioning editors?

Absolutely vital. I can hardly remember a perfect idea that I’ve pitched. Most ideas develop and are benefited by the conversation with the commissioning editors. In development, which is backbreaking and heartbreaking, if you don’t have a pretty good relationship with a commissioning editor, the danger is that you spend your resources on things that haven’t a hope in hell to be commissioned. Quite often you suggest an idea that happens to cross something that they’ve already got in development that you don’t know about. You’ve got to know what they want and try to ensure that what you’re proposing is in that sort of area that they’re looking for. And also you’ll hope that they’ll tip you off if they’ve already got something.

David Smith, MD, Matchlight [Glasgow]

Your company arose to fill a need for indigenous Scottish factual programming…

[The] Scottish Broadcasting Commission took a look at how Scotland was being served by the UK’s public broadcasting networks and discovered that we’re providing 8.8 or 8.9% of the population as license fee payers. But in terms of network TV production, very little of it was coming out of Scotland; I think roughly 3% of the BBC’s original programming commissions and something like 2% from Channel 4. [The report, Platform for Success, recommended that Channel 4 should have a mandatory target for production from Scotland of 8.6%, and the BBC should secure 8.6% of network television production from Scotland by 2012]. If this happens, this will see an increase in production spend in Scotland of something around the order of £40-50 million per annum.

Even though the UK and the entire world is in the grips of a recession and advertising and production spend is going down, there has to be, for political reasons, an increase in spend in Scotland.

With all of that said, we’d already decided that we wanted to set up; we thought there was a gap in the market in terms of quality factual productions within Scotland. This is effectively just good timing for us, whereas everything else is bad timing for the rest of the broadcast sector in terms of the economy going down the tubes.

We went to DCD Media, with whom we’d had connections in the past, and set out to explain what we wanted to do and they agreed. If you can get them behind your business plan, at this point in the economic cycle when everything does look so bad, you’ve got to have done something right.

Matchlight formed just months ago. As a brand new company, how have you been faring?

We’ve got our first commission, a single one-hour commission for Channel 4′s new religious strand ‘Revelations,’ which is called The Exhumer. We are in the final stages of discussions with the BBC for a six-part series commission. We’re doing okay. Russell Leven and Andrew Abbott [ex-Nobles Gate] started the development slate rolling from January, a couple of months before we effectively joined Matchlight with DCD. They had a good relationship with a number of commissioners across the BBC and Channel 4. We’ve managed to take advantage of that to hit the ground running.

How has Matchlight been received so far?

Incredibly positively. For a long time, the problem with commissioning from Scotland has been the question of who would you commission from. Who has the track record of delivering over a persistent number of times? There are really only about a few companies that can do that in Scotland… We immediately answer all of those questions positively.

What challenges are you encountering presently?

I think it’s a difficult environment right now, but we’re ahead of our business plan in where we wanted to be. Our aim was to make 14 hours of TV by the end of the first year and we anticipated no commissions in the first three or four months, [but] we’ve already got two commissions off the bat. Our aim is still to make 14 hours of TV within the first year but we’re ahead of where we expected to be.

Jim Berger, CEO, High Noon Entertainment [Denver/Los Angeles]

How is High Noon faring during this recession?

We’re actually faring quite well, and we restructured prior to the recession so that now we are finding success. We still continue to be a top supplier for the Food Network, Home & Garden Television, as well as Discovery and TLC. But the big news for us is that we’re diversifying beyond that with our relationships with VH1, WE tv and a few others, and we’re pretty excited about that.

So what challenges are you facing, notwithstanding the downturn?

I think our biggest challenge is to continue to be the production company that can find the best new breakout talent, either in America or in the world, to create the formats that work around those people and to get them to market quickly. We’re out there looking for the next big hit and the next big talent in the reality world, or the next format that’s super-successful overseas.

How has your business model changed over High Noon’s 13 years as a prodco?

[For] the first seven or eight years, we did a lot of service programming for networks like Food Network, HGTV, Discovery – channels that had an insatiable need for programming as they were growing and maturing. What’s changed the most is the pitching process; when you pitch a show now, you have to have a tape to pitch it with, and ideally, you have to have your talent in the room with you.

How has the landscape of reality TV changed over the last decade or so, and where do you see it going in the next few years?

I think the reality television landscape has really changed a lot in the last two years. I think there’s a broader range of formats that are being created and developed. Viewers are more literate to reality television; they’re more open and embracing of new worlds and new talent… I think we’re entering a world that’s very different from what we’ve seen in the last eight years. You’ll probably see a lot less ‘mean-spirited’ programming, and maybe a little more aspiration-based programming. Transformational shows, I think, are going to be on the top of everybody’s radar over the next period of years, like our shows Tough Love, where the women go through [dating] boot camp or I Want to Save Your Life, where we take somebody who’s morbidly obese and get them to lose weight. With these kinds of shows the viewer can actually see people move emotionally from one place to another.

Are you looking for more coproductions?

That’s part of our next phase: for the first period we were in business it was all work-for-hire, and now we want to have high profile shows, and large-scale projects. Tough Love was our first effort [with Drew Barrymore's Flower Films for VH1], and with I Want to Save Your Life we control the rights and we’re talking to distributors.

Why did High Noon make the move to diversify?

Primarily survival. We recognize that you’ve got to reinvent yourself. In our industry you can’t be pigeon-holed in one sector or category. So we recognize that we’ve got to get into business with a variety of networks and we have the ability to compete with a wider range of formats and shows. We have to become one of the A-list production companies in over a year or two with a high-profile portfolio of shows, and become a production company that has the range to be producing for eight [to] 10 networks. Right now, we’re producing for eight.

How important is it to be prolific in this market?

I think it’s critical. You take a new format that you work on, and that translates into helping out on other new formats. Your ability as a producer to be strong in multiple formats only makes your next show better because you’re going to eventually tweak and create new formats yourself.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.