Building a Format Business the “Stringer” Bell Way

What does the competitive world of formats have in common with the mean streets of Baltimore, as seen in The Wire? In this op-ed, Jago Lee, creative director at London-based Nerd, lets you know.
March 17, 2011

Jago Lee is creative director at London-based production company NERD.

When my partners, John Farrar and Charlie Parsons, and I set up our new production business Nerd last year, we asked ourselves, “How can a start-up company possibly compete in the now mature global format market, dominated as it is by the billion dollar enterprises of Endemol, FremantleMedia, Sony Pictures Television and the like?”

We all shared a passionate belief in the power of good ideas, but we also recognized that these days a good idea on its own is simply not enough to break through. Obsessed as we were at the time by the epic HBO drama series The Wire, we jokingly compared the modern format market with the mean streets of Baltimore – where a wild, bloody and unregulated gang war is waged every day. We analogized our position as new format creators with that of the entrepreneurial gangster character in the drama, Russell “Stringer” Bell. We rapidly realized that the only thing we as pushers of creative ideas could do was try to make sure we had the best product, and scrupulously nurture and protect our “corners,” or routes, to market.

As we were confident in our “corners” (essentially, our relationships with buyers), it was the unique product part that we set out to master, making a virtue of our backgrounds as documentary producers. John and I knew that we could identify exciting and distinctive new characters, worlds and stories, so the trick was to eke out and format their inherent entertainment themes to create propositions of real scale and longevity. Our documentary instincts helped us focus our formats on authenticity of character, emotion and story arc, and luckily for us this seems to be what’s really resonating with audiences right now.

As a business we’ve followed one of “Stringer” Bell’s key rules and kept our noses close to the streets, getting a little beyond the usual carousel of agents, PRs and tabloid leads. We’ve also taken some calculated risks. We did several property option deals – the most interesting of these was with the British Ministry of Defence, giving us exclusive rights overĀ its extraordinary 240 acre Cold War era underground town ‘Burlington,’ which was designed as a refuge for the British government and key support staff (up to 5,000 people) in the event of a nuclear strike on the UK. It’s an amazingly eerie and atmospheric location, containing a whole range of spaces, from a five-ward subterranean hospital through a cavernous canteen, to a two-platform railway station and an expansive freshwater lagoon.

Burlington has required intensive development with a close attention to the detail of the architecture and back story of the space, but nearly nine months on we are now finally starting discussions with broadcasters about an entertainment show that will make full use of all of its attributes. Meanwhile we’ve tried to follow another of Bell’s key business rules: diversify early.

As well as harnessing the format potential of unique real world spaces, we’ve tried to meet as many interesting people with stories to tell as we can, and it’s no surprise to us that our first three pilots are all framed around unique characters (from ex-mafia dons to Hollywood legends), whose expertise and/or life experiences lend them a unique perspective on universal human problems.

The first year of Nerd has been a huge learning curve for us in the rules of engagement in the modern TV market. It is no doubt much harder for the newbie company than the multinational, but it’s also always possible for great ideas to find buyers, especially where your idea is attached to some real world property or talent that you can tie down. You do have to be a bit “gangster” in your mentality at the outset, and have the heart and the head as a producer to stick to your guns. It’s also truer than ever that in TV your ideas are only as good as your relationships, so work those hard if nothing else. As The Wire taught us, “Play or get played.”

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.