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Off the Fence: All the right moves

As producer-distributor Off the Fence celebrates its 20th anniversary, realscreen talks to founder and CEO Ellen Windemuth (pictured) about its growth path and guiding philosophies.
October 14, 2014

From the start, Amsterdam headquartered Off the Fence (OTF) was meant to be a different kind of company.

When it began in 1994, there were distribution, production and consulting companies, but OTF was something else. “It needed to be a company that adapted, and learned to provide broadcasters with everything they don’t do,” explains CEO Ellen Windemuth, “either because they don’t want to, don’t have time to, or they can’t.”

Serving broadcasters is the end goal for any content company, says Windemuth. “You have to stay advertiser friendly, and you have to get ratings. You need to move in between the two all the time, and you really need to understand that that’s your reality. You’ve got to satisfy those needs because otherwise the people you work for are going to get fired, and then you’re back to square one.”

It’s that decisiveness that gave the company its name. “Making decisions is paramount in our industry,” she explains. “I would rather have a fast ‘no’ than a two-year ‘maybe.’ I wanted the company name to inspire people that we can handle ‘no,’ but we don’t like dithering.”

What began 20 years ago in an office with only two people – Windemuth and her secretary – has since grown to nearly 100, scaling up to handle production as required. More importantly, perhaps, the company has managed double digit growth every year in the last few years, even in the face of a stalled world economy.

“What they bring is an underlying intelligence to the series they create and they give very good value for money,” says Daniel Korn, SVP and head of programming for Discovery Networks Western Europe. “They provide very decent production values on reasonable, but not over-lavish, budgets. And, partly because Ellen herself has got a good sense of humor, they are able to bring a nice tone to it so that you never feel that you’re undermining the subjects of your documentary. You’re examining them in a warm and inclusive environment.”

“It comes down to how you can best tell the story,” maintains Windemuth. “We make primetime wildlife that is blue chip but has a reality mix, and we make reality shows that are very vérité. We basically start by saying: ‘How can we best tell this story? How can we best tell it using the technology we have available? How can we best tell it using the storytelling tools we have available?”

Obviously, the Off the Fence philosophy has struck a chord.

BUILDING A GLOBAL BRAND
It began by getting to know the industry. “I stayed in constant dialog with my clients all over the world,” says Windemuth. “I went to all the conferences. I talked to everybody. So did the team.”

For its first decade, Off the Fence existed primarily as a natural history and factual concern, successfully distributing titles for production partners but not shying away from getting heavily involved in financing and executive producing in order to make projects happen. Some of the biggest titles in its catalog are natural history and science shows such as Africa’s Outsiders, Monkey Thieves, Sharkman, Super Mole and Chernobyl Reclaimed.

As the company entered its second decade, however, Windemuth saw a need to evolve. Co-financing gave way to dedicated production, wildlife was joined by a much wider array of factual production, and OTF began significant and targeted global expansion.

That involved building what she calls “the best management team in the business.” Through a mutual friend, Windemuth was introduced to Darrel James and brought him in as COO. She says today that James has been “pivotal in the company’s growth and success.”

James had worked in content production and rights exploitation for 30 years, in roles such as MD for Scottish Television Productions, controller of rights and business affairs at ITV and head of acquisitions and coproductions at S4C Wales.

“My first day with the company was a baptism of fire,” recalls James. “I had barely walked through the door before having to draft a deal memo for a major coproduction. It’s been a rollercoaster from day one but I take great pride in what we have achieved creatively, and the fact that we have scaled up the company threefold in both turnover and EBITDA.”

The growth began as OTF opened its first regional office in Bristol in 2006. South Africa and Germany followed the next year, then Singapore, New York and, in June of 2013, Los Angeles. The company also began to acquire catalogs from such companies as the Smithsonian Channel, Voom, WE tv, IFC Films and Fox International Channels.

“Strategically,” explains Windemuth, “we were just mirroring what Discovery and National Geographic were doing as broadcasters. It made sense that if I wanted to supply them with everything that they don’t do themselves, I needed to mirror their structures and I needed to access local talent pools to help them with local programming.

“Each of our regional offices has a very specific production mandate,” she adds. “In the U.S. alone, we work for 11 different broadcasters.” The LA production office, with development spearheaded by Havva Eisenbaum, recently produced Generation Cryo, a critically acclaimed, six-part reality series for MTV about donor-conceived children, and Windemuth says the company is working more in the lifestyle space.

“We produce primetime programming in German for ARTE and ZDF, and have a very loyal base of client broadcasters all over the world,” she adds, giving further evidence of OTF’s geographic and content range.

Lars Bo Stehmeier, managing director of distribution at OTF since 2007, says localization was a critical key to the company’s success, and observes that nearly every regional office was opened on the back of a production deal. “We thought, ‘We’re going to be in that space for a year to deliver this film or series,’” he says. “‘So while we’re there, why don’t we incorporate, put a seller into the production office, and grow from there?’ It was very organic growth.”

It also gave broadcasters confidence that their investments were aiding local infrastructure, and that OTF understood how regional needs and flavors would play into a final cut.

And, as the Off the Fence catalog expanded to incorporate different genres, it could handle bigger assignments from broadcasters. Says Stehmeier: “We’ve recently done big deals in Eastern Africa, Southeastern Europe and Asia, where if you buy 700 hours with 10 repeats, you can set up a pay station or a DTT station and run for two years with just the stock you have acquired from us. That’s a whole new business that is coming to us.”

MAKING THE MONEY WORK
When looking back over the last two decades of business, one of the things Windemuth says she’s most proud of is the fact that Off the Fence has won over 90 awards for its shows, despite often modest budgets. It comes back to the full-service philosophy.

Diversification has given OTF ways to create high quality, accessible content in a financially responsible way – something that was clearly demonstrated during the recent economic turmoil.

“Production companies rely solely on commission work in order to survive,” observes Allison Bean, managing director of OTF Bristol. “But because that’s just a small portion of what we do now, we are never really exposed in the same way most production companies are. So when the commissions start to fall off a bit because there is a world recession, that’s when we look to deficit financing productions that we know have a long shelf life.”

That might mean, for example, that OTF focuses on getting projects like the ‘Wildest’ natural history strand out the door. “They take a couple years to make their money back,” explains Bean, “but they do generate an excellent return. Our infrastructure is a well-oiled machine and we are firm in the way we manage shooting and costs. Therefore we’re never exposed to any kind of catastrophic budget explosion.”

They took a similar approach with the Monkey Thieves series. Though it initially got some funding from the now defunct HD channel service Voom, says Bean, “It was enough to go filming and we knew it would do well in pre-sales. So we made the decision as a company to just go with it. What people in distribution have found is that if a program is already up and running and in production, it is easier to sell because a portion of the risk is already borne by us.”

Sure enough, once commissioning editors saw that the first few shows surpassed expectations, there was a huge demand.

BUILDING THE RIGHT TEAM
In addition to overseeing OTF, Windemuth is on the board of the Wildscreen Trust, the Jackson Hole Film Festival and the Wild Talk festival in South Africa, and sits on the steering committee of the World Science Congress. She was also an important contributor to the advisory board for the inaugural edition of Realscreen London in October.

And while a large part of the respect OTF commands in the industry can be directly traced back to Windemuth’s work in building the operation, a creative company is only as strong as its component parts, and Windemuth points out that the other thing she’s most proud of is her people.

“I think the entire team at Off the Fence probably has two qualities in common: drive and curiosity,” she observes. “And if you put a lot of dynamic, curious people together, you generate a very wide range of successful projects.”

Now head of acquisitions, Georgina Eyre first joined the company in 2007 to cover a maternity leave before returning full-time a few years later.

“I fell in love with the company when I first joined,” she recalls. “It has always been a bit of a lifestyle at Off the Fence. It’s an independent company, and you feel like you’re part of a family even though there are people who work there from all over the world.”

Windemuth’s boots-on-the-ground philosophy definitely extends to her team.

“We travel a lot,” says Eyre. “Not only the acquisitions team, but the sales team as well. I think getting to know your clients on a personal level as well as on a professional level is very important.”

In fact, Eyre’s first day at OTF was spent at MIPCOM. “It is that spirit of, ‘You’re getting into the job so you might as well get in there quickly and start running because this is important,’” she says.

As for Bo Stehmeier’s first day? “I wasn’t even in Amsterdam,” he says. “Ellen flew me straight to New York, and my first meeting was at Animal Planet for 9 a.m. I didn’t even have a business card. I didn’t have login details. And it was 110 degrees.”

Stories such as that clearly demonstrate where the company’s priorities are, and they’ve served it well so far. But what comes next?

“We’re mid-way in our evolution,” sums up Windemuth. “I feel, especially in the last nine years since Allison, Darrel and Bo joined the company, we have really hit our stride. We just need to do more of what we are doing and we will be absolutely fine.
“We are a fully rounded, mature company with strong systems and great people. Bring on the next 20 years.”

SUPERHUMAN ABILITY: OTF’S BRISTOL OFFICE
in 2006, Off the Fence opened its first dedicated production office in Bristol under the direction of Allison Bean, a veteran of ITV and Granada TV’s production divisions. Her mandate was as wide as it was simple: Create a content entity that would complement the success the company had already experienced in coproduction and distribution.

“It was an opportunity for me to create the job I wanted,” recalls Bean. “Who can say no to that? Ellen handed me this great opportunity and has never once ceased to be supportive of every decision I’ve made.”

It was, as Bean describes it, “a blank piece of paper,” which was a bit of a shock for someone who had roamed the byzantine halls of national broadcasters. “It was an extension of what I had already been doing, but all the layers of bureaucracy that had been above me were removed. It meant I could develop what I wanted, for whom I wanted, and therefore it allowed for the aspirations and plans that I had been thinking about for years to really come to fruition.”

The first commission was a Megastructures episode about ice breakers for National Geographic Channel. The natural history series Monkey Thieves followed, and then the pilot for Stan Lee’s Superhumans.

“There wasn’t really one particular thing I focused on,” she recalls. “I just focused on the areas I personally liked – the entertainment side of natural history and the popular science part of the television genre.”

Like others at OTF, Bean was allowed to follow her passions and be led by her instincts rather than a mandate from head office. “I think one of the company’s strengths is that it fosters people who are ambitious and passionate about what they do in a productive way.”

What was the turning point for OTF Bristol? Bean says it was the first season of Stan Lee’s Superhumans, a successful series for History (now airing on sister network H2) about people with special abilities.

“I think the opportunity the History Channel gave us was phenomenal,” she says. “It’s not just another one-off or miniseries. It’s there in the world as a brand and it’s not ever going to vanish or be forgotten.”

“From the beginning, I was always impressed with the look and the pace that OTF imbued [the series] with,” offers Mike Stiller, VP of programming and development for History and H2. “I think it’s a company with a really great visual style, but they are also skilled storytellers. So, the result was a factual program that was equal parts entertaining and informative.”

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