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Realscreen London: Can the “true indie” survive the consolidation craze?

A "Controlling Stakes, Creativity & Commissions" panel at the second annual Realscreen London brought together executives from across the UK production spectrum to discuss how the surge in acquisitions has impacted commissioning and creativity, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of consolidation.
October 4, 2015

A “Controlling Stakes, Creativity & Commissions” panel at the second annual Realscreen London brought together executives from across the UK production spectrum to discuss how the surge in production company acquisitions has impacted commissioning and creativity, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of consolidation.

Despite what Danny Fenton, CEO of Zig Zag Productions, calls “crisis” situations in the industry both in the U.S. and across the pond in the UK, with American networks reappraising their programming strategies and UK PSBs experiencing a range of challenges, he believes that there isn’t a better time than the present to be an indie. He pointed to a recent Pact study that found more than 100 new independent production companies have been formed within the UK over the last two years.

“The fact that there are 100 new companies formed over the last two years, to me, states that the industry is healthy,” he explained to a room full of delegates on Thursday (October 1). “Broadcasters do look for indies and new companies to freshen up the marketplace and as a true indie, I’m quite excited about the opportunities in the marketplace.”

When asked whether or not All3Media’s working relationship has seen any change following Discovery Communications’ and Liberty Global’s May 2014 acquisition of the UK production and distribution super indie, CEO Jane Turton acknowledged that one of the main benefits of the deal is brand leverage, noting that the majority of the company’s growth is currently coming from outside of the UK.

Regardless of size and status, however, both Turton and Fenton agree that broadcasters will continue to commission original series based on merit rather than association – particularly a commercial broadcaster, for whom popular commissions drive audience ratings.

“I really do believe that you rely on the integrity of the commissioning editor who’s got every incentive to commission the best program,” Turton said.

Having co-founded an indie in Darlow Smithson Productions that would ultimately be acquired not once but twice, and despite feeling every road bump along the way and flying without the support of a giant company as an once-again-indie producer, moderator and creative director of Arrow Media John Smithson noted that having to rely on “your own wits to survive” is a very healthy situation in which to run an indie company as it drives creativity.

“It’s a big deal selling your company, and often you’re tied in for three or five years and you go through a lot of paperwork and due diligence – it’s a really stupid thing to do if you’ve got any doubts at all,” Smithson cautioned, pointing to Zig Zag’s split from Paris-based Banijay Entertainment in 2010 months after being acquired by the group.

Fenton said regardless of whether a purchasing company takes a majority or minority stake within the company, if there is a shareholder keen on expressing their interests, those interests will be communicated.

When Banijay secured Zig Zag, there was an agenda, Fenton says, to create a global hit within the next five years, which all but stifled any opportunities to develop one-off documentaries.

“You do have to sign up to creative policy with the people who are your investors. If you’re 100% independent as we [currently] are, we do enough high-wire acts without the safety net but it’s exhilarating and that’s what we choose to do.”

“I would actually turn on its head the thing you said, that [consolidation] stifles creativity,” Turton argued. “I think it’s the opposite; I think it insulates people from that terrifying thing which is waking up at 3 a.m. thinking that you may be going bust and actually helping them be a bit bolder, faster – it’s easy to be fast if you have cash.”

The session also featured Discovery Networks International exec VP and CCO Phil Craig and Channel 4′s head of Growth Fund Laura Franses. For his part, Craig maintained that a good idea can come from anywhere, regardless of indie or acquired status, while Franses noted that new indies that she talks with via her position with the C4 Growth Fund are far more commercially savvy than they would’ve been the pre-consolidation era.

(Pictured: Danny Fenton of Zig Zag Productions, left, and John Smithson of Arrow Media, right. Photo by Daniele Alcinii)

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.

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