There’s no question that the television industry is competitive, and it can be hard for a small prodco to break through the noise and find its niche. In ‘Small Companies, Big Ideas’, realscreen chats with some indie prodcos that have innovated and thrived, showing the unscripted world that sometimes the best things come in small packages.
Below, we chat with Natalka Znak, founder and president of LA and UK-based Znak&Co. As controller of factual entertainment for ITV Studios in London, Znak was behind such hits as Hell’s Kitchen, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and the original Love Island. She went on to become chief creative officer and CEO of Zodiak U.S., before forming her own prodco.
The company, which has struck copro deals with Electus International, T Group Productions and Lucky 8, is preparing for the April 8 premiere of Sky’s upcoming physical competition series, Revolution, coproduced with Group M-owned Motion Content Group. Billed as “a thrill-packed war on wheels,” the series pits 30 competitors – 10 BMX bikers, 10 inline skaters and 10 skateboarders – against each other on a specially designed course.
With your background at larger companies, how do you compare the experience of running your own shop?
You’re right, I’ve come from a background where I’ve worked for big companies and made big shows, as have the rest of my team.
I think there are advantages to being in a smaller company that I run myself, and that’s the creative freedom. I’ve got a unique advantage that buyers both in the UK and the U.S. know that I can produce and deliver big shows. What they get with me and my team is the very personal quality control element. It’s sort of a weird boutique that we can deliver big, but without all the incumbents. I know that’s definitely an advantage because buyers know that we’re not coming with massive overheads to support massive teams. Our budget negotiations are straightforward, and buyers have said they like buying from companies like us because they know they’ll get what they paid for. They know what’s happening and feel very comfortable with what we’re doing and giving us big shows. It’s a great position to be in.
What are some of the challenges that have come along with being an indie?
Well, the difference is that we’re backed by Sky Vision. You can’t do big shows without having some comfort on cash flow. When you’re doing a series like Revolution, you’re paying out millions of pounds and dollars, and there is a certain level of comfort that we have Sky to fall back on.
It’s scary doing big shows. We take big swings, and it can be transformative for the company.
This year we have Revolution going to MIPTV, and we’re going to have a big hub, so it could transform us quite rapidly. We take big risks all the time, and it’s kind of scary because it could constantly make or break us. But I feel like unless you take the risks, you’re not going to make anything. When you start up, you very much live on your nerves and just hope that the strategy pays off.
In past interviews, you’ve chatted a bit about the importance of cross pollination when it comes to UK and U.S. formats. So how important is that to your business strategy today?
It’s absolutely at the heart of my business. I’m based in LA, and I run offices in London and LA. I go back and forth all the time, my teams talk daily, and cross pollination is incredibly important not only for the ideas that we create and auction into both territories, but [is] actually our production model. We can film very big shows in England very cost-effectively. Quite frankly it’s just much cheaper than filming those big studio-based shows in America. The buyers here know that, so we can sell and set up something and shoot it in the UK. It’s more than a cross pollination of ideas, it’s now about production.
We say we’re a small company, but it’s based on years of experience, and that’s really what people are buying — the experience of me and my team being able to pull off these big shows and using this experience in an international way.
We’ve talked a bit about Revolution, which you’ll be bringing to MIP this year — what’s the status of that series?
The first series is about to air on Sky on April 8, and then we will be rolling out at MIP. There will be a big launch at the market there. We’ve done a big version for Fox.
We’ve had stuff at MIP before, but this is our first big rollout of the format. We’re excited about it.
And what was the genesis for that series?
We know from experience that all big formats take a couple years to develop. We’d been working on this for over two years, and then it was sold to Sky and to Fox. Even after, we spent a lot of time on further development. So I think experience in the format world, to get something right, takes a lot of work. We’ve been going two or three years now, and we’ve been laying the groundwork for a number of formats. When we pitch, we don’t just pitch new ideas — we pitch an idea, we pitch how to make it — it’s buyable.
Quite frankly, it was a tough market when we started, but I definitely feel like the market has changed over the past couple of years in our favor.
In what sense?
I feel like people are very interested in formats across the board. Everybody. All the buyers.
Cable buyers were very obsessed with a character-driven focus — well, the conversation is all about formats now which is music to my ears. We’re having lots of very interesting conversations with people we’d never talked to before.
What compelled you to invest so much time, effort and money in Revolution a?
We think Revolution has one of the biggest entertainment sets in the world. It’s high stakes, dangerous — everything that makes you go, ‘Whoa.’
Ideas end up being brilliant because of the dialogue you have with the buyer. I can say categorically that of all the hits in my career, none of them were only because I had a brilliant idea. It’s having the idea and then the creativity and then the backing of whatever network and whatever country you’re in. You work with them, and then it’s how they schedule it, and their creative input. It really hits the creative when that whole thing comes together. You need to have a good working relationship with buyers to make that happen.
(With files from Barry Walsh)