As the screen entertainment industry gears up for another MIPCOM market in October, Sky Vision’s director of entertainment and factual, Barnaby Shingleton, shares with realscreen his thoughts on how the distribution business has evolved, why it had to, and what that means for the producer/distributor relationship.
When I started my career in distribution way back in the last century I sometimes felt that I was working in the grubby back office of the TV business. Although I traveled the world and enjoyed amazing experiences, I couldn’t help feeling that distributors were viewed by many in the industry as the kind of sales dolly you might encounter extolling the virtues of comfy slippers on QVC. A necessary, but slightly embarrassing, side of TV to which producers would reluctantly turn their attention every April and October.
In the ’90s and ’00s, distributors played a much more passive role, and were the grateful recipients of programs, over which they had no influence, bestowed upon them by their parent broadcaster or production group. “Can you sell it?” was the extent of many producers’ interest in distribution.
But things have definitely changed. Over the past 10 years, I have seen a remarkable shift in the role of distributors in the global TV ecosystem. Now, companies like Sky Vision are taking a much more active approach to programming; and have a deeper engagement in development and program financing. Indeed, Sky Vision was a distributor first, before investing in production companies like Love Productions and Jupiter Entertainment.
So far from being the people you hand your show to at the end of production to earn a few extra dollars, distributors are increasingly at the center of a complex set of production and finance relationships, and frequently hold the keys to production itself. Moreover, we’re generally well suited to our role. We are in our DNA enablers and entrepreneurs; optimistic individuals seeking out opportunities and managing far reaching relationships to get programs in front of global audiences. As well as having a keen eye for great shows, we also have the sort of business acumen that is necessary to handle the complexities of modern TV production. In a world where budgets and rights are being squeezed, and television producers and creators are seeking new ways to maintain margins and profits, it is to distributors that they turn for imaginative solutions, and the funds, to realize their ambitions.
Increasingly, distributors are there at the very conception of a TV show; funding development and supporting teams to create valuable ideas. For many years, distributors have enjoyed output deals with producers and broadcasters, paying advances against distribution rights. But increasingly, we are being asked to support individual projects from development through to delivery, which means taking significant financial risk. Clearly we can’t do this unless we have meaningful input into the creative; not to muscle in on the producer or broadcaster’s creative stakes, but more to ensure ongoing value in the project for both us and the content creator. It would be a foolhardy producer who invested their money in a pilot without first consulting a distributor as to its international value, or broadcaster greenlighting a drama without meaningfully engaging their sales agents.
Thus, far from waiting for great TV to land on our laps, we distributors are now commissioning our own shows. TCB Media Rights recently hired an editor to manage their in-house commissions, and Sky Vision will be launching its first fully-funded entertainment series in September. Banijay just launched a travel doc series with Ray Winstone with no commissioning broadcaster.
We can do these things because we have a clear understanding of value, the relationships to mitigate the risks, and the funds to start the project in the first place. And soon we may not even need broadcasters to reach viewers; new OTT platforms are springing up all the time, and it’s not such a stretch to imagine distributors going “over the top” themselves. And unlike some parts of the television business, distributors are not fazed by the rise of new platforms and changes in technology; we embrace them. Over the last 20 years I’ve seen dot.com bubbles grow and burst, recessions and downturns, currency devaluations and coups. But the fundamentals of distribution remain; it’s the business of making programs created in one part of the world available to viewers in another part of the world. And monetizing that cultural exchange.
There has never been a more exciting time to work in distribution. We’ve emerged from the TV wilderness into sophisticated companies that sit at the very heart of global media businesses. The modern distribution company executive has the agility to weather the ebb and flow of the global economy, and the business acumen to manage the seemingly constant shifts in the TV market – all of which is a very long way from comfy slippers and QVC.