Co-productions and international commissioning were center-stage at one of the last panels of the 2019 Edinburgh TV Festival: “Getting the Global Greenlight: Meet the International Commissioners.”
Balancing the need to co-produce high-end programming with the increasing demand for more local content is certainly a tricky proposition, and one that producers and companies have to wrestle with in an industry that increasingly demands co-financing agreements.
Manori Ravindran, editor of Television Business International (TBI) and former Realscreen news editor, chaired the panel, covering a wide range of topics impacting international commissions.
Representing the unscripted world was John Godfrey, head of unscripted at SBS Australia. He spoke alongside Dermot Horan, director of acquisitions and co-productions at RTE; Simone Emmelius, SVP of international fiction, co-production and acquisition at ZDF; Alan Sim, executive producer of scripted at Elisa; and Rick Kalowski, head of comedy at ABC Television.
Navigating the world of copros is not as daunting as one might fear, though the panelists were able to shed light on some of the peculiarities of working across borders.
Not every company’s remit will allow any and all copros. Some broadcasters, like Australia’s pubcasters SBS and ABC, have relatively strict requirements regarding who is actually producing a show. Namely, they make programs by Australians. Co-productions are still absolutely possible, but they need a local element.
“We can’t commission overseas companies. We can only commission Australian companies,” said Godfrey. So, with a program like Look Me in the Eye from CPL Productions, a Red Arrow Studios company, that meant taking a few extra steps. “Red Arrow formed a relationship with an Australian company and that’s how that was produced,” he explained.
The flip side of that coin is that working with SBS can offer a new avenue in a unique market, as with Look Me in the Eye, which wasn’t a sure bet before it was headed to Australia.
“That was an idea that had been rejected by all the UK broadcasters, but that doesn’t bother us at all. Sometimes that can be a good thing, as far as we’re concerned,” said Godfrey. “That’s just an example of the way that you can work with us. We have two formats at the moment that have been rejected by all UK broadcasters, that started conversations at conferences, that we’re actively developing.”
Meanwhile, the panelists agreed that not every project should be a co-production. As Horan noted, some projects are better suited to rights pre-sales, where a broadcaster doesn’t get actively involved at the outset.
“The content is the key,” added Emmelius. “If everyone is convinced it’s going to be a great show, and the will is to do a great show, then you should do it together. But it’s not the will to do a co-production.”
In other words, projects shouldn’t be the product of compromise, where multiple voices are shoehorned in to meet a co-production quota. Commissioners aren’t necessarily looking for that.
That’s not an absolute, however. Godfrey is in fact looking for international co-productions to explore the differing approaches to cultural diversity, in keeping with SBS’ mandate, across borders. He sees potential to broaden the pubcaster’s reach while remaining within his remit.
“I am actively looking for co-production, a co-production between a UK company and an Australian company,” he said.
Asked whether producers should be pitching directly to a local TV company or to a production company first, the panelists agreed there was no one-size-fits-all model.
Prodcos aren’t always ready to move on a project right away, said Horan, in which case a pitch might be for a project that won’t get off the ground for a year or two. “We’d prefer then to be pitched ourselves then and have a choice,” he said.
International sales are thus less of a minefield than they may at first appear. There are limitations on who you can work with an how, but there are also tremendous opportunities to tell global stories, to work with new partners and to get a yes in a territory when you’ve gotten a no in another.