Programming Profile: Storyville open to new voices

Come October, the BBC's Fine Cut documentary slot is history. In its place will be Storyville, commissioning editor Nick Fraser's 'more welcoming' strand and a manifestation of the public broadcaster's desire to become more accessible to indie producers....
September 1, 1997

Come October, the BBC’s Fine Cut documentary slot is history. In its place will be Storyville, commissioning editor Nick Fraser’s ‘more welcoming’ strand and a manifestation of the public broadcaster’s desire to become more accessible to indie producers.

Having separated itself into BBC Production and BBC Broadcast – with the production entity concerning itself only with in-house production – the pubcaster is hoping the broadcast section will emerge as a more indie-friendly environment.

‘It was a mess before,’ says Fraser. ‘The independents were an afterthought in comparison to the BBC’s own programs. You’d find people commissioning stuff from independents who were actually looking after bbc staff inside the BBC. There was conflict going on there the whole time. The idea of BBC Broadcast is that there be a group dealing with independents who have evolved some clear expertise in dealing with them.’

It was also a spirit of openness, says Fraser, which inspired the change from Fine Cut to Storyville. In addition to Fine Cut’s general perception as strictly a best-of-the-world strand, Fraser felt the name had to go: ‘I did polls on people under 35 and the name either left them indifferent or provoked hostility.’

Fraser, who previously worked at Channel 4 after eight years as an independent producer, says Storyville’s programming strategy will have more room for work from unknown filmmakers. Using a mixture of coproduction, purchasing and prepurchasing, he’ll also be combing more international territories: ‘I’ll use the new strand to do all of these things selectively all over the world.’

In terms of what’s in his billfold, Fraser calls the money ‘alright.’ He says his maximum contribution to a project in which Storyville would have part ownership is £200,000. He’d bottom out at £20,000 to £30,000 for a strict acquisition.

‘It’s not impossible, but it would be very difficult for me to pay for something 100%. I think in desperation we could partly fund something with another broadcaster, as in putting in £150,000-plus, with the filmmaker or distributor making up the rest of the cash. It doesn’t necessarily mean I can suddenly write a cheque for a large, expensive international documentary.’

Fraser believes that doc projects which tip the US$500,000 mark are becoming harder to finance, at least in Europe. ‘In Europe, where three broadcasters might put in £100,000 each making up theUS$500,000, that’s about as far as you can take it usually.’

Storyville fare, says Fraser, is likely to have a strong narrative and powerful characters. He intends to steer clear from essay pieces and has a personal bias against ‘boy’s films’ on topics like war and transport: ‘I have a special loathing for police docs.’

On the whole, Fraser isn’t seeing enough European projects that can compare in terms of accessibility to American films like Hoop Dreams or Crumb.

While he doesn’t think it’s completely necessary for a foreign producer to have a partnership with a u.U.K. producer for entree to the BBC, he does suggest that all projects be tailored with a close eye on the bbc’s parameters. He also suggests that producers have some interest from other broadcasters before attempting any deal-cutting with the bbc. ‘I like to be in a position to look at rushes and say, ‘Looks good, here’s some more money.”

There are five programs already on Storyville’s docket for autumn 1997/winter 1998 – two coproductions and three purchases, a ratio which is expected to shift more towards coproduction as the strand matures.

Despite calling England ‘the toughest documentary market in the world,’ Fraser is expecting decent audience numbers for Storyville. ‘Even with Fine Cut the ratings weren’t disastrous. To bring in a million viewers plus for a film like The Gate of Heavenly Peace is not doing badly.’

Storyville will be able to accommodate longer pieces by scheduling two- and three-parters in combination with shorts. Content ranges significantly – Werner Hertzog’s film Little Dieter Wants to Fly is programmed alongside Nick Broomfield’s examination of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Also scheduled are: Paradise Lost, a 2 1/2 hour hbo film about an Arkansas crime spree; Wednesday, a ‘tough film’ in which the filmmaker found all the people born on his birthday in St. Petersburg in 1961; Nobody’s Business by Allan Berliner; and Dana Ranga’s East Side Story.

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