Home Video Distribution: Aftermarket takes a front seat

New York: As interest in non-fiction programming continues to grow, a greater collaborative effort is being undertaken to sate the corresponding appetite of international and domestic broadcasters. To ensure that the necessary dollars are available to complete the projects, more partners...
September 1, 1997

New York: As interest in non-fiction programming continues to grow, a greater collaborative effort is being undertaken to sate the corresponding appetite of international and domestic broadcasters. To ensure that the necessary dollars are available to complete the projects, more partners are being brought to the table earlier in the development process.

Producers have been seeking video partners to get advances to finalize budgets, to tap into their marketing and distribution skills, and to ensure that their product will reach end users in some form.

As video distributors move from being work-for-hire companies into genuine coproducers, they have taken a more vested interest in the equity of the production.

‘We’re looking at projects earlier,’ says Richard Lorber, president and CEO of Fox-Lorber. ‘We help shape the project and assist in the financing, but we’re not creating them.’

‘You have to acknowledge that everything you do has a hub which is the intellectual property, and then you explore as many spokes as possible and take off in as many directions as possible so that it has as many distribution venues as possible,’ says Phyllis Geller, senior VP of cultural programming at WETA, one of the biggest producers of public TV programming.

Home video, international distribution, book publishing and Websites are among the spokes that both commercial and non-profit producers are tapping into to bring on more partners to maximize exposure of their programs.

Lorber pegs potential revenue from non-broadcast sources and spin-offs at anywhere from 10% to 50%, adding that video is far ahead in terms of other ancillary products: ‘It will probably be a long time before any of these other areas catch up with home video.’

Fox-Lorber, which has a solid reputation distributing documentary and special-interest programming worldwide, recently launched a home video label, WinStar Home Entertainment.

The addition of a home video label ensures producers that even if a program concept is not picked up by a network like Discovery or a&e, Fox-Lorber may put its money behind it, if it believes that it merits value as a home video release. ‘That adds another dimension of value for the producers,’ says Lorber.

Lorber says that on a worldwide basis, home video distributors have been supplying 10% to 20% of projects’ budgets, and confirms that those figures are on the rise thanks to expanded consumer appetite for collecting special-interest videos.

With more networks producing programming internally and retaining all rights, companies like New York-based distributor Tapestry International Ltd. believe they have to move into a coproducer role to guarantee a continued pipeline of product to sell. ‘We’ve made an effort to solicit producers even at the one-page idea stage,’ says Nancy Walzog, president, Tapestry International.

Companies such as Tapestry and Fox-Lorber may be more active partners in the development stage than previously, but their contribution is less on the creative end of the project and more on applying their marketing know-how to make sure the end product can be used in a variety of distribution outlets. This means they may exert influence in such program elements as length, the use of on- or off-camera narrators, and pacing, which may be different for different markets.

‘We bring the voice of reason and reality to the table,’ Walzog says. ‘We have a sense of history of what sells, what doesn’t, and what else is out there that may be competitive.’

In other words, they’re putting up money so they want to make sure they can sell the product. That often results in turning down projects. Lorber says that if he is approached by a producer with a six-figure per-episode budget but with little presell, he will most likely pass because the amount of money Fox-Lorber can commit as an advance to home video or international would not be enough to kick start production.

Tapestry will turn away from documentaries that don’t fit into prescribed one-hour slots. ‘It might win an Oscar at 90 minutes, it might be committing artistic suicide to cut it down to an hour, but the fact is probably 70% of the broadcasters on the planet only have one-hour documentary slots,’ says Walzog.

Expansion of the interest in non-fiction programming coupled with new cable and satellite delivery systems globally has created a mini-boom in the genre. Lorber believes that docs will continue to have strong growth domestically and internationally because they are the type of programming that can be produced locally. ‘To a certain extent on the international side, we’re finding more competition, but that almost becomes an invitation to coproduction,’ he says.

One problem Lorber has encountered selling internationally is that too many producers are unrealistic about what the rest of the world wants to watch. He sees many projects that copy what he terms as ‘Discovery Channel docutainment,’ which may work in the U.S., but is opposite of what European broadcasters want.

The result is that many projects sit around half-financed with no real chance of recouping the original investment.

‘The kind of documentary that tells a story and involves reenactment and really drives entertainment value as much as it can is almost anathema to the traditional European-style documentary,’ says Lorber.

The changing environment of public television has forced producers like Boston’s WGBH and Washington D.C.’s WETA to incorporate home video as a piece in their respective financial packaging jigsaw production puzzles. WGBH will license out video rights for an advance if it is involved in a production with high commercial value, but the company, as policy, refuses to let marketing alter editorial content.

‘We never tell producers how to make something that we could sell more of,’ says David Bernstein, director of communications marketing, WGBH.

What WGBH has done is taken popular series such as Antiques Roadshow and recut and repackaged segments from the series in a way that works for the home video market.

The future technical capabilities that the Internet holds loom as an exciting new distribution outlet. Questions such as how programming distributed off the Net can become revenue producing are still to be answered.

Tapestry’s Walzog envisions a ‘virtual video store’ that will serve as a pay-per-view outlet for her company’s niche product. ‘We need to stay on top of technology and look for ways to exploit it and cultivate an audience,’ she says.

As the demand for non-fiction programming continues to grow, all parties involved in producing and distributing product are looking for ways to mesh their respective strengths to formulate strategies before programs get produced. That involves video distributors helping producers find other coproduction partners, end-user markets or even locating production facilities.

‘What makes documentaries special is artistic vision,’ concludes Walzog. ‘You hope you don’t lose that. On the other hand, why produce something that nobody is going to watch?’

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