Special Report on London Program Market: As U.K. producers become more inclined to look beyond the Empire for coproduction dollars, it’s inevitable that Americans – with their growing webs of international services – are going to …

CASE STUDY 2: The Fifty Year War from Brook Lapping for BBC and WGBH...
November 1, 1997

CASE STUDY 2: The Fifty Year War from Brook Lapping for BBC and WGBH

During the early 1990s, London-based Brian Lapping Associates (now Brook Lapping, after merging with Brook Associates) produced some of the most remarkable political documentaries of modern times. Meticulously researched series such as The Second Russian Revolution, Watergate and The Death of Yugoslavia have been highly prized scheduling propositions for broadcasters throughout the world.

Brook Lapping’s current project, which has the working title of The Fifty Year War, promises to be just as memorable. Using the formation of Israel on May 14, 1948 as the starting point, it charts the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 6 x 50 minutes. Due for completion by year-end, the series will have taken around two years to produce – typical for a Lapping production.

‘The idea for the series came from Michael Jackson (then controller of BBC2, now chief executive of Channel 4) when we were completing Death of Yugoslavia,’ recalls Lapping. ‘So series producer Norma Percy and I wrote a treatment for him.’

Once the controller had spoken, the key figure from the bbc’s perspective was Paul Hamann, head of documentaries, who stresses that the process of choosing an appropriate subject is long and complex. ‘You don’t just turn up one day and say, ‘Let’s do the Middle East.’ For months during Death of Yugoslavia, I was in constant dialogue with Norma Percy about possible series on Ireland, Italy, the third Russian revolution and the Middle East.’

The cost of Lapping films is always high, meaning that coproduction money is a necessity. The budget for The Fifty Year War runs approximately US$400,000-$500,000 per episode. Lapping admits he is ‘totally incompetent as a money man and needs a coproduction organizer.’ That person is Temple International’s Sue Temple, a specialist in pulling together international finance.

According to Temple, ‘[Lapping] thinks of projects and will ask me if they have international potential. Then we start working on them immediately. Brian will handle the discussions with U.K. broadcasters while I approach broadcasters overseas.’

The key market is the U.S., where Lapping has had repeated success attracting coproduction partners. ‘Our first choice was Discovery in the U.S., because we had made several big series for them previously,’ says Lapping. ‘But they were changing their programming policy and didn’t want Arabs and Israelis.’

Temple, meanwhile, had good links with WGBH’s vp of national programming, Peter McGhee, which led to a commitment from them. ‘It wasn’t too difficult to secure WGBH as a partner,’ says Lapping. ‘PBS already knew us because they had looked at Death of Yugoslavia very closely.’ In due course, Zvi Dor-Ner took up the role of executive producer for WGBH.

While Temple searched for overseas partners, Lapping and Percy negotiated the structure of the series with Hamann who, in turn, appointed Eddie Mirzoeff as series executive producer for the BBC.

Hamann’s confidence in Lapping’s company is built on his experience with Percy, whom he describes as ‘one of the most distinguished documentary filmmakers around. When you run the world’s largest documentary-making unit, you want outstanding British talent like Norma.’

Mirzoeff’s role is to facilitate Percy and monitor the BBC’s investment. ‘Eddie Mirzoeff is a skilled executive producer who provides Norma with the best support she could get, as well as a genuine interest in the subject matter,’ says Hamann. ‘He is closely involved, because with such an expensive exercise we are anxious to get it right.’

With the BBC and WGBH committed to the series, 60-70% of the budget had been raised. ‘The U.S. share of the budget fluctuates in value because of the exchange rate,’ says Temple. ‘When the pound goes from $1.50 to $1.75, it seriously impinges on the cashflow.’ Meanwhile, Temple looked for partnerships in other markets. Next on board was arte of France. ‘The French contribution can often add up to 10% of the budget,’ says Temple.

At this point, with a significant shortfall still to be covered, Lapping had to decide whether to push ahead with production. A key consideration was to complete the series in time for Israel’s 50th anniversary in 1998. ‘We also wanted to make sure we got to all the main protagonists from the 1948-1956 period while they were still alive,’ says Lapping.

‘I work closely with the head of production and the accountant on what the budget is likely to be, how much we need to raise, and then produce a minimum figure below which there is no point in starting,’ says Temple. ‘It’s then up to him whether to cover the deficit because it’s his money.’ In this case, Lapping estimates that production started with a shortfall of £200,000.

From Temple’s perspective, there was little doubt that a piece on the Middle East would recoup its money whereas ‘with The Death of Yugoslavia, people said no one would want it – until it knocked everyone for six.’

Her predictions have proven correct. Broadcasters signed include CBC, NHK, ABC Australia, SVT, NOS, Danmarks Radio, nrk and yle. Many are what Temple calls ‘tried and tested partners.’ With the series well on its way to completion, she also had a ‘lively screening’ at mipcom with buyers from Poland, Australia, Lithuania, Spain, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon and Egypt.

The most unpredictable aspect of costing a Lapping project is how difficult it will be to research and reach the protagonists of the story. ‘We are amazingly mean with travel and accomodation, but extravagant in research,’ says Lapping. ‘Norma doesn’t let any member of the production team do an interview until they know a lot about the subject. Her team talks to historians, scholars and journalists, then goes to the protagonist. We then spend a long time digesting interviews and editing in London.’ The company refuses to take the soft option editorially. ‘It’s easy to get a clever person sitting in a studio to say a lot about what he has read. But we want the real people,’ says Lapping.

Like many of the larger U.K. independents, Lapping is putting increasing effort into retaining rights at the back end of production. ‘When we started in 1990, we nearly always took an advance from the BBC’s commercial arm and put it into the budget,’ says Temple. ‘As we’ve gone on, we try to keep the rights.’ In this case, Lapping retains rights outside the U.K. and U.S.

Creatively, Lapping believes the company has done the subject justice. He says there is a wide range of outstanding archive material which has been gathered for the series by Michael Simkin, ‘and we got rather more amazing stories than I expected.’

Throughout it all, the relationship with his two main partners remained broadly cordial, ‘But it would be wrong to say that the two main partners had identical views on editorial all the way through,’ he admits. ‘They are concerned to get what they want and they take an active interest in proceedings. Inevitably, we have had quite animated meetings with them.’

Hamann also believes that ‘judging by the smell of it, it’s going to be outstanding. And it underlines the BBC’s huge commitment to landmark series.’ He has just received the tapes of the fine cut and will make his comments in the run up to final delivery, ‘though it is extremely unlikely with Norma Percy that I should need to do very much.’


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