Tapping Into Ancillary Markets

Bill Larkin, director of administration & business affairs for ABC/Kane, has yet to see any revenue from a CD-ROM effort that hit the shelves three years ago. Would he do it all again? In a heartbeat......
March 1, 2000

Bill Larkin, director of administration & business affairs for ABC/Kane, has yet to see any revenue from a CD-ROM effort that hit the shelves three years ago. Would he do it all again? In a heartbeat…

‘You sell the programs, you get broadcast licenses, you sell them in home video and then you sit back and say, is that all that there is? CD-ROMs provide another outlet in which you can [potentially] make money,’ reasons Larkin. In the case of the CD-ROM called Wide World of Animals, the Washington, D.C.-based prodco was never out of pocket for the endeavor. The project was commissioned by multimedia company Creative Wonders (since taken over by The Learning Company), which covered production costs and a producer’s fee, in addition to making ABC/Kane a revenue partner.

Because the project was not tied to any one program, ABC/Kane was able to use previously shot footage from its archive, which kept overall production costs down to about US$100,000, Larkin says. ‘Using our stock footage library, we were able to create little movies, streaming video of one-and-a-half to two-minute clips of animal behavior, based on the particular topic that they wanted to put in the CD-ROM.’ While the returns have been neither immediate nor immense, Larkin has no regrets. ‘It’s another way of making money off of a library. It’s almost found money.’

Larkin’s take on ancillary markets isn’t necessarily the norm. Based on results from the RealScreen survey, only 23% of respondents said they had adapted their programs for multimedia, and only 20% have developed accompanying print material.

Wildlife producer Mario Benassi, of Pueblo, U.S.-based Wildside Productions, says he would love to develop ancillary products, like books or CD-ROMs, but feels he would need to find a partner to help him. ‘When you run your own business and you’re actually writing, researching, figuring out how to get each scene, interviewing, etc., that’s really a lot for one person to take on. I think people who have a larger staff would probably be able to pursue some of the ancillary things. But I don’t think even they are really tapping into them.’

What doc-makers may not realize is that planning ahead, rather than staffing, is the key to exploiting ancillary opportunities. John Aherne, associate editor of New York-based Warner Books, says that in his opinion, timing is the most important aspect of developing a companion book. ‘Very often we’re approached by filmmakers and movie studios, for example, in January for a movie that’s coming out in April. That’s not enough time for us to develop and market the book successfully. We really need about a year’s notice for us to properly conceive, write and sell it into book stores, so that the book and the documentary come out at the same time.’

Last year, Warner Books developed a companion book for the PBS special Reason for Hope (about scientist and animal rights activist Jane Goodall), which Aherne says was perfectly coordinated. ‘We were able to work with the production company from the get-go, so our timing was the same. The book made mention of the PBS special, the PBS special made mention of the book. [It] was extremely important and extremely valuable for us – and for them, too.’ Aherne says the book, which came out last fall, spent a week or two on The New York Times bestsellers’ list, ‘I think in large part because we did tie into the PBS special.’

Even for books more reliant on images than text, planning from the outset of the production is essential. ‘You really need to anticipate it from the beginning,’ says Larkin, who is in the process of developing a companion book for The Living Edens series. ‘For instance, if you want to make a coffee-table book, you better have still photos, and if you didn’t have a still photographer on location when you were filming the documentary, you’re not exactly going to send somebody back.’

Aherne also urges producers to give some thought to their book proposals because, like a pitch to a broadcaster, it can make or break a deal. ‘What I would want to see in a proposal is a detailed description of what the doc would be, when they plan to air it, and also the technical questions: what’s the distribution going to be like, what producers’ and/or directors’ companies are associated with it, their time line, and really, what a good proposal can do is convince me that a book deserves to be made about this topic.’

Print material need not be aimed only at the mainstream public. The development of ancillary products, such as study guides, could open the door to the educational market, as well. Elizabeth Sheldon, program acquisitions manager for Princeton, U.S.-based distributor Films for the Humanities & Sciences, says she spends over US$1 million each year acquiring completed docs to sell to educational institutions. ‘We sell the non-theatrical education rights to teachers at the high school, college and university levels, and to libraries.’ Sheldon says they have penetrated 95% of the North American market (grade 10 to university).

While the education market may be smaller overall than the consumer market, the average retail price of a program sold to a high school or college is much higher. ‘Our average retail price is $129. Because of the performance rights, we charge a higher price,’ Sheldon explains. Producers generally receive 20% of royalties, which for a popular ‘evergreen’ title could mean an annual take of $2,000 to $10,000. ‘It does put extra money into their pockets.’

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