From Small Beginnings to Empires

It was 1980 and Ron Devillier and Brian Donegan were getting restless. Firmly entrenched in key roles at PBS - Devillier as VP of network programming and Donegan as director of program acquisitions - both were eager to take on the...
September 1, 2000

It was 1980 and Ron Devillier and Brian Donegan were getting restless. Firmly entrenched in key roles at PBS – Devillier as VP of network programming and Donegan as director of program acquisitions – both were eager to take on the new challenges the then burgeoning TV market afforded them. When they hit on the idea of starting a distribution company, it seemed the natural culmination of their combined expertise. Hence, Washington, D.C.’s Devillier Donegan Enterprises was born. Neither could predict that 20 years later DDE would be a leading program development and distribution company with multi-million dollar partnerships and hundreds of hours of programming to its credit.

In the beginning…

Admittedly, multi-million dollar deals were the furthest thing from either Devillier or Donegan’s mind as the company tried to establish a solid client base in its early days. With a staff of three, DDE sold only US$103,000 worth of programming in its first year. Donegan admits that in 1980 non-fiction distribution was a hard niche to crack. ‘There weren’t any A&E or Discovery channels around looking for product back then,’ he says. ‘The demand, and hence the finance, for non-fiction material in North America was still slight. That meant the product available for distribution was considerably smaller than it is today.’

After doing some consulting work, a small catalog started to come together, with help from a few clients in the U.S. and Scandinavia. It wasn’t until 1983, however, that DDE’s luck really began to change. The unlikely source? Monty Python. ‘In 1983 we were the first independent American company to distribute the Monty Python series,’ Devillier explains. ‘When they agreed to give us their library to sell in North America it was definitely a feather in our cap.’

Until that point, DDE had primarily made money by selling independent filmmakers’ properties. The next logical step was to start representing the catalogs of larger clients. DDE got its wish when, in 1986, it began representing the substantial library of U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 in North America. More good luck was on the horizon for the company when, in the same year, Los Angeles-based RKO Pictures became interested in buying non-fiction programming. After acquiring the rights to Survival Anglia’s library of some 221 half-hours, along with a string of major BBC documentary miniseries, RKO enlisted DDE to be its prime sub-agent, handling all of the property it was developing and acquiring for its library. Says Devillier of the deals: ‘We started to pick up a lot more international steam because other independents said: ‘These guys must know something,’ and we became a small magnet for independent filmmakers.’

The deal of the century

By the early 1990s not only had DDE become a magnet for independents worldwide, it had also attracted the attention of one of the largest news organizations in America – ABC. ABC had begun to see the value of producing and selling non-fiction to the international market and needed to find a distributor that would help enlarge its international business. When ABC approached DDE in 1994 about heavily investing in the company, it made the distrib an offer it couldn’t – and didn’t – refuse. ABC eventually bought a majority stake in DDE. The result for the distributor was monumental. ‘We were a small but a constant and successful company prior to ABC’s entry into our life,’ Devillier recalls. ‘What the change meant for us, however, was that in the late ’80s we were doing gross sales of, for example, $1 million to $1.5 million. By the mid-’90s – post ABC – that had grown to over $20 million.’ Alongside the new ABC deal was a similarly lucrative one with its corporate cousin, ABC News Productions – whose mandate was to develop projects aimed at cable or PBS.

With so much capital from ABC to play with, Devillier Donegan didn’t waste any time before expanding even further. The expansion saw the company grow from a distributor that sometimes dabbled in project investment to a distributor that could develop and produce material with the indies for whom it had long rallied.

The evolution to distributor/producer/developer was exactly what the company needed, as it was now able to work with independents to create properties that could be sold very quickly in the marketplace. Added to that, ABC was giving DDE a large number of documentary projects to sell. ‘We were getting it from both ends,’ Donegan admits. ‘We were getting a larger supply of property. We were also gaining the capital we needed to develop original product and come up with what we hoped would be a first class non-fiction library.’

Rooting for the underdog

DDE’s new role as champion of independent producers fit the company’s mentality perfectly. Both Devillier and Donegan had a soft spot for producers from their days at PBS, and realized that to really help them you must either pre-sell their product, arrange co-financing or put up the money yourself because, as Donegan puts it, ‘great ideas sometimes die just because of lack of finance.’ The ABC partnership allowed DDE to grow from a pure distributor to an international distributor who could arrange pre-sales and coproduction partners, and ultimately into an investor. The end result was they were able to deficit finance major portions of the budget – and further win over the indie film community as a result.

DDE was also able to establish good terms for producers – a rare quality in a marketplace saturated with broadcasters intent on owning substantial rights for any project they buy. Explains Donegan: ‘If a producer goes to a broadcaster or cable company, [the buyers] may like the idea and may invest in it but the terms for the producer may not be ideal.’ With ABC’s support, DDE was able to establish what it thought was a fair, more producer-friendly premise: even if the distrib raised 100% of the budget, the producer still kept a significant portion of the equity and the copyright. In natural history, producers also owned their outtakes. Admits Donegan, ‘Even the best natural history filmmakers found it hard to get those terms out of the folks who buy the most natural history, such as Discovery and National Geographic.’

Does the company worry about alienating the broadcast community while trying to keep producers happy? Not really. ‘We’re partners with producers, but if we do our job right, all parties – i.e. ourselves, the producer and the broadcaster – feel it’s been a great relationship, and are well served,’ Donegan explains.

The return to public TV

It was that balance that led DDE to another significant partnership in 1996, when it signed a multi-year deal with PBS, expected to yield more than $50 million worth of programming. This came hot on the heels of a merger between ABC and Disney, which turned DDE into an even bigger capital source – a fact that PBS was quick to recognize. Says Devillier: ‘For all our knowledge in public broadcasting and experience with public broadcasting, we didn’t do very much with the network until 1996, after ABC. What finally tipped the balance was the fact that we had significant capital to invest in original production with them as joint partners.’ He adds, ‘The alliance between Disney and ABC definitely enhanced PBS’ ability to exploit its own projects in the international market.’

The DDE/PBS partnership has been, by all accounts, a huge success. Not only did it produce the highly acclaimed The Living Edens (24 x 60-minutes, produced by ABC/Kane Productions International in association with Trebitsch Produktion International), it also led to such successful series as Mysteries of Deep Space (3 x 60-minutes, Engel Brothers Media and Thomas Lucas Productions), Life Beyond Earth (2 x 60-minutes, kcts Seattle) and Voyage to the Milky Way (2 x 60-minutes, Thomas Lucas Productions). Says Donegan of the partnership: ‘Our ability to work with PBS and make programs that are distinctive is a delight.’ He adds, ‘It’s great because we’re not grinding any wheels or being slaves to any demographic group.’

The next big thing

The PBS/DDE partnership has also resulted in two very anticipated high-budget projects, which are currently in various stages of development and production. The first, Empires, is a collection of series that explore the essence of a particular empire through the people and passions that lived within it. Seven are commissioned with another three in development. Each runs as three to four one-hours with a budget of between $550,000 to $775,000 per hour. Projects include The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (Atlantic Productions), Napoleon (David Grubin Productions), Islam: Empire of Faith (Gardner Films – see sidebar, page 63), The Roman Empire (Goldfarb and Koval Productions), Egypt (Lion TV), The British Empire (Brook Lapping), and The Kingdom of David (Oregon Public Broadcasting). The Greeks, the only series to air so far, did so in February on PBS. It garnered the network an audience 60% larger than their normal primetime rating, a measure of success that bodes well for the rest of the Empires series. The project was also recently sold to the BBC, RAI in Italy and Japan’s NHK.

With the second big project, Triumph of Life, DDE again hopes to engage and attract both audiences and broadcasters worldwide. Coming in at $700,000-plus per hour, the 6 x 60-minute series is a follow-up to the 1978 Sir David Attenborough series for the bbc called Life on Earth, and according to Devillier, explores ‘evolution like you’ve never seen it.’ Produced by the U.K.’s Green Umbrella, the idea for the series came out of a meeting four years ago in Bristol between Donegan and Peter Jones, Green Umbrella’s executive producer. It will be finished this year.

The subject matters and high budgets associated with both projects confirmed what many people already knew: that DDE takes risks when it comes to many projects it develops. The fact that DDE had six Empires in production before one was delivered to a buyer, and 18 hours in production before it had any reaction from the market, speaks volumes about DDE’s ability to not only convince broadcasters of a project’s merit, but to stay ahead of the game when anticipating audience need – a fact Devillier readily admits. ‘Yes, we have taken on some risks,’ he says. ‘Empires was a risk. People told us we couldn’t do pre-photographic history and that it would look like a classroom. We believe, though, that if you’re going to do something that makes a mark, there’s always going to be risk associated with it because it’s an area that people have stayed away from.’ Greg Diefenbach, vice president of program development at DDE, agrees and says the fact that the company works with high profile producers is a key asset when it comes to attracting broadcasters to high budget projects. ‘You don’t come to the table with a project as ambitious as Empires without being linked with the top talent,’ Diefenbach explains. ‘Because DDE is able to build coalitions and structure financial deals that are attractive, it’s easier to attract broadcasters to the projects we want to do.’

Donegan sees risk as an inherent part of any production, whether at DDE or elsewhere. ‘There are great institutions out there: the BBC, Survival and Partridge among them,’ he says. ‘And when you get right down to it, they are a bunch of risk-takers themselves. It doesn’t really matter if you’re at Devillier Donegan or the head of natural history in Bristol, you’re going to be taking risks if you’re doing special things.’

Keeping it in the family

The producers DDE work with also appreciate the risks the distributor is willing to take. Producer Howard Hall, who worked with Devillier and Donegan in the mid-1990s on Secrets of the Ocean Realm (5 x 60 minutes), a PBS, DDE and Canal+ coproduction, says of working with the distrib: ‘There are all kinds of pitfalls you usually get into when you work with executive producers. Lots of times they have their own agenda and want to put their trademark on the film. You don’t get any of that from Devillier Donegan. You get support. They’re there to help and to make the best possible show they can.’

‘They are really unique in the business,’ adds Rob Gardner, producer of the Empires series on Islam and a longtime friend. ‘They take a position relating to producers that has more humanity and provides more professional dignity than any other company in the industry right now. They’re a business, of course, and a serious and successful one, but they’re really tremendous to work with.’

As for Devillier and Donegan (who cite film clip sales, book publishing and web ventures as possible future avenues for the company), they are confident DDE will continue to grow and expand. They are also confident about the strength of their enduring partnership. As Donegan puts it: ‘We have a high regard for each other’s strengths. I think Ron’s energy level and ability to charge in and take a risk has been a very strong component of the business. There’s no territorial bounds and I think it works beautifully for us. It’s been as frictionless as any partnership you could imagine.’


Case Study: Islam: Empire of Faith

Islam: Empire of Faith is a 3 x 60-minute look at the first 1,000 years of Islam – from the birth of the Muslim prophet Muhammad to the rise of the Ottoman Empire. It is the brainchild of Emmy award-winning director/producer Rob Gardner and it is a project that, because of its unique subject matter and locations, provided a challenge for all involved.

For Gardner, who spent 45 days shooting in Iran as well as various other exotic locales – including Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Spain, Israel, Turkey and the u.s. – the project was a mammoth undertaking. Due to his tenacity and well-placed affiliation with Iranian film company Hedayat Films, Gardner has the distinction of becoming the first American filmmaker allowed to work in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. He credits DDE as being a driving force behind the enthusiasm for the challenging venture: ‘Americans don’t know much about Islam’s history and how intertwined the two civilizations are. DDE was very interested in that. They were very supportive. One of the things that’s great about working with them is they really put a lot of trust in the producer.’

Greg Diefenbach, VP of program development at DDE, was involved in the development of the series early on – from helping to craft the three-hour project to refining the script to mapping out key aspects of the series’ elaborate re-creations. He says Gardner was the perfect choice for the difficult shoot – which required 150 local extras and 300 costumes, among other miracles, for some of the more detailed shooting. ‘Islam was the perfect subject matter for Rob because he’s done a lot of work in the Middle East. Rob was able to partner with sophisticated feature film crews in Iran who’d been very isolated from the American film production community for the last 20 years. Because of that, he was able to bring feature film resources to bear on the documentary.’ Islam: Empire of Faith is expected to air on PBS this fall.


Life Before DDE

Ron Devillier started his career at KERA-TV in Dallas, where he served as a reporter on Newsroom before being promoted to program manager and then to VP of programming and productions. While there, he exec produced an Election Specials series that won a Columbia Dupont Journalism Award. In 1977, he was named vice president of network programming at PBS. Devillier is also a member of the board for the International Documentary Association (IDA), the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and the International Council of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Brian Donegan began his broadcasting career in 1969 at WTTW in Chicago, where he produced several award-winning programs. Thanks to his programming style, WTTW became the most watched public TV station in the U.S. From 1978-1980, he was director of program acquisitions at PBS, where he was the executive-in-charge of numerous specials, including biographies of Louis Armstrong and gala celebrations of opera and ballet from the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Centre. Donegan also serves on the board of trustees of the IDA.

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