Do good docs only come at a high cost? Does it follow that the more you pay, the better the story? While money allows for added elements like cgi, historical recreations and famous presenters – and helps stretch production time for a director – it doesn’t necessarily buy stories that are well told or executed. More often than not, the story gets lost in a bewildering flow of graphics, words and pictures.
As a former buyer, I was quick to shortlist films that came with a million-dollar tag because of the promise of high production value. But now, as a distributor, commissioning editor and producer, I have taken off my rose-tinted glasses. Coming from Asia, six or seven figures is a whopping sum to pay for a one-hour documentary, especially if you don’t have a supporting network to broadcast it first.
My current search for good, fresh and original HD docs began about nine months ago when our parent company decided to enter the distribution arena of HD docs on Asian topics. We were looking for authentic content that had not been broadcast before, and I discovered: a) there isn’t much around that was produced with the international viewer in mind; and b) there aren’t that many authentic stories from either non-Asian or Asian producers. The combination of these two factors, plus our need for HD, left us with very little choice but to create our own inventory by producing and/or commissioning films that tell compelling stories about Asia that have not been seen before.
This is where it gets interesting. The proposals I’ve seen so far mostly fall into the huge budget bracket. Those that come from production houses are decidedly the most commercialized – the business comes first before the story. You can almost hear the executives talking about how they have to cover their overhead costs first. Those that originate from the independent directors are a lot more story-minded in their intents, but these, too, fall into the same budget range.
Somehow, I can’t help but feel the market is in some kind of gross imbalance, because budgets seem to be made based on the known ability of the commissioning editor to pay, and not on what the value of the production ought to be. My heart warms whenever I get a clear, substantial and focused story proposal with a budget that accurately reflects the production’s value. I know I’ve found that needle in the haystack – someone who understands the role of pictures in shaping a story, who appreciates the need for the written word to complement the visuals, and who can do this without exacting a disproportionately huge fee.
As a producer, I appreciate the hard work and creative input in any production, which is something that should be rewarded fairly. And, as a distributor, we want to share the commercial success. But before that can happen, the makers should perhaps be more realistic in assessing the value they bring to the table.