Reversioning tips from the pros

A panel with years of reversioning experience shared their tips and observations about this tricky part of the international doc-making biz at Wildscreen last week. Here are some of their thoughts.
October 27, 2008

‘Reversioning used to be a dirty word, but it’s not anymore,’ said indie producer and moderator Amanda Theunissen during the introduction of the Wildscreen masterclass on this delicate art — and necessity — in the international programming world.

Reversioning has become more common, says Madeleine Carter, an executive producer at National Geographic Channel International. Part of the reason is economy-driven, she says, since broadcasters are looking to ‘breath new life into existing material.’

Taking a completed program and using the same material but giving it a different take for the international market isn’t easy, but there are some things producers can do early on to help the process. Having an eye to see if the show has behavioral sequences that can readily be reversioned is a big part of the process, says Carl Hall, MD of Parthenon Entertainment. (He adds that it’s the distribs that often put up the money for the reversioning process so that the producers don’t have to put in more money themselves.)

From the NGCI side, Carter says the basic changes for programs being tailored for NGCI are changing the narrator, adding subtitles, and cutting three minutes out of the material here and there to add commercials. She says NGCI prefers interviews in the interviewee’s native language, but she does recommend producers do interviews twice: in the interviewee’s native language as well as English.

Carter argues it’s not the speed at which a show is cut that keeps viewers glued to certain programs. Five to 10 years ago, she says, producers were using fast cuts and wall-to-wall music, a la MTV, but that eventually failed. ‘Sorry to say, but it comes back to good old-fashioned storytelling,’ she says.

‘Although we have to maintain the standards of the National Geographic brand, we do care about entertainment first,’ says Carter. ‘We’re a cable channel.’ She adds that the channel has the first two minutes to tempt channel surfers to stay watching a program, and even then they’ll only stay for about six minutes. For commercial cable viewers, NGCI uses internal teasing and cliffhangers to keep people tuned in.

For those taking on shows that will require different versions (when you have more than one funder backing you), Louise Heren, a freelance producer/director, recommends having a clear understanding of the budget and expectations beforehand, since the two ‘rarely meet.’ Also, to make things easier down the road, if you’re making a film for the BBC and Discovery, as an example, Heren recommends shooting the show’s presenter two ways. Giving one example, she said UK audiences may want to see a male nature explorer presenter with his shirt on, while the US version may have him with his shirt off.

For producers nervous about how broadcasters may alter their work for various audiences — the masterclass was, after all, called ‘What Have They Done to my Baby? The Subtle Art of Versioning’ — Theunissen eased their fears. ‘Reversioning isn’t selling your soul to the devil,’ she said. Rather, it’s a creative possibility.

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