British television used to be seen as the Shangri-La for documentary makers: a place where the documentary genre was highly valued, and benefited from a commissioning system which provided full commissions for filmmakers, allowing them to focus their energies on the art of filmmaking.
While it arguably still leads the world in the breadth and quality of its factual output, British television is no longer the haven for program-makers that it once was, particularly for those determined to operate outside the arena of formats. Few understand this better than Christo Hird, whose company Fulcrum made films about international topics for 20 years, often with talented emerging young directors. Despite a number of successes last year – including the multi-award winning Black Gold, which Fulcrum co-produced – the company was forced into liquidation, after finding itself unable to secure the number of commissions needed to keep operating.
Hird has started afresh with his new production company, Dartmouth Films. While he will still focus on a tricky sell – international stories on challenging topics – his business model has changed: no longer is British television the be all and end all to getting his documentaries made. Instead he is moving towards the American model of funding docs: piecing together a number of partners to fund films.
‘When I started Dartmouth, I started it because I wanted to make films that make a difference,’ says Hird. ‘I realized that we would need to make them in a different way: we would need to fund them differently, we would need to distribute them differently, if they were to be a success.’
Hird is now exec producing a number of projects, with a variety of directors, and often in partnership with other production companies. Key to his funding strategy is focusing from the outset on finding interested parties, including non-profit organizations and foundations.
‘The trick on these sorts of films is to figure out who has a vested interest in them being made,’ he says. ‘Which group of people think it’s important that there’s a film made about land grabbing in Cambodia, which is an appalling scandal?’
His efforts so far have been encouraging. The End of the Line, about the devastating effect that global overfishing is having on fish stocks, has been selected for Sundance. Its partners include, among others, The Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation (which Hird is chair of), the Waitt Foundation, Oceana and WWF. A second documentary that Hird exec produced, Pig Business, will air in this month’s Channel 4′s The Great British Food Fight season.
No longer dependent on British television, Hird remains confident his projects will still find a home there.
‘I think every single thing I’m working on outside of broadcasting should be, and I think will be, on television. Because if they’re good [people will] say, ‘Now we know what you’re talking about.”
While Hird’s funding strategy is certainly more challenging than the full commissions of old, he has thus far found it liberating: ‘Before I had to look at what broadcasters want, and can I provide that. Now I say, ‘What are the important films that need making, and how can I fund that?”