Forward motion

Here, realscreen talks to several of the year's newsmakers to find out their thoughts on 2009 and their plans for growth in the year ahead.
January 1, 2010

Onwards and Upwards: Cineflix’s Simon Lloyd

Simon Lloyd, president of programming for international producer/distributor Cineflix, admits that talking about growth in a recessionary period may seem ‘counter-intuitive.’ After all, wasn’t 2009 a year of cutbacks and fiscal conservatism?

Well, yes, says Lloyd. But that doesn’t mean that companies can’t indulge in smart growth.

‘It’s about expanding your repertoire without having to spend $300,000 setting up a new division – using the expertise you have in-house,’ he says from the Toronto office of Cineflix Productions (Cineflix’s head office is located in Montreal, and the company has offices in the UK, Ireland and now the U.S.). ‘Your ability to be flexible, move quickly and offer different things to different people is something you have to keep growing, rather than saying, ‘Let’s just go back to basics.’

Cineflix certainly can’t be accused of employing the ‘back to basics’ philosophy over the past year. Part of the growth came in the form of new hires. The company plucked Charles Tremayne from RDF USA not only to serve as EVP of programming, overseeing Cineflix’s factual slate in the UK and U.S., but to also open up its American outpost, located on Spring Street in New York City. Tremayne’s hire was preceded in May by that of Ian Russell, who signed on as director of coproduction and exec producer. The former commissioning editor for Five is stationed in the company’s London office. And mere weeks before Russell’s hiring was announced, Cineflix brought on Joe Houlihan, ex-Twofour Broadcast and RDF USA, as SVP of programming.

The company also made key hires for new departments, appointing Paul Day to head up its branded content and digital media division and Stephen Tapp as CEO of Cineflix Rights, who is charged with creating and overseeing growth strategy for the company’s international exploitation of its IP.

Beyond the new blood, from a programming perspective, Lloyd says the past year, with its economic flux impacting every territory in which Cineflix operates to varying degrees, required a unique approach. The economic crunch especially impacted Canadian broadcasters, says Lloyd. ‘It’s been quite an odd year in that we operate in two countries,’ he says. ‘The UK economy was probably hit the worst with the downturn, while the Canadian economy overall was the strongest during the recession. But with Canadian TV, the industry here was hit the hardest from an independent perspective.’

As a result, Lloyd says the company made a concerted effort to work with cablers, and in particular, those that weren’t bound by traditional media ties. ‘For us, it became a year of really following the money. Pay TV was in good shape…people don’t tend to get rid of their cable [in a recession]; it’s one of the last things they get rid of. So [those channels] were more resilient to the downturn.

‘It became a very strategic year for us in terms of working with companies that we felt were more recession-proof,’ he continues. ‘In the year ahead it’ll be interesting to see how the conventional TV companies come out of this.’

Lloyd says another area of strategy that needed adjustment was the company’s approach to coproduction, with the onus on looking for new copro partners (Cineflix worked on its first Brazilian coproduction in 2009, an eight-part series called Nazi Hunters) and new approaches to financing, including operating more as a ‘co-financier.’

‘What we ended up doing was using a kind of trial with countries not to co-produce, but for us to deficit finance quite heavily from a distribution perspective, and then to sell shows after the fact into Canada, the UK and the rest of the world,’ he says. Rather than trim budgets for the sake of making projects more affordable through existing financing models, Lloyd says, ‘The key is to find different models of financing and keep the budgets and quality at the same level. It’s easier to do that when you have your own distribution arm, and when you operate in more than one territory.’ If one of those territories is Canada, a country with notable funding opportunities, those different models can be easier to search out and apply.

Cineflix also branched out in terms of its programming, with the company moving into kids territory – Frisky Business, or Animals at Work in the UK, was produced in association with the CBBC and Discovery HD. Lloyd says more children’s programming is on the way, as well as further work in natural history, entertainment and branded content.

With Lloyd already overseeing a slate packed with close to 250 hours of programming annually, he sees expanding the company’s genre base as another example of smart growth. He expresses frustration with what he sees as Canadian broadcasters’ reticence to work with homegrown formats, but thinks the creative brainpower and unique position of the Canadian market will inspire more action on that front. ‘If you think about it Canada’s a perfect microcosm,’ he says. ‘If a format works here it’ll probably work in the U.S.’

Of course, like any production company exec dealing in fact ent, he’s more than keen to see what the future holds for the genre. ‘It feels like there’s a vacuum in the non-fiction area – what comes next?’ he posits.

For now, Lloyd says Cineflix plans to stay on its steady growth path, with an aim to expand its production base by 30%, while taking care to ‘not become a factory.’

‘There’s no point in growing just for the sake of it,’ he offers in closing. ‘You’ve got to want to do stuff.’

The Oprah Effect: OWN’s Christina Norman and ro*co’s Annie Roney discuss the OWN Doc Club

In terms of attracting mainstream audiences, independent documentary needs all the saviors it can get. Thus, when the announcement was made in early December that ro*co productions, a division of documentary film distributor ro*co films international, had entered into a partnership with Discovery Communications’ Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), it was greeted with a loud chorus of hosannas from the doc-making community.

‘I had one filmmaker say to me ‘this is the best news the documentary film industry has heard in a couple of years,” says ro*co films international founder and managing director Annie Roney. ‘It’s a new opportunity for these kinds of films to be seen, and a much-needed new player in that world.’

Indeed it is, and although the channel isn’t slated to launch until January of 2011, OWN is a player with a lot of buzz behind it, especially in the wake of Winfrey’s announcement that she would be ending her talk show run in the months following OWN’s launch. That show, on the air for 25 years, propelled the works of numerous authors to the top of best-seller lists via its Book Club feature. The success of the Book Club was an inspiration for Roney, who thought a similar model could be applied to documentary.

‘When I read about the channel being formed, I thought that was where the real fit could be,’ she says. ‘Unlike with books, you can gather people in a community together to screen a film and discuss it immediately afterward.’

OWN chief executive officer Christina Norman concurs. ‘It’s so clear that the book club has been a phenomenal success and it certainly was something that all of us were thinking of – how can we take some of the values of that and make sure that they’re alive and present in OWN? Clearly, the Documentary Club can help that discovery, that connection and exposure.’

The OWN doc club will be a multi-platform initiative, which will include a primetime monthly documentary film series airing on the channel, an ‘online community experience’ that will feature exclusive footage on, and nationwide theatrical screening events for select films. Roney says the 12 films to be shown on the channel will be television premieres, while the two theatrical event films planned for this year need to have all rights available.

‘We have to make sure we have ways for the audience to experience these films and discussions on every platform that exists,’ says Norman. ‘The ability for us to figure out how we can do events and inspire passionate people to continue the work of something they’ve seen in a film or expand their thinking – all of these things have to work together.’

Ro*co is currently accepting submissions from filmmakers, and those looking for more information should visit Roney, who will be joined by ro*co productions head Sue Turley in the initiative, says that when it comes to choosing the projects, ‘We’re going to be mindful of the OWN brand but within the series we all feel there’s room for lots of kinds of storytelling. Even films that are challenging or difficult should be part of that series.’

Norman also says the Documentary Club will feature a range of films that could span the globe, but a central thread running through them will also be a central thread of the network – the concept of self-discovery.

‘We’ve been spending a lot of time focused on stories of transformation and self-discovery,’ she says. ‘That’s where this network lives, ‘living your life forward.”

Should the series take off, there may be other opportunities for doc-makers to benefit from the partnership. Norman doesn’t rule out the potential for OWN to become involved in funding projects at some point.

‘I think there’s a possibility,’ she says. ‘OWN is just getting started, which is what’s so exciting. The path for us is full of every opportunity that exists, so I don’t want to close us off from any options.’

Bold Buys and Big Deals: Endemol UK’s Tim Hincks and Banijay’s Guillaume de Verges

The activity may not necessarily merit the term ‘feeding frenzy,’ but the past year certainly saw its share of acquisitions of several renowned prodcos by global production powerhouses and larger media entities. Endemol kicked off the trend in January of 2009 by acquiring 100% of Southern Star Group from Fairfax Media. Not much later, FremantleMedia landed a big catch by reeling in Thom Beers’ Original Productions, buying a 75% stake in the Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers prodco. In Canada, Knightscove Media Corp. signed a letter of intent to acquire the operations of producer/distributor Ellis Entertainment – a deal which just went through at the beginning of this year, with Knightscove paying CDN$2,820,000 for all of the shares of Ellis and its 600 titles. Conversely, while news reports broke over the summer that John de Mol’s Talpa Media was going to pay between $50 million and $70 million for Bunim/Murray Productions (The Real World and the new Project Runway, among others) by the fall, industry chatter seemed to indicate the deal had died, at least for now.

In the UK, the big news on the acquisitions front came in November, with the announcement that Endemol UK had snapped up Darlow Smithson Productions, Tigress and Tiger Aspect from IMG. The move vaulted Endemol UK to the position of being the UK’s biggest independent producer, ahead of All3Media, which previously enjoyed the title. Speculation emerged about who else was in the running for the trio of prodcos, bought by IMG Media in 2006 and put up for sale in October of ’09, as well as the amount that Endemol paid for the pack. The number bandied about most often was somewhere between £30 million and £40 million, but with Endemol being a privately-owned company, financial details remain undisclosed.

‘I can confirm there has been a lot of speculation,’ says Endemol UK chief executive Tim Hincks jokingly when asked about the price tag for the three indies. ‘We’re incredibly pleased with the deal.’

As well they should be, if, as rumored, Endemol paid less for the three companies than IMG Media did back in the boom days of a few years back. Hincks says the caution employed by Endemol UK during that period of acquisition activity stemmed from creative concerns as well as financial ones. ‘Certainly in the UK market, there have been a lot of very aggressive deals done, some big prices paid. I genuinely don’t believe that’s good for either side – I don’t think it’s good for the creative process as it puts huge pressure on teams of management to live up to expectations. We’re very happy about the price we paid – it’s great for us and for the management of the companies we bought. It means we can start on realistic footing and put creativity first.’

Meanwhile, in Europe, Paris-based Banijay Entertainment was making waves by acquiring Scandinavian production unit Nordisk Film TV. The deal included the distrib arm Nordisk Film TV World and two part-owned subsidiaries, Denmark-based branded entertainment company Respirator Media & Development and Finnish prodco Solar Television.

The deal gave Banijay one of Northern Europe’s most prolific production entities, with Nordisk Film TV generating close to 1,500 hours of TV content a year, ranging from entertainment, drama, factual and reality programming.

Banijay, formed by former Endemol France CEO Stéphane Courbit, may be a relative newcomer in the global acquisition scene, having launched in 2008. But with nine international prodcos under its umbrella, it’s actively pursuing its aim to, in the words of CEO Guillaume de Verges, ‘become a global brand in content creation and distribution for television and the new multimedia vehicles.’

The company made more noise during MIPCOM when news broke that Banijay was buying a majority stake in UK indie Zig Zag for somewhere in the £20 million range. The deal was only finalized in this month.

‘Both companies [Nordisk and Zig Zag] have creative talents and the desire to develop together a new model of production company and distribution in the media,’ says de Verges. ‘Nordisk Film TV’s and Zig Zag’s ability to create and develop new successful formats are significant assets for our company.’

As for more deals on the horizon, de Verges says Banijay is looking into acquisition possibilities in the Netherlands and Benelux early this year, and is having discussions with American companies. ‘We are looking for creative partners whose formats are able to be exported and adapted in the whole world, and who are willing to be involved in a globally-oriented group,’ he offers.

Endemol’s Hincks says that while globally, ‘Endemol has been built on acquisitions,’ the UK outpost has ‘grown organically and we’ve been very proud to have done that.

‘The big mistake people in this sector make is to think that you can get growth by other means than creative,’ he maintains. ‘The way we’ve always grown at Endemol is through our ideas and through having hits. It’s as simple, and conversely, as difficult as that. So by working with these creatives and these companies we’re increasing our likelihood of having more and more hits.

‘We want to be constantly innovative – if you have ideas, you win,’ says Hincks. ‘But we have to have the right people to come up with the right ideas, and distribution and the platforms are the second things you think about. So I must say, I feel slightly, unfashionably optimistic about the future.’

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