Pointed Arrow debuts

"Pointed Arrow" is a new column from John Smithson, creative director of Arrow Media, an indie he co-founded this year. Previously he was chief executive of Darlow Smithson Productions.
November 1, 2011

Are we living in a parallel universe?

The headlines scream about the worst economic crisis in living memory, yet somehow here at the coalface things do not feel that bad. The broadcasters we work with all crave high quality, innovative and ambitious ideas – and are prepared to put proper money on the table. It feels as though non-fiction is a very good place to be – it seems much tougher in other genres. In the UK, Channel 4 is on a commissioning spree with budgets for both docs and specialist factual on the up. At the BBC, specialist factual has thus far survived the worst of the big cuts from its “Delivering Quality First” initiative. The mood at MIPCOM in Cannes recently was upbeat and it was the same vibe on a recent trip to the West and East Coasts of the U.S. So – crisis? What crisis?

When we set up Arrow Media earlier this year we did occasionally wonder if we were bonkers starting our new indie with the world in financial turmoil, but we approach 2012 with optimism. Sure, there are some harsh realities around – run of the mill ideas will get nowhere; the only way forward is to be good or be cheap; financing shows gets increasingly creative and is not for those of a nervous disposition. But broadcasters’ desire for the “next big thing” is as strong now as it ever was in happier economic times…

Moving on to another economic mystery — why are the BRIC countries, the next wave of economic superpowers, still so insignificant in the international TV market?

I would say our sales to, for example, the Netherlands (population: 16 million) have been more valuable to us over the past five years than total sales to Brazil, Russia, India and China (combined population: 2.8 billion).

But this is surely going to change, and quickly. There is compelling evidence that the new, educated middle classes in the BRIC countries crave quality science and history programs rather than imported low-quality shows. With this in mind, it is little wonder that factual giants such as Discovery are taking such interest in the emerging markets. We looked at factual initiatives in both China and India when under corporate ownership, but nothing came of it. Looking back, this is a relief – I think this is one of those things when getting in first is not always best. Clearly, working in China or India presents a much greater challenge than expanding in North America or Europe. Others may try and fail, but sooner or later someone will crack it. I don’t anticipate opening up our Rio office just yet, but then again the FIFA World Cup is in Brazil in just over two years…

We indie producers working the international market have our nomadic rituals; Washington in January, Cannes in April, then Sheffield and possibly La Rochelle, Edinburgh and then back to Cannes and finally, as we end the year, the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers. Throw in a few film festivals and a couple of jollies and it would be easy to give up the day job, although there would be the minor problem of having no commissions.

Admittedly, the date in the annual ritual I most look forward to is the Science Congress, mainly because it remains the only gathering where ideas are debated, rather than deals done. It’s somewhere you can have a good row as well as a laugh, especially if C4 science commissioner David Glover is doing one of his turns. It’s where you can do high quality networking (much of it sober). We are, of course, much more interested in the debate than the venues, but having said that there have been some pretty memorable locations. Recent hosts Dresden, Melbourne and Florence have all worked well, but for me, and I suspect many others, Tokyo was the ultimate Congress experience. As they said of Woodstock, if you can remember it you weren’t there.

The woman with one of the toughest jobs on the circuit is Congress editorial director Alison Leigh. She has to wrangle with indie egos, feuding broadcasters and the predictable, mostly friendly, national rivalries. Miraculously, she deals with this toxic brew, keeps egos soothed, and manages to pull out a consistently cracking program. I’m sure Paris, not exactly an undesirable venue, will do us proud this year. Long may it prosper.

“Pointed Arrow” is a new column from John Smithson, creative director of Arrow Media, a new indie he co-founded this year. Previously he was chief executive of Darlow Smithson Productions.

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