Pointed Arrow: Making it in America

Ahead of the start of the 14th annual Realscreen Summit this Sunday (January 29), Arrow Media creative director John Smithson (pictured) offers a British perspective on making the move to the U.S. market.
January 26, 2012

How things have changed for us English-language producers working in the American market.

The U.S. remains the biggest, scariest, most exhilarating and ultimately rewarding of all TV markets. But how to crack it has evolved – there are a number of options, lots of encouraging precedents and quite a few warning signs.

As we all prepare to board the flight to Washington for the annual Realscreen Summit gathering, this yearly ritual is evidence of how things have changed.

We used to be fewer in number, the rules of the game were not clear and the opportunities were by no means obvious. There were some coproductions but much of the work revolved around the work-for-hire model (where the broadcaster keeps the rights).

There were few of the major, game-changing opportunities that are now within sight of any ambitious and talented indie. So how do you crack America?

The biggest decision is whether or not to set up shop there. It’s expensive, time consuming and gives no guarantee of success. But it puts you in the face of key clients and gives you credibility, access, and keeps your ear to the ground in a fast-changing market.

If you take the plunge, the second tricky decision is where to set up your base. There’s no doubt that the factual center of gravity is tilting towards the West Coast. So do you just go directly to LA or do you go to the more manageable East Coast, with its less disruptive time difference and easier travel, and set up in Washington, DC or New York? My view is to take the plunge if you are confident and go west, if the big networks are in your sights.

There is an option to stay at home but don’t imagine you can run a decent U.S. business by phone and email. Nothing beats a direct face-to-face meeting. Our experience has led us to the golden rule that one of our senior creative team has to be there every six weeks.

The next dilemma: do you get an agent? Again, there is no hard and fast rule but the West Coast is an agent-driven culture, whereas the East Coast is mixed. If you are heading west, make the call. Or, more likely, take the call that will doubtless come your way.

A word of warning: it is a harsh climate. Forget the warm, welcoming UK terms of trade for indies dealing with the Brit broadcasters, or the equally indie-friendly rules in other key English-language territories. Nailing your production contract is going to be tough and can end in tears. Cash flow can be a nightmare and has given sleepless nights to many indies new to the U.S. environment.

Deliverables can be a pain. Many a time we have been owed substantial money because of some missing piece of paperwork that has blocked the final production payment. No problem if you’re with a super-indie but tough if you’re on your own.

One final consideration to make is that although non-U.S. indies have made great inroads in the American market, recent changes have made it tougher. As networks such as Discovery, History and National Geographic Channel have evolved, their tastes have changed. Big, domestically based shows with a heavy fact-ent bias are very much in fashion, and the U.S. indies are getting the commissions. Good luck to them.

It’s easier for us Brits to have a toe in the U.S. market than the other way around. After 15 years of being a very active player in the U.S. market I have no regrets. The challenge, the constant change and the sheer size of the opportunity make it irresistible.

Yes, there have been hassles and a few lows, but the highs massively outweigh these. Washington, here I come.


John Smithson is creative director of Arrow Media, an indie he co-founded in 2011. Previously he was chief executive of Darlow Smithson Productions

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