Summit ’14: British producers talk ‘America 101′

A group of British producers talked cultural and business differences between producing in the United Kingdom and the United States during "America 101," a Summit panel hosted by National Geographic Channel CEO David Lyle.
January 28, 2014

British producers are able to be more “promiscuous” when pitching in the United States than in the United Kingdom, Nutopia CEO Jane Root told Summit delegates during a session looking at how British producers break into the American market.

Hosted by National Geographic Channels CEO David Lyle, ‘America 101′ featured a panel of veteran British producers, most of whom have credits in the United States.┬áThe discussion was wide-ranging and covered everything from intellectual property rights and working with agents, to business etiquette.

Zig Zag Productions CEO Danny Fenton, KEO Films managing director Debbie Manners, Pact chief executive John McVay and Firecracker Films CEO Mark Soldinger were also on the panel.

Root explained that it is not considered bad form to shop a project around to multiple outlets at the same time in the U.S., whereas taking a project elsewhere instead of waiting for an absentee commissioner from a British channel to return from holiday, for example, could be considered bad form.

The panelists marveled at how fast and efficient pitch meetings with U.S. cable exec are compared with their counterparts in the UK, who typically require several minutes of pleasantries and chit-chat before getting down to business.

“There’s an unrelenting openness in the States,” explained Manners, who is in the process of establishing an American arm for KEO Films. “I can get meetings with everybody in two or three days and we get through it in half an hour.”

Root, who has produced programs such as America: The Story of Us for History, previously spent five years as controller of UK terrestrial BBC2 before becoming president of Discovery Networks. She noted that culture of openness extended to the networks schedule. At the BBC, she said, shows aired for years, so she had to cancel programs in order to “get a sliver of space to do anything new.”

“At the BBC, you have to be really mean to do anything new,” she continued, adding that Discovery’s programming was much less entrenched, giving her more freedom to put a stamp on the network with programs such as Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs.

However, Fenton countered that British commissioners typically order four- to six-episode seasons that do not always repeat. “There’s more of a one-off culture,” he said.

“The UK is an IP lab for independent producers,” added McVay. “There is continually fresh output. There is always newer stuff coming up, but it’s in shorter runs.”

Root pointed out that American audiences are more likely to indulge copycat trends – something British audiences might disdain. Hence the dearth of reality shows that were produced following the success of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

The producers also extoled the benefits of being an outsider. Accent fetishism aside, Soldinger – whose company was behind the Channel 4 hit Big Fat Gypsy Weddings – explained that his British-ness helped gain access to a reclusive cult in the United States that whose members distrusted U.S. media outlets, for example.

“We can just look at America and spot the everyday things going on here that Americans might not think is crazy until they see it,” he said. “We can reflect an image of America back to itself.”

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