Q&A: Nick Fraser on trading Storyville for streaming

After helming BBC Storyville from its inception 17 years ago, journalist doc commissioner and editor Nick Fraser left the doc strand in September to pursue a business venture that launches in the ...
November 7, 2016

After helming BBC Storyville from its inception 17 years ago, journalist doc commissioner and editor Nick Fraser left the doc strand in September to pursue a business venture that launches in the U.S. this month.

The seeds of Yaddo, the new documentary SVOD service Fraser co-founded with producer and Yaddo CEO Lawrence Elman, were sewn when the pair played with the idea of starting a subscription documentary channel. While the channel would ultimately never live, the idea behind it didn’t die.

Then, about 18 months ago, Fraser and Elman revisited the idea, identifying amidst the ascent of businesses such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu  an opportunity to cater to a global niche audience through a dedicated SVOD documentary platform.

Yaddo was born in September. Offering a mix of acquired and newly commissioned docs curated and handpicked by Fraser. It’s financially backed by cloud-based TV platform Magine, a group of private investors and partnerships with broadcasters including the BBC, DR, SVT, VPRO and Arte. So far it’s available in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and is set to enter 160 territories in total, including the United States, in November.

According to Elman, Yaddo’s aim is not only to provide a dedicated platform for fans of documentary film, but also to give doc filmmakers in all territories the opportunity to pitch their ideas.

To-date, over its brief lifetime, the platform has commissioned six feature-length docs and about 35 shorts.

Realscreen recently caught up with Fraser to talk more about Yaddo, his decision to leave Storyville, the doc strand’s influence on his SVOD platform, his favorite documentary films and the benefits of crowdourcing and screening documentary ideas. The following is an edited version of that conversation:

Why did you decide it was the right time for you to leave Storyville? 

I think doing Storyville was wonderful. It became my life. My passion for documentaries is seemingly inexhaustible, but it’s good to move on occasionally in life and I thought, well, the time has come to move on. There’s an attraction after the many years I’ve spent working broadcasting television to do something that, firstly, you know a bit about, but secondly is new and I think [Yaddo] is a new world and I’m enjoying it. I’m particularly enjoying commissioning short films. Having commissioned many long ones in my day, I think five minute films are really interesting.

What were some of your favorite films that you were involved in working at Storyville? 

I really liked Man on Wire, One Day in September, Project Nim, a film that many people didn’t get but I did and I thought it was wonderful. I liked the Kings of Pastry by the Pennebakers. A Syrian Love Story, always makes me blubber when I watch it. The English Surgeon is a wonderful template of Englishness and you sort of expect Alec Guinness to come back and play Henry Marsh, the surgeon. I do think that 15 minutes of the film where he takes off the back of someone’s head with a domestic Black and Decker drill is just wonderful. I find looking back at these films the warmth is what stays with me. I don’t mean sentimental films, I mean just warm films. This is what I feel about the shorts I’ve got coming in. When the warmth is immediately apparent, when the films cultivate your empathy or make up for you lack of empathy, that’s really fantastic.

Why was launching an SVOD, in particular, the right decision for you at this stage in your career?

In television you’re finding a big cultural shift and certain things like documentaries suddenly seem possible on the internet. It’s not a question just of technology. It’s more a question of zeitgeist. The idea that you can get people to pay a relatively small amount to subscribe to see lots of good documentaries and you know they’ll enjoy them and can download them, seems like a much more reasonable proposition now than it did 10 years ago. The technology has made it possible, but it’s sort of a question of zeitgeist. I feel that, globally, there’s a substantial niche audience.

What does working at Yaddo allow you to do that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do at Storyville? 

First, it’s a business and I’ve always been interested in business. I was attending some seminar the other day — a collection of commissioning editors — and there was surprise when I said I didn’t regard myself at all as a public servant. I’m not a civil servant. It’s not the way I see myself at all and I’ve always really enjoyed the entrepreneurial aspects of Storyville and that continues with Yaddo. The other thing is, I’m not going to have to struggle to push controversial programs. On the whole, I think the BBC usually exceeded my impertinent demands, and I don’t have any complaints about that at all, but [Yaddo's] a new environment and that’s interesting. And I have these shorts. The BBC wasn’t doing shorts and I’d been clamoring to have crack at five minute films.

You recently announced that you are crowdsourcing documentaries ideas, looking to commission about 125. Why go that route? 

Yes, that’s very important. That’s going to happen in two different ways. We’re open to ideas. You send us ideas and we’ll tell you what we think. The second thing is we are receptive to showing short versions or fragments of people’s films that we like in the hope that, among our subscribers, they’ll get picked up. There’s a whole pitching industry, but there are lots of people outside the pitching industry. I hope our subscribers will come to the site because we’re doing that. We just want first refusal. We will use these shorts to bring on a generation of filmmakers, and I think in this sense Yaddo is different from Storyville. With Storyville, year after year, you always had to pick winners and if you pick winners you can only take so many risks on people who are new.
The other thing about Yaddo, because at the moment or for the foreseeable future we’re not interested in exclusiveness, we can work with anyone that wants to work with us. I feel very hopeful that we can attract quite a lot of young filmmakers that way. If we manage to commission Oscar winners that’s fine, but we’re never going to have the funds to prevail in a massive auction against the giants of our world, but what we can do is be clever in investing in projects we really believe in and nurture them so hopefully they do very well and find their own place.

Where the money’s coming from that will allow you to invest in these projects? 

It depends how much money is needed and how much money we have available. We have enough money to keep Yaddo going for some time thanks to our business plan and investors, but, as with Storyville, we’re not talking consistent numbers for each film. It would depend on the film and how our finances are anytime we’re about to invest, and that’s what we did with Storyville. We are open to new partners in the far east, in China; we’re talking to people all over the place, finding new partners.

Obviously not all the docs on Yaddo are originals, where are you getting the films that you’re curating? 

There are an awful lot of memorable and good docs that either people have forgotten about or they never really found out about. We spend a lot of time looking for those sorts of films. There are breathtaking, good, forgotten films, like James Marsh’s The Burger and the King, based on Elvis Presley’s cookbook, which is a good 15 years old, but it’s a truly hilarious, touching, good film. There are classics like that that are not really available or they’re sort of available only on YouTube but don’t exist in a form which is very agreeable to watch. All of that we look at.


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