Q&A: John Ford talks NPA, PACT US merger

The Nonfiction Producers Association (NPA) and Pact US, two of the largest organizations dedicated to serving the producers of non-fiction entertainment content, have merged to form a new association: NPACT. With offices ...
June 12, 2017

The Nonfiction Producers Association (NPA) and Pact US, two of the largest organizations dedicated to serving the producers of non-fiction entertainment content, have merged to form a new association: NPACT.

With offices in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., NPACT encompasses 99 member companies that collectively produce the majority of all non-fiction content for U.S. broadcast, cable television and digital platforms.

NPACT will continue to offer membership to non-fiction production companies in North America, as well as sole proprietors, individual executive producers and showrunners who have established their own labels. NPACT also offers an “Associate” class of membership for service providers to the industry.

Realscreen caught up with John Ford, former general manager of the NPA and, now, GM of NPACT, at Realscreen West in Santa Monica to talk about the merger. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why the decision to merge?

We had two organizations with substantial memberships essentially serving the same purpose. One large organization is better than one small and one medium-sized one, so we came together because there’s strength in unity in the business.

What we have in non-fiction production is probably 150 to 200 substantial-sized producers — indie companies for the most part — run by creative entrepreneurs. These are people who are passionate, active and independent by nature. They believe in themselves and believe they have the next hit. And yet, as independent as they are, they have common interests and goals they need to discuss with one another. Prosaic things about how to operate a company — how do you pay insurance? Do you have a payroll company that meets your needs? Are you operating within labor laws?

In this way, people who are naturally independent and competitors find their interests are aligned, which means they can share and promote more effective operating strategies, and then be better able to create hits. That’s what we want to do. Help producers perform in a way so they can better develop hits to drive this industry forward.

These reasons seem logical, but why merge now and not years ago?

We’re at something of an inflection point in the industry because there are pressures on the networks, due to cord cutting, viewers waning, commercials, all attacking the revenue base of the conglomerates that are the revenue source of our networks.

You have those economic difficulties being passed on to the producers. They are being asked to forego the increase in production expenses year over year, which usually range between 3% to 5% each year. Networks are saying they will renew their series, but for the same price as the previous year, for example.

Then you have production fees that can start at 10%, but sometimes shrink to 9, 8 or 7% and cut into a prodco’s profit margin.

Why should a network care about a prodco profit margin? That profit margin funds the next round of hits for the network because in our industry, the prodcos virtually develop hits all the time without being paid. They have development staff on full time, they’re hunting for talent full time, and they’re putting together sizzle reels for new series to help entice networks. The funding for this needs to come from somewhere, and it comes from the prodco’s pocket.

If you shrink the production income and squeeze all the juice out of the prodco, then they’re not left with what they need to fuel the next hit for the industry. And our industry runs on hits. The network schedule is a hungry beast that never sleeps.

Is that process of coming up with the next “hit” something that concerns you?
What’s been the big hit in non-fiction over the past few years? There was 60 Days In for A&E, done by Lucky 8, but nothing to the magnitude of say Pawn Stars or Deadliest Catch, which were huge sustainable series. We haven’t had one of those in a few years.

And I would suggest maybe it’s because we’re clamping down so much. I know the necessity of cutting costs, but I also know how that can stifle creativity and ensure that you might not have the next generation of hits. It’s a tough situation, and I don’t envy network execs right now, but I think wisdom and experience tell us you won’t get the next hit by allowing the CFO to run the company

It’s funny you mention that. A Realscreen West panel also made the point of the need for creative autonomy.

I call it educated, balanced, experienced autonomy. In other words, autonomy formed by the knowledge that comes from having been in the business a while, so you know a hit when you see it. You know how to make a hit, not just imagine it.

And if you have a great idea, and a great spark, and are nurtured by a network, you can really have something great. But if all the energy is devoted to making sure it doesn’t cost much, that it doesn’t incur costs, that’s not necessarily going to reap the same benefits.

Going back to NPACT, what does NPA bring to the table?

We’re bigger and stronger, we’re very mission-oriented, we’re very service-oriented, and we listen very carefully to our members and respond to their genuine needs.

The strength of the organization is due to its membership. We’re only as strong and as valuable as our members are. When our members participate, they end up getting great rewards. You get out of it what you put into it, and people who have been involved since the beginning say it’s one of the best things they could have done.

How have your members reacted to the news?

We’ve had a totally great reception. They feel that we’re united and stronger and have more information. One of the beautiful things about NPA, and now NPACT, is that when you become a member you have access to an instant brain trust. Now you have 99 members, all of who have interesting and varied experiences. If you have a business question, you put that question through to our members anonymously, those questions get eight to 10 answers within 12 to 15 hours. They guide you. You can’t really get that when you’re operating alone. One of the biggest benefits of being a member is having access to that brain trust and our members can attest to the fact that they’ve saved money and have made better deals because they have access to this trust base.

How does your role change?

There’s more to it. We’re a lot bigger. My role will continue to be the same. I very much respond to our members. It’s not my association. It’s theirs, and I’m there to serve them. You have to be able to take what different people are saying over time and make that into a coherent plan that everyone can follow and sign onto.



About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.