Sheffield ’19: Transforming access into a returnable staple

SHEFFIELD – Gaining exclusive access into a story can take months, or even years, of hard work, but it’s what filmmakers ultimately do with that access that will determine whether ...
June 11, 2019

SHEFFIELD – Gaining exclusive access into a story can take months, or even years, of hard work, but it’s what filmmakers ultimately do with that access that will determine whether audiences hit ‘play’ on your program again and again.

In a session titled “Real drama: What’s Next for the Access Doc?” on Monday (June 10) at the 2019 Sheffield Doc/Fest, a panel of esteemed industry executives set out to explore the secrets of turning access into a compelling returnable brand and drawing in the ever-elusive young audience.

BBC journalist and filmmaker Mobeen Azhar moderated the panel.

Panelists were Colin Barr, creative director of factual & factual drama at Expectation Entertainment; David Hodgkinson, creative director at Blast! Films; Clare Sillery, head of documentary commissioning at the BBC; Sophie Leonard, director of programs at Minnow Films; and Nick Hornby, joint CEO at Optomen Television.

Here, Realscreen presents our main takeaways from the session.

There are two conversations

According to Sillery, there are two main avenues that revolve around the topic of special access. The first would be a conversation where you “chew their ear off” until the subject grants permission to film. And while the BBC exec noted that this process is “relatively rare”, Sillery did admit that the BBC2 program Flatpack Empire, which offered the behind-the-scenes insight into furniture retailer Ikea, utilized this approach.

“The other conversation is the one that comes with intent, which says ‘this is the approach we’d like to take. This is the story that we’d like to tell using access.’ The brands that are most successful come from that latter conversation,” she said.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it

As filmmakers continue to finesse their way into more and more remote areas and self-contained occupations around the world, that special access granted to the production house becomes the star of the non-scripted series.

Once access is granted, the filmmaker and/or production team must then decide what it is they can do that may deliver insights to an audience they haven’t seen before.

“If you can’t clear that hurdle then you should probably be asking what it is that you’re actually trying to pitch and what you want to do with that access,” Expectation’s Barr stated. “There are very few points of access that will sell on their own terms.”

But what about the kids?

We’ve heard the refrain before: capturing the ever-elusive millennial and Gen Z audience is now more crucial than ever, especially for linear platforms. For the BBC, it’s about commissioning returnable access programs that feel familiar in nature without sugarcoating the sharp edges. Providing your access format with tone, humor and truthfulness, Sillery said, can still draw big audiences, particularly in the all-important 18-34 demographic.

Programs such as AmbulanceReported MissingForensics: The Real CSI (pictured) and others consistently perform well with a younger audience across the channel, according to Sillery. Reported Missing draws about three million viewers, while Ambulance pulls in approximately four to 4.5 million.

“It’s really important for us to have timely social issues,|” she said. “For something like Ambulance, it’s not sugarcoated – there are really big social issues in that – but the young audience will come to it because there’s a dramatic narrative, there’s a lot of story. And I think there’s also a factor in it of the quality in the paramedics – that kindness – that’s attractive. This is why we’re increasingly building brands like this.”

Added Barr: “It’s not just about making films about young people. It’s about quality of truthfulness, authenticity and then drama and emotion. If you promise that, then they’ll follow. If you have those values it doesn’t matter what other platforms have.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.