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WCSFP ’20: The renaissance of international coproduction

In a year where a global pandemic has kneecapped budgets throughout the media landscape, the international coproduction has once again seen its stock rise. The 2020 edition of World Congress of Science ...
December 10, 2020

In a year where a global pandemic has kneecapped budgets throughout the media landscape, the international coproduction has once again seen its stock rise.

The 2020 edition of World Congress of Science & Factual Producers sought Wednesday (Dec. 9) to focus on the fresh opportunities available to creatives on the copro horizon.

The panel, titled “International Copros Reinvented,” was moderated by Patrick Hörl, managing director at the Munich-based Autentic.

Panelists included Caroline Behar, head of international coproductions and acquisitions at France Télévisions; Rob Burk, head of original content at CuriosityStream; and former TCB Media Rights helmer Paul Heaney, now CEO of the recently launched London distributor BossaNova Media.

Even once the haze of the COVID-19 pandemic lifts, the media industry will find itself in the midst of a complex moment where countless questions abound. It is projected to be an uncertain landscape where creative budgets are slashed and the vast majority of productions are delayed.

Of course, those conditions existed to a lesser extent before COVID-19. For this reason, France Télévisions founded Global Doc, which serves as a creative and financial initiative with a strong network of international partners, in 2019. In the year since its launch, the scheme has allowed the French broadcaster to move swiftly to initiate and co-create a slate of internationally produced documentary projects.

“It’s really about putting financial forces together to work on big projects and create impact on a subject that really matters to us,” said Behar, emphasizing that Global Doc has already begun work on 10 separate projects with major international broadcast partners such as NHK, ZDF, CCTV, Rai, PBS and the BBC attached as coproducers.

“International coproduction is very complex, we all know that,” she added. “But when we take the time to really conceive the project all together, when we put the right model in place, when we set up the mechanics adapted to each project, those are the keys to success. It will always be difficult, but that’s why we need to work hand in hand.”

Until now, it’s been common practice for the growing crop of streaming players to shrug off collaborative partnerships in an effort to retain all rights. Factual SVOD service CuriosityStream, however, has been singing a different tune.

As a young company with limited budgets, the science and factual streamer has traditionally looked to copros as an efficient way to stretch limited financing in order to afford top-tier programs. At a basic level, that means CuriosityStream is seeking projects where the company can obtain non-exclusive, worldwide SVOD rights.

“We’ve also been experimenting with a new model in production financing that effectively achieves similar goals as traditional copros, but through different means,” explained Burk. “It’s proving to be pretty effective for us and our production partners.”

The new model serves as a two-part deal, where it involves a full commission with a likeminded prodco, as well as a separate program sales deal with another channel or distribution partner.

Burk offered up a fictional scenario as an example, where an indie producer pitches the streamer a coproduction with a budget of US$1 million. If CuriosityStream can find a partner interested in negotiating a set of rights to the series – rights they’d be willing to license from CuriosityStream for roughly half of the production budget ($500,000) – then Burk and his team would be willing to fully commission that project from the producer.

“But under the new model, our contribution does matter,” he added. “If we’re putting in more money, we’d like exclusivity in certain territories, perhaps even all media depending on what financial model we’re involved in.”

And while America serves as the SVOD’s biggest market, Burk said CuriosityStream is “very eager” to find ways to work through windowing options and other means to get productions under way.

“We’re willing to consider a lot and we’re willing to negotiate because that’s going to allow us to take bigger swings on bigger, more ambitious productions we otherwise might not be able to afford,” he stated.

Meanwhile, the perspective that a distributor has on coproductions is markedly different from that of a broadcaster or producing partner.

“There’s no way I would know how to make a show, absolutely no chance,” laughed BossaNova’s Heaney.

“I would never pretend I could do that job, and I don’t think any distributor should,” he added. “But I do know what I’m doing in terms of what’s a good idea, how long should the series be, which broadcaster should we talk to, what sort of budget should we go for – all of that we know but the nuts and bolts of getting involved in it, I’d rather give it to a broadcaster I trust.”

Asked about what prompted distributors to invest significant amounts of money into a copro, Heaney stated bluntly that the industry had “no choice” and urged his distribution colleagues to become accustomed to opening their wallets, too.

“We don’t have to bankrupt ourselves, but distributors should be looking at a mixed economy – putting a small amount into one project, medium into another, larger into another still,” he said.

“You have to put your hand in your pocket because now the broadcasters and producers don’t have the money — they need us, but everybody has to share the risks,” Heaney added.

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