Outlook 2021: Fremantle’s Angela Neillis on boosting international doc strategy

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. ...
February 17, 2021

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. As the novel coronavirus put the TV and film industry on pause, stakeholders across all sectors re-calibrated — as Realscreen covered in ‘Weathering the storm’ — and, as we heard in ‘Back to business,’ returned to the job with a new playbook.

Now, with ‘Outlook,’ Realscreen is turning the page on 2020 and looking onward to this year. Here, you’ll hear from execs in various sectors about the challenges and opportunities they foresee for the industry in the year ahead. In this final installment, we speak to Angela Neillis, senior vice president of non-scripted, international, at Fremantle. 

What are some of the trends you’re seeing in non-scripted/unscripted content that will be at the forefront this year? Which genres do you see picking up in popularity?

AN: Documentaries are ever more important to Fremantle, particularly in this pandemic world… We want to work with sophisticated and self-assured filmmakers on films and series which can work on a variety of platforms.

Both streamers and major linear channels have found that an audience exists for non-English language documentaries, for example with The Mole Agent and Truffle Hunters. At Fremantle, we have some exciting developments in this area from our production companies around the world.

The other thing we saw last year in the world of television was the fight of the platforms… so, there’s duels going on for the best content. We’ve been quite ahead of the story in working out what our strategy was in terms of premium and platforms and how we coproduce.

We’ve also got another big project coming soon — Planet Sex… We’re not shirking [from] the big topics. We’re quite choosy about the filmmakers that we work with and we’ve got some exciting things coming up.

In the conversations you’re having with buyers, are you seeing an increased appetite for unscripted?

AN: Unscripted had a wonderful year last year, partly because it was able to maneuver more agilely.

But more than that, audiences are just crying out for independent filmmaking. They want to have independent stories told outside of the big mainstream media giants, whether that’s news or whether it’s the big platforms.

There’s an absolute renaissance in independent filmmaking [and] people being really interested to help finance that. That trend continues for 2021.

How have you been navigating virtual markets and conferences as a distributor? 

AN: For the first time the whole company missed MIP and MIPCOM in Cannes and everyone’s very sad about that because it’s a huge part of our business but, coincidentally, we were just in the process of launching our big new digital platform, which is called Fremantle Screenings.

We’re coupling up with a couple of other distributors to launch the London Screenings. We’ve got an incredibly exciting slate coming up for that, and that’s going to be virtual.

So, it’s not the same, but we’ve actually done quite well virtually… We attended Sundance and Realscreen [Summit] virtually. Life has continued, and actually business has been quite good.

You mention working virtually. Have you adopted any other ways of working that you think will outlast the pandemic?

AN: I don’t think anything has been set in stone about how we’ll work going forward but, frankly, I don’t think we necessarily need to travel as much as we have. What is very obvious is that virtual meetings and Zoom meetings work really well… I don’t think anything really replaces seeing each other in person, so that won’t change wholly.

Something has changed for good which is that everyone’s mindset has changed, people are enjoying working at home, people are enjoying the flexibility that that brings.

A lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera in the TV industry has been an important conversation this year, brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement. How has that been reflected on the distribution side and how is Fremantle responding?

AN: TV is a brilliant forum to shape minds and attitudes. We have an incredible responsibility and great privilege to share stories with global audiences that can really make a difference.

It’s an incredibly important topic, very timely, way overdue, frankly. I think we reflect relatively well in terms of diversity in our content, and our program-making. But of course, it’s really important to lead on these topics and there’s lots of conversation inside of Fremantle to make sure that it’s utmost in people’s minds. It is an absolutely fundamental topic to how we deal with television going forward.

High end program-making is sophisticated, and made for smart, diverse and demanding audiences. Fremantle plans to be at the forefront of creating this energetic and necessary content.

Generally speaking, what sort of challenges are you preparing for in the year ahead? 

AN: I feel quite optimistic, actually. I think Fremantle is in quite a good position. We’ve got a very strong strategy for working in documentary and factual, we’ve been building up our various production companies, whether it’s Naked in the UK who have been really on the front foot in terms of documentary development, or whether it is Original Productions out of the U.S. who have got a very strong premium factual strategy that they’re running as well. In production terms, we’re really excited. We’ve got incredible learnings in terms of coproductions over the last few years.

We’ve been seeing a lot of developments in non-English language documentaries as well… We’ve got some Italian documentaries coming through, we’ve got some developments in Latin America. In the way that non-English language drama was really exciting, and it has changed the way people scheduled television, that’s absolutely the case [with] some brilliant documentary makers around the world and the stories that don’t necessarily get told.

Can you share any details about your slate for 2021?

AN: Our documentary slate is more important to us now than ever, and with Enslaved last year, we found evidence that big topics, told in brand new ways find new audiences all over the world. How It Feels to Be Free is a vital documentary which tells the stories of six iconic African American female entertainers who challenged an industry determined to keep them out and harnessed their celebrity to advance the Civil Rights movement. Day Zero is a compelling documentary on the water crisis launching this year on Tencent [from] the award-winning KEO Films team in London.

As the world switches over from “channel COVID” to “channel Climate”, the environment will be a huge topic this year, so it’s important to us that our slate is rich with science and natural history programming. Arctic Drift is a high-end documentary that follows an international team of world-renowned climate scientists for an entire year as they undertake vital research in the most hostile and unknown terrain on earth. Also upcoming on our slate this year is Planet Defenders, which is produced by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit and is made by young environmentalists and filmmakers battling to protect the planet.

Anything else you’d like to add?

AN: We’re reaching out around the world to work with the best documentary makers. It’s such an exciting field. Documentaries are the way to change the world and change the discourse and for Fremantle to partner up with some of these big names and big storytellers is absolutely key for 2021 strategy.

About The Author