Nat Geo, ESPN execs talk pitching and commissioning at Sheffield Doc/Fest

UK factual commissioning executives from the likes of National Geographic, ESPN, UKTV and Sky participated in a series of talks last week at Sheffield Doc/Fest that offered producers some insight ...
June 16, 2021

UK factual commissioning executives from the likes of National Geographic, ESPN, UKTV and Sky participated in a series of talks last week at Sheffield Doc/Fest that offered producers some insight into how they can fine-tune their pitch and potentially secure a greenlight.

Below, Realscreen details the key takeaways from sessions with Nat Geo and ESPN in part one of our two-part report. Stay tuned for tomorrow to learn what commissioners at UKTV and Sky are eager to order.

Sheffield Doc/Fest ran virtually June 4 to 13. To read Realscreen‘s coverage of another Sheffield panel that saw execs from the BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Channel 5 divulge their programming wishlists, click here.


Nat Geo’s UK-based commissioning team convened virtually at this year’s festival to delve into the development and production process across the Disney-owned network.

The session featured Carolyn Payne (pictured above, top right), Simon Raikes (bottom left) and Nat Geo International’s Traci Harris (bottom right).

Nat Geo is most interested in crisp storytelling with key protagonists, Raikes said, whether “human or beast.” Programs should have conflict or tension, wit and levity, and show audiences something they haven’t seen before.

After a year of navigating shutdowns and delays amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Raikes said Nat Geo is firing on all cylinders, and the team are now returning their gaze to new commissions with budgets to back slots into 2022.

Raikes described Nat Geo as entertainment-led with a specialist factual context.

At the moment, his focus is on adventure programs that are returnable, repeatable and scalable. Instead of three-packs or singles, the team is most interested in franchises that can run for 10 to 20 episodes year after year.

While the lens may seem narrow, he advised producers to marry adventure with the unexpected, pointing to Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, which blends adventure and cooking, as one example.

As for whether the commissioners will branch into reality formats, Payne and Raikes said it’s an ongoing conversation on how to achieve authenticity in a formatted series — a challenge they haven’t yet cracked.

Over at Nat Geo International, Harris is focused on the world outside of the U.S. She’s not tied to an adventure lens and can delve into a variety of other areas that work pan-regionally.

Harris will also commission specials as well as series — though the programming should be current and newsworthy. The commissioning team is also interested in anniversary titles.

Nat Geo International is working on a tighter budget, Harris noted, and so coproductions and pre-sales are welcomed.

The executive emphasized the importance of scalable, returnable, repeatable and customizable programming. She also advised producers to think of how a project could align with other parts of the larger Disney business.

To reach the team in London, Payne advises producers without an established relationship to contact Alexander Lawson (

As for whether solo producers require a production company, Raikes said Nat Geo is keen to nurture emerging talent, and so it’s not always essential — however, he added that securing a collaborative alliance gives a pitch an edge.

Capping off the discussion, the commissioners summarized what types of content fit into the “yellow rectangle of National Geographic.”

“We are a channel that is curious about the world. I think curiosity is the key thing to the yellow box and in pursuit of answers to questions about the world we take the audiences to places they would not otherwise see or go but to which they may aspire, and they will come away from having seen our content entertained but also informed,” Raikes said.

Payne noted: “Can you imagine the subject of your proposal being in the magazine?…Could you see a feature on it in the magazine?”

“It’s exploration,” Harris said. “The science, the ingenuity as well as the curiosity and the brand overall. Can it be the next cover?”


The U.S. sports broadcaster received around 1,500 pitches last year, but only accepted five or six said Adam Neuhaus, ESPN’s senior director of development.

With this in mind, Neuhaus attended the Sheffield Doc/Fest virtually to talk about what documentary filmmakers and producers should know when pitching to and working with ESPN’s premium documentary strand, ’30 For 30′. The brand was originally created to celebrate the broadcaster’s 30th anniversary in 2010, but has since taken on a life of its own with more than 100 feature films, more than 65 short films and 37 podcast episodes in the 11 years since its launch.

ESPN Films’ focus is to tell stories that go beyond sports with greater human and societal themes.

“It’s an invitation that speaks to the perspective that we’re trying to do with the film, which is tell me a story,” Neuhaus said. “We’re not looking to do a film just because it’s a very famous person or a famous event or to do a survey thematic. We want to tell stories that are about something greater.”

Neuhaus said ESPN often takes films about athleticism, competition and adventure that aren’t exactly sports films. He referenced the recent 30 for 30 film Be Water about Bruce Lee or how ESPN airs spelling bees and hot dog eating contests.

More specifically though, Neuhaus said his team looks for evergreen stories that are at least a decade old, focused on a single story or event, that sometimes take a new angle on well-known stories, and they often like to invest in films with plenty of archival footage, as in The Last Dance.

Neuhaus said they look for knowledgeable and passionate filmmakers, and aren’t worried about how big of a sports fan a director is if they’re well-prepared and great storytellers.

Ideally, ESPN fully commissions projects, Neuhaus said, with acquisitions of films already in progress much rarer. The network likes to fund projects in one fell swoop, eliminating the need to find multiple revenue streams.

The network can help a production company with a pitch find a filmmaker, or vice versa. They also have internal story ideas that they’ll reach out to directors to work on.

Typically, ESPN isn’t as interested in all-access vérité films, as this style is already used often in their regular news coverage. But they would accept a pitch for a film in this style if the story, characters and filmmaker were strong enough, and generally don’t mind breaking their own rules for the right project, Neuhaus said.

“We want the films to all look and feel totally different. We want it to be the vision of the director,” Neuhaus said. “We’ve done all this work in development getting to know you and seeing your style and understanding what you’re trying to do, so that when we get to the production phase, our goal is to support your vision of the film.”

After the film is finished, they’ll plan to show it at film festivals and events before finding a linear premiere date on ESPN. With so much live sports to air, it can be hard to find a time for the network premiere, but the live sports coverage also means ESPN can secure a big audience for their films. Later, the film ends up on their streaming platform ESPN+, which is currently only available in the U.S.

Neuhaus advised that those pitching stories should know how their pitch would appeal to an American audience. He also said they should know which sports ESPN has the rights to broadcast. It’s not a deal-breaker to pitch a film on something they don’t have the rights to, but it helps to know how a film can line up with what ESPN otherwise broadcasts.

One exception he gave, however, is that ESPN cannot do films about the Olympics, as those rights are solely owned by NBC.

Neuhaus added they’re open to varying lengths of 50 minutes, 90 minutes or multi-part series. They also work on short films where they can be more experimental with the goal of receiving award and festival attention and to work with different filmmakers.

But with only five or six films released each year, Neuhaus said they work to ensure each one feels like a big event.

With files from Jillian Morgan and Andrew Jeffrey

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