As Atlas Media’s Bruce David Klein noted in a recent op-ed for Realscreen, “premium” (with or without quotation marks, as per your taste) is becoming increasingly central to the global factual market. And naturally, the increased ambition and increased production values that this track demands come with a commensurate increase in budgets — which is why coproduction is becoming ever more important for producers looking to stake a claim in this space.
Though the word itself went unspoken, “premium” was the primary subject of the “Coproduction: Strength in Numbers” panel that took place on the penultimate day of the 2022 Realscreen Summit, as the sizzle reels provided by the participants attested. Introducing a dramatic (and dramatically high-gloss) clip from last year’s Surviving 9/11, Camilla Cope (pictured, second from left) of UK-based prodco incubator and business accelerator Greenbird Media, noted that the 90-minute doc involved co-financing from 22 territories. The high-end wildlife programs spotlighted by Love Nature’s Michelle Bagliebter (The Ocean’s Greatest Feast) and ZDFE.Unscripted’s Nikolas Huelbusch (Africa from Above), with their dazzling underwater and aerial footage (respectively), more obviously bespoke the monetary involvement of many hands, as did the triumphalist sports and history content featured in the Red Bull Studios reel presented by the company’s head of partnerships and commercial strategy Sebastian Burkhardt.
Asked by moderator Rachel Job (pictured, far left), SVP of unscripted content at All3Media, why producers should consider coproduction, Huelbusch responded first jovially (“It’s fun!”) and then flatly and directly: “Plus, some shows couldn’t be made without it.” Below are some of the tips, recommendations and cautions that the panelists had for producers with an eye on premium.
Sometimes, bigger is better
“Premium” can have many meanings, but another “P” — production value — is almost always going to be both implied and expected of programs with that imprimatur. “You get more bang for your buck” with coproduction financing, said Bagliebter (pictured, center); the more money you’re getting from more places, “the more money goes on the screen.” And for intrinsically expensive genres such as wildlife docs — which both Love Nature, Huelbusch’s ZDFE and Cope’s Greenbird traffic heavily in — coproduction is a virtual essential.
Find your own formula
While the panelists sought to give the Summit audience something of a road map for navigating coproduction, it was one with a number of routes; “Each coproduction is a different type of puzzle, and there are always different ways of completing that puzzle,” offered Bagliebter, putting another metaphorical spin on it. What a producer needs from a prospective partner — and what that partner may expect in return — can vary given the particular project. “Listen to what your partners want,” advised Huelbusch, and do that from the very beginning; if what they’re looking for from the project diverges too far, editorially or otherwise, from what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s easier to make a “graceful exit” early in the process than to engage in more fraught discussions further down the road.
At the same time, Huelbusch and others also pointed out that one of the potential benefits of coproduction is that your partners can productively expand one’s original editorial vision. As Red Bull’s Burkhardt noted, partnering with a “likeminded producer” who intimately understands their own local audience can be a valuable resource for increasing the project’s transnational appeal.
And on that note…
Think globally, make space for the local
The increased investment that premium requires necessitates that it be able to play to multi-territorial audiences. This means not only that premium-aspiring prodcos would be advised to pursue their ambitions in genres that are proven to travel well — Huelbusch’s ZDFE works extensively with indies in the wildlife, science and history spaces as these are the most “global topics” — but to produce the actual program in such a way that maximizes ease of travel.
“You always have to talk about versioning for different territories” at the beginning of copro discussions, said Huelbusch — which means, for one prominent example, constructing your narration and on-camera interviews in such a way that your original contributors can be seamlessly replaced by local talent and/or experts for your copro partners’ territories. While this necessarily entails increased budgeting for extra shooting and editing, strategically it’s indispensable as you should not be banking your project on the appeal of a single, on-camera personality who cannot be easily removed in an edit. As Cope pointed out, even David Attenborough — a veritable secular saint of the natural history and wildlife genres in both the UK and North America — is not a big deal in the many other regions that eagerly consume that content.
But don’t spread yourself too thin
Multiregional appeal is one thing, but copro-reliant producers need to keep enough of the revenues at home in order to make the project financially viable for them. One of the fundamental facts of coproduction, Cope pointed out, is that you are “cutting up your pie” among your partners, so you just need to ensure that you are keeping a sufficient piece for yourself. Huelbusch seconded that, saying that “it’s important as a distributor to have enough rights left at the end of the day” in order to have a “sensible distribution” — that is, selecting partners who will only have rights to one or two territories (if that) and retaining enough of the rest to ensure your own ROI.
On this point, the panel’s moderator Job raised the inevitable question of streaming and asked whether those platforms’ reputed tendency to demand global distribution rights for projects under their copro umbrellas had begun to lessen recently. While Cope opined that “there are more windows now” for making copro arrangements with streamers work, Huelbusch maintained that Netflix — which, despite its recent Wall Street struggles, remains the proverbial 600-pound gorilla in the streaming space (or in the discourse around it, at the very least) — still presents something of a challenge for distributors as it is “pretty exclusive” with rights.
However, Huelbusch also stated that ZDFE has had very positive experiences working with the Curiosity Stream platform, which led organically to the panel’s concluding truism that:
It’s all about the relationships
… a sentiment that was echoed throughout this year’s Realscreen Summit. Asked for their final thoughts, all the panelists emphasized the value of discussion, collaboration, and remaining “open to the possibilities that are out there,” as Red Bull’s Burkhardt put it — which many of the panel attendees, who overwhelmingly directed questions to Burkhardt, clearly seemed to be. (“They can smell the money,” said All3Media’s Job with a laugh.)