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The copro landscape: Meet the fixers

Death-Comes-to-PemberleyA batch of one-stop shop consultancies from the UK aimed at facilitating global coproduction has emerged in the past year. Jesse Whittock gets the low-down on their strategies as the boom in international drama continues.

It is obvious that, with television drama in a prolonged golden era, broadcasters will increasingly be on the hunt for their own channel-defining scripted product.

The growing international production business is spawning commercially-successful and critically acclaimed coproductions such Sky Atlantic and Canal+’s crime serial The Tunnel or the BBC and Starz’s period piece The White Queen. As Tim Corrie, who was chairman of BAFTA until last year and has more than four decades of experience of packaging projects, says, “The whole business has gone international overnight”.

Tim Corrie

Tim Corrie

Internationally coproduced dramas are taking various routes to market, and a new batch of companies – primarily from the UK – has subsequently emerged to help producers capitalise on this opportunity.

“Five years ago in television, the number of places [in the UK] you could approach for development financing was very small – the BBC, ITV and Sky, which was emerging,” says Corrie. “Suddenly, we’re looking at complete globalisation.”

Corrie recently became non-executive chairman of Bob & Co, a London-based media advisory and investment firm that former HandMade Films chairman Bob Benton launched in 2010 to connect content indie producers and talent with finance.

The firm is among a group of new companies that seek to help television projects find coproduction partners, distributors and other financiers.

“Bob & Co recognises content as an asset and a commodity that has both a business and a creative value,” says Corrie, a former agent and co-founder of British talent studio United Artists. His main role at Bob & Co is to identify scripted TV, film and theatre projects that would work across multiple platforms.

Far Moor Media is another UK-based firm approaching drama from a similar standpoint. The firm, which programming veterans Patrick Irwin and Justin Thomson-Glover launched last year, focuses on financing projects for the international market.

After a long period in which the pair had brokered and coproduced dramas including Sky’s Thorne and Combat Hospital, the latter of which was produced with Toronto’s Sienna Films and went out on Global in Canada and ABC in the US, “it became clear that the financing, presale and non-physical production was a separate skill [to production],” says Irwin of the firm’s genesis.

Far Moor launched in January 2013, though the pair stayed in the production game through their Artists Studio arm, which is the lead producer behind BBC Two’s Gillian Anderson crime drama The Fall, itself an England/Northern Ireland coproduction with funding drawn from multiple sources.

The Far Moor business model is to offer business affairs acumen, sales and distribution capabilities, and deal structuring know-how to indies and others, including investors from the film business. It can also provide legal advice through Lee & Thompson, a media law firm that was a Far Moor launch partner last year, and was a stakeholder until Endemol acquired Artist Studios and, by extension, Far Moor early this year.

Mr Sloane“The idea is that instead of having to go to six different groups [to finance and distribute a project], they can talk to us,” says Thomson-Glover. We can hold their hands as executive producers, so when they go into a room with the BBC, [drama controller] Ben Stephenson knows there are people involved who have delivered big-budget drama in the past.”

In some cases, Far Moor takes a step back from production. This was the case with the BBC’s Death Comes to Pemberley (pictured top), a deal that brought together the UK pubcaster, indie Origin Pictures and PBS’s Masterpiece drama strand from the US.

Another ‘fixer’ firm, Grand Scheme Media, which worked on Sky Atlantic’s recent comedy Mr Sloane (above), takes a similar approach. “We’re very happy not to produce shows,” says Graham Smith, a seasoned coproduction broker and one of three Grand Scheme partners alongside Mark Robson and Tony Orsten.

The firm was initially launched as a development consultancy for small indies that would “go in, shake down a project, rewrite it if necessary, and guide the producer in the right direction”, but this proved to be just the beginning.
“It turned out our offer had much more appeal than we anticipated,” says Smith. “We now work with a wide range of clients, [including] a lot of middle-sized production companies with development teams. We can go in and manage those teams on a short-term basis, as sometimes they don’t understand how to match the creative with the commercial.”

Elsewhere, former RDF and Channel 5 coproductions chief Lilla Hurst and Extreme Sports Channel co-founder Ben Barrett last year launched Drive, a coproduction consultancy that similarly uses its experience and deal-structuring expertise to “doggedly get something over the line and into production”, as Barrett puts it.

Drive began life focusing on unscripted programming, and is currently on retainer from around six factual indies as well as taking on case-by-case projects. It is now moving into international drama coproduction. “When I launched my previous consultancy, Lillavision, in 2008, the high-end drama business was on its knees,” says Hurst. “It’s only been in the last year or so that it’s become viable again, especially for coproduction.”

Justin Thomson Glover

Justin Thomson Glover

Drive’s first major scripted brokerage deal was bringing together UK pubcaster BBC Two and US cable net SundanceTV on the Guy Hibbert-written drama One Child, which is slated for launch late this year.

BBC production executives had brought Hurst the project late in 2012, at which point BBC Two was attached, though not covering the entire budget. Sundance scripted commissioner Christian Vesper was keen, but progress slowed after the cable channel restructured. Eventually Sundance signed on, and was quickly followed by BBC Worldwide, which paid for the international sales rights. “To be honest, no distributor would go near it until Sundance was on board,” says Hurst.

“It’s an interesting example of how we can operate with projects from big entities such as the BBC,” adds Barrett. “Because we’re nimble and focused, we can push projects into different places and really get behind them.”

Each of these new players sees continued involvement in the final product that results from their investment as part of the business model; even those not producing take an active monitoring role to ensure their bets pay off.

“We don’t just set something up and say goodbye to it,” says Far Moor’s Thomson- Glover. “We have to ensure that the coproduction works in terms of financing, points or anything else that the project needs, and that is an ongoing thing.”

Larger copro players are now beginning to offer producers similar all-in-one deals as demand for content grows.

“In a way, we are setting ourselves up as a bespoke, boutique player, albeit a larger one with the financial backing of RTL,” says FremantleMedia’s director of global drama Sarah Doole of the production giant’s business model.
“In terms of raising money towards distribution advances, if there’s a great script and talent at the heart of it, we can go straight to RTL and move things forward.”

Similarly, Carrie Stein, executive VP of global production at Entertainment One Television, says: “We’re bringing a pretty fully developed package to channels, whether that’s a script and three or four top level auspices, for example, and that’s a big change. You can no longer go in on a wing and a prayer.”

FremantleMedia’s latest coproduced drama bets include Birds of Prey, an international series based on a Wilbur Smith novel featuring the writing talent of crime novelist JJ Connolly, and with indie Corona Pictures attached. eOne has been working on Welcome to Sweden (below, bottom), the TV4 Scandi comedy from Greg and Amy Poehler that NBC has acquired for the US; and The Book of Negroes (trailer below), which has been packaged for CBC in Canada and BET in the US, and is getting an international debut at MIPCOM with Good Gooding Jr. among the stars heading to the Croisette to promote it.

The likes of eOne, FremantleMedia, Shine, Endemol and ITV Studios all have established relationships with key broadcasters that they feel set them apart from competition. However, the new crop of copro fixers, which also includes Social Construct Media and Simon Vaughan’s Lookout Point, are making in-roads in this space.

Drive’s success in bringing One Child to SundanceTV has seen the consultancy handed a retainer by the AMC Networks-owned cable channel. Drive will now identify drama projects ripe for coproduction and bring them to the network, which then weighs up investment.

“We are retained by Sundance to help them find the next drama that they will internationally coproduce,” says Barrett. “We’re their eyes and ears on the ground in the UK.”

Far Moor recently jetted off to the US to meet the key on-demand players commissioning content to see if new coproduction opportunities are on the horizon, while Irwin says his firm is working with an unnamed US broadcaster. This channel is “looking to set up formats it can control and sell to a UK broadcaster” that utilise the UK drama tax credit, he adds.

Elsewhere, Grand Scheme is working with 20th Century Fox and identifying ‘broken’ pilots that could be adapted for the UK.

“The American system is so wasteful,” says Grand Scheme’s Smith of the partnership’s roots. “This year the networks funded 100 drama and comedy pilots, and probably only five per network get commissioned. We always thought there had got to be a lot of interesting projects that fall by the wayside, so we’re going through Fox’s drama and comedy development and pilot slates, analysing them and seeing any can be reversioned for the UK.”

Graham Smith

Grand Scheme’s Graham Smith

A sitcom project has been identified and is currently in the process of script rewrites.

“It’s a suck it and see relationship with Fox, and if we can get some traction then we can see a real future in people like us working with busted pilots,” says Smith.

Distribution and development execs at US studios and networks clearly see potential in the model these firms are championing, and others are coming round. “What we’ve found recently is that some of the much bigger, more established companies are coming to us for help,” says Drive’s Hurst.

This could be because the range of services on offer – from legal advice from Far Moor to sales from Drive. “If distribution rights are still available after we’ve funded a show, we’ll look to do limited territory sales, in which we will try to sell or presell into certain major markets on a reduced commission,” explains Drive’s Barrett.

“It’s competitive proposition and attractive to both us and the producer, as we’ve spent time getting to know the project. We can offer 15 per cent against a distributor’s 25 plus five.”

However, he adds: “We don’t want to step on distributors’ toes. We want to populate that space between producer and distributor.

“This could be on a project we think is fantastic, but needs significant investment. Distributors can find it very hard to engage with that, because they don’t know if there will be an end product.”

FremantleMedia’s Doole acknowledges these new consultancies have developed a service that “takes on all the hard work and labour to get a project to the point it can be pitched”.

“That’s all great, but we’re trying to do it in a different way – we really want to at the creative heart of these projects,” she says, adding that when FremantleMedia International takes sales rights, it will not be “an arm’s length distributor, as we want to be a hands-on creative partner delivering finance and success”.

Welcome-to-SwedenBob & Co’s new scout Corrie first made his name in UK drama circles as an agent for the Fraser and Dunlop Scripts agency in the 1970s. Nearly 40 years later in 2007, he co-founded United Agents, a London-based talent hub. He hopes to use those skills to effectively become an agent and go-between for British and international talent, and the broadcasters, distributors and platforms seeking their wares.

Corrie says the key difference between a regular production company and Bob & Co is their ability to take early-stage calculated investment risks.

“My colleagues have shown they are prepared to back their own judgement, and invest money into the buying of options. Most of the small production companies have to depend on a broadcaster to come in at a very early stage to help even finance the first hour of a script from development to production.

“What I see Bob & Co doing is making that huge difference by being prepared to find and pay for writers at that early stage. When I was an agent, that’s what we were looking for.”