Carl Hall and Sophie Turner Laing tell TBI about how the freshly minted Sky Vision will be adding Sky’s upcoming original dramas to its slate as well as working with Sky News and Sky Sports to bring new programming to market.
Sophie Turner Laing and Carl Hall worked together at Hit Entertainment. Fast forward to today and Turner Laing, now managing director, entertainment and news at BSkyB, and Hall, who founded Parthenon, are working together again after the pay TV platform’s deal to buy the producer and distributor.
The result is Sky Vision, which made its first market appearance at MIPCOM.
BSkyB has spent £450 million on original programming this year and has committed to up that to £600 million by the end of 2014.
Given that hefty financial commitment there was a clear rationale in adding a distribution division to the company. But given Sky’s size and financial muscle – at last count it had 10.6 million customers, spending an average £548 a year on Sky – why not create an in-house distribution division from the ground up?
“I know about distribution and I know how much infrastructure is needed and how important it is to have a good sales team, so when I sat down with Carl, Parthenon was very much the type of thing we wanted. I know the team here work very hard at selling all types of show,” Turner Laing says. “We are committed to spending £600 million on programming by 2014 and it is very important we get a return on that investment so that we can carry on putting money on screen.”
An advance from Sky Vision alongside Sky’s original investment in a project means Sky will in some cases cover the entire budget of a show, almost unheard of in an era when coproduction is the order of the day.
At MIPCOM it had Mother of Invention, an 8x60mins business series from Objective Productions that was commissioned by Sky Atlantic, but the trickle of Sky series on the slate will increase significantly in the coming weeks and months. Adding drama to the catalogue is a key development for Sky Vision, given Parthenon was known for its factual programming.
“Not all producers have a distribution arm and we can fully finance and we will put up an advance against sales.” Turner Laing says. “A slate of drama is in development and it will be part of Carl’s portfolio.”
Since making its £600 million commitment Sky has ordered original scripted series including fire-fighter drama The Smoke (Kudos), family drama Moonfleet (Company Pictures), action series Sinbad (Impossible Pictures) and comedies Moone Boy (Baby Cow) and A Touch of Cloth (Zeppotron). There is also an anglo-French version of The Bridge.
Distribution is already tied up on these, but Sky Vision will start shopping upcoming Sky scripted projects and these will be on the slate by MIP TV next April.
The company is also staffing up and looking for, among other positions, an acquisition executive who can acquire scripted titles.
The fact Sky’s drama will start going through Sky Vision has been widely reported, but the new unit will also work with other Sky content in the fields of both news and sport.
“Sky News is one area we are looking at,” Hall says. “All of the content is in HD and we can put together half-hours, and also do footage sales.”
“There is lots of opportunity with Sky Sports,” Turner Laing adds. “The rights for the games and events themselves are tied up, but there is a lot of other programming, player profiles etc. Sky did some brilliant Formula 1 stuff ahead of the launch of the F1 HD channel.
Hall will also use his and his team’s expertise to bring in international coproduction partners on board projects for Sky’s channels, for Sky Arts for example. Parthenon bought a 48% stake in Canadian production company Arcadia Content in 2009 and it looks a likely copro partner for upcoming projects.
News Corp.-backed BSkyB wasn’t Parthenon’s only suitor. Others including Liberty Global’s content arm Chellomedia and the content division of Austria’s Red Bull were also being linked to the company, but at the end of July Sky completed the deal.
Financial details of the Sky agreement were not disclosed, but it is estimated that the purchase price was £16-17 million, for which Sky got full ownership of a working production and distribution business.
Specifically, it got Parthenon, Bristol-based CGI and visual effects studios 422 South, Arcadia Content and London post-production sound studio, Barbershop Studios. Parthenon’s last audited statements revealed it had assets of £18.2 million as of end-June 2011.
Hall, the ex-managing director of HIT’s HIT Wildlife arm started Parthenon in 2002. Parthenon was then acquired by Arkaga in late 2007 before Hall bought it back from the private equity investment fund in mid-2009, creating Parthenon Media Group.
At that point its catalogue was about 1,200 hours and had expanded to 1,400 hours before the Sky deal. Post Sky, Hall says the catalogue is 2,300 hours with the additional hours largely coming from the Living library that was distributed by now-defunct Target Entertainment.
That gives it lifestyle and fact-ent shows including Baby ER (Real Life Media), Abbey & Janice: Beauty and the Best (Whizz Kid Entertainment), Most Haunted (Antix Productions) and Conversations With a Serial Killer (Twofour Broadcast).
These sit alongside Parthenon’s pre-existing factual output, which includes Britain & Ireland from the Sky (Bigger Pictures), Forensic Firsts (StoryHouse Productions).
At MIPCOM it also had David Attenborough series Kingdom of Plants (Atlantic Productions) and Galapagos (Colossus Productions, a joint venture between Sky and Atlantic) and the natural history icon could be seen all over Sky Vision marketing and its stand at the market.
That Sky Vision is distributing the series is significant, not least because Atlantic recently established a commercial arm, headed by John Morris, which was expected to handle international sales. The shows air on Sky and Hall says that Sky Vision simply offered better terms.
Producers working with Sky say that the message is clear that going forward Sky Vision would like to be the distribution partner of their shows.
There are a handful of kids titles in the catalogue including animated series Dex Hamilton: Alien Entomologist (Dex Hamilton Enterprises) and Big Bear & Squeak! (Arcadia and Parthenon). This is, however, this is one area in which Sky Vision will not be expanding.
Hall says: “We have a really solid factual base and will be adding genres. The only place we will not get more involved is kids, which is a very specialist area.”
The company will keep its presence in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, where it is currently based with some staff moving to Sky’s headquarters in Osterley, West London. It also has production offices in Bristol and a European sales office in Germany. A US office is reportedly an early priority.