The factual landscape: ducks, docs and digital

duckdynastymgall_05212013_kw_0073The business of selling factual programming is changing – with free-to-air slots for classic factual shows hard to come by, distributors are looking to other categories of non-fiction, as well as to digital, big-screen and even virtual reality platforms, writes Stewart Clarke.

For the largest factual distributors the business has got more complex and, increasingly, about the kind of volume and package deals more traditionally associated with scripted programming and the Hollywood studios.

A+E International has an 11,000-hour catalogue that spans classic high-end docs, true-crime series, character-driven franchises and now scripted content, with Lifetime product in the fold.

The size of the catalogue and off-the-scale ratings success of shows such as Duck Dynasty means A+E can do bigger deals, which could span several types of non-fiction programming and include TV movies or other drama fare.

“There are a lot of volume, output and multiyear deals now, as we have programmes that show consistent ratings,” says Marielle Zuccarelli (pictured, right), A+E’s managing director, international content distribution. “Buyers know what they will be getting and want to lock in rights to further shows. The deal-making process is longer and more complex.”

Marielle-Zuccarelli---MD,-International-Content-Distribution,-A+E-NetworksWith such a large amount of programming, A+E has reworked the structure of its catalogue so that the target demo for each programme and category of programming is clearer. “It helps if customers can see the split between target demographics, especially with volume deals,” says Zuccarelli.

For the distributors-come-channel operators, the sales process is made more complex by the need to service their own networks before making programming available to international buyers. That holdback, which could be between six-to-twelve months, can be a challenge for big acquiring broadcasters in developed territories, which do not want to wait for key shows.

At the other end of the scale, for the large distributors, deals in smaller territories need to be for sizable volumes of content to be worthwhile. When a broadcaster in a small territory in Central and Eastern Europe, for example, is paying between US$50 and US$200 an hour for factual programming, it will need to acquire a number of hours to make it a deal worth doing for the distributor.

Discovery has a 15,000-hour catalogue spanning non-fiction content from ob docs to blue-chip. With more non-fiction channels than anyone else globally, the sale of Discovery content to other broadcasters involves making a territory-by-territory call on how long the holdback should be and what can be offered.

“It needs to be a very strategic approach and we may refrain from selling hundreds and hundreds of hours [to one customer],” says Saevar Lemke, Discovery Enterprises International’s regional director, programme sales, EMEA. He identifies the numerous thematic DTT channels that are rolling out as a growth area, and says these channels are good customers for library programming that has already gone out on Discovery channels but remains relevant.

“There are more and more niche channels and all of them are potential clients,” Lemke says. “You plan and think about what you will be getting from a particular country for the year ahead, and then a [DTT] channel launches and you do some deals and that changes. In that respect you can land some lucky punches.”

Walter-KohlerAt the high end of the classic docs market, demand is steady, according to Walter Köhler, CEO of Terra Mater (pictured, left), the Red Bull Media House-owned factual studio. “Blue-chip natural history content is king – and it get’s ever stronger,” he says, adding there has been an uptick in demand for high-end series rather than just one-offs. “If there’s a discernible trend it is that miniseries do extremely well in the market.”

Producers are, meanwhile, more savvy than ever before in terms of what they can command from a distributor. If there’s a large funding gap, the decision over a distributor could come down to who will contribute the most, but programme-makers also want to see a programme-seller present a plan for how and where they will sell a show.

“Producers see what international distribution can do, and ‘international’ is now part of the business plan, not an afterthought,” says Caitlin Meek-O’Connor, acquisitions manager, factual and factual entertainment at Modern Times Group-owned and UK-based distributor DRG.

She adds: “For us it’s about saying to producers, ‘this is what is in our catalogue, this is who we sell to and this is our plan and what we will do with your show’. There is more competition for rights and we now have to work [with producers] from an earlier stage – in drama that was always the case because of the funding model, it’s now the case in factual too.”

DRG reps factual content from Channel 5 in the UK and TV3 in Ireland, and just inked a first-look deal with Latimer Films, the UK independent producer behind dog-fighting  doc Going to the Dogs.

Talent TV South's Frankie Fraser's Last-Stand

Talent TV South’s Frankie Fraser’s Last-Stand

If producers are more aware of making projects with international legs, they often balance that with country-specific projects. Kate Beale is managing director of Talent TV South, which has made several shows for fledgling UK regional station London Live’s Platform 8 doc strand, including Jail Birds, which is about prisoners’ families, that are unlikely to resonate beyond the UK. However, it also works with A+E, Discovery and Nat Geo. For international sales, Talent works with a range of partners including Content Media, DRG and Sky Vision, and Beale says that a good distributor will nowadays help facilitate deals, make introductions and generally do more than simply sell a finished programme.

While the rights position when working with the largest factual channels does not allow for any international back-end for the producer – they often do not keep any – it is sometimes just as rewarding, and simpler, than embarking on a project that will require finding coproduction partners, presales and other sources of funding. “You might sign away rights, but then [the channel is] paying for it,” says Beale. “We’d rather keep rights, but to a certain extent, a fully-funded Discovery show can make as much as a commissioned programme you can then sell on.”

The success of Duck Dynasty in the US and internationally has got factual producers turning their hand to big-personality ob docs. In many territories broadcasters that want to tap into the character-led trend, but favour local over US content, which how Oyster Empire came about. DRG is selling the upcoming series, about a family of Irish oyster farmers for Ireland’s TV3.

“It’s in that Duck Dynasty style and it is a learning experience for us,” says Ian Lamarra from the show’s producer, London-based independent Alaska, which has branched out from talent-led fact ent series since launching in 2011. “It’s being exec produced by Paul Sommers, who is ex-Tiger Aspect and has done a lot of blue-chip docs, while this is more akin to a drama series.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Lamarra says it is too early for Alaska to cut a first-look agreement with a distributor. “I don’t think we should tie ourselves into a deal yet. Our programmes are very eclectic and the best person for [Crime & Investigation series] Gangs of Britain is different to the best person for [Channel 5’s upcoming] Blinging Up Baby.” In a TV world witnessing frenetic M&A activity,

Lamarra makes another point about the implications of an indie agreeing a long-term deal with a distributor: “If the intellectual property is tied up we are less attractive to buy,” he says.

If bigger, more involved deals are the order of the day for factual distributors, so is franchise-building. While fact-ent series are formattable, classic wildlife and natural history programmes are not, but a franchise delivers a recurring pipeline of content within a recognisable framework.

The Bristol arm of Amsterdam-based Off the Fence produces the ‘Wildest’ series of programmes for Discovery. It has already made Wildest Latin America, Wildest India, Wildest Arctic series, and is now embarking on World’s Wildest Cities: Manaus. The programming strand looks at how animals adapt to climates and environments. The new instalment, a copro between France Televisions and Discovery in Europe, has been prebought for Animal Planet in Latin America. It will look at how humans and wildlife co-exist in the largest city in the Amazon, Manaus.

In the blue-chip realm, Terra Mater’s Kohler identifies a demand for history projects covering big, international subject matter. “We’re discovering a strong comeback for blue-chip science and big international history topics,” he says. “We think the global audiences have enough of very nationalised history. There’s a big demand for overarching topics.”

Galapagos_a5_H_iguana_v2Like Terra Mater, Atlantic Productions makes high-end ‘classic’ docs, including several with iconic natural history presenter and expert Sir David Attenborough. It has been at the forefront of distributing content to new platforms and exploiting windows outside of TV. That, commercial director John Morris says, came out of the realisation that it was not making the most of the rights it had. In distributor speak, it wasn’t working the rights hard enough.

Having made big-budget 3D offerings for Sky in the UK including Galapagos 3D (pictured), Flying Monsters 3D and penguin doc The Bachelor King 3D, a new distribution outlet that opened was the Imax and giant screen market. While these windows involve a holdback from TV and will stymie the ability to presell to broadcasters, cinema adds to the marketing buzz of a show and generates revenue. A giant screen also offers advantages over a regular theatrical release in that a film might be licensed for six months or a year, and then be re-licensed. Flying Monsters 3D, for example, is being licensed for a third giant-screen cycle. As the rights holder, Atlantic gets an ongoing share of the box office, which now surpasses US$10 million. Atlantic will now take the show to TV.

A cinema holdback can be tricky for sales firms to work with. “For a lot of distributors it is hard to get their head around the fact that they won’t be able to sell something for 18 months,” Morris (pictured, left) says. “Some are factories that churn through content, and not all of them can accommodate that [window].”

John-MorrisUpcoming Atlantic doc Conquest of the Skies will debut on Sky in the UK and then have a giant screen release around the end of 2015, meaning international TV sales will not start in earnest until 2016.

Atlantic has made 3D content work successfully with its giant screen strategy and for Sky, the commissioning broadcaster of the 3D shows (Sky and Atlantic have a 3D production JV, Colossus), it makes sense as it needs to programme its dedicated 3D channel. For others, 3D for TV is not a viable option and they are looking instead to the ultra high-definition 4K standard.

“3D is just an option for the big cinema screen, but makes no commercial sense for TV because it increases the production budgets without an equal increase in revenue,” Terra Mater’s Kohler. “4K, on the other hand, is completely different. This will be the new production standard for the next years. We think the upgrade to 4K will go faster than the change from SD to HD.”

Managing 3DTV, TV, cinema releases, on-demand exclusives and sales to traditional platforms is challenging. That holds true for the programme makers who might now need to make several versions to suit each medium.

That conundrum is about to get more complex as Atlantic is currently experimenting with content for the Oculus Rift virtual reality system. The production team have been testing what can and can’t be done while making Conquest of the Skies (which will not, as reported, have a virtual reality component).

“The production team now needs to think in four or five different ways – for TV, 3D, giant screen and now virtual reality, which we will do for our next project,” Atlantic’s Morris says. “As with 3D we want to be at the front edge with virtual reality – although we don’t know where the ‘VR window’ will be yet.”

Another window, another opportunity, another challenge. Given attendees at factual festivals a few years ago were being fed a doom-laden view of the unscripted business, many are embracing the more involved, layered world of making and selling factual content. More windows are opening than closing.

The Netflix effect

There is a new factual buyer in town and it goes by the name of Netflix. Having initially focused on drama acquisitions and originals, the streaming service is now moving into factual, with predictably market-altering consequences.

Its first original acquisition was The Square, director-producer Jehane Moujaim and Karim Amer’s film about the struggle for change during the Egyptian revolution, as seen through the eyes of young activists.

Hank-PaulsonIt has also picked up premiere rights to Bloomberg Businessweek Films’ debut documentary, Hank: Five Years From the Brink (pictured), the Emmy- and Academy-nominated doc maker Joe Berlinger’s Hank Paulson doc.

Another acquisition was The Short Game, the Delirio Films doc, exec produced by Justin Timberlake and following eight seven year-old competitive golfers as they prepare for the World Championship of Junior Golf.

The ‘Netflix effect’ when it comes to docs is to provide a boost to theatrical and festival films, which it is then eyeing as ‘original’ programmnig for its service. However, to qualify as a Netflix Original the streaming service will want all rights, which could mean a first-window in a large number of territories as its international footprint expands.

Its hold back is usually against pay TV, digital and video-on-demand, meaning a distributor can still sell to free-to-air – albeit free-to-air slots for feature docs are few and far between. The free-to-air buyer would, however, likely be precluded from putting the film on its catch-up or on-demand service.

If Netflix is interested it will pay a premium license fee, but some suggest it does not market its docs with the same gusto as its drama originals, meaning a traditional sale to a handful of pay channels, who will promote the film heavily, could see it reach a wider audience. Currently, the on-demand service is mostly buying for the US and adding in other territories, but is expected to start buying docs on a territory-specific basis as its international services roll out and develop.

“Netflix presents a tremendous opportunity for theatrical docs,” says Kathryn Bonnici, head of acquisitions and development at Java Films, the European indie doc distributor that sells Emptying the Skies, the feature doc based upon author Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker magazine article about songbird culling, and I Will Be Murdered, a doc about a wealthy Mexican lawyer’s ill-fated investigation into his lover’s death.

Java opened a separate feature doc division last year, and Bonnici says Netflix is giving the whole documentary film business a boost. “A platform like Netflix makes festival [films] more commercially viable for a distributor as they will pay big money for the cream of that circuit,” she says.

Netflix might provides a shot in the arm for factual films, but the business of acquiring and selling them can come with requirements above those for a regular factual one-off or series. “Especially with issue-driven films, you need to do outreach, arrange screenings and work with charities and that can cost,” says Bonnici.

As with regular features, the feature doc windows are closing so that while the typical festival-to-theatrical-to-TV cycle that was traditionally about 18 months can now be six months or shorter.

Dan and Josh Braun’s Submarine Entertainment is a key player in the feature doc world, repping titles including Man on Wire and Super Size Me among others. Advisory companies such as former CAA agent Kevin Iwashina’s Preferred Content also play an increasingly important role in packaging content and brokering deals between finance, production and distribution partners. Preferred Content also produces through Preferred Film and TV, a joint venture with producer and distributor Content Media.

Read Next