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Distributors: the new producers?

A growing number of distributors are involved in activities that look more like development, production and commissioning. Andy Fry investigates

At its core, the primary role of a TV distributor is still to sell programmes to the international market. But these days a growing number of distributors are also involved in activities that look more like development, production and – in some cases – commissioning.

There are several reasons for this, but the main one, says eOne Television International president Stuart Baxter, is money: “Shows that have the potential to sell internationally have become more expensive to make, but broadcasters in individual markets are paying less towards them. That means distributors are taking on more of the financial risk. It’s difficult for us to do that if we don’t have any influence or control over the quality of the resulting show.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that distributors are deciding the creative direction of shows, says Baxter, but they are intervening in ways that make shows more marketable. “In the case of the eOne group, we have a really experienced chief content officer in Mark Gordon, who is in charge of delivering great shows, but eOne will feedback market intelligence into the process – for example what tone will work for which network and the kind of cast that sells. We can also make judgement calls about whether increasing investment behind a show might make it more attractive to international buyers.”

He says scripted series Ransom (left) is an example: “That show came to us from a French production company. It was a great premise, but a bit parochial. So we brought in Frank Spotnitz as lead writer, increased the budget and introduced international talent. That was enough to get CBS interested, and then RTL and TF1 also came on board.”

Paramount president of worldwide television licensing Dan Cohen describes a similar set up at his division, which distributes high end scripted series such as Yellowstone and the new Jack Ryan TV series: “The responsibility for sourcing IP or developing ideas sits elsewhere within Paramount, but our job is to ensure that a project can work internationally. An idea may come to us with a partner attached but if we don’t think we can distribute it, we can’t support it. Similarly, I won’t be on set during production, but I really have to know what is going on and have a voice to make sure the project is as anticipated.”

We are not frustrated producers. We believe in the producers’ talent and ability; their taste and judgement. Producers are internationally savvy and understand that ambitious drama needs a strong global appetite to be realised.

At a certain point in the process, this involvement isn’t just about protecting Paramount’s own interests but also those of its partners. “If you take a project like Catch 22,” he says, “that started with an expression of interest from Hulu in the US, but then saw Channel 4 and Sky Italia come on board as co-producers. So part of our role is about representing their views on matters such as script and cast.”

There is a balancing act, acknowledges Cohen, “We’re handling distribution of season two of Turner’s The Alienist – and it’s important for us to say what we think will help internationally. But we can’t overstep the mark and interfere with the creative vision.”

All3Media International CEO Louise Pedersen agrees: “Our level of investment on drama can be as much as 50%, so that gives us influence over a show – but we’d never interfere creatively. Where our role has evolved is in the direction of innovative co-financing.”

By this, she means “looking beyond the traditional commissioners for partners who might get involved in a series. An example would be Studio Lambert drama The Feed, which we brought to Liberty Global and Virgin. And off the back of that Amazon got involved.”

Pedersen draws a line, however, at suggestions that A3MI might request significant changes in the show to fit the needs of buyers – for example moving the location of the action: “It’s the other way round. If we see a great script, we might approach buyers based on our knowledge of the international market. For example, Company Pictures’ Blood was set in Ireland, and that made it logical to work with TV3 Ireland. It wasn’t located in Ireland because of TV3.”

Julie Meldal-Johnsen, EVP global content, ITV Studios Global Entertainment takes a similar line. “We are not frustrated producers. We believe in the producers’ talent and ability; their taste and judgement. Producers are internationally savvy and understand that ambitious drama needs a strong global appetite to be realised.”

That said, “we are across development slates earlier than perhaps traditionally was the norm, so we offer them a sounding board,” she adds. “We work collaboratively throughout development, navigating the idea through the likely competition, and set up the production with international exploitation opportunities and issues in mind. We also bring together international partners who demonstrate the commitment to support the show over a multi-season life cycle.”

Examples, says Meldal-Johnsen, include “The new blockbuster adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (pictured, top) from Mammoth Screen and co-producer Creasun for BBC One, launching this MIPCOM; or Victoria, which is a co-production between Mammoth Screen and PBS for ITV. We nurtured these projects from a very early stage.”

Meldal-Johnsen likens the distributor’s role to a central hub for all partners, the producer, the primary broadcaster and co-producers/ first international partners. For example, Vanity Fair (right) is an Amazon Studios coproduction with ITV and World on Fire, our most ambitious drama yet, is a truly multi-national view of ordinary people during World War II. We have brought in French, German and Polish coproducers to work with Mammoth Screen and the BBC to bring different and authentic multinational voices to this worldwide event.”

If there’s another piece she views as increasingly important it is “marketing, which is something we consider much earlier.”

APC joint CEO Emmanuelle Guilbart agrees that distributors need to protect their investment. And she argues that this is beneficial for producers: “They get access to an exhaustive skill set early on and can optimise every aspect of it, with more chance of having the right development and financing strategy for international success.”

She also says companies like APC “are also very good intermediaries to set up coproductions between producers and projects we believe would add strength and value to each other. For example, we set up the coproduction between Denmark’s Good Company and France’s Make it Happen on the science fiction thriller Unpunished.”

She acknowledges that this more muscular distributor role requires diplomacy. “At APC, we are careful about three things: (a) to never be seen as a source of creative interference but as a source of improvement and support, (b) to stick to our tailor-made approach and adapt our role to what is expected by the producer, and (c) work on projects we are passionate about and where we can make a difference.”

To secure the rights to a marquee project, especially in scripted, you need to get in early, often at the development or scripting stage, with a sizeable financial commitment. You must be nimble, creative and flexible.

APC is positioned as something of a hybrid, explains Guilbart, what she calls a co-pro-distribution boutique: “Giving notes on development and production is something we do even when we simply act as a distributor. However, APC is also developing projects on the production side of our business. Most of these are initiated by producers who come to us at an early stage and who typically retain creative control. And we also have our own projects, which may be based on book adaptation rights or on original ideas.”

Red Arrow Studios International president Henrik Pabst told TBI that the business is very proactive in production-style roles: “Increasingly we manage the relationship between multiple partners on a project at the earliest possible stage, to ensure there is a plan of action, proper allocation of responsibilities and an understanding of how the different elements of the process are to be handled and by whom. And while we always respect the role and integrity of the key production creatives, it can also be helpful to give feedback on areas such as casting and scripts because we bring an international perspective.”

Pabst is also not shy about promoting RASI’s role in sourcing content: “We actively look to acquire and develop IP from a variety of sources and then package them with producers – both Red Arrow Studios companies such as Endor in the UK or Fabrik Entertainment in the US, and third-party producers. We also develop relationships with writing, directing and acting talent. Red Arrow Studios’ partnership with Kari Skogland and her production company Mad Rabbit, is an example.”

Pabst says working with indie producers is a vital part of the mix. “A good example is our work with The Imaginarium and Soho Moon, we are distributing their BBC drama Death and Nightingales (left) at MIPCOM. We provided co-financing alongside UK commissioner BBC2 and RTE in Ireland. In general, we are seen by third-party producers as über-connectors delivering speed, agility, adaptability and intelligence.”

One obvious question is why distributors get involved in risk projects, rather than just focusing on tape sales. Pabst says: “To secure the rights to a marquee project, especially in scripted, you need to get in early, often at the development or scripting stage, with a sizeable financial commitment. You must be nimble, creative and flexible.”

One of the most interesting examples of how the distributor role is evolving is Atrium TV, a scripted TV “commissioning club” launched in 2017 by Howard Stringer, former chairman of Sony, and Jeremy Fox, chairman of distributor DRG. The purpose of Atrium, says DRG CEO Richard Halliwell is to deliver premium international drama content for regional OTT players and telcos. “In essence, Atrium finds and develops scripted projects and presents them to club members, which include the likes of BT TV (UK), Televisa (LatAm) Viaplay (Nordics), Orange (France), Movistar+ (Spain), Deutsche Telekom (Germany) and Iflix (Asia/MENA). If they like a project, they can licence the series for their territory and DRG handles sales in the rest of the world.”

Projects to have been greenlit so far include One Giant Leap and Quasimodo, says Halliwell. “One Giant Leap is being producer by Mike Medavoy (Black Swan) with Stephen Kronish writing (24). Quasimodo is being written by Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars).” In May, a new slate was presented to the buyer’s club, including a Spanish Civil war-themed series from David Simon (creator of The Wire).

With that kind of talent, Halliwell says DRG has no reason to usurp the creative function. “But it’s right to say we are evolving more into being a content business. 3-4 years ago, most of our investment went to acquiring ready-made shows. But now 75% goes into developing early stage projects, first-look deals etc. That’s why we have execs like Dave Clarke and Quinn Taylor working on development and acquisition.”

Halliwell says DRG’s new proactive model extends to factual. An example is MY Entertainment’s four-part series Manson’s Bloodline, which DRG fully-funded before licensing on to Reelz in the US and Viaplay in Scandinavia. “The commissioning environment in factual has become increasingly hostile, and a lot of indies are finding it tough. So distributors like ours play a bigger role in development, deficits and market intelligence. We’ve even extended our floor space so that we can accommodate producers alongside our distribution team.”

Factual TV throws up numerous instances of distributors in non-traditional roles. Passion Distribution, for example, has just presold Pioneer Productions’ series Planes Gone Viral to Network 10 Australia, SKY in New Zealand and NTV in Germany. Emmanuelle Namiech, CEO Passion Distribution, says the show, which features aircraft incidents caught on camera, “comes from collaboration at  development stage between Pioneer and  Passion, in response to the needs from international market, and is financed through the presales and investment. Funding models to create content continue to evolve and it is essential for producers and distributors to work closely together.”

TCB Media, meanwhile, has taken the bold step of appointing its own in-house commissioning executive, Hannah Demidowicz. Confirming the company’s status as a ‘mini-commissioner’ it has just greenlit three shows — World’s Most Incredible Hotels (13 x 60 mins), World’s Most Extraordinary Families (6 x 60 mins) and Wild Tube (12 x 30 mins) — all of which will be launched at MIPCOM this October.

Commenting Demidowicz says: “By developing and funding our own content, we are not only in control of our own pipeline, but invested in the quality and success of our shows. That means we can offer a level of service that takes the distributor-broadcaster relationship to a new level.”

Nicky Davies Williams, CEO, DCD Rights is another who says: “our role is increasingly to work closely with production companies advising on international feedback to tailor to market, as well as pre-selling and packaging co-productions with producers and broadcasters.”

By developing and funding our own content, we are not only in control of our own pipeline, but invested in the quality and success of our shows. That means we can offer a level of service that takes the distributor-broadcaster relationship to a new level.

According to Davies Williams, “In factual we are increasingly asked to shape ideas. With regards to drama, we also become involved very early. Both our sales and acquisitions teams read and evaluate treatments and scripts and provide market feedback on all elements of this process including casting and marketing.  But as to signing up the IP, we do not compete with producers. Generally we work with talented and trusted producers, so we do not overstep our presence.”

In terms of the quasi-commissioning role, she says “we put together and continue to oversee a successful and long-running coproduction between producer 1/17 with September Films for Penn & Teller: Fool Us for the CW Network. As well as popular crime series with FirstLookTV, such as Nurses Who Kill and 21st Century Serial Killer.

Like APC, Davies Williams adds that “part of our collaboration with producers has been to introduce parties from different countries – for example if we feel a company in South Africa could break into more international markets through a partnership with a UK company who could add a well-known host, then we are happy to do that.”

Emily Elisha, head of factual, Banijay Rights agrees that “potential international money is being put to use much earlier and more often to get projects over the line. In some cases, we co-develop projects with broadcasters where there is a germ of an idea which is then worked up to the point that the broadcaster feels comfortable to put up financing. Then we can work out what we can advance ourselves.”

Elisha says “we can help shape content to give it the best chance of sales, so if a broadcaster is part funding an idea, we can advise what could make it attractive to other buyers who licence similar content or that have told us what they are looking for. Ovation pre-bought the first season of lifestyle travel series Rachel Hunter’s Tour of Beauty, which saw the supermodel travel to various countries around the world, from Greece to South Korea exploring their beauty secrets. The presale helped mould the decision to set the second season within the Americas as we felt this would be of strong appeal to Ovation.”

Elisha is another who supports the notion of distributors as commissioners. “This has been borne partly out of a frustration with the commissioning landscape e.g. if it’s been too slow or painful.  It has also been borne out of the innovation of producers who have fantastic ideas that they’ve spent time crafting and which they aren’t ready to give up on if it’s simply bad-timing for a commission green-light.”

There is a risk with this model, says Elisha, “because the first question most buyers ask about a project is ‘who’s commissioned it?’. “So in those cases, the distributor has to work harder to get that comfort by being across the editorial and knowing the producer’s track record.”

Banijay projects that illustrate the new emphasis in distribution include Ray Winstone’s World (right), “which we financed alongside the producers SWR Media, in association with Dash Pictures. We are working closely with the producers on it – they shared footage at an early stage and we gave our notes on what we think will work best.”

Many of the above messages are also relevant in the world of kids content, says Cake Entertainment CEO and creative director Tom Van Waveren. For him, one of the key benefits of distributors taking on production duties is that they can improve the overall quality of the end result. “One of the advantages of thinking about a project internationally from the outset is that you are not just focusing on local talent, you are searching for the best people you can find anywhere. So you can help raise the bar on a production creatively.”

He cites the example of Space Chickens, a show for Disney EMEA and Nine Network Australia. “In that case, we even went as far as setting up Gingerbread Animation, a new studio in Dublin to make the show.”

Cake has reached a point now where it is actively developing a large slate of kids properties in-house, from its starting point of having been a distributor. “So we brought in Emily Whinnett as VP Creative and Tom Doherty as VP Production to make sure we had the expertise.”

Over and above the issue of protecting company investment and making shows international, Van Waveren also notes that new breed of distributor has a further important reason for becoming more producer-like. He says “there comes a point in your evolution as a distributor when you realise that you are working incredibly hard on a project and not retaining any intellectual property. So it makes sense to use the expertise you have developed to become a production partner, because that makes it easier to come out with rights.”