BBC Studios (BBCS) former director of commissioning & co-production Tobi de Graaff talks to TBI about suffering from Covid-19, his agnostic approach to production and why the current scripted marketplace makes it more fun to date than marry with studios.
For those whose first language is not German, the word beiboot might not mean too much.
For others, such as former BBC Studios (BBCS) director of commissioning & co-production Tobi de Graaff, it neatly encapsulates what his newly launched joint venture company does, while also illuminating how TV’s scripted business is changing.
“We are a representation business,” De Graaff explains of Beiboot, the business he unveiled last month that has the backing of McMafia and His Dark Materials financier Anton. “In German, beiboot means dinghy – so if you happen to have a yacht, you lower the beiboot and you can get to harbour.”
Coronavirus & choppy waters
That might sound straightforward enough in calm seas, but there’s little doubt that De Graaff’s Beiboot has entered into the scripted industry when the waters have become somewhat choppier.
That’s partly because the former BBCS exec had to deal with suffering from Covid-19 himself as he prepared his new outfit – but now recovered, he is clear about the opportunities for what he describes as his “agnostic” company.
“The reception [of Beiboot] has been great, we’ve had a lot of companies, producers and writers interested in someone who can help them navigate the richer and more complex world of commissioners,” he says, adding that the idea is to enable creatives to navigate the “different scenarios available to put a show together.”
De Graaff has long been associated with premium scripted product, joining BBCS (then known as BBC Worldwide) from ITV Studios in 2014 as EVP of western Europe, where he led TV distribution, production and channels. He was promoted to his more recent commissioning role in 2017, with a focus on partnering with producers to determine funding strategies and execute global sales plans.
That led him to working in tandem with Anton and, most notably, Netflix, as BBCS attempted to deal with the streamer’s demands for global rights deals. As a result, De Graaff became the “point person” on such deals and an expert in the evolution of drama commissioning along the way, while working with Anton on a number of financing initiatives.
“The business used to be that producers would get a commission, then go to distribution and get deficit funding, and perhaps help via a co-production. That’s changed in some ways over the past three years, so I would be increasingly working with producers to get in early, before the script.” From there, the focus would be on where the project would best fit, with pitches made to streamers, broadcasters and premium or basic cable in the US and beyond.
If dating is so much fun why get married right now? Being bespoke all the time is an advantage and something that few studios can match
Beiboot founder Tobi de Graaff
“That’s when I had the idea that a business that could be independent of a studio might work even better,” he explains. The idea, he adds, is to focus completely on the project and be “100% agnostic” from any corporate interest a studio might have in terms of SVOD affiliation.
The theory went that if you could work with any distributor, channel or streamer without a conflict of licensing strategies, then the decision-making hierarchy and the focus would become clear: it would only be about the project. As a result, De Graaff says Beiboot isn’t looking to represent companies – at least not yet – the idea is to focus firmly on projects he believes in.
“I was working with Sebastien Raybaud and Celia [Meirow] at Anton with BBCS’s slate financing deal and that’s how we met. With the idea of being fully agnostic and working in films and TV, there was a meeting of taste and ambitions. They believed in this business model but they wanted to form a separate company run by me, so I have a board with investors, and a pot of money for development so we can get involved early and finance scripts and bibles to kickstart projects.”
De Graaff won’t reveal just how much funding Anton is providing but says there is a “significant” development budget, adding that it’s not fixed if more is required. “For a start-up, we’re a very healthily funded business that can hold its own.”
He is clearer about where Beiboot’s focus lies – premium drama – but he is open about the route to get there. “Certain projects will really benefit from finding a writer, a director and a lead cast and being presented together to the market at that point,” he says. “But on other projects, that approach might be unhelpful – I don’t have a formula of how things should be done, it will be on a case-by-case basis.”
Despite the company’s recently launched staus, De Graaff has already built up a slate of projects and says he is in conversations with other producers to take on their shows across a variety of different business models. “Some are already developed and they want help to take them out, there are several projects launching soon that are already developed and need a home, then there are others where we’re funding development and these will of course take a bit longer.
“I’m agnostic in this, I just really want to help shows get made creatively to incredible standards while working commercially with streamers, cable or channels to make that happen.”
Broad horizons & maneuvering
Reflecting De Graaff’s previous international roles, Beiboot is open to partnering on projects around the world but the UK and Europe is a focus, he adds, particularly with “growing demand for Italian, French and German shows, as well as British series.”
The impact of Covid-19 on his business has, to date, been limited, he adds, but clearly the drama business will change as it emerges from the grip of the pandemic. “I’ve been lucky, we are in the slate-shaping stage of our business and we haven’t had productions stopped and lost revenues – that has been incredibly hard for others,” he says.
“It seems to me that streamers are doing well but channels, especially those that are ad-supported, have been hit. In my mind, it points to [a requirement] for more intelligent maneuvering for shows to bubble up to the fore to make them happen.”
And with his agile dinghy designed to get shows safely to shore, the belief is that De Graaff can deal with all manner of operators, from organisations such as the European alliance of public broadcasters (France Télévisions, Italy’s Rai and Germany’s ZDF), to regional SVODs and “super giant streamers and tech groups”.
“They all have something in common,” De Graaff says. “They’re after big event TV, serving different audience tastes – and that is a creative landscape that we can look forward to. You just have to be prepared to put the leg work in for more complex partners,” he continues, underlining the approach of his bespoke model and, he hopes, its allure for creatives.
“If dating is so much fun why get married right now?” he adds. “Being bespoke all the time is an advantage and something that few studios can match. Dealing with different people for different clients and in different territories can be tricky to see through for a small production firm. With 13 years on the sales side, there are a few things I have picked up that I can now bring to the table in a more entrepreneurial way and with the interests of both parties at the centre.”