Who’d launch a distributor in Covid times?

Kate Beal

Kate Beal, CEO at UK-based Woodcut Media, gives TBI the inside line on why her company decided now is the right time to roll out a new international distribution business and tells us what producers – and buyers – can expect.

Someone once said to me that making a TV show is 90% problem solving and 10% creativity and never has that been more true than in 2020.

This year the shifting sands of the TV business have continued to challenge us as an industry, and I think it’s fair to say that we are rising to that challenge.

Broadcasters, distributors and production companies have found ingenious ways to keep bringing great content to viewers. We’re an industry with a natural survival instinct and entrepreneurial zeal. From bubbled drama sets, to adapted studio formats, our industry is doing it all.

Alongside this, the budgets are being stretched and programme financing has become even more of an art form, with precarious advertiser spending for networks and unrecouped advances for distributors. It’s been a perfect storm. Even if you can work out how to produce your next TV hit, the hard part now is getting 100% of the budget in place. The money simply isn’t there.

The unrest in the distribution market and the difficulty of deficit financing led to some soul searching at Woodcut HQ – it was clear something needed to change

Kate Beal, Woodcut Media CEO

But if we’re honest, this isn’t just a new problem. The challenge of deficit financing factual has been exacerbated by Covid but not caused by it. For the past 18 months, the financing of content was becoming more difficult – especially in the unscripted space. Broadcaster budgets have been steadily decreasing while the amount expected to be advanced by distributors has increased significantly. A producer looking for co-investment was increasingly the norm in certain genres and the competition was becoming fierce for the finite amount the distributors could give.

Stuck at the lights

In September 2019, we as Woodcut had several projects at broadcaster greenlight stage, however, we couldn’t start production on any of them due to budget deficits. We prided ourselves in being both creatively and commercially savvy but even our brilliant team was finding it tricky. Our usual ability to walk into a commissioner’s room with a great idea along with a route to financing was being challenged.

As the Autumn of 2019 progressed, these industry wide challenges hit closer to home. The unfortunate news that Kew Media was going under loomed large in our thoughts because they held a significant part of our catalogue. As a producer, the lack of control over your content can be frustrating and this was starkly highlighted by their collapse.

These two factors, the unrest in the distribution market and the difficulty of deficit financing, led to some soul searching at Woodcut HQ. It was clear something needed to change. There was still a need for our content in the UK and internationally, however, at times we were being stalled by issues out of our control.

L-R; Kate Beal, Hilary Strong, Koulla Anastasi

Since the inception of Woodcut, we’ve spent our time getting to know broadcasters all over the world – not just in our own domestic territory. As well as working with distributors and private equity, we were increasingly speaking directly to international networks for co-pros and pre-sales. With several projects hanging in the balance we made extra effort in this area – and it started to pay dividends. Our greenlit shows that had frustratingly been in stasis for several months were now going into production one by one as more pre-sales and co-pros were brokered.

Forward thinking

By Christmas 2019 our next step was obvious… deficit financing was an issue, we lacked control over our own distribution and day by day our international network relationships were getting stronger. We laughingly said, ‘it’s time to start our own distribution operation’.

And then we got serious.

Much of January and February 2020 was spent pouring over spreadsheets, business plans and investment packs for our new project ‘Woodcut International’. We knew that in order to solve the deficit financing issue we would need an investment fund to work alongside the distribution arm, investing both in Woodcut and third-party projects. Woodcut content sells well internationally and we knew that having our content pipeline would give us a strong start from which to build.

Then, as we all know, the world changed in March and the television industry’s focus turned to survival – in the quite literal sense. We filed away our Woodcut International investment deck and attended to the unfolding crisis. But as the months went on we realised that the issues of last year weren’t going away, in fact they had been accelerated and our producer/co-financing/distribution model was needed even more. For us as Woodcut but also for our fellow unscripted producers.

Our investment pot has been put to work and has co-financed greenlights we’ve received in the past couple of months – it’s enabled us to super serve broadcasters both editorially and commercially

Kate Beal, Woodcut Media CEO

In May we started to see the green shoots for unscripted programming. Networks were putting a new Covid-proof strategy in place and we could see a route forward. It was time to dust off the Woodcut International deck and start work again.

One stop shop

With the financial help of an incredible investor, the support of the Anthology Group, and the wisdom of our chair, Hilary Strong, the plan became a reality. Our business development director, Koulla Anastasi, spearheaded the project and by August we had systems in place and three experienced sales consultants working with us to sell our launch catalogue comprising nearly 100 hours of content. Our investment pot has been put to work and has co-financed greenlights we’ve received in the past couple of months. It’s enabled us to super serve the broadcasters both editorially and commercially – we’re a one stop shop.

Over the years we’ve built some fantastic relationships with distributors and are keen to keep working with them – sometimes in the traditional way and other times more creatively. There’s already one project we’ve manged to finance by working collaboratively with another distributor.

It’s early days and we’re feeling very optimistic about the next stage of our growth as a business. The pandemic certainly shook our foundations but has also given us an incredible opportunity to really make an impact in the unscripted community. Bob Benton, founder of the Anthology Group, phoned me early on in the pandemic. He said ‘Kate, remember, businesses are made in times like this’. I believe he’s right, which is why there’s never been a better moment to launch a new distribution venture.

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