Opinion: The renaissance of co-production in the age of downturn

London (Source: AdobeStock)

As international co-production execs descend upon London tomorrow, TBI’s resident scripted expert and CEO of Arrested Industries Anthony Kimble argues why Hollywood might finally be ready to navigate the new and exciting world of collaborative storytelling

As the curtain falls on Hollywood’s hot labour summer, the post-strike entertainment hellscape is emerging, transformed and daunting.

The aftermath reflects not just relief and celebration, but a sense of wartime aftershock, with the industry charting a course into a changed world. In this new era, defined by cost-cutting, reduced budgets and heightened caution, a clarion call rings out in LA — collaboration and co-productions.

One infamous co-pro involved broadcasters from Europe, Japan and the US, along with UK terrestrial and cable channels… wildly divergent sensibilities resulted in a functional but universally acknowledged disaster

Everyone here wants to save money and that means not having to shoulder the full financial responsibility for ambitious big-budget stories.

Before the disruptive entry of streamers and tech giants, collaborative storytelling through co-productions was the lifeblood for many ambitious shows, especially in Europe.

It was the only way to secure financing for grander narratives, involving multiple networks sharing creative and commercial risks.

Now, as the dust settles from the strike, this collaborative spirit is resurging stateside, offering a lifeline in an industry grappling with the unsustainability of full financing and global rights deals.

How to do co-productions right

Collaboration sounds simple in principle, however, behind the scenes, the magic of co-production financing demands a delicate balance. Having engaged in drama co-productions since the early 2000s, I’ve witnessed the full spectrum of experiences — from magical partnerships to disastrous multi-partner affairs.

One infamous project involved broadcasters from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US, along with UK terrestrial and cable channels. Wildly divergent sensibilities and opinions led to a stressful production, resulting in a functional but universally acknowledged disaster.

The Swarm

The mid-2010s, too, are littered with forgettable Euro-puddings like Crossing Lines and The Team, which more than illustrate the pitfalls of misaligned co-productions.

On the other hand, successes like Hans Rosenfeld’s Swedish/Danish noir masterpiece The Bridge showcase the potential of creative collaborations that organically just work.

The Swarm (ZDF, Rai, Hulu Japan, France Television and Viaplay) is another recent example of a multi-partner deal that also succeeded on screen.

Ambitious and compelling and at a budget level that usually meant it could have only fallen under the purview of one of the deep-pocketed streamer giants, this epic, ecological sci-fi series was a critical and commercial success for all involved.

The necessity of cost-sharing and the newfound openness of the US to foreign language content is going to present exciting opportunities for us all stateside.

As local commissions contract and budgets shrink in 2024, the prospect of more international co-pros on US screens is now inevitable.

But how do you make co-productions work?

Here are my five DO’s:

  • Choose great stories that will resonate globally, and then fully collaborate on story development, involving creative input from all co-production partners. Create a diverse and inclusive writers’ room that reflects the cultural perspectives of all involved parties
  • Be cognisant of partner cultural sensitives. Research local customs, traditions, and social norms to ensure accurate representation
  • Establish clear lines of communication and ensure transparency in all aspects of the co-production. Draft comprehensive legal agreements outlining the roles, responsibilities, and revenue sharing among the partners – and stick to them. Making TV by committee is painful enough!
  • Stick to agreed timelines. Nothing causes delays or adds unnecessary costs like waiting for script notes or rough-cut comments
  • Share resources (access to talent, tech, locations etc) and leverage partner strengths (eg access to tax incentives) to make sure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

And here are my five DO NOT’s:

  • Don’t impose a singular perspective and allow one partner to dominate the creative process; ensure that input from all parties is valued and considered
  • Rely on stereotypes when developing characters or portraying cultures. Aim for nuanced and authentic representations
  • Develop an unrealistic budget, one that fails to consider the financial capabilities of all co-production partners. And don’t forget to explore local funding opportunities
  • Neglect the development of a strategic distribution plan that considers the target audiences and markets for the co-production. Remember the more parties involved at the outset mean fewer international sales for any distribution partner later and as a result, a lower distribution advance
  • Disregard current market trends and audience preferences. Stay informed to ensure the co-production remains relevant

Particularly for the US, you should also find out which series have been successful for different studios, streamers or broadcasters and why, and what type of stories press the buttons of key execs. We spend a lot of time on calls to buyers to find out exactly what they want.

There’s nothing more frustrating for execs to receive pitches for shows that are so far removed from their sweet spots – it just comes across as lazy and desperate and they are less likely to take other pitches seriously moving forward.

Getting one major partner on board at the outset is an important first step too, as it will shore up a project’s viability and vision to US execs.

And chasing that creative vision, rather than just the money, has to be the overriding message that I leave you with. We’ve all cringed when watching shows where an actor from a contributing partner territory turns up in a token and usually unbelievable way… or where the cast decamps to a country for a random scene just to keep the moneymen happy.

We all need to trust in the creative and find like-minded partners so as not to dilute those brilliant stories that excite us and that we are passionate about sharing with audiences worldwide.

Check out Anthony Kimble’s other recent TBI columns:

Diary Notes of a drama producer in LA, 2022 vs 2023

Unpacking the reality of being a producer

Shifting targets in South Africa amid Hollywood shutdown

Will US strikes provide the great Hollywood reset?

Hollywood’s fatal attraction to reboots

Why Hollywood’s C-suite shouldn’t be biting the hand that feeds it

In the long run… I’ll always love a limited series

Arrested’s Anthony Kimble on staying nimble in a rocky market

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