Opinion: Nest Productions MD on navigating 2024 as a small UK indie

Derek Drennan (Source: Nest Productions)

Derek Drennan, managing director of UK production management firm Nest Productions, gives a “birds eye view” of the challenges facing UK indies in the months ahead and what small firms can do to set themselves up for success.

Small indies have always needed to be wheelers and dealers when it comes to getting a commission or securing funding. Whether it’s trying to hit the exact brief, coming up with a new format, or simply trying to convince broadcasters, distributors or financers to part with cash. The whole industry is aware of the tightening of budgets driven by myriad issues; ad funding drops, streamer subscription churn slow down, and the strikes being the core drivers of this. With these challenges in mind, what does the small indie landscape look like for the rest of 2024?

We are currently working with over 50 production companies, so we have a good birds eye view of what is going on in the industry and we can really see a shift from what seemed like a very scary 2024, to now things looking a little brighter. Things are being commissioned – slowly but surely – and it seems budgets are being squeezed; for any existing formats we are working on the budgets are being drastically reduced. I would, however, much rather be in a position where we are being asked to reduce budgets, than not produce anything at all.

In response many indies have scrambled to try to do brand-funded content (we are doing a bit of that currently), but I still don’t think anyone has quite mastered how to do this well with decent sized budgets. Meanwhile, there are a lot of companies out there still scratching their heads about what to do about the commissioning slowdown. And for those who do manage to even get a sniff of a commission, you then have to go out and find the gap funding which is an absolute minefield. This is a huge issue for small producers who don’t know where to turn.

Still at least things seem to be slowly stirring for the nations and regions. Being a Scot, I massively agree with the increase of Channel 4’s out-of-England quota – it seems ridiculous to me that there is so much talent elsewhere that we are not currently tapping into. But quotas in general are a constant challenge and it’s even harder for small indies who have no or little network.

It’s also about timing – things can be achieved much easier if we have enough time to dedicate to the quotas set by the broadcasters, but if they commission last minute, which is inevitable, then it becomes really hard for productions. If companies spend time in the ‘downtime’ building their talent pool regionally, for example, this will really help in the long run – but who is doing that when you need to get ideas out the door if you are a small indie!

The alternative co-production model

One thing we have seen is that the appeal of an alternative co-production model is increasing for broadcasters and therefore being adopted by more indie prodcos. This model provides a safe structure around small indies who need support from the infrastructure side of things, rather than just the creative.

The reason why the Nest model works so well is because we don’t meddle in the creative, we simply put a roof over creative’s heads and ensure everything runs smoothly. The broadcasters are starting to realise how effective this is as a model because they know that everything will just get done properly.

Our recent partnership with Lisa Chapman and Honeybird Studios means that Lisa can concentrate on developing ideas and pitching them out, whilst everything else runs in the background. HR, Legal, IT and, of course, hands-on production support, with probably the best production office in London. This really is a match made in heaven for us, where we also have become Lisa’s managing directors, so also help run the company and strategy behind it all.

The big group companies are missing a trick by not having a central support system in place for their indies. Whilst they support them on a financial, HR, office space, POV – a lot of smaller indies in groups miss the hands-on production support that we offer – and therefore we are very attractive to someone like Lisa who is an amazing creative and understands the need for solid production support as well as everything else.

MonRae productions, which is another amazing female-led company, is actually a talent agency who successfully managed to secure a commission with SkyKids – but didn’t have the TV production background to bring it all together from a production POV. We ensured that everything ran smoothly, which means as a company they get a great rep and their freelancers constantly want to come back and work with them time and time again.

This practical expertise runs into areas often forgotten or neglected, but which are actually critical, in particular around welfare and duty of care. Ultimately, it all comes down to budget. I do think when you are a smaller indie it is easier to ensure your people are happy and looked after  – and the bigger you get the harder to ensure that people aren’t slipping through the net.

But regardless of size, especially now when freelancers are working less, we need to ensure there are really robust systems in place. I think remote working is great, but I also think its really important to get people in the office so that its easier to spot if anyone needs additional support. It’s so easy these days to hide in a Zoom call.

Production welfare is core to our values; we look after people not just on-screen but ensure we have considered everyone on the team and how we look after them. Nest has done some of the most complicated reality shows in the world when it comes to welfare, but it’s a constant learning experience on every new series that we do. Welfare, generally, is so much more robust than it has ever been and that’s brilliant for the industry where it is now being pushed out to other genres like docs.

Setting up for success

Having said that welfare is core, I got thinking about what other key bits of advice would be useful for indies trying to break into the industry; what are the things they should really focus on. Below I’d like to finish with a few pointers for any fledgling companies trying to do so.

  • The idea and the team. Remember that getting a commission these days is harder than ever – my view is that when you pitch an idea, it’s 50% good idea and the other 50% is who is the team, what is the infrastructure and where are you getting your gap funding from!
  • Market timing and trends. It’s always idea first in TV and if it’s not what the channel brief is, then you won’t have a look in.
  • Experience. If you don’t have the right experience for a project, you will never get commissioned. It’s harsh, but it’s true. You need to go in armed with the A-team signed up!
  • Infrastructure. It’s simple, but having an infrastructure in place, will drastically increase your ability to get something over the line.
  • Personality. Collaboration hinges on the ability to gracefully accept feedback! Do you have the personality to take on feedback and criticism from a broadcaster? If you are a pain in the arse, some commissioners won’t want to take the risk.
  • Modern thinking. With the bigger projects, it’s all about thinking outside-the-box with an idea and how that can also be linked to digital/YouTube/TikTok and even brand-funded. Make sure you have a plan!
  • Pitch deck. First impressions are really important. If you don’t have a decent pitch deck, some commissioners won’t even give you a look in as you will look like you don’t know what you are doing.
  • Diversity. Embracing diversity, both on and off-screen, isn’t merely a checkbox; it’s a moral imperative and a reflection of your commitment to authentic storytelling! Make sure you have thought about this in advance.
  • Funding models. In today’s landscape, innovative funding models are key! Can you bring some investment to the table with your pitch?

Are these fair? Probably not – but all these things WILL increase the chances of a commission.

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