Documentaries at the border – the DMZ Festival

Coming to Korea you’re in a divided country, still at war. The split in 1949 has never healed. In mid-August, North Korea planted landmines outside a South Korean guardhouse in the mis-named Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and two soldiers lost limbs. For two weeks there were hostile exchanges, with troop buildups and S Korea broadcasting The Voice of Freedom radio station (including K-pop) on banks of loudspeakers.

 

On the weekend I took a train about an hour out of Seoul to  Paju for the DMZ Documentary Festival. Under the slogan ’Shoot the DMZ’ the festival says it ‘wanted documentaries to show the vision of peace and unification for the future beyond the divided reality which the DMZ symbolizes’.

Lots of films, mostly feature length, in smart cinemas in the Megabox chain, all about half an hour from the DMZ.  There was a very wide range of films in the programme.

I saw three films. Holy Working Day, a graduation film about young Koreans picking onions in Australia; an overlong film about a group of Korean yarn bombers called The Knitting Club (maybe I’m biased as I’m also involved in a film on yarn…); and the Australian-produced Aim High in Creation!, by director Anna Broinowski. The festival had invited Anna and many of the directors from abroad to do Q&As after the films, and it was easy to access them.

Anna’s film was a funny and well handled account of her quest to make a propaganda film in the North Korean tradition about fracking, or coal seam gas as the film calls it. She got access to the directors, actors and technicians of the N Korean film industry in Pyongyang, and structured the film around the teachings of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il in his 1987 Manifesto ‘The Cinema and Directing’.

The film is on Netflix – she said that although many festivals had been wary of the film and didn’t get it, the hacking of Sony’s emails by North Korea around the dreadful film The Interview meant that Netflix jumped in and acquired it. Well worth seeing.

Other directors I got talking to were Brigitte Weich from Austria, who had made  films with the North Korean Women’s Football team – we talked about Dan Gordon & Nick Bonner’s film on the men’s team (The Game of Their Lives) which inspired her to do it. And Sung-Hyung Cho, now based in Germany whose film comparing the lives of two Korean women from either side of the border, Two Voices from Korea, I wish I’d had the chance to see.  Hana Kulhankova, who runs the One World Human Rights film festival every March in Prague was also there – she showed me the 2015 programme, a remarkable range of films and subjects from around the world.

 

On the Sunday I got to visit the DMZ itself, on a ‘familiarisation tour’ with people invited to the festivals, and a mix of clients of the bank which had sponsored the tour. I cycled with the Iranian economic attache, and saw the Israeli ambassador’s wife chatting to two Iranian filmmakers on the tour bus about how much she liked Persian cuisine. Putting some chinks in other borders. After the standard tour of the border installations, we went on a Peace Bicycle Tour along the fence marking the DMZ – a very unusual way of seeing it.  I’ve posted the pictures on Facebook.

 

Having been there I’d now like to try this excellent-looking VR experience from Inner space, soon to be released on Samsung Gear VR

Divided countries seem to be a feature of my life. My mother is East German, and my late father Punjabi. Both countries that were split, one along ideological lines, one on religious lines. The South Koreans I met thought there was no prospect of their country ever being reunited with the people of the North – not until Kim Jong-Un’s ‘dynasty’ died out. The sudden pulling down of the Iron Curtain in Europe in 1989 didn’t seem to provide them with any positive examples.

 

The DMZ Festival absolutely had its heart in the mission to bring a spirit of change to this border area where it often felt that change was impossible.
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How Seoul’s Digital Media City matches up to Salford’s MediaCityUK

Korea has created a Digital Media City (DMC) on the outskirts of Seoul and houses nearly all its broadcasters there. Like MediaCity UK in Salford. But way bigger.

 

This is the enormous HQ for MBC, one of the three Korean public channels. Check out its OTT ‘window on  the world’ promotional video on the link above.

 

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These outfits have big in-house production staff, and layers of management that would make even the BBC blush.

 

On Friday I went to CJ E&M, which is a huge conglomerate that runs several stations, and has a mission to ‘create a new global pop culture‘. Ambitious people. I met Hwang Jin Woo, head of Formats – who I’d first met doing a talk to Korean broadcast execs three years ago, and his colleague Sun Jin Sung.

 

We talked about the big shows they do – Korean versions of the entertainment shows we all know – and the drama and features shows that are the staples of their channels. Hwang is in charge of developing formats, and adapting foreign ones.

 

He also showed me the Digital centre. This is meant to be like Maker Studios, to encourage digital creatives to experiment.  It was empty at 11am, he said that was because creatives got up late – it would be fully booked from the afternoon till into the night. There was a green screen motion capture room, and other sets to do programmes.

 

 

And this digital content is the growth area, as every Korean young and old seems to gaze at their large screen smartphones most of the time.

 

In the afternoon I went to see the national broadcaster KBS, meeting Kate Hyein Cho, who I’d seen at Asian Side of the Doc, and her boss Irene Kim. Their large building is right next to the national assembly – no chance of them moving away from government to go to the DMC. A pretty conventional public broadcaster, growing old with its audience. Posters around the building encouraged staff to come up with ideas for the 20-49 age group – the assumption was the their audience would be much older.

 

 

On Monday I’m seeing EBS, the Educational Broadcaster. They’re also moving to the DMC in 3 years time.

 

Salford Media City is built on the same model as the DMC of a ‘creative cluster’ of broadcasters, producers and studios, and was being developed at the same time in the mid-2000s. When I saw the impressive blocks over the water at Salford Quays, I remember thinking that it had been conceived in a pre-mobile, pre-Youtube age (I mean the early 2000’s, younger readers) – when progress meant big buildings full of people. Now creativity is often talked about on a smaller scale – but with bigger reach.  It’s now more about multi-purpose spaces, places that make you want to hang out and have ideas with others, places that are connected.

 

MediaCity_at_night

 

In Korea, with most production in-house, I guess the model of state subsidy for large organisations to pay expensive rents in steel and glass corporate palaces still works.  This was an urban plan all about consolidating the big state-supported production models. There is a similar state planning model for publishing – Paju Book City, close to the North Korean border, is the home to all of Korea’s publishers.

 

Salford has BBC North, ITV with Coronation St, Salford University and good & busy production companies Shine North run by Alex Connock, and drama producer Red. But maybe not as many small emerging companies as they’d like (with the honourable exception of the ones based in The Greenhouse).

 

I’m not saying this is down to the producers being resistant – in the UK, with commissioning centralised in London, the third leg of the ‘production company-freelancer-commissioner’ stool is missing and there’s no particular reason for production companies to be next to the BBC in Salford unless they make Childrens programmes.

 

Alex has written a lot about the effect of a creative cluster in the North of England – see his recent piece on the role of the BBC as a ‘creative kickstarter’ and what sort of investment the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ needs. Salford will grow – but with TV production contracting, the growth will probably come from telecoms, and content work for brands, direct-to-consumer, short-form, foreign clients, rather than British TV commissioning.

 

In DMC, the huge staff bases shunted out to work in MBC, CJ E&M, SBS (the Korean not the Aussie one!) and shortly EBS meant there were plenty of people around. The shops and cafes attracted people on the weekend, unlike Salford Media City. The transport links are good and there’s a proper station there (well, 10 minutes walk away) rather than a tram stop.

 

 

The problem of the DMC is that the ‘software’ in this model, the Korean broadcasters, don’t have a commissioning structure, and have very little idea of how to work with independents. They produce in house, pay peanuts for the occasional indie documentary, and take all the rights. Unless that changes, it’s hard to see how it would become a true creative cluster.

 

Digital Media City didn’t feel much like the digital future to me, unless that future is entirely corporate. There wasn’t even free public wifi that I could find. The idea that to make content all you need is a small camera, laptop editing, lots of coffee and wifi, and some likeminded young people, still seemed a long way away.
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Choose Life. Choose Content. Choose my film.

I’ve been thinking about choices. And elections. And choosing what to watch. Life is full of choices as Ewan McGregor says

I went to Vienna a couple of weeks back to see the big Eurovision pop choice circus in action (sorry I’ve been a bit slow in updating my blog).  Armenian, Rumanian, Swedish, Latvian Polish, Spanish  or, er Australian Europop? Which one to choose from this lot?

This was a new experience for me, to see it in person rather than on the TV. I went for the first semi-final in the Stadthalle, with Jordan Guiao, @MaestroJ , SBS’s social media manager. Phone voting narrowed the field down from 16 to 10; including votes from the early-risers in Australia, who had to vote at 6am. The jury voting still feels a bit of an anachronism, with the jury members a secret in most countries. Not sure why they can’t be made public. I couldn’t tell if tactical voting played a part; I got the feeling that Sweden has found the right formula, and the presence of so many Swedes on the songwriting credits of the acts in the final seemed to bear this out. Here’s a good article giving you the lowdown on those successful Swedes. One thing I’d like to know what difference the Eurovision exposure does for an act’s sales – apart from the winner, I get the feeling that not much happens from one year to the next.
Sweden was considered the favourite before it started. Eurovision came ten days after the UK election – where most people got it wrong and the Conservatives ended up with a (slim) majority. By the time of Eurovision in 2016, we’ll know the timetable for the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union, known as the ‘in-out’ referendum. Not as much fun as this probably

I’ve just come to the UK from Copenhagen, where a general election has been called for June 18th – giving barely three weeks campaigning time. Overnight, posters of the candidates filled every lamppost and fence in Copenhagen.
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The politicians are a good looking (if very undiverse) bunch and they seemed to have all had their headshot taken by the same photographer. It has the disadvantage of making it look about the personalities rather than the policies. Elsewhere, the Turkish general election looks like bringing about a coalition government, which is good news. A friend of mine Basak is making a documentary over the election period, travelling by train West to East across Turkey – a fascinating time to taking the temperature of the nation.
Today I’ve come to Sheffield for Doc Fest. It’s been on since the 5th June, but there’s still masses to see,  and endless new possibilities because of the crowd it attracts. Looking forward to connecting up with people from all over the world, and welcoming incoming festival director Liz McIntyre to her new manor.

There’s so much choice – films, debates, panels, masterclasses, parties. Plus you’re not allowed to multi-task in a cinema, meaning you have to choose and plan your days carefully.  On the last day they give out awards, efficiently and charmingly hosted by Jeremy Hardy. I was a jury member the year before last, I don’t envy the job of this year’s juries. The awards I like best is the one voted for by the audience, who hand in little voting slips after every screening, and the Youth Jury – they’re the people we’re trying to entice to watch docs after all.
As everybody tells us, viewers/users/consumers (choose your favourite description) in the younger age range are simply deciding not to watch TV anymore – choosing individual programmes to download, or just doing something more interesting instead. It makes the title, poster, log line and first two minutes of a TV programme or film more important than ever, and your eventual choice something of a lottery. But the amazing thing about online is that the films are there if you know what to look for. Newsweek did this good list of this year’s must-see documentaries.
As in an election, choice has to be a good thing, but an awful lot of ‘content’ is going to be hidden and unloved if the curation and hosting by broadcasters is replaced by an algorithm. Which brings me to the future of my ex-employer the BBC. I’ll be following the debate on the future of the BBC which has kicked off in earnest following the UK election and the appointment of a new culture secretary John Whittingdale. He knows Auntie better than anybody at Westminster. Broadcast magazine has started a campaign of ‘qualified support’, and as you’re probably not a subscriber, the BBC’s in-house mag Ariel has done a swift summary here. There are legitimate questions to be asked about the future of public service broadcasting and the license fee, and I hope that the audience knows what it’s got and what its worth before it allows the BBC to be decimated for the sake of 49 pence a day. Lots for me to learn from for the future of SBS, which is going through its own period of reassessment as the cuts begin to bite.
But Content is King, as we all know; and public broadcasters should know about that, right? Let’s hope so.
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Peoples Broadcasting in the age of the internet

When the British electorate voted for a Conservative government, to replace the previous Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, there were a few predictions of doom for the funding of pubic services in the UK.

For the BBC, the result confirmed that their role, size and funding will be firmly in the sights of the new administration – though I imagine that would also have been the case with a Labour-led coalition. The BBC is saying it will do its own proposals on its role ‘in the internet age’, as it quaintly calls it.

Yesterday I went for the day to Digital Shoreditch, a week long series of talks, meetings, panels about this ‘internet age’. TV seemed very out of place in this online world of apps, services, sites. Friday was the ‘Live’ day, about content and there was a huge range of talks – I think I went to about a dozen in all.

The BBC’s Will Saunders showed a great clip from a year ago about the new short-form video world we were entering, made for a BBC seminar.

If that short-form is too long for you, there’s always Vine – which isn’t meant for oldies like me, I know, but is still a real mystery. One of the top Viners on this US-dominated platform is Brent Rivera. He has good hair at least.

Will also  talked about BBC Taster, a site for users to test and rate online content – a taste of things to come?

and also showed a quick run through of the first 90 years of the BBC in its Where Next? campaign from last year. Good question.

The BBC absolutely needs to think about its role as a public service media provider (rather than broadcaster) – and in truth is probably doing more of this thinking, experimenting and planning than other PSBs. And of course that future is online, with content open for viewers/users to interact with – and make themselves. I think if we called it Peoples Broadcasting rather than Public, it might seem less forbidding.

The evening finished with a few beers and music.

The BBC might think God only knows what we’d do without it – but in a world where everybody is making their own choices online, and the license fee is ‘under review’, it’s soon going to be easy enough to opt out. I reckon it’s in all our interests to think about what to do with it.

Comments, ideas, questions all welcome, you could even send me a video…

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Voting for Little Britain or the wider world

The UK General Election is tomorrow, May 7th.

One of the issues in the Conservative manifesto is the pledge to hold a referendum about whether the UK stays in the European Union.

But it’s barely featured in this election campaign. The London correspondent of German paper Die Welt has noticed this, but I haven’t seen much else.

I went to the BBC yesterday and they were finishing a giant map of the UK in the courtyard. You can’t really see the rest of the world as you’re hemmed in by the walls of the courtyard…I guess we’re too attached to little Britain

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There are lots of domestic issues in this election – much the same as every election – but it’s a globalised world and Britain needs to recognise the opportunities of that. Australia has the same challenges of course.

The following day, Friday May 8th is Victory in Europe  Day – the day to commemorate the coming together of Europe after the war. So the election result will be announced on that morning. I’m not talking about commemorating war, but recognising the peace, and the Europe that was constructed out of the ruins of that war.

On the evening of May 7th, BBC is showing its commemorative season about the end of the war, starting with a series by Steve Humphries of Testimony Films, called  The Greatest Generation. About the people who built the welfare state and the society we now benefit from in Britain. Some very stirring stories here, and a trailer below.

Steve’s also co-written a book he gave me when I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Bristol.

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It’s a good reminder of what we might just have said farewell to if we vote in the current government again, like  Ken Loach’s  The Spirit of 45 documentary from 2013

Just in case you were wondering which way I’m going to vote, here’s Cassettboy‘s party political broadcast not on behalf of the Conservative Party

Elections are where public broadcasters really have a role to play. The BBC’s  audience barely remembers this Greatest Generation – BBC2 channel head Kim Shillinglaw pointed out that as the average age of BBC2 audience  is in their 50’s, they grew up on punk rock. Bit of a stretch to say that all of that audience wants programmes with attitude, but I know what she’s getting at.

Speaking of attitude, ‘young person’s channel’ E4 is cleverly switching off for the day tomorrow to encourage people to go out to vote. Darren’s the man in control of the switch.

So if you’re in the UK tomorrow and registered, don’t spend your day trying to watch E4 – please go out and vote.

See you on the other side.

 

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MIP-TV: Yes We Cannes!

Long gap since my last post, apologies. But last week I went to the annual MIP-TV market in Cannes which gave me plenty to think (and write) about.

Four days of meetings equated a big batch of ideas – though the word product seems more appropriate in such a marketplace.
Fewer people were wandering the Palais this year – cuts are biting, and there’s less face to face in the business anyway these days. The cost of attending a market like this for producers and distributors is large, and the pressure is on from day one.
With four of us from SBS all doing separate meetings, we covered a lot of companies. Telling distributors and producers what we needed,  running through their ‘slates’, working off this MIP 2015 SBS Acquisitions Needs brochure.
My main impressions?
You meet who you know already. There should be a ‘lucky dip’ function on the website to put you together with people you’ve never met before.
30 minutes is not long enough for most meetings, given that I usually got there late and kept getting lost in the Riviera part of the market.
There’s no time to digest all the news and industry insight that floods the market – here are just a few of the magazines I picked up before leaving. In there are lots of programmes that I should be watching.
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Caffe Roma, the central cafe for meetings with those who haven’t registered for the market itself – serves terrible tea.
What were the Aussies up to?
The SBS stand was opposite the Screen Australia stand for the Aussie producers, who made merry at a drink on the Tuesday.
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David from Devised TV, Lara & Charlotte from SBS Sales, Claudia from Taglicht
It was good to see so many producers making the long trip to Cannes. Here’s a Screen Australia showreel of Australian projects brought to the market
At 22 minutes long, it’s a great way to get a fix of Australian TV. Spoiler alert: Doesn’t include all the terrible reality shows on Australian TV though.
I got to know a few films  through this showreel. The Secret River, being shown on ABC  looks amazing. Here’s more about The Secret River and the Seven series Gallipoli
And Blown Away (at 2:21) – a very intriguing part-animated doc on Cyclone Tracy which happened 40 years ago. There’s more about the film, shown in late December on ABC1 and co-produced by Rachel Clements, here
The other clips on the reel:
  • Deadline Gallipoli (3:17)
  • Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (4:22) – which I’d love to see bought in the UK
  • Pitch Battle (5:38) – about the Palestinian football team
  • Restaurant Australia (7:22)
  • Sammy J and Randy in Ricketts Lane (9:37)
  • Status: Vacant (11:15)
  • Struggle Street (13:05) – coming to SBS in May
  • Tattoo Tales (14:57)
  • That Sugar Film (16:36) – a kaleidoscopic look at a key health issue.
  • Winter (18:47)
  • Heart and Soul (19:35) – this looks like a good tale of girls making music and growing up
  • Hipsters (22:09) – already screened on SBS2
What were the others up to?
Vice was the star of the show after its meteoric rise. I went for a session in the impressive Grand Auditorium led by Eddy Moretti, the creative director of the trend-setting Vice, launching a new service ‘for and by women’ called Broadly. Though my neighbour, Ene Rasmussen from the Denmark MEDIA Desk, wondered why there weren’t more women and stories aimed at them in the main service.
Eddiy Moretti, Creative Director Vice
Vice is a brilliantly focussed and sure-footed media company and its ideas demand attention. Some ideas at MIP though seem there to test us. The delegate bag was sponsored by DogTV (TV for dogs, in case you were wondering). The Telegraph in the UK has written about the formats on offer, and it’s not too impressed.
One of the other SBSs around the world, in Korea, has the slogan ‘See The Bright Tomorrow’.  Which is a nice thought, even though it doesn’t exactly work as a slogan.
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Party central
MIP wouldn’t be MIP without a bit of socialising, and nothing beats a beachside party at Cannes.  This one on Monday night was from distributor DRG.
If you were at MIP, let me know how you found it. At the Nordic party, I met a gentleman from Finland who reminded me that it’s only 170 shopping days left till MIPCOM…
Kris Kringle (as the Americand call him) and Krishan
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From Hamlet to Richard III – history brought to life

I took part in a live-action role play a couple of weeks ago, called Inside Hamlet at Kronborg castle in Denmark. It was set in the 1930s, giving a whole new spin to Shakespeare’s tale. I learnt a massive amount about what history means by acting it out (as a Lutheran exorcist priest).

 

And this evening I’m watching #RichardReburied on Channel 4, a live programme following the return of the bones of Richard III to his reburial next week in Leicester Cathedral. History made live. What I really like about this coverage is that it’s run as a news event – presented by Jon Snow, with expert scientists, academics,  novelists and descendants of Richard III (including an Australian called Wendy Duldig who came over for the event and is Richard’s 14th cousin)

Channel 4 got a very good audience for the original film – The King in the Car Park – three years ago.

But it’s been a great programming idea to make his reburial  into a new TV event. Well done to John Hay, the commissioner of the live event, & Darlow Smithson Productions, who also produced the original doc. For making us realise that the identity of a 500 year old king matters. 

History has significance – both for  our understanding of what happened then, and for what might happen. And in an election year in the UK, that’s very important.

Channel 4 (them again) did a terrific season of programmes on immigration, including Love Productions’ Immigration Street – reduced to a single documentary after certain parts of the community decided they didn’t want it made – and other programmes. One of them was a doc made by Malcolm Brinkworth of Touch Films about an election in 1964 – which took place on the immigration faultline. Immigration will be one of the key issues of the UK General Election.

History is a big part of SBS programming, but making it relevant and watchable is what matters to the audience. I must say that I haven’t been watching many of the films about the First World War. And in Australia, the Gallipoli drama series on Channel 9 hasn’t been getting the audiences the programme merited. This extended trailer shows that it’s a really sensitive and moving piece of work – well worth 3 minutes of your time.

 

History, and the lessons of the past, are so crucial to understand today. I for one am really proud of the television that brings it to life for us.

Any comments, questions, responses, ideas – all really welcome

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Diversity is not an option, it’s the mainstream


Last week I went to a diversity debate in Malmo called Eye to Eye – Reflecting Childrens Reality. On the panel was a commissioner from the Swedish Film Institute, the head of the Kids Film Fest BUFF, and an animation producer from Norway, to discuss diversity in films for children and young people. Moderated by Cecilie Stranger-Thorsen, who invited me along to give my views.
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Cecilie Stranger-Thorsen and Baker Karim of the SFI
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Frank Mosvold and Baker Karim
Lots of good intentions were expressed on the panel, but the discussion was frustrating. There doesn’t seem to be much appetite for radical change. The impression I got was that the director’s ‘artistic vision’ took priority over questions about on-screen representation – or who was making the films in the first place.  It felt rather out of touch with a rapidly changing world.
I told the panel about the past year in British TV and film, in which all the major players have presented plans and funded initiatives to change the industry. I know Brits like their action plans, but they do point the way and I hope other countries can pick up some of the good ideas. Actor Lenny Henry is credited with getting the ball rolling with a speech he gave at BAFTA a year ago.
Lenny Henry
It’ll be interesting to see what happens across Scandinavia. The Danish Film Institute have recently announced a commitment to diversity, and launched it with a study and workshops on casting. I really hope that there is the leadership from the top that this plan needs. The committee including Marie Olesen alongside Mette-Ann Schepelern from the Danish Director’s Association are working on charter for ethnic and cultural diversity in Danish film and I’m looking forward to how much of a push this gets.
It was Pat Younge who told me about the DFI initiative. From his work running BBC Productions, he knows what you need to do to change attitudes and practises. He says diversity is how modern, mainstream audiences view the world, and it’s good to see he’s just started a new indie called Sugar Films, with Lucy Pilkington and Narinder Minhas.  To create content for audiences like these passengers coming off a Virgin train – I really like this ad.

But coming up with the programmes to get to these modern mainstream audiences needs work.There’s been a new push in the US with plenty of new shows in sitcom and drama. But I’ve recently been looking for multicultural formats, and in truth have been struggling to find specific examples in factual and entertainment – it’s all in who is put in the shows. I’ve just been watching First Dates on Channel 4 which is completely diverse and all the better for it.
I’m interested in how Desi Rascals worked on Sky recently – it’s been commissioned for a second series so that’s a good sign. 

The SBS charter talks about ‘celebrating and reflecting Australia’s diverse communities’ and we’re open to ideas. Wonder if I’ll find anything at MIP TV in April? Anybody spotted anything so far?
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Murder (and other dramas) in the cathedral

A couple of weeks ago at BBC Worldwide’s annual showcase in Liverpool that I attended for SBS,  drama was to the fore. The big programme  being promoted was Wolf Hall, the six-parter which became the biggest drama launch on BBC2 for years.

At Showcase, BBC Worldwide laid on a dinner in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. This is a dramatic setting in itself – the 5th biggest cathedral in the world, started in 1909 and only finished in 1978 but feeling hundreds of years old.  Tables laid out for 500 guests, lit by candlelight – in honour of the candlelight by which much of the series is shot. Even the butter for the meal was presented in the form of lit candles. Peter Kosminsky, the writer, Claire Foy playing Anne Boleyn and Jonathan Pryce playing Cardinal Wolsey strode through backlighting from the back of the altar. As an entrance, it definitely had the wow factor. BBC Worldwide puts an amazing amount into promoting its big drama titles – they have built in repeat business.  Mind you, there’s unlikely to be a Wolf Hall 2 as it’s based on a series of books by Hilary Mantel and they’ve now all been adapted into this series.

The other dramas in the BBC catalogue showed the range of British series. At the ‘real’ end was Cucumber & Banana, what Americans would probably call ‘Dramedies’, which have played on Channel 4 and which SBS launched this week around Mardi Gras. And from the same profilic production company Red Productions, Ordinary Lies, with Jason Manford & Max Beasley leading an ensemble cast in a used car showroom. Historical drama, beyond Wolf Hall, was also well represented: Da Vincis Demons, Musketeers, and the story of Botany Bay in Banished, written by Jimmy McGovern and commissioned by the new BBC channel in Australia BBC First.

This was how the BBC promoted all of its drama last  autumn, looking back at a ‘lifetime of original British drama’ – especially for all you who can’t get enough of Benedict Cumberbatch. All of human life was there:

 Channel 4 have also moved big time into the international drama market, with a head of international Simon Maxwell and a marquee drama Indian Summers

 I’m based in Denmark a country which has built its reputation for content on its drama. The public broadcaster DR has focussed production resources on producing primetime drama like Borgen, The Killing, and The Legacy – to the detriment perhaps of original factual series for TV. Italy is also making a big push into crime series for the international market.

And as well as making it, people are talking about it too, so the genre now has its own raft of gatherings and conferences. Though in much of Europe, people don’t use the words drama or fiction or their equivalents – it’s just ‘series’.  One at the end of January at the Institut Francais in London, called Totally Serialized brought together French and UK producers and writers. There’s an event open to the public at the beginning of July in Fontainebleau south of Paris called SeriesSeries, which is probably a French pun or reference to a retro pop song. And one of my very first blog posts here was about the Rome Fiction Festival in September last year – though I was there for the factual part of it. 

So from a creative point of view, all very healthy. There’s a recognition amongst government and funders that producing quality European drama is necessary to cement local audiences and the European production industry itself. The Observatoire de l’Audiovisuel’s recent trilingual report on Fiction on European TV channels notes that the proportion of TV schedules that are fiction of all sorts has remained at about 50%. And of that, non-European content in most of the fiction subgenres is over 50% – and most of that is from the US.

For most countries, the statistics on the origin of programmes show that little has changed over time. The differences between 2006 and 2013 with regard to the proportion of European works in programme schedules are generally less than 2.5%. If you want to buy the report, here’s a link  

Fiction on Euro TV channels

To attract  these productions, countries dangle tax breaks and film funds  to entice them to film in a particular area, and use local crew and facilities. Because drama brings the big bucks for a filmmaking economy of course – for US drama, the numbers of people involved, the producers and stars fees, the promotional costs, make the average cost several million an ep. Most of the time the funding  doesn’t detract from the authenticity of the story, though sometimes the money might be seen to get in the way. The new series of The Bridge, for example, will be more Danish, because of the creation of the Copenhagen Film Fund which has invested heavily and therefore demands much more of the filming to take place in Denmark. (the first 2 series were more of a 50/50 split between Denmark and Sweden, literally in terms of the first storyline). Coming to Nordic and other screens in late 2015.

I’ve never been involved in drama production, and would probably find the idea of working to a script each day, with every shot and sequence pre-planned and costed, very unusual. I still think that nothing beats the drama of real life, but then is it promotable?

Because in the end, the titles, the stars, the fantasy is what will draw people to the subscription-based TV models that we’re moving into – Netflix et al. Bingeing on 20 hours of whatever. Not authored singles, let alone documentary or entertainment. Perhaps as long as drama can continue to be supported by public channels and move between dramedy, factual historical drama, psychological thrillers and state of the nation pieces – there’s hope. Or am I being too optimistic?

Comments, questions, links, shares are – as always – all very welcome.

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Australia’s going to Austria for Eurovision

In other news this week…

Australia has been granted a wild card entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, being held in Vienna at the end of May. It’s been a long held aim of the SBS MD  Michael Ebeid, as the channels been the official broadcaster for the past thirty years. For the past few years the lobbying has got more intense and the pleas have got louder and more desperate. Finally, a few days ago came this announcement by the co-presenter of the show for SBS Julia Zemiro (who’s also rockin’ the dirndl look in the pic above)

It brings in some of the biggest audiences to SBS each year, and having an Australian act in the finals in the Austrian capital  will send that audience into overdrive. I guess the Aussies were just waiting for it to take place in a country with a name a bit like theirs.

Eurovision very much belongs on SBS now, since it was first broadcast in 1983. Electric Pictures made a doc shown on SBS called The Secret History of Eurovision  in 2011, with Mark Atkin and Phil Craig as producers.

For most it’s a celebratory show, an excuse for dressing up in silly wigs and having a party. Last year, Australian songstress Jessica Mauboy was the interval act in the second semi-final – with every cultural stereotype present and correct on stage before she sang. She’d get my vote to be the entry this year. There’s also talk of Kylie, or Guy Sebastian to have a real chance of winning…but be careful what you wish for.  The Guardian’s music critics came up with Nick Cave.

But there’s been a fair bit of debate in a slow news week (since Tony Abbott survived his leadership challenge). Coming so soon after the budget cuts to SBS and ABC, how much is it going to cost for Australia to take part? What if Australia actually wins and has to pay for the following year’s competition? (which would have to be held in Europe in any case). Is it making a mockery of the European identity of the show?  Here’s one writer who’s not in favour…

The links between Australia and Europe are strong of course, and it’s probably right to see Eurovision as an affectionate way of linking some very far away places.  We’re pretty Euro  on SBS.  We do food programmes in which chefs travel to their home countries. Quite a few country house shows. And a lot of mostly Brit history with  British presenters like Neil Oliver. Crime series from Denmark, Sweden, Italy, France. Plus we see people in Lycra pedalling over Europe in the Tour de France, the Vuelta, and the Giro d’Italia. Next to all that Euro content, America is much less visible (though the commercial channels more than make up for it).

Plenty of broadcasting challenges await – Should we be less tongue-in-cheek about it now that we’re actually in the show? how will Australians vote,  given that it’ll be taking place live at 6am East Coast time? (SBS will be broadcasting as every year with a time delay on Sunday evening). What type of act will best represent Australia today? And, again, do we really want to win?

I’m looking forward to seeing how our coverage looks and sounds this year. I’ll be watching from Copenhagen, and feeling just that bit more Aussie…

 

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My travels in TV and media-land