on indie production and public service media

Back to Copenhagen after a week in London. I spent it catching up with production companies, distributors, and going to a day at the Televisual Factual Festival. Well moderated panels on Specialist Factual, Popular Factual, and how to make docs in danger zones,  an interview with Ralph Lee of Channel 4, and a room full of remote cameras to demonstrate using a ‘rig’ set up. Quite a few people that I knew, but even more that I didn’t. Great to be reminded by everybody’s clip reels of what had been on, and working, in the past months. Peter Hamilton’s recently done a good overview of the UK non-fiction market, well worth a read (and I’d recommend subscribing, too).

While there was plenty of discussion of the difficulties of operating in the UK – particularly as a smaller company – the view from the stage was still that there was a big market for a range of UK produced content, particularly factual, that new ideas were sought and would get through, and that producers were well placed to take advantage. The BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Five all seemed to be in the same space for factual. Internationally, British content is doing well too – there were some big winners at the International Emmys last night. I know this is a rosy view and it’s really hard to get commissions – there are so many good ideas out there.

I met some new indies who’d set up in the great indie start-up craze as Televisual called it – amongst them Andrea Miller & Jerry Foulkes of Sunnyside productions, Fenia Vardanis of Melina Media. And companies from Bristol like Testimony, the ever-expanding Icon films, and Tigress who have all carved out a healthy part of the market without having to join the London shark-pool.

And they’re competing in a market with some big players. Discovery & Viacom have bought All3Media and Channel5, Endemol, Shine & Core Media have merged, and Warner has completed a rebrand of the production companies it bought through Shed. On the horizon is the move of BBC in-house production to be a standalone independent company, able to work for other broadcasters as well as the BBC. But if it has to carry BBC overheads and staffing arrangements, I can’t see how it’s going to compete.

All public broadcasters are having to change – mostly by downsizing – and my new colleagues at SBS are facing cuts announced last week – those for the ABC are much larger. But in truth the changes now imposed on the ABC have been happening for many years in the UK sector. It’s not just about saving money, it’s driven by changes in how the creative industry wants to work, and the ways audiences want to watch. The best result would be a more balanced ecosystem of independents and inhouse, and content that people want to watch and use.

Some of that public service ecosystem is on show this week at the IDFA Forum, Festival and DocLab – public service content in all directions, and all of it coming from independent producers working with or without broadcasters. I’m not saying it’s all made for the small screen, a lot of doc films see themselves in opposition to television and see their natural home as the cinema (and good luck to them).

The challenge for Australian broadcasters is to keep a focus on this public service content, rather than chasing ratings or focussing on the now not so new platforms. SBS itself has a real challenge to keep history, arts, social documentary, international themes on the channel. The opposition in Australia has so many battles to fight – about climate change, the environment, immigration policy, cuts to Science R&D funding, that broadcasting and the creative sector maybe don’t get enough attention. But as an outsider to Australia, it needs work.

My London week was rounded off by a Saturday night party  for Anne Morrison, who’s left the BBC and is now Chair of BAFTA. She’s managed so much in her 33 years at the BBC, from 18 years running various factual departments, to driving the Nations and Regions strategy (how to move production and commissioning out of London and into the English regions and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which I worked for Anne on). And most recently the BBC Academy, the BBC’s training organisation. (You should check out the material that’s available for free on their website, particularly the Journalism section).

It was great to see old colleagues, both from the BBC and the independent sector. The quality television programmes produced in that room really captured a lot of my past, and I felt pretty proud to be a part of it. But I couldn’t help feeling we were the lucky ones to have been able to work in such a well-supported organisation. 

Thanks for reading till the end, feel free to share, comments welcome below.

Korea – a new factual force?

There’s a national drive in Korea to make documentaries the next Korean international content success. Korea made a national project out of becoming the world’s biggest music producer through K-Pop. Pretty ambitious project for a country of 50 million people. But they’re now the fastest growing music industry in Asia, with a massive presence in Japan and inroads into China too. Psy’s Gangnam Style with its retro and knowing dance routine (2 billion views and counting for the video) was K-Pop’s breakthrough moment, though not really typical of what Korea generally makes – choreographed pop hits, auto tuned to within an inch of their lives.

Now the government has looked at Documentaries and decided that they are another form of international content that can be given a government boost and conquer the international market. So Docs Port Incheon, which ran at the beginning of November, benefited not only from healthy government funding, but also the industry focus that this provides. I was an advisor, with the lovely Karolina Lidin of Sheffield Doc/fest and Nordisk Film and TV Fund fame, and this was the first proper year of the event after a try-out last year. At the public pitching were representatives of investment funds that normally do movies, alongside public agencies, Korean broadcasters, and international commissioners, distributors and funds – all promising cash to some challenging documentaries. Catherine Olsen from CBC, John Lee from Tribeca, Esther van Messel from First Hand Films, Catherine Le Clef from Cat and Docs, Rudy Buttignol from Knowledge Network, Fiona Lawson-Baker from Al Jazeera English, Claire Aguilar from ITVS and Nihotpal Majumdar from DocEdge all attended.

The event was held in the Paradise hotel in the gritty port city of Incheon – enormous cargo ships full of the cars, TVs, microwaves and all manner of stuff that comes from Korea. The hotel TV showed Japanese baseball every morning (another sort of pitching).

There were many winners amongst the 22 Korean and other Asian projects pitched. The money that companies got in cash prizes, as well as post-production support – $500,000 USD – is a very large sum by any standards. It wouldn’t pay for entire productions but would go a long way. Several of the projects were then going to be pitched at a Korean pitching event at IDFA in Amsterdam next week – all paid for by one of the content promotion agencies.

The challenge for content producers and funders though is that the Asian market is pretty fragmented for factual. There’s China, which is huge but somewhat unfathomable for other Asian countries. Japan, which can be quite introverted and dominated by NHK. And then the rest, where independently produced content is something of an unknown quantity.

I’m hoping to do some consultancy in Korea to help the indie production sector. I was on a panel about independent production and international coproduction, (thanks to Wonjung Bae for organising it and IJ for moderating with aplomb. He made us all have a proper stretch after the first hour and a half).

I also gave a lecture to the pitching teams called Changing the Narrative about why documentaries matter to a country like Korea (download the Changing the Narrative presentation if you like). The UK’s indie story is a good one, and the big numbers that UK indies have generated make sense in government circles. Factual and entertainment formats are the driver in Britain, and could be in Korea – feature length docs don’t have the cash-generating potential they’re looking for.

And I’m sure they can come up with the right ideas to make use of all that lovely public development support – as a country they seem to be able to do a lot when they put their mind to it. UK indies as ever have spotted an opportunity in the country. There are already good links between some companies like OSF – their new BBC/Terra Mater series Wild Weather with Richard Hammond  is coproduced with Paan Media Holdings of Korea, and goes out in ten days time in the UK. Amanda Groom of The Bridge, part of Argonon, runs a consultancy which specialises in setting up projects with Korea, and is very active there.

The companies I met at Docs Port are quite filmmaker-led – they could all do with spending more time and money on ideas development I’d say. The money is being spent developing a project, rather than helping them come up with ideas in the first place. The mixed ecology of docs and fact ent of many UK companies would be a good model for them – if they can get the scale in factual. For that, they need broadcasters to invest in indie production rather than their own in-house production, and that looks like a long way away. But with a determined government behind them, who knows?

Plus, there’s a channel called SBS in Korea – there’s got to be an SBS-SBS Korean-Australian coproduction, surely?

Korean producers have been active in factual events like Sheffield Doc Fest, IDFA, and will no doubt be present at the Asian Side of the Doc in Xiamen, China, next March. A couple like Ha Sinhae of Boda Media – who’s just brought back a prize from a festival in Sao Paolo for Here Comes Uncle Joe 

Here Comes Uncle Joe (Official Trailer) from BODA Media Group/Sinae HA on Vimeo.

– and Gary Kam who produced with Min-Jul Kim and director Seungjun Yi the multi-award winning Planet of Snailare well travelled on the doc circuit. What they might need to do now is to build scale with something more TV-focussed like a factual series, perhaps for the Asian market in the first instance

Thanks to Seokpil Kang, Wooyoung Choi and Gary Kam for bringing me to Docs Port and introducing me to Korea. They were excellent organisers, so friendly and welcoming, and know how to have a good party without spending a fortune. I’ll be back.