The Doc/Fest Session
U.S. channels are spending more than $2.0 billion this year on factual productions. But how can producers get a sliver of that huge pie? They need useful tools to analyse the channels and then to pitch the programmes that networks are most likely to buy. This session focuses on the ‘business of the documentary business.’
Alex Graham, Chief Executive, Wall to Wall, a major UK producer who is expanding in the U.S.
Lisa Heller, Vice President, HBO Documentary Films, the peak U.S. broadcaster of quality documentaries
Dawn Porter, Trilogy Films, an AETN Legal/Business Affairs exec who recently launched her new production company
Tom Koch, Vice President, PBS International, and a veteran distributor within the PBS family
Peter Hamilton, Moderator
Alex Graham, Chief Executive, Wall to Wall
Born in Glasgow, Alex Graham has been a leading figure in UK independent television production sector for almost 30 years. Educated at Glasgow University and City University, London, he graduated from City with a Diploma in Journalism in 1978. After spells at the Bradford Telegraph and Argus and the Sunday Times, he joined London Weekend Television in 1979. In 1983, he left to join Diverse Productions, where he became editor of Channel 4’s flagship current affairs series Diverse Reports and in 1987, he set up Wall to Wall.
Over 20 years, Alex has been involved in creating and executive producing a wide range of hit television programmes including The 1900 House, A Rather English Marriage, Who Do You Think You Are? and New Tricks. Recent work includes innovative history and science formats like Turn Back Time and The Young Ones.
Wall to Wall has received almost every major television award including several BAFTA, Emmy, Royal Television Society and Peabody awards. And in 2009, it won an Academy Award for its first feature documentary Man on Wire.
Alex sits on the board of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. He is a fellow of the Royal Television Society, the Royal Society of Arts and a visiting fellow of the University of Bournemouth’s Media School. He is a former chair of the Producers’ Alliance for Cinema and Television (Pact) and now sits on their Patrons’ Group. In 2009, he received an honorary doctorate from City University for services to journalism.
What is the scale of Wall to Wall’s business in 2010?
Our turnover reached £27 million from productions and IP, based on 57 hours completed.
And what is your growth strategy for the U.S.?
I want to make a couple of points about U.S strategy from the experience of a UK producer:
First, for UK producers the scale of the U.S. market is mind-boggling. Wall to Wall has earned tremendous market share in the UK. But we barely register as a ‘player’ in the vast U.S. market. There are dozens of channels that commission Factual productions. We see tremendous growth potential there, and we are dedicating a lot of energy and focus to it.
After 15-20 years crossing the Atlantic, it doesn’t make sense to talk about just one U.S. market. It’s really a number of different markets.
At Wall to Wall, we’ve dealt with NBC, HBO, Nat Geo, Discovery, Spike, MSNBC, and many others. And each channel is very different, but they also overlap.
East Coast / West Coast
There is a strong East Coast / West Coast division between cable channels and networks:
East Coast channels include Discovery, Nat Geo, A&E and History, PBS and HBO. They are more open to the UK way of doing things, but they are very different in terms of pace and narrative.
We enjoyed a good relationship with PBS on the House project – it was a partnership between PBS and Channel 4
West Coast channels include Spike, Lifetime, E! and the networks. Many of them are very male, and action-driven like Spike and Bravo. It’s complicated because some of the ‘West Coast’ networks are actually headquartered and run out of New York
And, East Coast channels like Discovery now rely more heavily on West Coast-based producers, like Pilgrim and Original, who bring a West Coast style to Factual productions
The broadcast networks like NBC are in a ‘West Coast’ category by themselves
The important thing for a doc maker to remember is that in the U.S., you’re in the Entertainment space. Except in rare cases, you’re not a documentary or a Factual producer, but a creator of television entertainment.
And Factual entertainment is increasingly important to the U.S. television industry because it’s a lot cheaper to produce than drama or entertainment per se.
They Want it All!
My second ‘big’ point is that in the U.S., Business Affairs is at least as important as the content:
- Some networks are very open to co-pro partnerships from Day 1
- But big networks really want to wholly own the IP
- That’s true of cable channels like A&E
- And increasingly so even for less-widely distributed channels like Nat Geo who you’d think would benefit from the added on screen value brought by a copro partner
This is a real culture shock for UK producers where the opposite is true, and where work-for-hire is an unpleasant exception to the rule.
What can producers do to retain equity?
There are two ways to preserve IP:
- Bring Money to the Table
Even then, channels like Discovery increasingly want to own everything. They may turn down a copro opportunity in favour of total ownership
- Own the Format
We’ve done some very complex format deals, including retaining distribution rights. Who Do You Think You Are? is in that category.
Sounds very complicated – does that mean you really need a U.S. representative?
With the Warner Brothers’ deal we did.
Wall to Wall works in two ways:
- On the East coast, we do co-pro deals that we service from London (for example, Crack House USA for MSNBC, which involves packaging up North American rights
- In Los Angeles, we find that an agent and a lawyer are essential. I don’t really understand what agents do. They’re useful for intelligence, but they don’t improve the deal
Panel Discussion: Are agents essential? Or leeches? Or both?
Lisa: Most West Coast networks won’t consider unsolicited proposals from people they don’t know.
Alex: On the East Coast, Wall to Wall won’t let agents near our clients at Nat Geo, Discovery, AETN, and so on. We built these relationships for years. We’re not going to bring in agents to work on our existing East Coast business when what we want out of them is to be helpful in LA. They’re more trouble than they’re worth on the East Coast. But the West Coast agents hate not representing everything.
Also, the East Coast networks tend to consider agents to be parasites. They think that they’re taking money off the screen in a highly competitive market where every dollar counts.
Lisa: For HBO Docs, it’s the passion of the filmmaker that counts, not what an agent can offer.
Dawn: Agents are useful when a network needs to fill a specific requirement. They can enable producers to make better use of their time. The problem is that agents often bring the same people and projects to several channels and the studios, and there’s a feeling that they lack focus on the client … that as a network you’re not hearing something ‘special’ and ‘unique’.
Lisa: There’s a big difference between Studio agents and Documentary/ Factual agents
Alex: Agents are a bit like London minicabs – when they first take you on, you get the best treatment. But three months later, they rarely show up on time. You have to keep managing that relationship.
They are useful for market intelligence. They’re in and out of network offices every other day. They know what programmers are looking for, what’s working and what’s not, who’s going to get fired, and who’s up for a promotion. That’s important stuff!
And if you’re an unknown in LA, they’ll get you a meeting.
But it took me a long time to learn that they don’t get you a better deal. You can get as good or better deal yourself with a good lawyer. Though good American lawyers are very expensive!
The expectations of U.S. broadcasters is very different … “two countries divided by common language” was never more true than in TV
To get into bed with a West coast network is almost impossible without an agent or production partner.
We’ve yet to discover what the Warner Brothers’ takeover of Shed Media means. But because Shed already had Studio contacts, it made the selling of WDYTYR to NBC much easier.
When NBC acquired WDYTYR, they said they didn’t want to change a thing. But that wasn’t what they meant. They only ‘discovered’ what they really wanted to change in Post (laughs). It would have been much more helpful to everyone involved if they had communicated clearly in pre-production.
The most important thing is to hang on to the integrity of the programme. But you must remember that it’s an Entertainment show, not a Factual one.
Witch or Witch-burner?
Alex screens a clip of the U.S. version of Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYR) in which Sarah Jessica Parker waits to learn if she’s a related to a New England witch (cool!) or a witch-burner (Yuk!).
The clip shows how cutting for U.S. commercial breaks alters the pace of the program versus the UK familiar version.
WDYTYR attracts around 7 million viewers. That is a solid figure for a Friday night, but not a runaway hit. It was successful enough for a second season.
Back to understanding the U.S. market: what other advice do you have for British filmmakers?
If you’re serious about working for U.S. channels, you’ve got to get on a plane. It’s important not just to meet people but to watch American TV as well. That’s a scary thing for UK producers. I recommend checking in to a New York hotel room and doing nothing but flip channels for a couple of days. And do that regularly!
Lisa: That’s very true. Often when I ask them, foreign producers who are pitching us haven’t seen any of our programmes!
Many thanks to Jan Euden (reeljems) for her note-taking at our session.
Lisa Heller, Vice President, HBO Documentary Films
- How does HBO develop and green light documentaries?
- How many?
- What are the filters?
- And more!
World Congress of Science and Factual Producers
Tuesday, 30 November, 3:30PM, Dresden, Germany
Panel: Profiles of U.S. Science & History Commissioners
Susan Werbe, History Channel
Michael Hoff, Hoff Productions
Dawn Porter, Trilogy Films
Peter Hamilton, Moderator