BBC STORYVILLE: Mandy Chang guides her legendary documentary strand through COVID turbulence. Our panel at virtual CCDF-CNEX

Mandy Chang, commissioning editor BBC-STORYVILLE recently joined my panel at Taiwan’s virtual CCDF-CNEX Documentary Conference.

In this post, we recap Mandy’s valuable insights into the legendary STORYVILLE stand, and the impact of COVID on the BBC’s documentary commissioning process.

Our fellow expert panelists were:

  • Hong Kong-based, Phoenix TV exec Haibo Huang
  • And from Washington DC, veteran programmer and senior consultant Dan Salerno.

BBC Pipeline

  • Mandy curates 20 films for the Storyville strand every year:
    • BBC’s flagship international feature documentary strand
    • The only international documentary strand on British TV networks
  • Head of Documentary Acquisitions
    • She buys “an enormous volume of content for BBC 1,2,3,4 and I-Player”
    • Finds and develops content from across the globe
  • Involved in every stage of the process, from Pre-production to Delivery

The Panel: Top: Peter (moderator) and Dan Salerno. Below: Haibo Huang and Mandy Chang

Rate the impact of COVID on your slice of the documentary economy, on a scale from 1-10:

  • Between 6 and 7
  • BBC was able to pivot very quickly and supplement content in all genres
  • Storyville: a lot of films were already in the editing stage
  • It has been a problem for projects shooting in North America

Development & Greenlighting

  • COVID has impacted the development process
  • We have never had more projects in development than right now
  • Sizeable volume of proposals- sometimes fully-fledged films
  • Greenlighting on developing has slowed down:
    • Funding is an issue
    • Modest amount of financing available for new projects: around $100,000
    • Projects must be really worthwhile to secure funding

Submissions

  • Producers should use the BBC Online Submission Site
  • If it’s not the right project for Storyville, then I reject immediately
  • We try to give feedback when possible, not always the case because of the sheer volume
  • I also receive submissions from other BBC commissioners

Developing New Talent

  • Developing new talent is very important to Storyville
  • Around one third of greenlit Storyville projects come from ‘newbies’
  • Two thirds are from experienced filmmakers
  • “We sometimes know ‘first time Storyville producers’ from the television world, but they’ve never made a feature doc”
  • Half in the ‘experienced filmmakers’ category already have relationships with the BBC
  • Some have never worked with Storyville before

COVID Challenges to Production

  • Filmmakers have been quite creative in the pandemic
  • Many filmmakers have found ways to get into the field in Europe and UK
  • “We encourage filmmakers to find new ways of doing things, for example, by instructing participants to film themselves, recording virtual interviews, and so on.”
  • Limitations bring forth creative innovation
  • Two recent notable examples:
    • Saudi Runaway was shot on Muna’s cellphone and acquired by Nat Geo at Sundance
    • Mating is a Swedish film that uses cellphones and social media
    • Totally Under Control, the new COVID doc from Alex Gibney, who has found ways to continue shooting in the U.S. (as many others have).

Storyville; “Nothing canceled”

  • Some films have been delayed in the edit or in getting pickups, but nothing has been canceled
  • Some projects have been pushed to next year
  • The cancellation of so many scripted and reality programs has been an advantage for Storyville because the BBC is filling many of the gaps with documentaries

The Audience: What do the viewers want? What are they turning off?

  • Storyville has a lot of dark films, particularly in the investigative and geo-political category
  • Those films must have a social or political layer to fly at Storyville
  • “We’re always looking for lighter films for balance”
  • “We still have to reflect the world we live in!”
  • “Make and Do” type content is popular right now in COVID.
  • Examples are:

Are you looking for stories about COVID?

  • There are a lot of COVID film submissions
  • We’re trying to stay away from it for now because its thoroughly covered elsewhere
  • Storyville wants the COVID story later when there will be deeper analysis and reflection
  • The key Takeaway is that Storyville is not straying too far from our established brand during COVID

ENSLAVED: A Recent Initiative

  • “We reversioned a wonderful 4-part series with Samuel L Jackson about slavery called Enslaved for BBC2. We hope it will bring a new and young audience to a subject that might not otherwise come to such a subject. Each film features a dive of a sunken wreck. Diving with a Purpose — “DWP” — features in these stories: Black divers whose mission is to bring ancestors forgotten stories to light… and of course Samuel L Jackson visits his roots, the stories and sites of enslavement. Its already screening on Epix in the US and went to air last Sunday.”
  • Here is the Guardian review of Enslaved.

Changing BBC Eco-system

  • The government is proposing to decriminalize non-payment of the license fee that funds the BBC
  • This will have a huge financial impact on the BBC and on the budgets available for programs
  • The new Director-General’s strategy for the BBC is:
    • Fewer films but higher impact
    • Maximise opportunities on iplayer
    • Renewed commitment to impartiality
    • Find more commercial opportunities for the  BBC
    • And diversity is critical!
  • We have to find new ways of monetizing our programs: For example, BritBox is the streaming service partnership of ITV and BBC
  • These changes won’t have a dramatic impact for Storyville as a strand, but the environment surrounding us is rapidly changing

More about Mandy Chang

More recent UK posts

Thanks!

  • Thanks to Mandy for her revealing presentation
  • To Pat Ferns and the highly-organized CNEX team for such a well-produced panel.
  • And to fellow panelists Haibo Huang and Dan Salerno
  • Longtime Storyville curator Nick Fraser was always a gracious friend to my newsletter, and I’m sending Nick my very best wishes!
  • I proudly co-EP’d with Stephanie Dangel A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD with Bill Gates for Smithsonian Networks and Storyville. Read more here and here.

Don’t miss my Storyville / HBO Docs / TribecaCase Study

  • UNITED SKATES: A first documentary feature from Dyana Winkler & Tina Brown wins the Tribeca Audience Award, a HBO Deal and a Storyville slot. A case study with podcasts