Securing the best shows is a risky business

In the crowded content market, in order to secure the best shows, distributors are pumping money into projects at an ever earlier stage. But is the increased risk-taking paying off? Several industry experts share their sentiments with K. Dass.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once said that in today’s rapidly expanding business world, the only strategy guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. It’s unlikely the internet entrepreneur was thinking about the international television distribution business when he said this, but his opinion couldn’t be more appropriate in today’s TV industry. With the marketplace increasingly crowded, injecting cash into shows when they are just treatments, or even before that, is now a necessary gamble for distributors to take as they look to secure the best product ahead of their rivals.

 

The likes of BBC Worldwide (BBCWW), ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE) and FremantleMedia International (FMI) can all typically invest between 5% and 15%, sometimes more, of a show’s budget upfront in exchange for the global rights. It’s all in the hope that, if a programme becomes an international success, they can make a large return on their original investment. But spending on projects so early exposes them to financial dangers if that show fails to achieve sales success – much more so than investing later when the project is fully formed and has other talent and investors attached. Hence the game becomes about making sure this doesn’t happen. “If you just choose to invest huge amounts in development its one of the sure fire ways to lose your money,” says Caroline, Head of International scripted programming at Zodiak Rights, distributor of Canal+ supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned), “Our strategy is to be really targeted with our investment and invest in projects that we think have major international appeal.

“If we are going to invest in development, we really need at least one script and a good bible that shows what the story is going to be – you really have to be prepared to invest at that level. Generally, we would do a bible, a treatment and then possibly a script.”

 

Moreover, Caroline stresses the need for early input from broadcasters to avoid financial problems down the line. “If a producer has some commitment from a local that’s prepared to pay some of the distribution costs, we will come in and match that,” she says. Among recent pick-ups was English language history drama Versailles, which was in development for five years before the U.K. partnership of Simon Mirren (Criminal Minds) and David Wolstencroft (Spooks) came onboard the Canal+, Capa Drama and Incendo productions, Zodiak presold the series to a handful of companies such as SquareOne Entertainment, which distributes it in German-speaking Europe. And for Caroline, that’s an important component of getting a project of the ground. “These days there are some incredibly ambitious projects that need coproduces and presales right up front,” she says. “If a producer is looking for a coproduction or a presale, you need to be involved at the beginning.

Once that phase has happened and the project is funded, there’s usually an advance from a distributor, a minimum guarantee or something like that. We will always try to find presales to de-risk the project right through to fi nished tape sales.” Presales and minimum guarantees– an initial sum paid by distributors to producers to ensure the latter receives money irrespective of the project’s success – both play an important part in the investment strategy of FNI, which according to CEO Jens Richter is now moving further up the value chain of shows in which it invests. Recent FMI commitments include Channel 4 drama No Offence, from British writer Paul Abbott, and German Cold War drama Deutschland 83, which hails from Fremantle-backed drama shingle UFA Fiction (Generation War). “Deutschland 83 came to us at the ‘idea stage’ and then they had a script and a commission from a broadcaster. But there was a big financial gap that was unusually high for a German drama, but we still stepped in,” explains Richter, who declines to reveal the extent of Fremantle’s financial input.



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