The spiralling cost of TV production may not appear to trouble the global streaming giants, which seem to have bottomless pools of cash to spend on fully financing original content. But for pretty much everybody else in the international TV business, raising production finance has become a complicated business that demands almost as much creativity and ingenuity as writing, directing or showrunning.
The rise of international co-productions and the distributor’s new role
At the heart of the problem is the fact that domestic and regional broadcasters and platforms are rarely in a position to fully finance premium shows — a situation that holds true across scripted, non-scripted and children’s. The direct result of this is a rise in the number of international co-productions and an enhanced role for distributors.
Paul Dempsey, president of global distribution at BBC Studios, sums it up when he says that, these days,
“every production comes with a different funding model — there’s no one formula”.
He adds that BBC Studios’ MIPCOM launch, The Mallorca Files, is an example of a production that has investment from four different countries, with partners that include a streaming service, public-service broadcasters and a studio. The soft-crime drama was commissioned by the BBC, with North America’s BritBox, Germany’s ZDF, France Televisions and BBC Studios on board as partners.
The big shift in production financing
Set on the Spanish island of Mallorca with UK and German detectives as the central characters, The Mallorca Files is a classic example of an international series that has benefited from this shift in production financing. Another show that underlines this trend is the reboot of classic Seventies cop series Van Der Valk, also on show at MIPCOM. Filmed on location in Amsterdam, the drama is described as a “co-commission” by German public broadcaster ARD Degeto and UK distributor All3Media International. Produced by the UK’s Company Pictures and the Netherlands’ NL Film, the 3 x 90 mins production has also been pre-sold to France Televisions, ITV in the UK and NPO in the Netherlands.
Shifts lead to innovation: the emergence of commissioning clubs
The industry’s growing reliance on co-production and distribution investment has led to several innovations in TV financing. One is the emergence of Atrium, a ‘commissioning club’ that is managed by Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. Put simply, Atrium’s goal is to create premium drama content for regional OTT players and telcos that are not able to fully fund the kind of quality drama in which Netflix and Amazon specialise. Current Atrium members include BT (UK), Orange (France), Movistar+ (Spain) and Deutsche Telecom (Germany).
The Atrium team develops drama then gives partners in the club the option of investing in them. Projects in the works include Cyrano, a period piece starring Joseph Fiennes, and Clara Vine, an eight-part espionage thriller based on Jane Thynne’s series of novels.
Local SVOD investments
Outside the formal setting of Atrium, there are other examples of local SVODs playing their part in innovative financing models, says Nicky Davies Williams, CEO of distributor DCD Rights. “There has been dramatic growth in SVOD channels such as Stan in Australia coming in with broadcast-level budgets for original series. Stan commissioned Romper Stomper, which we distribute. This was a big-budget, high-impact drama that brought a leap in subscriptions for the channel and sold to Starz in the US, BBC in the UK and Sundance International Networks.”
Distributors are the new commissioners
Another new development is the growing tendency to refer to distributors as ‘commissioners’ — a term traditionally reserved for end-users such as broadcasters. The use of the term ‘co-commissioner’ to describe All3Media International’s role on Van Der Valk, for example, is a reflection of the fact that distributors these days are often putting more money into individual productions than broadcasters.
Dempsey, similarly, is happy to refer to ‘self-commissioning’ as part of BBC Studios’ toolkit, while the notion of distributors as ‘mini-commissioners’ is rife among factual specialists such as TCB Media Rights, Cineflix Media, Sky Vision and DCD Rights.
“In factual, we’re working with producers to trigger productions by combining pre-sales and part-funding ourselves,” Davies Williams say.
At MIPCOM, DCD is launching four series across a range of genres that follow this model: Wildest Places, Disasters Engineered, 10 Steps To Murder and The Day My Job Tried To Kill Me.
Distributors coming in at the development stage
Another emergent trend has been the growing role of distributors at the development stage, acquiring IP rights, funding scripts and packaging talent.
“Distribution has changed radically because the content landscape has,” Dempsey says. “Studios are investing far earlier than ever before, which leads to commissioners and co-producers signing up to projects at the earliest stage in development. Similar to how the film industry operates, it’s about upfront commitment and risk.”
Driven by the need to get on board projects at the earliest stage, some studios are formalising their role by launching funds. TF1-backed Newen Group, for example, has a €50m investment fund that is focused on acquiring English-speaking drama from a London HQ. Keshet International (KI) has a similar fund, which has been used to support Blackfella Film’s political drama Black B*tch (working title) and Ecosse Films’ The Trial Of Christine Keeler. These investments, according to Sebastian Burkhardt, KI’s managing director of global content, “reinforce our commitment to bring more high-end dramas to global audiences”. Black B*tch, he adds, is “a strong local story with the potential to resonate and connect with audiences around the world, which is why it immediately stood out to us”.
Funding limitations of the co-production model
Having said all of the above, there are limitations to what co-production and distribution can do to combat the escalating cost of high-end shows. The co-production model can, for example, collapse under the weight of unpalatable creative compromises, while reliance on distributors is restricted by their reluctance to take on too much investment risk.
Alternative funding: streamers and private-equity investors to the rescue
“As a result, the pressure is on to approach content financing in a creative and innovative manner and make full use of the growing sources of funding available in the market,” says Carlo Dusi, executive vice-president of commercial strategy, scripted, at Red Arrow Studios International.
Possible solutions are co-distribution arrangements or co-productions under which the bulk of investment is actually provided by a global streamer. But also of interest is the growing array of non-traditional financiers entering the TV market, Dusi adds. “A recent trend is the entrance of private-equity investment into premium scripted TV. Such companies, which have traditionally focused on film, are investing in the value of TV and IP against a share of ownership in the project and corresponding back-end revenues.”
For equity funds, the attraction of TV is clear, Dusi says: “Despite mounting competition, it’s still easier to put financing together for a TV series than an independent film because there are more sources of finance. The return is also more predictable as the number of platforms tends to ensure a certain level of sales can, in theory, be achieved.”
Some media investors have been around for a decade or more. Ingenious, for example, has backed more than 500 productions, ranging from The Honourable Woman to Waffle The Wonder Dog. But more recent arrivals include 127 Wall Productions, Anton, Access Industries, Bob & Co and Silver Reel.
Anton and Federation Entertainment
Anton, headed by CEO Sebastien Raybaud, is well established as a film financier. Recently, however, it has been especially high profile in TV, setting up the £150m Drama Investment Partnership with BBC Studios and also forging an alliance with Federation Entertainment.
Regarding the former, Anton has supported BBC Studios-backed productions including McMafia and His Dark Materials. In partnership with BBC Studios, it is now developing and funding a slate of short-form drama and comedy projects from indie producer Clerkenwell Films (Misfits; The End Of The F***ing World). Explaining why, Raybaud says:
“We are moving into an era where audiences are able to enjoy super premium content in a bite-sized format, opening many new doors for storytellers and talent.”
As for the Federation tie-in, Raybaud’s investment company will take equity positions on the studio’s growing portfolio of foreign and English-language drama series. The production value for the Federation/Anton co-financed slate is expected to be in excess of $100m while, on the distribution side, Anton will co-fund acquisitions across genres. Early projects covered by the partnership include Don’t Leave Me, a thriller from the creative team behind breakout Italian hit Gomorrah.
Access Entertainment, a division of entrepreneur Len Blavatnik’s privately held company Access Industries, is headed by former BBC director of TV Danny Cohen. Key investments to date include an alliance with BBC Studioscalled Benchmark Television and a 24% investment in indie producer Bad Wolf (His Dark Materials).
127 Wall, meanwhile, has pumped around $180m into indie producer The Ink Factory, supporting the production of high-end series including The Little Drummer Girl.
Like Anton, Switzerland’s Silver Reel is a film financier seeking to establish itself in television. A couple of years ago, it launched a €50m TV drama production fund. Speaking to The Guardian newspaper at the time, Claudia Bluemhuber, managing partner of Silver Reel, said the UK was a particular focus of attention thanks to the weak pound, attractive tax rebates and strong creative talent pool.
Soon after, Silver Reel jumped on board The Luminaries, a six-part drama based on the acclaimed novel by Eleanor Catton. Other partners on the BBC Two project include Working Title Television and Fremantle, which is handling distribution. Bluemhuber, who will take part in MIPCOM’s Production Funding Forum, says that Silver Reel’s TV ambitions are to “work on projects that enable it to bring cinematic language and high production values to the small screen”. Set in New Zealand in 1866, The Luminaries is “a captivating story that reflects today’s zeitgeist of a strong female character finding her way and voice in the times when women were not yet in a position to make their own decisions about their lives”, Bluemhuber adds.
Banks step in
Not to be overlooked when completing the production-finance jigsaw puzzle are banks. Barclays, for example, has a SVOD financing fund designed to help UK producers move Netflix and Amazon shows into production. By allowing production companies to borrow over a longer period of time than is usual, the fund helps them to manage their cashflow, freeing up funds for development in future projects. Series to have used the Barclays fund, which is effectively a bespoke loan arrangement, include Drama Republic’s BBC/Netflix scripted co-production Black Earth Rising, Lime Pictures’ Netflix series Free Rein and Silvergate Media’s Octonauts pre-school specials.
Explaining why it made sense to access Barclays’ facility, Denis Wray, Drama Republic’s financial controller, says: “For Black Earth Rising, the borrowing profile was steep and the repayment tail was longer than the UK industry was used to.
Barclays is supportive of its producers, aware of the risks and challenges that we navigate on a daily basis, knowledgeable, ready to listen and available to help when required.”
Initially set at £100m, Barclays’ SVOD fund was recently raised to £200m, with rumours that it might go global. “We’re seeing more SVOD activity and an increasing need for tailored financing that meets the specific needs of both the production company and the subscription service,” says Lorraine Ruckstuhl, head of media at Barclays Corporate Banking.
“With more SVOD platforms on the way and a growing focus on original content, demand is set to increase further, and finance providers will have to keep innovating to meet changing funding requirements.”
Also not to be overlooked in the debate about financing is the role of advertising-agency networks, which have been developing alternatives to spot ads. Dentsu, via The Story Lab subsidiary, is involved in the distribution of series including Ninja Warriors and Game Of Clones, while WPP’s Motion Content Group is a partner on Love Island, The Circle and Wild Things.
Red Arrow’s Dusi says: “The concept of brands contributing to TV financing is not new — Red Bull has been active for several years and has its own content-investment division. Brands have also been part of film financing for years. But going forward, I think we will see more brands entering TV, particularly in the context of streaming, which largely operates outside the regulatory environment.”
In a similar vein, Dusi also expects existing advertiser practices to explore new outlets:
“The provision of funding against advertising slots connected to television content has grown over recent years through intermediaries such as Group M. While particularly suited to reality and other unscripted content, it also works for scripted event shows.”
Dusi says it is also important not to overlook public funds: “Support in the form of TV funds and tax credits is continuing to play a large part in financing shows and an increasing number of countries have extended their film-support systems to include television drama and/or introduced TV-specific support. For instance, one of our dramas, Vienna Blood from Endor Productions and MR Film, combines UK tax credits with subsidies from the Austrian Television Fund, the Vienna Film Fund and the Austrian Culture Fund, alongside the co-commission commitment from ORF and ZDF, and investment from Red Arrow Studios International.” He adds that The Bank Hacker, a character-driven thriller about a teenager who commits a daring bank heist, also includes a grant from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund.
Overall, Dusi says, the new financing sources have definitely had an impact on the way in which the distribution business operates:
“Flexibility is key and there is no one-size-fits-all model. To ensure we don’t block any routes to production, we ensure that, in our deals, we remain open to considering all finance opportunities, which can mean pulling together what are complex deal structures encompassing multiple alternative routes.”
He also contends that the new funding sources have implications for revenue collection: “For pure equity partners, ROI [return on investment]is key, so most want to see a collecting agency on board to make sure revenue is reported correctly and distributed appropriately. It’s about being accountable.”
Sources of funding may change, but the goal remains the same
Carrie Stein, executive vice-president of global scripted series at Kew Media Group, has been developing and financing series for decades, initially as an agent at ICM. Right now, she says, Kew is co-financing one-hour drama Margeaux with NENT Group’s Viaplay. “We are shooting in Israel and Eastern Europe, and the budget will be just under $1m per episode,” she adds. “Having a partner who controls the Nordics, leaving Kew to sell to the rest of the world, is a good deal for both Kew and Viaplay, which shares ownership of the property.”
While welcoming new sources of revenue, Stein sounds a note of caution:
“Similar to the indie film business, the indie television business is attracting new talent and platforms every day, and with that comes new sources of revenue. But the economics of film and television are very different, so the question we need to ask is whether these new funders will ever recoup their investments or see any upside.
There are several global platforms, such as Viaplay, Orange, Hulu and Channel 5, investing in original content, spending far more money than they’ve ever spent on acquisitions, but it’s too soon to know whether these investments will pay off. And there are many private-equity firms interested in investing in specific TV series. But in my experience, once they review the financials of the series, their interest wanes.”
Stein agrees that distribution has become more complicated, but she is not convinced that non-tradition financing will make a fundamental difference to the business: “Every series still needs to be sold worldwide to make money. A distributor can sell territory by territory, or they can sell global rights to a streamer like Netflix. But regardless of where the funding is coming from, it’s the goal of the distributor, on behalf of the producing partners, to sell the show for as much money and in as many territories as possible. That doesn’t change.”
This article was written by Andy Fry, edited by Julian Newby, and appears in the MIPCOM Preview Magazine.
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