When two worlds collide: Advertising and Drama = ‘Content London’ @ BAFTA

I’ve just spent two very interesting days at the ‘Content London‘ event organised by C21 and held at BAFTA.  This event features the foremost industry leaders in the world of video content.

Hopefully my note taking and ideas will be useful to both those that came and those that didn’t, please share this blog with people you think would find it valuable.  Please do send me any feedback in the contact box at the end of the blog.

There was a huge amount of mind opening soundbites, things that prompted me to write down a quote or an idea to pop in to my head, and hopefully you, reader, will find them useful too.  Unlike most attendees at the event, I found myself darting between the sessions because the crossover between advertising focused content and television / drama production and distribution are so similar now because of YouTube and the marketing and distribution models that it felt next year they should actually be combined.

For those that didn’t make it, here is my personal round up of what I found interesting:

Funding the future of content

Firstly, looking at Content Distribution (on the panel: Georgina Eyre / Off the Fence, Jeremy Fox / DRG, Oliver Lang / BBCWW, Peter Emerson / eOne, Tim Multimer / Zodiak Rights & Jeremy Salsby / Saltbeef Productions).

In one of the early sessions of the first day a comment made by one of the panel was that Wildlife and History investment was dropping because it was so expensive to make, and distributors were finding it too hard to sell.  Jeremy Fox, CEO of DRG said that * Fiction, * Factual and * Format was what they were looking for right now.  A fact came up that in the last few years the number of US channels doing ‘fiction’ has risen from 6 to 63.  The question on all the panel’s minds is ‘Does it work globally?’, ‘Will it travel?‘.  There has been a big change over the last few years that traditionally you would license a show to a territory and that would be that, yet now, its all done with ‘windows’, as in a broadcaster has the right to show it for a certain amount of time, and then it could easily swap to another one after a year etc.  Oliver Lang from BBC Worldwide said that they were very keen to get contemporary drama, this also came up on Day 2 with Steve November Director of Drama at ITV also stating the same desire at his session.  The distributors felt that ‘one-offs’ could sell well, but they had to have a big impact, a real hook in the title or idea.

VC Funding Futures

Moving on to investment in to production companies and start ups, there was a very interesting panel discussion with Patrick Bradley, CEO at Ingenious, as well as Jean de Fougerolles, MD at Ascension Ventures and Stuart Mullin, joint founder at Greenbird.  The key notes for anyone setting up a business to make content was:

  • They invest in the person or the team, and a portfolio of work – not an individual project.
  • EIS and SEIS is a great way to raise investment for your start-up.
  • Never forget, that when working with a Venture Capital company that they are looking to make a profit on their investment, usually in a fairly short window of just 3-5 years.  They always want the company to be sold to realise that investment and pass back to their investors.
  • The start-up should not have high overheads on launch as it will mean that money could potentially run out before enough traction has been built up.
  • Development, Design and Distribution was key for them to invest in a start-up, all these have to be set out and clearly defined.
  • A summary business plan was enough, as long as the three D’s above had been addressed, then an email to them citing the company/team/portfolio offering could be enough for them to agree to a meeting.
  • They feel the timing is perfect for new start-ups in the content creation marketplace because the cost of start-up is lower than it has ever been and distribution opportunities are rising fast.
  • The sweet spot for investment is from £50k up to 300k for most VC’s in this area.  They would want on average a 30% share of the business, too little and its not worth their while, too much and it may cause the directors of the business to loose morale.
  • The focus really is TV and online video, and also curated video (i.e. content curation does not include generating content, but instead, amassing content from a variety of sources, and delivering it in an organized fashion).
  • On average the panel said that between 5-10 investments a year in new production companies was possible, and that world wide companies were very interested in buying a UK producer of content so a sale, if the portfolio was successful, (because global companies like a foothold in the UK) was very possible.
  • Find the investor or VC that is right for your start-up, dont just scattergun multiple ones.

How to create successful channels on YouTube:

Lets move on to the interesting keynote given by ex YouTube Director of Content for EMEA and now at Base79 Patrick Walker.

Base79 is a MCN (a Mutli-Channel Network), and it works with companies and successful ‘YouTubers’ to manage their licensing, channels and content.  Many distributors of content (broadcasters and brands) do not employ a full-time team to manage their YouTube channel, but should.  Other big benefactors from this sort of company would be highly successful ‘YouTubers’ who are essentially directing/shooting/editing/starring in their own channel, but are experiencing people steeling their work and uploading it themselves.  They work with these ‘YouTube’ stars to monetise their successful videos.

Patrick felt that what really worked for his YouTubers or for brands was either comedy, or storytelling.  It was either of these key components that could lead to a successful video.  He used Remi Gaillard, a client of theirs, as a perfect example, one of his comedy videos has 55 million hits.  They also run ‘Flow‘ a YouTube channel focused on Free Running/Parkour.  Patrick was adamant that for real success over long periods you need subscribers to your channel, not just views.

Crowd funding Film and TV

A fascinating session on the phenomenon of ‘crowd funding’.  To most people, this would normally bring Kickstarter to mind, a site dedicated to raising finance via rewarding those that donate money.  The normal route is to set out your idea, put up the amount of money you need to raise, offer some sort of reward (in the case of a film it could be a part of an extra/background artist, your name on the credits, and tickets to the premier).  However, in the broader market seedrs.com is working to allow actual equity investment in start-ups, while slated.com, indiegogo.com and mobcaster.com have focused on investors looking to invest in content creators in exchange for equity, something which has not really been seen before in an online space, they can also act as a actual broadcaster of the content and help sell it on to other platforms/broadcasters.  Traditionally, those wanting to raise finance for a TV show or film would do the rounds to various broadcasters, distributors and investors in the hope that pre-sales and investment could be secured to begin raising more finance, these sites open up opportunities for multiple investors to invest smaller amounts which could amount to large figures (as seen on KickStarter with virtual reality and also films made by cult directors).  The website www.crowdsurfer.co is a good guide to all of the above and how the model can work for you.  Most budgets range from $500k up to $15million, with the average at $1-3million.  Investors are apparently doubling each year in this sector, and up to 900 crowd funding sites now exist!

The comment came up about just how tough it can be to get a pilot made and commissioned to a series, on average 100 pilots are made in the US, 30 are aired, and 5 go on to be hits and return for more eps or another series.  When broadcasting on sites such as mobcaster.com its not uncommon for shows to run for 6 eps instead of the usual 13 (so common in the US).  With mobcaster its a 50/50 split on actual audience revenue generated via their site, and they take 15% if the content is sold on.

All agreed that what works well on these sites is a great story, with great marketing, and sometimes the lighter on the actual detail can actually mean better investment uptake.  When selling ‘the dream’ giving away exact detail on the star, the plot and the locations could actually be too much information, the idea of how it will turn out in an investors head is usually more exciting than the actual reality of what you end up with on the screen.

Nicola Horlick mentioned that exposure in The Times or the Telegraph was the best way to garner interest, as these are the papers read by investors, her new 2014 start-up, moneyandco.com is a crowdfunding website.

I asked a question to the various members on the panel about the commission rate for the site and also if they were global yet or still working purely in $?  The answer came back that on average, a commission of 5-8% goes to the crowdfunding site and that a lot of investors were global (I suspect in the main they still work in $).

Making the new UK Tax Relief work for you

This has had huge publicity in the last year because its now possible to get a 20% tax credit when an episode of your TV programme goes over £1million.  This is not a new benefit for film in the UK, but it has encouraged the world to look at the UK again for making features (as so many US studios fund both).  Various questions came up, I raised a query about how most UK drama is under £850k and so most would struggle to meet the £1million threshold unless people got better rates (!), and the answer came back from Liz Brion (head of media tax at Grant Thornton) that HMRC would be carefully studying claims to check rates hadn’t been inflated to get over the £1million mark.  She did confirm the £1million had to be on core expenditure only, and that a fixed production fee percentage had not been set, as it was clear various formats meant different production percentages so it was not sensible for HMRC to fix this, so production companies could inflate their fee a bit I suspect.  The reality to me is that only major US and UK series which have expensive talent, large sets and locations would be able to hit this mark, and this was confirmed by Ben Stephenson controller of BBC drama commissioning in his session on Day 2, with only the odd BBC drama accessing this credit.  It was also noted by Liz that documentaries would rarely be able to access this credit because unusual that these would have budgets in excess of £1million, but a lobby was underway with HMRC to potentially look at reducing the threshold for this format.  Useful sites include the london filming partnership.

Day 2 – Stuart Murphy, Director of entertainment channels, Sky

The headlines from this keynote was that Stuart and Sky were looking for: SCALE, HUMOUR and EMOTION.  He feels that fewer, bigger, better is Sky’s moto right now, and that there is a focus on quality rather than quantity of drama.  The upcoming slate includes: Dracula, Moonfleet, Penny Dreadful, The Tunnel (remake), Mad Dogs (returning), Strike Back (returning) and A Young Doctor’s Notebook (returning).

N.b. UK Broadcasters in the main are working with these US companies: Starz, Canal +, Showtime, HBO and AMC.

The Content Marketing Masterclass

This session was very interesting, Jeremy Garner from Weapon7 talked about ‘objects’ as protagonists and how these can be products, using the Aston Martin in the Bond movies as an example of a object that becomes a character.  Other references included the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the light sabres in Star Wars.  He also showed the Mercedes viral we graded with Rubber Republic as a great example of doing something different with branded content.

Chris Gorell Barnes at Adjust Your Set talked about the buying decisions the internet user makes and why, looking at the journey through multiple websites and information before purchasing.  They had also produced content for Carphone Warehouse where the brand barely featured but it set out the creative possibilities with tablets and smartphones for musicians, see it here.

Michael Reeves from Red Bee Media talked about how brands and agencies had to change from using the word ‘consumer’ to the word ‘audience’ as that fundamentally changed the way they would make content.  He believed the key lie in the three C’s: Catalyst, Conflict, Conclusion.  Examples ranged from Grand Designs and Jaws!  The point was, regardless of the duration, for something to have a storytelling impact, the three C’s helped to deliver for the audience what they wanted from video content.  He then showed a very nice film for Barclays for those with impaired eyesight, it was lighthearted, but made a great impact, see it here.

Keynote: Mark Boyd, co-founder Gravity Road

Mark’s keynote was very interesting, Gravity Road is rather different from the norm.  Mark said that 60% of their output was branded content, while 40% was original programming.  He stated that he believed the key notes of any successful video content is that it must be either Useful or Entertaining, that is the key to people sharing it.

I was particularly impressed with his work with Bombay Sapphire.  He had worked with the brand to create a script (from a leading Hollywood script writer) that had no direction notes.  They then invited online users from across the world to come up with a full treatment for a short film of the script, a shortlist of 5 would be made and shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Watch the initial call for ideas here, and see one of the finished films here (with its 100k+ views).

I congratulated Mark on this campaign (now in its second year) and asked if brands still struggled to understand fiction based content (when so much is Factual Entertainment in this sector) and if it was becoming an easier sell.  He said that Bombay Sapphire in particular had embraced it, and that others were slowly coming round to supporting this type of work.

Co-producing next generation drama for the world

Various highlight comments for me were that The Fall (Artists Studio and BBC) which went to number 1 on Metacritic was purchased by Netflix for exclusive rights for worldwide, outbidding other linear TV broadcasters.  There was comments about how US series shows often feature one strong character (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Dexter) and that could be the source of their international success, rather than UK drama that tends to focus on a number of characters (UK successes would be Cracker, Prime Suspect and Sherlock).

Keynote Interview: Ben Stephenson, Controller of drama commissioning, BBC

Ben talked about the broad range of drama that the BBC is focused on, particular mentions went to the excellent Peaky Blinders and upcoming Musketeers, and the teaser reel showed Ripper Street, and also our work on upcoming 3x 90min drama Quirke starring Gabriel Bryne and Michael Gambon. He also talked about the huge success of Last Tango in Halifax as being a welcome surprise (a show I graded last year).

Keynote Interview: Steve November, Director of drama, ITV

Steve’s overriding desire was for shows with great stories, and that he was aware that the ITV schedule had had too much crime and murder in it over recent years.  He said that ITV are very keen for contemporary drama.  Successes are of course Downton Abbey and Broadchurch, and the teaser for Lucan looked good.

The thought did run through my head that its generally accepted that there are only 7 basic plots, and that its more about the execution and casting that make the difference rather than just the story (as many stories are very similar when you pitch them), the ‘we want great stories’ was a recurring comment from lots of the drama commissioners, but then again, who would want bad stories?!

Keynote Interview: Piers Wenger, Head of drama, Channel 4

I am particularly fond of Channel 4 drama, as I believe they find a good balance between the need to service commercial interests with the need for ratings, but most importantly, the most interesting and dynamic drama as a public service.  Other broadcasters do have the habit of dumbing down story-lines, almost second guessing what audiences will think (I know this because I hear about it from the Directors and Producers who were forced to adjust the script or make story-lines clearer in the edit).  I’m not aware of Channel 4 intervening in this way, or feeling the need to signpost for its audience.  In the highlight reel was Top Boy 2 (which I graded in the summer) as well as Utopia, Southcliffe and Run.  I asked Piers if he would be increasing drama output, and he confirmed that he will double the number of drama hours in 2015.  I also asked if there was much commercial pressure, and while he said there was some, it was not the overriding consideration, and certainly not in the way that ITV or Sky operate.

Dig the new breed: The future of International Drama

A fascinating insight in to ‘Tricked‘ and Entertainment Experience, the new film from Director Paul Verhoeven.  It has been written by engaging with the general public, as the press pack states: In this era of social media, Verhoeven let himself be led by the general public, who determined all the crucial elements of the film making process.  From the direction of the script, plot twists, graphics, music score to even the smallest of suggestions about the set design, Paul Verhoeven’s movie is directly inspired by all the participants involved in this ground breaking film making experience.

Another highlight was Caryn Mandabach who works both in the US and in the UK.  She was a fantastic character, pointing out that 85% of UK broadcaster’s drama output features a murder!  When you think about it not that surprising, but just shows the limits of the drama commissions in recent years.  She was very clear that she doesn’t believe in the complex analytics of audience interaction, and just goes on the simple premise of “is it good?” rather than looking in to what might sell or whats on trend etc.  She also mentioned that the Weinsteins had bought ‘Peaky Blinders’ for the US, a clear indication that it stood out from the crowd, which I totally agree with.

Content London was a fantastic event, and it prompted me to look at new ideas for my own business and my industry contacts.  Congrats to C21 and David Jenkinson for an excellent couple of days.

I hope you found these notes useful.  If you did, please share it to your industry friends and tweet it!

You can find more information about the kind of work my company does here at www.thelooklondon.com

Many thanks

Thomas Urbye

MD & Visual Director

The Look


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