Golden age of docs

Clive Whittingham 7th September 2020

Golden age of docs
Clive Whittingham

Clive Whittingham examines what’s trending in documentaries, whether Covid-themed projects are in or out and what the big concerns are for distributors heading into 2021.

Once the doyen of independent cinemas, film festivals and premium US cablenets, documentaries have been having a bit of a moment for a while now since Netflix reawakened broadcasters to their popularity. Linear channels and streamers alike have been rushing to snap up the high-profile projects, such as Knock Down The House and Leaving Neverland, often paying big money into the bargain.

With the Covid-19 outbreak have come fresh challenges but also new trends.

While plugging the gaps that way has not resulted in the big boom and golden age for distributors that was tipped at the start of the pandemic, it has opened up possibilities for sister factual programming, according to Bethan Corney, MD of Bristol-based distributor and copro fixer Silverlining, which is shopping 1×60’ Channel 5 project Inside The Mind of Agatha Christie.

“It’s a time when channels have been repeating family- friendly dramas and we’ve had a big uptake on Inside The Mind of Agatha Christie, because although the buyers are relying on re-runs, they’re also looking for something fresh to compliment that drama output, Corney says.

The other trend Corney has spotted relates to the coproduction side of her business, where the ability to provide fresh new content to a broadcaster in return for just a small portion of the overall cost of the programme could be very attractive in these straightened times.

“We’ve doubled our turnover already this year and hope to triple it by the end of 2020,” Corney says. “It’s not only broadcasters being desperate for finished tape but also our ability to raise finance for projects. If a channel can put £50,000 in and get a completed original that looks a million dollars, that’s perfect for them at the moment. Even if broadcasters have limited budgets you can still pull something glossy together through a traditional copro.”

Strangely, given its affect on the world at the moment, projects about the Covid-19 pandemic specifically are receiving a lukewarm reception from buyers. While there are commissioners, such as SVT’s Axel Arno, open to pitches in that area, the sales folk we spoke to said they were finding coronavirus a tough sell, and amidst a market not only flooded with docs but also news and current affairs output on the topic, it needs to be something unique to stand out.

Karen Young, founder and CEO of UK distributor Orange Smarty, says: “If it’s a good, fact-based, science piece, high-end with big contributors and saying something new, then yes, it can cut through. But if it’s another lockdown programme or very parochial then it’s a tough sell. It’s bad enough living in your own Covid world without looking in on somebody’s else’s.

“When we talk to production companies early in the process we’re saying, ‘Nothing Covid-related.’ Covid-safe, of course, but no references or illusions to Covid at all. I liken it to 9/11, where you watch a programme filmed in New York City and you see the Twin Towers it dates it immediately.”

The Orange Smarty slate is currently firmly focused on the escapism and extraordinary stories trends, with sperm donor-themed 25 Siblings & Me and royal doc Harry and Meghan: New Revelations on the back of their recent book publication.

“Royal programming is doing really well; channels buy it and it’s an audience-bringer,” Young says. “Internationally, some channels prefer the older, more traditional royals and others prefer the younger royals, but with this one the book is universal and gaining a lot of profile.”

Corney at Silverlining largely agrees. “There has been a trend for Covid docs but it has to be something that can’t be generated locally in the respective territories through their own news and current affairs output.” Quick-turnaround Sex In Lockdown pulled 1.4 million viewers and a 6% audience share to Channel 4, its highest for a doc in that slot since 2017, and is on the Silverlining slate. “That’s relevant, mischievous and fun, a bit of a departure from the hardcore news cycle,” Corney says.

“It peaked at the beginning with a flurry of docs and a scramble for the best ones, then there was a plateau when there was so much in the news cycle it became too depressing. I think there will be another peak leading up to the anniversary of the first cases in December and January. Broadcasters will want anniversary programming and the fight will be for the ones with high production values and rigorous science that sets it apart from what the current affairs programmes are turning out.”

At Silverlining, Corney is in dialogue with the soon-to-launch Discovery D2C offering, which will further heighten competition. “On the Discovery linear channels you have science, engineering, relationships, homes and gardens, but I think their streamer is going to be more flexible about combining those genres,” she says. “Where your idea may have fallen short on linear, it might find a home on the streamer and they know they’ll have to be competitive with the prices offered.”

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