Alchemy’s Carrie Stein

The writing’s on the wall… and it says ‘coproduction’

I went to MIP and MIPCOM for the first time in 1996 when I was an agent at ICM. The notion of doing a "coproduction" was frequently discussed inside agency walls, though none of us knew how to make one happen. For the next many years I went to the television markets and took occasional trips to England, France and Germany in search of coproduction partners, only to return to Hollywood and be frustrated by the unreceptiveness of broadcasters and cable buyers here in the US.

It felt like we were trying to jam a square peg into a round hole: the concepts weren’t quite right; the list of necessary approvals was daunting; each buyer’s insistence on ultimate control made the process impossible.

Most successful coproductions originated in Europe, Australia or Canada, and excluded the US. The rare coproduction involving a US network tended to originate in Hollywood. The coproduction partner was more a financial than a creative partner.

More recently, however, the reality business, and the format business more specifically, has caused a shift. Producers and agents in Hollywood, Europe and Canada are finally engaged with buyers all over the world, selling to the global market across all genres of TV. The television business is now a truly international one, whose doors swing easily open both ways.

Selling a format to another country is not so different from selling in one’s own market. Just as in Hollywood, a seller needs to visit prospective buyers, get to know them and understand their programming needs. These conversations have been occurring much more in the last five years than ever before. Once a producer or agent or studio is working consistently in another country on a format, it’s a natural leap to consider doing a coproduction.

While coproductions have always been motivated by money, the recent Hollywood Writers’ Strike has created the biggest shift of all, by forcing the domestic television community to work with foreign writers. Without a regular television series season and its plethora of scripts to choose from, the networks began to consider scripts and produced pilots from other countries.

The first few deals that resulted were coproductions after-the-fact – that is, they originated elsewhere, and involved the collaboration of a US partner only after concepts had been conceived and at least partially executed. After a few of these proved successful, US talent and buyers began to see that they could be involved in coproductions from the very beginning if the concepts worked across borders.

Most of the coproductions in the series area are productions between the UK and the US; Canada and the US; and the UK and Canada, a common language obviously making things easier. Advanced technology and the cross-pollination brought on by immigration also have contributed to bridging cultural gaps and creating shared television programming. We now have more than 500 channels to choose from and are flooded with shows from other countries, including new forms such as the telenovela and the best new British drama available on BBC America.

All of these factors stimulate us to think in new ways. Given the increasing need for robust financing, there’s no question that the lion’s share of our television programming five years from now will involve at least two broadcast partners on every show.

The Hollywood television community on all levels needs to become much savvier about the global market and how to work in it. The majority of mid-level executives still don’t think beyond the traditional series process. Familiarity with buyers, writers and directors in other countries is essential, as is a solid understanding of new business models, coproduction treaty rules and tax advantages.

Coproductions require true collaboration, which isn’t always easy for broadcasters accustomed to doing things their own way. Juggling scheduling needs, content rules and ordering patterns are just some of the challenges confronting copro partners. Nonetheless, more and more conversations are taking place between BBC, CBC, Sky, ABC, ITV, NBC, CTV, CBS, ProSieben, RAI, Antena 3 and Global every day. The writing is on the wall, and the message is a very promising one for those willing to read and act on it.

Carrie Stein is CEO of Alchemy TV