Producers and distributors: we need to talk

Richard Life, head of acquisitions & coproductions, ITV Studios Global Entertainment

The holy grail of our business will always be that gem of a programme which sells…everywhere. But whilst that one consistent remains true everything else is changing.

In the UK alone there are over 30 distributors but the number of producers who remain independent or have not signed away their rights exclusively has shrunk dramatically. The result is that opportunities to pick-up promising new content have narrowed. 

Content is King in our business, every distributor wants to work with talented programme makers with a unique voice and strong stories. More and more these funds are critical for making the programmes indies want to produce or funding a deficit to even get a project off the ground. A distributor’s contribution for some indies is helpful, for many it’s critical. In some cases working with distributors is the next phase in building their business. So why do we still shroud international distribution and coproduction in a veil of mystery? 

Every distributor has their own pitch and unique selling point. At ITV Studios Global Entertainment ours is communication. We need each other so why not work together to give a show the best possible chance of international success?

Producers are expert programme makers, distributors are expert sellers and this partnership should be and can be so much stronger. Our knowledge can be shared – it’s a rare occasion when a programme maker decides to take their newly found insight to go it alone.

The earlier we have a conversation with a producer, the earlier a distributor can help. Crucial production decisions can have a significant impact on a programme’s saleability – casting, scripting, location can all be considered in an international context without impacting the integrity of the programme being made. Coproductions are becoming more and more important, particularly in Europe and the knowledge a distributor can offer at an early stage to pull these complex deals together results in greater budgets, more ambitious productions and a finished product with truly international appeal.

Equally, producers have a great deal to offer at the distribution stage – and this should never be dismissed. Their input on positioning at the markets, pitching and marketing should be welcomed. Distributors should never be afraid to be challenged or upstaged! The charismatic presence of a producer who has lived and breathed a project can occasionally make the difference between closing a deal and not.

And as the gatekeepers who hold the keys to international audiences we shouldn’t underestimate the value regular feedback offers. Who doesn’t want to be told the show you sacrificed Christmas and a family holiday for is going to be enjoyed in Slovakia? Why wait for a quarterly report? From my time at Channel 4 I’ll always remember the unexpected response we got from Peter Kay when we told him Max and Paddy had been sold to Finland – he loved it.  And, incidentally, when there’s talent to manage a bit of good international news can go a long way. Louie Spence’s rise to fame in the UK has been mirrored by similar success internationally and unsurprisingly he’s delighted. 

Keeping producers in the loop in this way can have a halo effect on their ability to win new business. Commissioners like to know they’ve made good decisions – international success helps validate their wise choices and has been known to contribute to re-commissioning decisions. After all more content is what we’re all looking for.

Sadly bad news is just as important as the good. Sometimes a programme just doesn’t sell as well as expected. It’s disappointing and frustrating for both parties, but there’s little point in hiding from the facts. Honest feedback in a proper context is important and helpful. What didn’t work this time can be changed next time. But it is not just about regular meetings and long lunches, we both have only so many hours in the day. It is about utilising new more dynamic means of communication.

There’s a real danger that unique, valuable programming can be seen as just another piece of content in the catalogue. Strengthening the collaboration between producer and distributor can only help deliver an improved content line. Trust, honesty and an ongoing dialogue between producer and distributor leads to more content, better content and greater rewards for everyone.