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Genevieve Dexter, managing director of Serious Lunch

Former Cake Entertainment executive Dexter will be speaking at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield this week (4-6 July). She tells TBI her views on the short and long game of international coproduction.

I have been involved directly or indirectly in around 50 co-productions for kids TV as an EP, developer or distributor. A venture capitalist asked me why a platform would pay more for a commission than an acquisition. He was dumbfounded when I explained it was largely to command editorial control and onscreen credits. It brought home to me what a wonderful thing co-production is; a bespoke industry that promotes international cooperation.

I have seen broadcasters, distributors and producers go from periods of intense international collaboration to periods of vertical integration and exclusion. The circle is infinite because although memories are short and everyone wants to be a producer, dipping into the ocean of 3rd party projects ensures diversity.

The kids’ sector has always been the trailblazer for international co-pros because of the high cost and international appeal of the genre. Add the cutting edge technology and playability that kids demand, and we are always going to be ahead of the game and there is a lot to be learnt from this relatively recent but vast history.  As we approach The Children’s Media Conference I would like to talk about my experience with what I call the short and the long game and give some focus on the current outlook for UK independents.

The short game involves lots of international players coming in at low risk profile.  Two broadcast commissions are essential to the model, making sure the non equity participant foundations are strong and get you to 30 to 40%. The rest falls into place from services, subsidies and MG’s/gap e.g. Ebb & Flo, King Arthur’s Disasters, Skunk Fu, Angelo Rules. The gregarious international travellers from a distribution background tend to play this extended board game.

The main aim of the long game is more like solitaire, you must minimise the number of players to ensure stability, and secure serious long term committed partners with heavy equity participation muscle. This dilutes the rights of the creator but gives huge support for the brand. Sometimes this works e.g. Peppa Pig and sometimes it doesn’t Roary the Racing Car, Fifi and the Flowertots etc. The risk profile is much higher but then so are the rewards. Each new UK repeat commission produces a new series without recourse to multiple players. As independents however ABD and Chapman were the minority player to Contender/E1 or the erstwhile Target fronting huge amounts of hard cash.

The downside of the short game is exemplified by some of the co-pros I have been involved in e.g  Ebb & Flo (Canning Factory, Channel 5, Hahn Film, WDR, CAKE, VGI and Media Plus) or Edgar & Ellen (Star Farm, Nick Toons, YTV, Bardel, Cake) or Skunk Fu! (Cartoon Saloon, BBC, Super RTL, Telegael, CAKE, Galleon, Media Plus).   In all three cases the structures were elaborate and leapt many hurdles.   Co-producers quickly saw modest returns, but the repeat series that would have created brands did not happen. It only takes one partner to pull out of series two and the whole deck of cards comes down.    

This short game is still valid, especially if you have a studio or a catalogue to feed, but it does require at least two broadcasters agreeing on one project and for one of these to be buying into an overseas concept which they trust their local co-producer to interpret in line with their editorial needs.    

Importantly, the retraction from co-pro in recent years in non-compelled territories shows that there is a major downside for some of the key broadcast partners.  For example Super RTL tell me that in order to justify a major commission they must command a long license period so that the spend can be amortised through repeat transmission.   In the case of a show that is not rating they are then forced to transmit despite losing ad revenue and ratings.  Understandable that they now look more for acquisitions but with a great loss to the industry.

Increasingly broadcasters have become the champions for local projects e.g. in the case of ABC or France Television carrying brochures to promote indie development projects. Whilst very supportive, the traffic has got increasingly one way especially where, in the case of France, incentives to produce 100pc locally outweigh the economic benefits of co-pro.  

Many producers will say to me that for all the heartache and complications of coproduction, they gained only a 10pc lift on the finance plan which they could probably achieved through  local budget discipline. What they forget, is that a co-pro will give you automatic international team to promote your show and as a result of this profile it will sell incredibly well.   

So, although I would still say that the two way co-pro is still the best way to editorial and short term financial success by maximising non-equity finance and international appeal, it is getting rarer for a combination of issues some of which I have touched on here.   

The game you select will depend on whether your project is one of many that will go towards the building of value in your company, whether you are a one man band with one idea or a studio with many mouths to feed. There is no point in surveying the models until you know what game you like to play and to what end.

The long game really has to be the ultimate aim if you want to reap the rewards and at the Children’s Media Conference I will be talking about new models to achieve this taking an EIS funded case study of Olly the Little White Van and busting some of the myths around this style of funding which can give longevity and control and embrace the international market.