Andy Fry checks in with factual producers and distributors to understand the secret sauce behind successful co-production partnerships.
Between the creative ambitions of producers and the pressures on channel budgets, international co-production has become critical to the effective functioning of the factual TV business.
“Co-pros are the bigger projects—the ones that have higher production values, where more money is involved, the ones that play bigger editorial and financial roles for all partners,” says Ralf Rückauer, the VP for factual at ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE).
“We are an emerging channel that has to stretch its resources, but we always set a high bar for our production values,” says David Royle, the executive VP of programming and production at Smithsonian Networks. “To achieve this, we need strong partners.”
Yuri Sudo, senior producer for international co-productions at NHK in Japan, affirms the growing importance of collaboration in documentary filmmaking.
“With new platforms and services arising, we think it is important to find the right partners to combine our abilities to create something that has a large impact and a big buzz. Co-pros can also be a way to exchange thoughts and ideas and enable us to find a better solution” to today’s social issues.
But just what does it take to make sure that the result enthralls audiences in multiple markets?
For Rückauer, the starting point has to be choosing the right subject matter. “Co-pros tend to work best when they focus on topics such as the mysteries and beauties of nature, incidents and dark chapters of history or questions about our existence and the universe that we live in. In short: volcanoes, sharks, Hitler, dinosaurs, the oceans, pyramids, battlefields, planets and God.”
Mark Reynolds, the director of factual at BBC Worldwide, takes a position similar to Rückauer’s on the appropriate subject matter for cross-border alliances.
“Natural history and science work especially well for us. We do some domestic shows in these genres, but if you choose the right subjects and approach them from a global perspective, they prove popular with buyers. Co-pro can also be right for some pure documentary subjects where one partner has amazing access. Let’s say, for example, that a prestigious institution has granted behind-the-scenes access to just one partner.”
History is an area that can be challenging from a co-pro perspective, Reynolds notes. “You can build co-pros around anniversaries, iconic events and global conflicts. But it is a little harder because you often have different editorial perspectives coming to the table. Sometimes you find historical topics merging a bit into current-affairs perspectives.”
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