Skip to main content

International Distribution: The Meeting of Art and Commerce

By Elizabeth Sheldon

King Gimp distributed by Tapestry International.

Just as writers write for an audience, producers produce with the hope that as many people as possible will watch their shows. To this end, distributors facilitate the placement of documentaries in the domestic and international markets. But what are distributors looking for in an international marketplace whose needs are constantly changing and what would they advise the independent producer? We asked these questions, and several others, to Jan Rofekamp, the President and CEO of Films Transit, Charles Schuerhoff of CS Associates, Yvonne Body of Tapestry International and Richard Propper of Solid Entertainment. All agreed that the business side of documentaries is an increasingly competitive market and that although there are more buyers with the introduction of cable and satellite, that fees are actually decreasing.

What are They Looking for?

All of the distributors take on documentaries hoping to sell them to broadcasters and because they like them. However, the reality of their business is that no matter how much they love a show personally, if they cant place it, it was a bad acquisition. Too many bad acquisitions and they are out of business (and all know of a colleague or two who have experienced this fate.) While liking a show can be very subjective, all of those interviewed cited one basic criteria before they ask the larger questions regarding the needs of the marketplace: excellence of work, does it grab and hold their attention or touch them emotionally? Yvonne Body provided an example of one of their most successful shows, King Glimp, which profiled a man who had overcome great personal obstacles to achieve his goals and received an Emmy for best short documentary.

The next consideration is production values, which must be high. This doesnt mean lots of bells and whistles such as animation and special effects, but a technically well executed program that is well paced. Next is relevance to a wide audience and a subject that fits existing broadcasting strands. Genres that were cited across the board were social issues, current affairs, science and history with the caveat that they must have a wide audience appeal and feature high profile subjects. Charles Schuerhoff provided three examples that were historical best sellers and that adhered to the criteria cited above: The Civil War, (which was an anomoly as it was too long, too American and covered a subject that was pre-stock footage); Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Story, a Frontline about TV tabloid journalism that featured a very high profile subject, and The Richest Little Girl in the World that profiled Aristotle Onassiss grand daughter, featured well known (and glamorous) characters and was exceptionally well made. All three of the above met the above criteria and all three were international (and domestic) best-sellers.

Jan Rofekamp further narrowed the field by citing only two genres that he is now seeking to include in his catalog. They are Epic Feature Docs and Urgent Docs. The first is defined as a program that addresses cultural rather than political subjects and that has a strong auteur signature. They can cover historical or contemporary subjects and must have a very high level of filmmaking. The second genre is TV hour length programs that address very strong, edgy, provocative and contemporary subject matters that have strong political or social relevance. A few examples are: Breakaway about extreme willpower in a rehabilitation case after a near fatal accident; Profits of Punishment, which explored the privatization of prisons; Losing Layla, that provided an intimate glimpse into the impact of a newborn babys death; and Strangers in our Home, which documented the world of pedophiles preying on children via Internet chat-rooms. Jan also added that he will always consider documentaries about cinema and smart docs about sex.

A third genre that Tapestry a cited was the on-going series usually produced for an American cable network that has universal appeal, such as Medical Detectives while Richard Propper endorses wildlife programming. Yvonne Body cites the success of Medical Detectives to its combination of science, mystery and adventure and cable channels can create a strand around the series that can run for several seasons. Richard Propper cites the universality of nature programming as the key to his success with placing such programs as there are no language barriers and the subject matter has universal appeal.

The Perils of A Diverse and Multi-Channeled Universe

The second part of the equation for distributors after genre and technical quality is the increasingly canniblaistic reality of the international marketplace. Jan Rofekamp distringuishes between the First Window and the Secondary Market and has revised his catalog accordingly, returning many films that he represented because he could not place them in the First Window. He defines the First Window as a primary national broadcaster, such as France 2/3, ABC Australia, BBC, SVT or NHK (Japan). The secondary market is the cable and satellite market. The distinction between these two markets is crucial. A sale to a First Window broadcaster can garner a large licensing fee for a one-off or mini series, while an on-going series can be sold to the secondary market around the globe. A successful distributor knows what the programmers are looking for in each market and seek to represent programs that they can correlate to specific strands in the primary and secondary market.

The secondary market consists of all the niche cable and satellite channels, a venue that has expanded rapidly over the last two decades. While increasing demand for programs to fill their schedules, they often seek to acquire niche programs or series. Frequently, they invest in the front end of a series and in exchange for production moneys retain all rights. When the producer does retain the international rights and assigns them to a distributor, the licensing fees garnered in each territory are substantially lower than those from a primary broadcaster for a one-off or mini-series. Jan Rofekamp provided an example of an offer he received from Studio Canal Pluis, a subsidiary of Canal Plus France, for a new documentary for which they offered a licensing fee of $800 for all television rights for all Francophone territories including the Benelux for a period of ten years. The film in question is a very high profile documentary with a budget of approximately $650,000.

The secondary market has created the dangerous illusion of an expanding marketplace with increased demand. The reality is that the fees paid in the secondary market can drive a distributor out of business if the first window is not exploited and even the licensing fees offered by the likes of BBC or Channel Four have decreased in the last five years, a direct result of the number of programs available. Jan Rofekamp provided another example, stating that While the secondary market was and is still growing, the first market, where the real money has to come from, is stagnating: too may films for too few slots. Even the licensing fees are going down. Whereas we were able to sell to Channel Four of the BBC for fifty-thousand pounds and more for five year, multiple run deals, they are now buying one or two runs for twenty-five thousand dollars. However, distributors such as Solid and Tapestry seek to represent made-for cable series, such as MEDICAL DETECTIVES, that can be sold around the globe to the secondary market for successive seasons. Richard Propper also advises producers that before investing in a series that they should produce a one-hour, if it is successful and is a topic that can carry an entire series, then go forward, but always seek to work with a broadcaster.

Survival of the Fittest

As distributors review their business strategies to successfully compete in an increasingly complex and competitive market place, several options become apparent. Films Transit is following a policy that relies on placing high profile one-hour docs in the primary market and then the secondary market. CS Associates looks to represent high profile one-offs and mini-series that will appeal to both the primary and international cable and satellite providers. Tapestry International seek to represent both high profile one-offs and mini-series for the primary market as well as made for cable series that will be placed in the international secondary market for consecutive seasons. Solid Entertainment primarily focuses on the secondary market and represents programs that have been developed for Discovery and TLC and has been particularly successful with wildlife programming. But regardless of their different business strategies or niches, all four emphasized that a well made program that has universal appeal and a unique angle is the strongest criteria for success in the international marketplace.