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Retaining an Eclectic Range: Emma Hindley Discusses BBC’s Storyville

By Carol Nahra

Photograph of Emma Hindley. Courtesy of Zinc Media

In January, factual program-making veteran Emma Hindley has been appointed to head the BBC strand Storyville, overseeing the BBC’s flagship slot showcasing international feature documentaries.  Before Storyville, Hindley build her credentials with many years in different roles in the U.K. factual television industry, most recently as creative director at Brook Lapping where she, among other things, exec produced the Storyville doc Deborah James: Bowelbabe in Her Own Words (2023, directed by Sara Hardy).

Established in 1997 by Nick Fraser, Storyville has earned a reputation for amplifying documentary films globally, in a manner that far outstrips its very modest budget. A number of Storyvilles have gone on to win Oscars, including Man on Wire (2008), One Day in September (1999), Searching for Sugar Man (2012), and the most recent winner, Navalny (2022). In his twenty years at the helm, Fraser established the strand as one which could imprint a mark of quality upon fledgling films—paving the way for other territories and funders to come on board (albeit often with even more modest amounts). Embracing directors from around the world, the strand has traditionally always also supported a small number of British directors annually—leading British documentary makers Kim Longinotto, Jeanie Finlay, Kevin MacDonald, James Marsh, and Sean McAllister have all directed films from the strand. Hindley is the fourth Commissioning Editor since Fraser left the strand in 2016, nearly 20 years after founding it. Last autumn, she started serving as interim head, in the wake of Philippa Kowarsky’s departure after only a brief tenure. 

Documentary spoke to Hindley on her plans for Storyville in an increasingly crowded landscape for attention. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: As somebody who would have known Storyville for the entirety of its existence, what was your relationship with it before heading it up?

EMMA HINDLEY: When I was at Brook Lapping, my colleague, Fiona Stourton, made a number of Storyvilles with Mandy [Chang, former Storyville CE], but I'd never been involved in feature docs. I'd made a number of 90-minute television documentaries, like Suffragettes. So I kind of somewhat cheekily, I'd like to think, refer to myself as coming from “dirty telly.” And I was always pitching. I'd never commissioned before, so I'd never been a gatekeeper.

Doing the interim job, I just thought, “Oh my God, this is the best job in the world.” And also it was really great to be back at the BBC. The BBC’s a different place, and I really love it. 

D: In what sense is the BBC a different place?

EH: When I was here as a director-producer, it wasn't really inclusive, it didn't feel very collegiate. It feels completely different now. I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. And people used to say to me, “Oh, don't be so PC, Emma.” Like it was a bad thing. And I feel like now our floor is very diverse, still a bit of work to do, obviously, but it's incredibly diverse, it's very collegiate, it's really well managed. It's an amazing building. And there's a lot of energy here, a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of commitment to public sector broadcasting.

D: So you've worked across a wide sort of swath of factual telly in the UK. How does Storyville stand apart as a unique brand?

EH: I think partly we’re pretty much 95% international facing, so we're not doing much UK-facing stuff. Internationally, we have an extraordinary reputation and people are really, really excited to make things with Storyville. We don't have as much money as a lot of the other acquisitions people do. So we need to make our money stretch a long way.

In terms of the UK, there are so few places that aren't SVODs where you can watch international feature docs. Lucie Kon and I run Storyville very much together, and the plan is to retain its slightly eclectic range. So you have smaller films by less well-known, maybe first-time feature doc makers, all the way through to Oscar winners, like Navalny. We need to have that range. And I want it to be very globally representative.

And then, on a personal basis, I'm really keen to work with diverse teams on diverse subjects. So if there's a show where it is a Black subject and there's just a Black AP or one Black director, then I will insist that there's more representation on that film, because I think that the key is making sure that there are senior diverse members of staff, not just bringing in a director and AP. There were always exceptions, obviously, but I'm a really keen believer in people being able to tell their own stories.

D: You mentioned SVODs. And when I interviewed Mandy Chang in 2019, we spoke a lot about SVODs and how the BBC's situating against them, because of course they have a lot more money than you do to leverage. How large do the SVODs loom for you and how are you seeing where Storyville sits with them, responding to their dominance?

EH: What's interesting is, I think, the SVODs don't tend to make the sort of films that we do, for a start. I have noticed a certain sort of way of approaching subjects and telling the story which is not true of Storyville. We are incredibly eclectic. I'm a big, big fan of observational documentary-making. I feel like  it's the hardest way to make documentaries, and I'm really keen to support observational filmmakers.

Equally, I've had lots of conversations with SVODs and they're all open to copro’ing, by carving out the rights in a particular way. Because the really great thing about Storyville is that we only buy UK rights. So filmmakers can just sell the UK rights and an iPlayer window to us, and then they can sell it around the world to everybody else. And equally, if you think about the SVODs more like other broadcasters, so long as they're willing to do a deal where we retain the UK rights, then we can do that. And they've got much more money than us.

D: Are you doing that? Can you give me an example?

EH: No, but I'm having conversations with people. They will be rare, I think, because we're not so commercially driven. However, one of my many passions is trying to get as many people to watch Storyvilles as possible because it's such a unique thing. And I also think that the SVODs have helped, in some ways, encourage people to watch films in foreign languages with subtitles. And so, actually, it's just about getting it to them.

D: You've got teenagers. I've got teenagers. Mine don't watch a lot of BBC. How do you find it in terms of introducing Storyville to a younger generation? Is that one of your aims?

EH: Of course. That's one of my big aims. It is hard when mostly they're just watching men talking on YouTube, which is just bizarre—I’ve got boys. But they're doing three different things at once, of course. 

I think students are a really prime audience that we should aim at because students naturally are interested in the world and are quite politicized. So we did an amazing project that Lucy Kon came up with, which was Storyville Live at Eurovision. For two days at the Everyman in Liverpool, we showed Ukrainian films on one day and music films on the other day. And we got some of the directors over to do Q&As. And the audiences absolutely loved it.

D: I notice that you have a relatively new Instagram account. I assume this is an example of your trying to get reach younger audiences.

EH: Yes. Exactly. That's something that Lucy started and we manage between the team. That's the other thing. We're a tiny team. There's me and Lucy, and at the moment we have a part-time team assistant who's brilliant. So I'm always saying to people, “I'm really sorry if I don't get back to emails,” because emails are what keep me awake at night.

D: Your budget remains around a million pounds at the moment?

EH: No, Mandy thankfully managed to get that doubled.

D: It's 2 million pounds.

EH: Around that.

D: Can you break it down a little bit in terms of how many films that might go to in a year and the acquisitions and that sort of thing?

EH: We always try to get between 20 and 24 films a year. We rarely give development money because mostly the projects are pitched to us when they're already beyond an idea. We do give some development money, but not that much, and it's small amounts of money compared to other people. But we do a mix of co-pros, pre-buys, and acquisitions. The co-pros naturally take a bit longer. The pre-buys were coming in slightly late, and the acquisitions are just acquisitions.

D: What would be your advice to, say, an American team wanting to pitch to Storyville? What's the best way to go about it?

EH: Get a bit of interest in your home territory and then send us a deck, some material,  everything you can, and then try and get on a Zoom, or try and meet us at a festival. That's the same advice for everybody, really, to be honest. Have your access nailed. Make sure that if it's a diverse subject, you've got a properly diverse senior and production team on it.

D: What are the first films that you have had your hand in commissioning that are coming down the pipe? Can you give some examples of what you're excited about?

EH: I can give you some examples of what I'm excited about. I inherited some things that I ended up getting very editorially involved in. I was very, very editorially involved in Dalton's Dream. And In the Name of the Father, basically, we recut it from a three-parter that went out in Israel to a 90-minuter. And one of the acquisitions I was really excited about was Nelly and Nadine.

D: In what ways did, say, for Dalton's Dream, you get involved? What stage was that at when it came?

EH: It was a rough cut when I first came across it. And it went through a lot of changes. And I also got Derren Lawford involved as a co-exec with me, which is important to me because he's of Jamaican heritage. He's a great exec. I just thought that would help, and it did. 

D: Do you think the climate's healthy for documentaries here?

EH: Yeah, I think it is. The thing is, at the BBC, we have a massive documentary department and we've got history. We've got specialist factual as well that does all sorts of different types of documentaries. And we've got music and arts. I think the UK viewers are very spoiled, really.

D: Where would you like to see Storyville at, direction-wise, in five years’ time? I'm interested in the potential longevity if we see the license fee in danger. What are the discussions around Storyville in terms of the future of the strand?

EH: Just to keep on doing what we're doing. I always want more people to watch them. The quality should remain completely unchanged. So excellent storytelling, brilliant stories, brilliantly told. I'd like to have as broad a representation as we can, both in terms of territories that we're making films about, and the filmmakers and the subjects, and retain our incredible mark of quality really, that Nick and Mandy and Kate [Townsend)] built over the years. The taste of the range will change slightly because Lucy and I are now commissioning and acquiring and working with filmmakers. But I'd like Storyville to remain the premium feature doc strand on the BBC. And I know the BBC values Storyville enormously, so I don't think it's going anywhere.

Carol Nahra is a London-based documentary journalist, producer, and lecturer. She has written extensively about the UK documentary landscape for industry publications and her Docs on Screens blog. She hosts the Bertha DocHouse podcast, DocHouse Conversations, and is the lead trainer for the Grierson DocLab.