It’s been a busy ten days for the global SVODs in London as top execs from Netflix, Amazon and Apple all outlined their multi-million-dollar ambitions in the UK. Grilled by members of the House of Lords, all three streamers opened up about their strategies to produce significant numbers of hours of programming out of Britain.
Apple revealed that it has already spent millions of dollars with UK producers including BBC Studios, ahead of the launch of its digital platform later this year, Amazon lifted the lid about working with British broadcasters on projects such as Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, and Netflix called co-productions the “lifeblood” of its business across the pond, hours before unveiling plans to create a major production hub at Shepperton Studios.
Amazon’s Georgia Brown, Netflix’s Anne Mensah and Apple’s Jay Hunt all spoke at length about their employer’s drive to work with British talent, on and off screen, while downplaying the threat that these global services pose to traditional liner broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. The trio were speaking to the House of Lords’ Communications Committee, which consists of members of the upper chamber of the British Parliament, and followed senior execs from across the industry including Playground Entertainment boss and former HBO exec Colin Callender, Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky, All3Media chief Jane Turton and Left Bank chief and The Crown producer Andy Harries.
Hunt (right), a rare public speaking engagement since taking on the role of European creative director of worldwide video at Apple last year, said that the Tim Cook-led company’s “intervention” in the UK sector was “important”. “I commission a considerable amount of content from the UK creative community. It is exciting to have an organization of Apple’s size coming into the UK and giving the sector here that level of scrutiny and support. Long before we have even launched our original commissioning strategy, millions of pounds have been spent on commissioning with British production houses,” she said.
She highlighted two commissions for BBC Studios – including Jon Favreau-directed dinosaur documentary Prehistoric Planet – as an example of its contribution to the creative economy. Other shows include wildlife series Tiny World from Grant Mansfield’s Plimsoll Productions and a doc about nocturnal animals from Big Beasts: Last of the Giants producer Offspring Films.
Hunt would not be drawn on Apple’s total level of investment in the UK but said it would be “meaningful”. However, the former Channel 4 creative chief cautioned, “There is no requirement for Apple to operate in the UK, so it is significant that we are here.”
Amazon similarly highlighted that it had no obligation to produce shows out of the UK but made the UK its European country of origin as a result of the talent opportunities. Georgia Brown (left), director of European originals, said, “As such, we have invested heavily here, both in our tech side, and now in content. To give you an idea of scale, last year, we co-produced 15 shows with public service broadcasters and we have commissioned nine UK originals to date.” The company has been making a lot of noise with its recent BBC co-production Good Omens (above), while it has been increasingly adding to its UK originals slate, the most recent, a weekly soccer series fronted by ex-Liverpool player Peter Crouch from Sony’s Human Media.
Former Fremantle international exec Brown reiterated that it is looking for shows that work on a local level, but knows that hits will travel. “The walls have come down now for television. When I first started out, it was much more difficult to take Spanish shows to the U.S. or Israeli shows to France, but that happens now. UK content is hugely exportable,” she added.
The scale of Netflix’s growth in the UK also emerged over the last few days. Vice President of Original Series Anne Mensah (right) spoke to the committee and pointed out that in the UK, where Netflix has around 130 staff, its commissioning teams in documentaries, with Kate Townsend, and entertainment, with Lucy Leveugle were up and running. It was revealed that Netflix was currently working on 50 live projects out of the UK, including a new season of gang drama Top Boy and soccer drama The English Game from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.
“I was brought in to essentially work with British talent and to help and support that talent to reach a global stage. I believe my appointment and the appointment of my team in London is an indication of Netflix’s commitment and its long-term commitment to production in the UK,” she said.
Mensah’s hire in the UK, as well as that of Hunt and Brown, has been warmly welcomed by British producers, meaning there is both local access to commissioners as well as faces that they recognize.
Despite this, some doubt whether there is any real authority to spend big in London. Andy Harries, who runs Sony-backed The Crown producer Left Bank, said, “To sell a show, particularly a big drama series, the power resides in Los Angeles, it does not reside in London. Both Amazon and Netflix have set up local offices in London and that is a good thing, but if you want a big commission, if you are looking for a really big global show such as The Crown, the only place to go is LA. That is where the power is.”
Mensah hit back, suggesting that while producers can still speak directly to the power brokers in LA, and in other territories, local hires help. “To frame it, the UK is full of amazing creative voices, we’ve got a long and successful track record of commissioning British shows, but they’ve been commissioned from LA, which makes it a little bit harder. The idea of having a full-service enterprise in the UK, means we can be there on the same time zone and with the same understanding of the market as the creatives we want to work with,” she said.
Others, however, are wary about the SVODs interest in the UK market. Colin Callender, the former HBO exec who now runs Chimerica and The White Princess producer Playground Entertainment, said that the SVOD services are not interested in making British programming. “The SVODs are interested in using British talent to make American programming and, if the public service broadcast sector is diminished in whatever way, a whole slew of British programming will vanish with it.”
One of the main talking points through this process has been whether the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple, let alone forthcoming streaming services from NBCU, Disney and WarnerMedia, would continue to co-produce with British linear broadcasters, as they have done with some success on shows such as Bodyguard, Fleabag and A Very English Scandal.
Jane Featherstone, who runs Chernobyl indie Sister Pictures, was one of the first execs to suggest that the co-production tap would be turned off when she gave a BAFTA lecture in 2017.
BBC Director General Tony Hall admitted that the British public broadcaster, which has a raft of co-pros with Netflix and Amazon, was working with the SVODs “with our eyes open”. “The big question is whether over the next three or four years, they will continue to [co-produce] or whether they will have so much muscle that they will think ‘do you know what, we don’t need the BBC, ITV or Channel 4 as we can fund these things ourselves’. A bit of me thinks that is likely,” he said.
Netflix’s Mensah tried to downplay this threat. “Co-production remains the lifeblood of what we do. It’s about being able to being able to commit to talent and wherever that works best for talent,” she said.
It’s not clear whether Apple will move into international co-productions and Hunt said that her initial slate, which has yet to be fully revealed, consists of fully-financed originals.
“We are not averse to co-production at all,” she said. “We are having an array of different conversations about different models. Our priority is finding great, high-quality, innovative content. Over the past 18 months, I have had conversations with broadcasters and producers about the co-production model as well as paying a global premium for rights. A very sophisticated sector that is able to work with different models according to the content is emerging.”
By taking a global premium from SVODs, British producers forgo the ability to sell their shows around the world, which they have been able to do handsomely since the introduction of the terms of trade in 2003. While having a shiny SVOD commission is great for perception and PR, some indies are now weighing up the best partner for each show. Jane Turton, who runs All3Media, which consists of producers such as Fleabag producer Two Brother Pictures, Gogglebox firm Studio Lambert and Penny Dreadful producer Neal Street, said, “We do not whorishly chase down top dollar… we go for the best partner. We want long-term returning series. That is what makes your business strong.”
Turton is more concerned about the potential for the digital platforms to tie up British talent into overall deals as they have done with the likes of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. Alarm bells particularly started ringing when Catastrophe creator Sharon Horgan signed a deal with Amazon. “We have always talked about an arms race for content; I think the arms race for talent is more of a threat. The moment high-end natural history people or directors of drama tie themselves into longer-term deals with SVOD players, it becomes more complicated. Change is always risky,” she said.
Change is always risky, a view echoed by Wolf Hall (left) director Peter Kosminsky, who called for the introduction of a levy on the SVOD services and feared of the “extinction of public service broadcast drama as we know it”. Others are more positive. Callender, who produced Wolf Hall with Kosminsky, said, “Although, from the inside, with all the changing things in the marketplace, it looks as though things are very problematic in the UK, the truth is that the British television broadcasting and production landscape remains the envy of the world. It is a benchmark by which others judge themselves on quality, diversity and richness of talent and our job is to protect that,” he said.
Left Bank’s Harries was similarly optimistic. “In [the UK], the creative industries punch way above their weight. That is well known and understood around the world, but particularly in LA. Why do we produce great pop music? I do not know. Why do we produce great television productions and producers and creative talent and writers? I do not know but we do. It does not happen in the Mediterranean but it happens… it’s just something we are tremendously good at.”