Distributors share insights about why one-off biographies, docuseries and celeb-reality shows are filling broadcast schedules around the world.
Biopics are everywhere in the scripted space these days. From noteworthy politicians to legendary singers, serial killers to members of scandal-ridden family dynasties, real lives are proving to be excellent fodder for drama producers. Of course, factual producers have known for a long time about the allure of stories on the rich or infamous. Whether it’s a high-brow documentary about the Pope or a tongue-in-cheek celeb-reality series, viewers are hungry for an inside look at stories of people who became famous—by destiny, design or accident.
“It’s such a chaotic time in our world that people gravitate to this kind of factual storytelling and true stories about icons,” says Elaine Frontain Bryant, the executive VP and head of programming for A&E at A+E Networks. “Biographies offer an unbiased and unfiltered way to tell a story, and they don’t say anything about the world we’re in now. Viewers can draw their own conclusions if they want, but it’s just a true story about these people and their lives.”
“There’s a demand for biography programming because the people covered in these shows are very much in the news all the time,” states Jonathan Ford, the executive VP of sales at Kew Media Distribution, which has a catalog that boasts documentary programming on music legends such as James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplin, The Doors and The Go-Go’s. “Audiences want to understand, get behind and get into their lives.”
Paul Heaney, the CEO of TCB Media Rights, puts it bluntly: “Viewers are obsessed with the minutiae of famous people’s lives. People are looking for the scandal, the controversy. They want to know what these figures’ human weaknesses are and what their humanity is. What we call a ‘biography’ is a very boring word for quite an interesting show.”
“It’s an appetite as old as time,” muses Harriet Armston-Clarke, division head at TVF International. “I don’t see that our interest in celebrities is going to wane.”
“There’s a fascination with the celeb life, the grand life,” maintains Melanie Torres, a sales consultant at GRB Studios. “We always want to know a little bit more about that lifestyle we don’t have, and with biographies and celebrity-reality programs, we get to escape into it for about an hour.”
Two strong sellers from the GRB slate are Beyond Boundaries: The Harvey Weinstein Scandal and Remembering Whitney, about the life of the late singer.
Fremantle has seen success with a strand that began as a one-off documentary titled I Am Bruce Lee. It has since covered other well-known figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Paul Walker. The latter, I Am Paul Walker, is one of the titles that the company is introducing at MIPCOM, alongside Manson: The Lost Tapes. Angela Neillis, the company’s director of non-scripted acquisitions, International, believes this Charles Manson-focused doc will be a big seller, as it features rarely-seen footage and because “famous individuals bring their own audiences with them.”
And yet, not all shows about famous faces travel well, no matter how glamorous. GRB sells the celebrity-reality series Braxton Family Values and its spin-off, Tamar & Vince. “Celeb-reality programming does well on certain channels, but not everyone is looking for this type of programming because some celebrities don’t translate internationally,” Torres cautions.
Plus, TVF International’s Armston-Clarke notes, “Some celebrities might be in the spotlight today and not tomorrow.” Though she adds, “Our catalog features more timely [stars] like Madonna, so the programs continue to sell year on year.”
Kew Media also has timeless personalities in its biography slate, including Princess Diana. “With Princess Diana: A Life After Death, we took a different perspective on the 20th anniversary of her death,” Kew’s Ford says. “Our documentary looks at Diana’s life and the legacy she has had on her children, so it’s not all based around the anniversary of her death; it has a bit more life to it.”
There was, of course, a slew of docs marking the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. Producers must be careful not to fall into the trap of telling the same old story. “There tends to be quite a lot of competition in this space, so it’s important to have a title that has a different and interesting perspective,” advises Ford.
“The world is just too saturated; there is too much competition these days,” notes A+E’s Frontain Bryant. “You have to be able to say ‘We have something you haven’t seen before.’ There’s no reason to do another show that somebody’s seen.”
Frontain Bryant stresses that this is particularly relevant today, when a quick Google search can deliver an individual’s life story, replete with images, videos, tributes and more.
“Times have changed since the Biography franchise, which A+E Networks revived about a year ago, was first on the air,” says Frontain Bryant of the strand. “You can pretty much get all the information you want about a figure online nowadays, so what we’re looking for from our filmmakers is a unique angle, unique access and something new to tell.”
She explains that if the focus of the documentary is a deceased individual, the new element can come in the form of a family member offering interesting insight or an audio recording that hasn’t been shared before. “It has to be something that is revelatory about that person’s story that can be shared with the world.”
Frontain Bryant points to David Cassidy: The Last Session as a biography that brings something new to the table because the musician revealed information about his life that had never been made public before.
“We can’t give buyers something too simplistic or too derivative,” echoes TCB’s Heaney. “They appreciate if there’s something with a bit more guile and a bit more knowing. Otherwise, it’s just a rehash of old archives, and buyers get a lot of that. You have to think a bit harder and work a bit harder, and a producer does, too, to deliver something that has some thought behind it, rather than just a collection of archives.”
TVF International’s Armston-Clarke agrees that viewers “don’t want to see the same talking heads in every single show. We’re always trying to find some fresh angle so that programming feels new in some way.”
“If it’s well made, can relate to now, and is something that’s fascinating and offers a bit of an insight, then it will work,” Heaney adds.
And generally, these biography docs will work in more than one market. “We live in the age of celebrity, where people know celebrities from other countries,” states Armston-Clarke. “If they’re shiny and glossy and they live an aspirational life, then we find that the appeal is pretty broad across territories.”
Torres says that there is a market for biographies in all territories and adds that GRB is now doing co-pros, “so one of the angles we can take is to work with partners on biographies of well-known artists or celebrities in their territories.”
TCB’s Heaney has found that there are some figures who are universal—such as the British royal family, Hollywood stars or big TV celebrities. Elizabeth sold very well for TCB last year. Other big sellers include The Private Lives of the Tudors and The Private Lives of the Monarchs. There’s an upcoming Private Lives series that will take a broader look at historical figures like Al Capone and Napoleon Bonaparte.
As for whether buyers are more interested in one-offs or docuseries, Fremantle’s Neillis says, “One-offs are easier to sell, particularly if you are targeting public-service broadcasters; it needs to be something mainstream, often a documentary strand. But series are popular as well. It depends on the subject matter.”
GRB’s Torres agrees: “One-offs on big celebrities sell better than series.”
“What’s versatile and flexible about biographies is that you can tie them together with a theme—for example, music-related docs can go together—and you can create packages for buyers,” Neillis points out.
“In our experience, it’s one-offs, such as Diana: 20 Years On, and miniseries, including Inside Windsor Castle and Inside Buckingham Palace, that sell best,” explains TVF International’s Armston-Clarke.
“Biographies and celebrity programming are among the most evergreen titles in our catalog, to be honest,” she acknowledges. “Particularly those about the British royal family. Programming about royals continues to sell. It’s quite astounding the number of times that we are windowing, re-windowing and relicensing shows about them.”
Kew’s Ford also notes that documentaries on the royal family tend to have a longer shelf life. For instance, Kew sold Harry & Meghan: A Very Modern Romance around their wedding this year and also saw renewed traction on Kate: The Making of a Modern Queen—a 2017 documentary about Prince William’s wife—as channels were relicensing the title or licensing it for the first time because they were scheduling programming blocks showcasing the royals.
“Biographies can easily be evergreen and they do have a long shelf life, provided that they are updated,” GRB’s Torres says.
Ford warns that often with more topical documentaries—such as one from Kew’s catalog about former couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—“you have a specific window of time to sell in because people are only going to be interested in the Brangelina story for a period of time after they split up.”
“These types of films can have very short life spans in terms of really maximizing the revenues because of the time period and the slot in which people want these films, but demand is still heavy,” Ford adds.
Torres also cautions that celebrity-reality series tend to have a shorter shelf life and replay value because “if you’re keeping up with these people in the age of social media, something in the show might become a little outdated.”
That’s why Ford says it is essential to ensure that “there’s something in a program that has replay value, because the channels buying the programs don’t want a scenario in which a show plays once or twice and then goes out of play.”
Replay value is also a factor for digital platforms, which have self-curating audiences that may peruse their offerings to find a biography on a favorite celebrity or well-known figure.
“There are OTT platforms cropping up that are focusing on celebrity and royal-related content, including True Royalty,” says Armston-Clarke. However, “The majority of the deals we close are with linear channels, but that’s because celebrities and royals have a mass appeal. It’s not specialist, it’s not niche content.”
“There was a real hunger from the OTT platforms before because this type of programming wasn’t really on the linear channels,” says TCB’s Heaney. “So it established a point of difference. The SVODs went into the royals and went into biography in a big way, and that helped establish it a bit more.”
“Historically, we’ve always [sold to] linear, that was our model,” says GRB’s Torres. “But a lot of OTT players are trying to get content for younger audiences that are making use of these services, and OTTs are interested in biographies and celebrity-focused content.”
The key is knowing who is watching. “Netflix used to buy a lot more music documentaries than they do now,” Kew’s Ford says. “They learned about their audience, which is younger. There’s not a market for a documentary on a star from the ’60s or ’70s on Netflix.”
Ford notes that to be successful, “It’s all about understanding the subject matter and who the audience is.”