Kate Beal, the CEO of Woodcut Media, speaks to TV Real about her approach to the true-crime genre and discusses the overall landscape for factual producers today.
In the last few years, Woodcut Media has emerged as one of the U.K.’s leading factual production outfits. Via its relationships with TCB Media Rights and Keshet International, among other distributors, Woodcut has seen its growing portfolio of shows—including World’s Most Evil Killers and Combat Ships—notch up sales across the globe. The company is led by CEO Kate Beal, whose interest in the notorious Kray twins laid the foundation for Woodcut’s deep specialty in true-crime programming.
TV REAL: How did you develop a specialty in true-crime programming?
BEAL: I think it comes from the fact that I’ve always had a strong interest in “real” stories, and in particular those that highlight the human condition. Crime is an area that specifically explores this and hones in on the psychology of people. What history or science documentaries are to men, that’s what crime series are to women. Crime calls on science, history, social interaction, psychology, but it also has drama, suspense and humanity. It’s not that I thought, “Today I’m going to start developing crime programs.” The specialty in true crime evolved because I came across a specific crime story that I thought was really interesting and at the time I thought, “Why has nobody told this story yet?” It was a particular angle on the Kray twins, the quite famous gangsters. So I pitched the idea and following on from that production, people liked it and said, “What can you do next?” That was all back in 2009.
TV REAL: When you’re dealing with criminals who are already well known to a lot of viewers, how do you offer a new take on the subject?
BEAL: There are certain crimes, and certain criminals—take Manson or Bundy—that just have a continual fascination. It’s about looking at it from a slightly different perspective. For example, one of the documentaries I did about the Kray twins looked at the time they spent in prison. We didn’t go through their crimes. We started the documentary when they were arrested. They made more money inside prison than they did out. There is a voracious appetite to hear these types of stories.
TV REAL: Tell us about your process. How do you go about approaching sources, especially when they may be crime victims?
BEAL: In every stage of the process it’s about treading carefully. Is this the right story, does it stand up, am I OK telling this story? You need a reason to tell the story. You can’t just tell it to glorify it but to learn from it. Once you’ve chosen the story you think will stand up, will be interesting or perhaps educate in some way, the first point of contact will always be the relatives of the victims. You need to give them the courtesy to speak. And often we’ll do that by letter. That gives them the opportunity to either put it in the bin or take some time to think about it. It’s a horrible thing to be cold-called and hear, “Can you talk about your dead son please?” That’s not what we would do to people. And we tend to get quite a good response rate from letters. Sometimes if we can’t get an address we’ll try and find an email or do it on Facebook, but it’s always very sensitive, and we always take the approach, “If you want to ignore us, please do. But we are telling this story, so would you like to be a part of it?”
TV REAL: There is a lot of crime drama out there. Has that impacted your techniques? Do reenactments need to be more cinematic because viewers have higher expectations?
BEAL: The genre has matured. Eight years ago it was general shots and images—now people are doing amazing full-on drama. In one of our series, Jo Frost on Killer Kids, we made a purposeful decision not to show any faces or full-body shots. It’s all about children who kill and it’s quite distasteful to have a child actor pretending to kill someone. So we decided to make it really stylized, really high-end. But with another of our productions, World’s Most Evil Killers, which is on REELZ at the moment, this is more traditional with the re-creations.
TV REAL: How is the commissioning landscape for factual producers in the U.K. right now?
BEAL: People will do the high-volume low-cost or the Nat Geo 2.0 style of things, but they’re not necessarily doing the middle ground as much. That’s my experience. However, the U.K. is very outward facing. We spend a lot of time talking to international broadcasters, and that helps. Increasingly the national broadcasters in the U.K. are saying, “Can you get co-production money? Can you get some partnerships?” We are quite entrepreneurial as producers to go out and do that. Our terms of trade in the U.K., owning the rights, gives us that ability and agility, and at times we can be a little more aggressive than other producers around the world. We can say, “We own this so we can get some money from here and do that and build the budget.” It’s quite a positive landscape and I feel I’m looking at a world of opportunity. And with the SVODs coming on board and making the networks raise their game, it’s quite exciting times.
TV REAL: Speaking of the SVODs, what kind of effect are they having on the factual business? They’ve been quite transformative for the global drama sector.
BEAL: Rather than being a second thought it’s an equal first thought now. We are now also thinking of the likes of Netflix and others, as well as the likes of the BBC and Discovery—we are thinking of them all equally. Making a Murderer, especially in the crime space, was a real breakthrough moment for factual television. It made a lot of terrestrials think differently. I am increasingly hearing people say, “Have you seen that documentary on Netflix? Isn’t it really good?” So they are already getting a good high-end reputation.
We have a couple of our docs on Netflix. Our documentary with Idris Elba, Cut from a Different Cloth, is exclusive to Netflix worldwide. We made it with them in mind. The SVODs are now equal to everyone else, if not in some areas leading the way.
TV REAL: Tell us about your international distribution partnerships.
BEAL: We have different slates—crime, male-skew factual, factual entertainment, premium docs. We work with a number of great distributors across each of these slates.
In particular, we realized that we needed to invest more in crime. We have commissioners knocking on our door and we need to help support the development and get those ideas ready and out there. So we went to talk to a few distributors to say, “We’d like to do a deal, partly so we know it’s all housed in one place and partly to help support the development.” It’s great having commissioners knock on your door asking you to develop things for them, but if you haven’t got the resources to do it, it can [feel like] quite a painful place to be!
Keshet International—we recently renewed our first-look deal with them, giving exclusive access to our new non-scripted factual crime slate—understands that as well as the moral aspect; in crime production, we don’t want to be put in places where we’re going to feel uncomfortable. They get where our boundaries are as producers. Also, when you’re looking at a distributor, people think, “How big is the advance?” Actually, the thing you need to know is, do they have a great sales team and can they sell the program? That’s far more important than the advance.
We also have a really good partnership with TCB Media Rights. Paul Heaney is amazing. That man really knows what great content is! He takes a very entrepreneurial, aggressive approach to ensuring he has brilliant content in his catalog. We work with him in a very interesting way and together generate some great ideas. It’s great to work with such a proactive distributor who likes to be there from the very inception of the idea.
TV REAL: What are some of the things you’re working on now?
BEAL: We’re delivering to Discovery in the U.K. Wings of War, which is a ten-part series about planes in war. Combat Machines is an eight-part series for HISTORY in the U.K., a follow-on to our Combat franchise (having already produced Combat Trains and Combat Ships). We also have World’s Most Evil Killers season two, that’s on Sky in the U.K. and REELZ in the States, and How Hacks Work, a 30-part pop-science show, looking at life hacks, the science behind why those hacks work. It’s a bit like a MythBusters, for millennials, every episode has a massive explosion at the end and it’s really good fun.