Alex Jones, who serves as joint managing director at Red Planet Pictures alongside Belinda Campbell, talks to TV Drama about the company’s development process, working with up-and-coming talent and the complexities of financing productions.
Founded by acclaimed showrunner Tony Jordan, Red Planet Pictures is one of the U.K.’s leading independent production companies, boasting a slate that includes BBC One’s long-running hit Death in Paradise and Sanditon, which recently wrapped a successful run on Masterpiece in the U.S.
TV DRAMA: Tell us about how your drama development team works.
JONES: Belinda Campbell, who is joint MD, oversees our development slate and team. Our wonderful head of development, Sarah Barton, has a team of development execs who work on a multitude of projects. We have someone who focuses on the factually inspired ideas: that’s more about using factual IP, real-life crimes, or real-life events to inspire drama. We have a literary acquisitions exec, who is out there scouting for books for us, getting in there with publishers and trying to spot those hits before they become hits. That can be quite tough because there are a lot of people out there trying to do it! And then we have different parts of the team focused on new and upcoming writers. And then just looking at good ideas, chatting to writers, working with more established writing talent, and trying to make sure we have each area covered.
TV DRAMA: What’s the approach to financing these shows?
JONES: At a very early stage, you can broadly identify what level of budget you’re looking at, depending on whether it’s period, casting aspirations, the setting, level of visual effects, etc. For something like Sanditon, we knew from the outset that ITV wasn’t going to be able to fully fund that budget. We worked with BBC Studios Distribution and identified Masterpiece as a potential co-production partner. We took it out to market with BBC Studios and ultimately partnered with Masterpiece, and along with the ITV license fee and the distribution advance, we made the show. It’s still tough. The cost of production is creeping up as the demand for crew, facilities, studio space, etc. increase. Even if you’re making something primarily for a domestic market, the production values still have to hold up against all the other international dramas out there. I’m particularly proud of what we achieved on Sanditon. We made that for a good budget, but it wasn’t up in the £3-million, £4-million-per-episode budget level. It looked great and we had a fantastic cast. And it’s performed brilliantly well in the U.S. At Red Planet Pictures we work hard to ensure that the money goes on the screen, by planning and being smart. That’s something that both Tony and Belinda have always done, coming from their continuing drama background. You have to be smart on these shows. That’s something we carry through to make sure that all the money goes on screen. With Sanditon, that’s absolutely the case. I do think it can sit comfortably next to £3-million-per-episode shows, and it looks great.
TV DRAMA: As an independent, how do you go about selecting a distribution partner on projects?
JONES: We used to have a first-look deal with BBC Studios—BBC Worldwide as they were then. It worked for us at the time and helped fund our development slate. But I also think that dealing with projects on a case-by-case basis is quite a nice way of doing things. As it’s often turned out, we’ve partnered with BBC Studios Distribution because they have been the best partner for that project. It’s nice being able to go out with a project and know that we can work with anyone we want to. If we need to partner with a producer or broadcaster that requires us to use a certain distributor or take certain territories off the table, then we’re able to do that. That’s one of the upsides of being completely independent. It also keeps everyone on top form when they’re trying to get your business!
TV DRAMA: What are the advantages of working as an indie, without the backing of a bigger group?
JONES: It allows us to be light on our feet and to do what we want. That involves taking risks as well. We’re fortunate in the fact that we have such a successful show in Death in Paradise. That does give us the security to fund and finance our own development. That has enabled us to keep our independence for as long as we have. We’re not scrabbling around trying to find money to spend on development. We have a budget set aside for development, but if we want to spend more or try different things, then we have the freedom to do that. It allows us to partner with anyone we want to. Often when you are part of a larger group, you need to use a specific distributor, or you are restricted with whom you can partner. We have the flexibility to structure things in the best way for that production.
TV DRAMA: What are some of the projects you’re working on now that you’re particularly excited about?
JONES: We are embarking on series ten of Death in Paradise, which is going from strength to strength. It sells to over 220 different territories. Sanditon has just finished transmitting in the U.S. and has done brilliantly well for Masterpiece and PBS. These are shows that have had popular mainstream appeal. That’s something that Red Planet Pictures has in its focus: making TV that people love and want to watch. We have a number of books under option at the moment that we have writers working on. Our House is one that we have taken to script and is in active development with a U.K. broadcaster. Tony is working on a big adaptation that we commissioned in-house and are in the process of taking it out to market.
We have a healthy-looking development slate, which is a mixture of original ideas, ideas based on some factually inspired stories, and then IP—books we’ve optioned.
TV DRAMA: There are so many places to pitch to. How do you decide what platform would serve as the best home for a project?
JONES: We’ll consider where each project could sit before we put it onto our slate. It’s often quite clear whether a project is more aligned to an SVOD audience or whether it could sit on one of the U.K. terrestrials. There are some shows that you know you could take to multiple broadcasters or platforms. Some ideas you know may only have one potential home—but if it’s undeniable, then it’s worth a shot! That’s just part of our decision-making process. It’s always a tough one! Things are changing so much, almost on a weekly basis. You have to keep up with that and have a constant dialogue with those commissioners and keep an eye on what they want.
TV DRAMA: How are you finding new, up-and-coming talent?
JONES: We run, about every 18 months, our Red Planet Prize, which is in partnership with ITV. That’s always quite an interesting way of finding new talent. On the original Red Planet Prize, one of the runners-up was Robert Thorogood, who went on to work with us in creating Death in Paradise. We’ve had other winners and runners-up that have gone on to write for Death in Paradise, as well as develop their own projects. That’s one avenue we explore to find those new voices. We also work with established writing talent, for example, we did Sanditon with Andrew Davies. Tony Jordan is working on a raft of projects. And there are various other writers who different people in the company have relationships with. It’s about finding good ideas with good writers, known or unknown, and working out the best way to approach those projects.