Partner Potential: Co-Productions in Flux


Serious Lunch’s Genevieve Dexter, Guru Studio’s Frank Falcone, Toon2Tango’s Ulli Stoef and Boat Rocker’s Jon Rutherford discussed how the co-production model is evolving at the TV Kids Festival.

Anna Carugati, group editorial director of TV Kids and World Screen, moderated the wide-ranging panel discussion about how co-productions are moving beyond the standard kids’ model of two commissioning broadcasters, tax breaks, additional funding and presales to close the gap. Dexter, founder and CEO of distribution outfit Serious Lunch and production company Eye Present, said that the arrival of the streaming platforms has led to an evolution in that model, with those SVOD services often seeking all global rights.

“The problem is you don’t have any rights after you’ve done that,” Dexter said. “I’m still really keen on the old-school model because I like to own the intellectual property and to also keep the distribution rights. If you go with a VOD model, there’s not a lot left after that contract. So, I’m still keen on the two-broadcaster international co-production, but I’m finding that there are more co-producers required now to try to make the cake fit. You used to be able to do it with two countries and increasingly, you’re doing it with three. We’re doing U.K., Finland, Canada and U.K., Ireland, Belgium. I don’t seem to be able to do it with two.”

Falcone, the president and executive creative director of Guru Studio, picked up on Dexter’s comments about the streamers, adding, “VODs have unleashed a lot of creativity in their commissioning, but conversely by taking back rights, they’re not betting on the longevity of a show as much because it’s not as important to them. For us, we have been actively seeking new models because we’ve done a fair share of work with VODs, but find that their commitment to a series is not the same as when you gather some broadcasters. So developing a series and giving that series longevity is one of our key strengths. It becomes challenging when you know you’re just one more show in the mix to retain a subscription base.”

He added, “We’re trying to find new models to produce shows that aren’t as dependent on the big players. We’re hopeful that with VODs seeing new competition in the market that those rights will start to become available again.”

The panelists were asked if co-productions are being impacted by broadcasters limiting their budgets due to ad revenue shortfalls. “The pay-TV broadcasters’ money has been reducing slowly,” Serious Lunch’s Dexter said. “But that has been going on for some time. It’s interesting that the revenues go down despite the fact that everybody is watching television. I think it’s an overall trend, but I’m not seeing the money coming from AVOD yet. With SVOD we used to say, ‘We’ll do the SVOD deals in the summer because they’re not worth anything!’ [Laughs] And now we’re saying, ‘Get around to the AVOD deals when you’ve got some spare time.’ But I’m sure that’s all going to change. It’s the pay-TV channels that have to move their model most significantly.”

Falcone said that Guru Studio has been working with some new models given the pressures on broadcaster budgets. “We’ve discovered new working models which are more business investments than strict commissioning or licensing fees. They would come in as an investor, which is a new model for us and very interesting because they become a brand partner. We’ve adapted to this situation and said, Can we look at a way to partner with you that doesn’t strictly adhere to the old broadcast regimen and rules?

“Innovating and finding new business models is the way to do co-productions. If [governments] can find a treaty later, that would be great. But the treaties need to be rewritten—the streaming co-productions don’t fall under treaties. There are still a lot of unknowns, at least for me personally, on how you venture into this world. But we are excited to come back to the market to find new opportunities because everyone seems to feel this desire to co-produce again. We don’t all want to fall at the hands of a couple of major VODs and lose all the rights. We need to find creative ways to work together.”

Stoef, CEO and executive producer at Toon2Tango, added that it’s the “second-tier commercial broadcasters” that are trimming their content budgets. “There is quite a bit of uncertainty about what’s going to happen to the advertising market over the next 12 to 16 months. And that has an impact on their acquisition strategy. On the other hand, the potential co-producers we are talking to are looking for new models, because of the uncertainty. That is not the same with the key broadcasters we have in certain markets. They are as active as they have ever been. Maybe they are not producing the same amount, the number of shows, but certainly the money and the investment stays the same, and they are still open and looking for content.”

“Sometimes you’re being asked to bring the advertising spend to the pay-TV broadcaster and that’s a game that you can only really play with a toy partner,” said Dexter.

Plus, Falcone said, not every show “has brand merchandising potential. So that’s where we see the challenge. Not every show should—certainly kids shouldn’t be inundated with toys for every single show that they watch. If every model requests that kind of participation, a lot of shows are going to fall by the wayside. Public broadcasters are good anchors for those shows, where you don’t need to build a brand strategy around a show if it’s just a show for a show’s sake.”

Dexter recalled a time when Nickelodeon U.K. would put up 25 percent of the budget for its local market. “Now you’re looking at that across multiple territories. We have to work harder and harder to find the revenue for each co-production. I can understand the temptation if an SVOD channel says, I want to fully fund your show!”

The SVODs do have the biggest budgets, Rutherford, the president of Boat Rocker Studios, kids & family and rights at Boat Rocker Media, noted. “The determination on what is a brand franchise within your portfolio in many ways will dictate the path you take, working with a streamer or securing financing. If you believe that one of your particular projects has legs to go the distance, then you will work harder to achieve financing from multiple different avenues. We’re fortunate in Canada that our tax credit system is so high, especially when you get into regional spends and whatnot, that we can obtain a good chunk of our financing and give us a little more leverage to hold on to certain rights to navigate through. Even in a co-production model with a streamer, at 50 percent to 60 percent of financing—it’s great that you get that from a bigger budget, but now you have to fill the rest of the bigger budget. Whether it’s a public broadcaster or commercial broadcaster, the numbers [for what they will invest] are coming down significantly. The tax subsidies we have allow us to maneuver a little more easily, and just the type of company we are, we do put investments into our projects, but it does create challenges across the board.”

The SVODs also have a high rate of one-season shows, Falcone stated. “My worry always is, are streaming services where shows go to die? Because if, for some reason, you launch your show while the American [Congress] is being overrun, your show runs the risk of not seeing the light of day for one event. And there is not the support structure within some of these streamers to commit to your show. Would a SpongeBob happen if it launched on a major streamer in this era? It’s hard to say because you don’t have the ability to commit to the show. The algorithm dictates whether you get a renewal. If you feel your show has legs and several seasons under it, as we do for many of ours, we sort of keep them away from the streamers because we’re looking for better models. It takes longer. It’s hard work to run around and pull all this financing together. It can be done. But you can potentially miss your window of opportunity for your show if it takes too long to put the financing together. You are always weighing the risks of putting it all in with a VOD and getting your commission going sooner and getting into production. You have to respond based on your needs and the needs of the show.”

The other downside of a global SVOD deal is the “two-year holdback against TV,” Dexter said. “We’re distributing a show which was a commission by Netflix, but they took a year break. You have season one, which is available now; season two isn’t available till 2023. So nobody is going to buy it until 2022.”

Stoef added, “It’s still totally uncertain whether a streamer will be able to make an IP brand, a licensing and merchandising hit number one.”

Falcone discussed Guru Studio’s own experience working with Netflix on True and the Rainbow Kingdom, with four seasons commissioned. “That’s given us the time to find the second windows and now we’re launching across Tiny Pop and other traditional cable broadcasters. We’re able to kind of bridge it, but it’s been challenging even with a four-season commitment to get those windows to open up and to continue to build the show. Now we’re seeing audiences respond to the show because they hadn’t been exposed to Netflix. It’s a different demographic, a different group of kids. But it’s been really hard work and that’s with a four-season commitment and the show has been out for three years. In this current model of how they commission, it’s even harder than it was when we luckily managed a deal that gave us some room and some additional windows to roll out the content.”

Rutherford added, “Traditionally, it was always great to be on a very prominent linear broadcaster that had the eyeballs and the visibility. Those are the ones that when we come to a toy partner or licensee, that’s the first question they have. The reality is, the money is just not spread around the same way it once was. Working with streamers is a more realistic way of getting shows sold than ever before. So now it does put the emphasis back on us as a company. If we want to build a brand or franchise around this, what are we doing to support that? How are we adding more eyeballs around the streaming visibility, whether it’s through strategic negotiation around second windows, whether it’s additional publicity and promotion or brand activation events? The always-on approach to digital. It’s costly.

“In some cases, if there is no other financing, there are no other tax subsidies, it’s U.S.-based talent, then maybe doing a deal where [the streamer] owns it outright isn’t so bad and you deal with what you get in that particular project. It’s a good fee-driven structure for us, but we know that that’s not a model that we are going to do on everything.”

Dexter asked Falcone about an earlier comment he made in the conversation about if increased competition among SVOD players would lead to more relaxed holdbacks and rights requirements. “I’m just being hopeful. It’s called wishful thinking! [Laughs] Competition breeds creative deal-making. If you have the chance to get a show in front of a few VOD players, you can negotiate your terms because there is competition now. I don’t think they are going to change their terms. They are still looking to acquire all the rights in perpetuity and to completely own the shows.”

Stoef, for his part, said he’s heard a greater openness to flexibility in his conversations with streaming platforms. “They know that their libraries have been pretty much used, so they need new content, and therefore they have to be more flexible and accept windowing or co-productions a little bit more than they used to in the past.”

The panelists were then asked to share recent successful co-pro partnerships. Falcone mentioned Pikwik Pack. “In the early days, we had discussions with major cable broadcasters and we had Playmates Toys come on board as a toy partner very early on. The confidence that brings to deal-making allowed us to make a great deal with Disney Junior. We got Corus Entertainment on board in Canada.” The Guru Studio sales team is taking the series out to international broadcasters. “That is one of our most creative models. It’s less of a treaty co-production than it is a business co-production. It’s shared rights, shared streams of revenue and everyone is bringing a strength to the model. There aren’t competing creative heads asking for different things. We’ve been allowed to make the show as we wanted and we’ve utilized the strengths of the partners to strengthen the brand rather than wondering what the German broadcaster wants versus the French broadcaster, which is sometimes just subjective and doesn’t necessarily improve the show’s core DNA.”

Serious Lunch is working on a show with Gigglebug Entertainment, YLE, Nickelodeon International and Nelvana. “In that scenario, we have what we call the elephant in the room, which is the U.S. option. If the U.S. option triggers, then we’re going to have more money than we know what to do with. But if it doesn’t, then we are probably just going to make the show and it’s going to be a long time before we see any money. There are big MGs and a lot of money to be recouped before the co-producers see it. It’s great that we are financed and we’re in production. But not knowing about the U.S. part is what keeps me awake at night.”

Stoef discussed the Toon2Tango project Agent 203. “We took the original concept and co-created it and completely adapted and changed it and have been able to go the traditional way. We found a commissioning broadcaster, Super RTL. They helped with the further development of the show. It’s been co-developed and co-produced by Mondo TV in Italy. We didn’t go to the SVODs at that stage because, for us, it’s an entertaining concept that has the potential to sustain in the licensing and merchandising field also. We are very happy we have been able to finance it in the traditional way, in total with only two co-producers. Maybe we’ll have to add on a third one.”

Boat Rocker Studios is working with a variety of different models, “none of which fall into your traditional two-partner treaty approach, but more of the business co-production.” These include The Next Step with the BBC and ABC in Australia; Get Even, a BBC-Boat Rocker co-pro that also has Netflix attached; Love Monster with BBC and UYoung; Dino Ranch with Disney Junior in the U.S. and CBC in Canada; and an as-yet-announced co-pro with Netflix.

Carugati then asked the panelists about what broadcasters and platforms are seeking out today.

“The move towards diversity is getting stronger and stronger,” said Dexter. “Here in the U.K., we have a new fund called the YACF, Young Audiences Content Fund, which can fund up to 50 percent of your production. But when you’re filling in the forms about why your program should qualify for this fund, it’s all about the diversity on-screen and the diversity in your production team. With Nickelodeon, when we are sending up a choice of musician, director and so on, you’ve got to present a wide range of people for that role, or they won’t take the shortlist.”

For Stoef, a key demand he’s hearing is for content for the 6 to 9 demo, especially girl-centered shows.

“Everyone is looking for a hit,” Falcone said. “It just seems that they are looking for diverse types of content and that makes it harder to know who to pitch or where something should land. Before you would know if it’s a Nick show, a Disney show or an RTL show, you knew what the audience’s tastes were. With fragmented audiences and shared audiences, it’s a lot harder to find out who to pitch what show. That’s a challenge that I think everybody faces.”

He added, “The content that we’re most concerned with right now is the digital apps that are grabbing attention away from passive viewing. I don’t know if I’ve seen any shows that are a challenge to the TikToks and the types of content that kids, especially in the 6 to 12 range, are drawn to right now. As an industry, we have a real challenge to present offerings to kids that keep them engaged in that passive viewing model when they love to thumb through videos and make their own videos that contribute to the conversation. That is a huge shift, especially in the last year. We’ve got a challenge as kids’ business leaders to find unique shows and not rehash the kinds of shows we’ve made for the last 10 to 20 years. We’re looking to bring some interesting new products to the market that are not traditional in any way, that don’t subscribe to the 52×11-minute model. That’s a place I think we need to go as kids’ entertainers.”

Rutherford added that with kids having been cooped up for the last year, shows celebrating the outdoors and adventure are crucial—“seeing something they want to be involved in,” he said.