Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Realscreen Takeaways: Documentary Budgets, Facebook Strategy, China’s New Buyers, and More

Realscreen Summit 2017 came at a moment that felt weighted with history.

It kicked off in Washington the day after the massive Women’s March in which many delegates participated, and ended as my new president set of alarm bells by slamming down the phone on my prime minister.

In between was the hard realization that the multichannel boom of 1986-2015 was over, and that a great number of us are struggling to figure out our Next Steps.

Here are my Realscreen Takeaways:

UK Leads

  • A classy highlight of Realscreen is the pre-opening reception at the British Ambassador’s residence.
    • It is jointly hosted by the UK Department for International Trade, and PACT, the UK producers’ association.
  • The ambassador was off prepping for his PM’s upcoming meeting with the new president.
  • The Deputy Head of Mission shared impressive data about the positive trade impacts made by Britain’s creative television community.
  • Hats off to Britain for applauding the ‘soft power’ and economic benefits contributed by its factual talent.
  • I’d like to see the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Germany and others step up with comparable promotion efforts that are suited to the scale of their television sectors.
  • Here’s a link to a photo gallery of the reception.

Facebook is ‘Video-First’

  • Live mobile video was everywhere in the politically-charged lead up to Realscreen.
  • But Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Video-First’ strategy for Facebook’s 1.8 Bn active monthly users goes beyond Live video feeds and clips sent by your BF’s.
    • 97% of the company’s $7 billion in Q3 ’16 revenue (up 56% vs. Q3 ’15!) was advertising-based.
    • To maintain that growth, Facebook needs to grab TV advertising dollars from the channels.
  • Testing the long-form documentary runs against the conventional wisdom about Facebook’s video strategy.
  • But the social media giant needs to be a player across the landscape of video formats, from Live streams to award-winning scripted series and feature docs.
  • A handful of A-List producers say that they are deep in negotiation to deliver feature docs and specials in the $2-3 Mn budget range.
  • Facebook is hiring long-form documentary development execs:

Facebook has hired Mina Lefevre, MTV’s executive VP and head of scripted development, as head of development for original programming, Variety has learned.

Lefevre will report to Ricky Van Veen, Facebook’s head of global creative strategy, who joined the social giant from IAC’s CollegeHumor last summer.

Lefevre’s hire comes as Facebook has embarked on a new initiative, led by Van Veen, to acquire or fund original scripted and unscripted shows for exclusive distribution on the service. In a statement in December, Van Veen said the company’s goal is to “kick-start an ecosystem of partner content” for a new video tab on Facebook’s mobile app, which has not yet been widely rolled out.

Facebook has been approaching various partners, looking at projects including original and licensed scripted, unscripted and sports content that takes advantage of mobile and “the social interaction unique to the platform,” according to Van Veen: “Our goal is to show people what is possible on the platform and learn as we continue to work with video partners around the world.” Variety Read more coverage of Facebook Originals strategy and hires

Budgets in the SVOD / ‘Bigger / Better / Fewer’ Era

  • I asked lots of industry participants to share the production budgets for original Signature feature docs and specials commissioned by Netflix, Nat Geo Channel and others.
  • Most responded that budgets are $2-3 Mn and sometimes higher for franchise documentaries with A-Listers like Leo DiCaprio attached.
  • For award-winning directors / producers who aren’t quite A-Listers, budgets are in the $1.5 – $2.0+ Mn range.
  • This is good news, but for the few at the top.
  • For producers of returning series and regular (non-signature) specials, there is both a narrowing pipeline of commissions and tougher deal terms.

China’s buyers are back

  • Five years ago, I was bullish that China’s vast scale, increasing wealth and global outreach would inevitably create a vibrant documentary/ unscripted sector.
  • However, a mix of regulatory and political hurdles frustrated the potential for the state and regional broadcasters to become global players.
  • At Realscreen, I learned that China’s online content providers are licensing original 4K content for fees up to the mid hundreds of ‘000’s, and only for domestic rights.
  • A preferred genre is blue chip Natural History, with its beautiful animal sequences and landscapes that are uncluttered by people and their unsettling social issues.
  • I’ll track this important development in future posts.

“Numbers tell stories!”

  • That was the message from the ‘Budget Whisperer’ Elizabeth Ventura in our workshop on how to build a production budget.
  • Budgets and timelines create credibility with network execs and other funders, so its vitally important to get them right.
  • Thanks to Realscreen for adding such a valued, practical session to a packed program.
  • Production Management and Business Affairs are keys to programming decisions. Yet few conferences and markets cover the ‘business of the business.”
  • Read more about our Production Budget Template and Timeline here.

Attendance down: That makes for a better market.

  • There were nearly 2,000 delegates at Realscreen, down from a peak of around 2,600.
  • The missing 600+ seemed to be wannabee Reality TV stars and their agents.
  • It’s good that the Reality Boom is over:
    • I found Realscreen to be ‘right-sized’.
    • There was lots of seating space and openings in schedules to arrange productive meetings.
  • And many networks are going “Back to the Eighties” and looking to acquire and copro classic factual programs.

Esquire goes digital: Who’s next?

  • Delegates were shaken by the mid-January announcement that NBC/Hearst’s male-targeted Esquire Network was going digital.
  • Bets were taken and tea leaves were read about the next domino to fall.
  • Viacom’s 2nd tier networks look like strong candidates after the incoming CEO today announced a focus on six Viacom brands.
  • Many wondered out loud about A&E’s unproven big bet on Vice, which also targets the young Male demo that notoriously is watching less and less live TV.

Next Speaking Engagement:

AIDC 2017
Melbourne, March 5-8

Instant Documentary: So you think you know Live Video?

  • LIVE! video is immediate, unscripted, and it loudly rings the bell for “authentic”.
  • Broadcasters and Cab/Sat channels are green-lighting live prime time ‘events’ as well as series. And they’re commissioning hybrid forms of live content for their social media platforms. Their targets are the young viewers who are drifting away from the channels. Dominating the conversation is social media, where viewing of LIVE mobile video content has exploded.
  • This panel explores how producers, channels and online content services are all testing live video solutions that will compete in a Facebook and YouTube world. The panelists describe the demanding editorial, technical and scheduling challenges of delivering LIVE programming.
  • Learn why LIVE! is the wave of the future, driven by channels who are redefining themselves as video-based brands that operate across platforms, and as social media leaders double down on their investment in original video content.


Laura Fleury, A&E Networks International, New York
Nicola Harvey, Buzzfeed, Sydney
Graham Wallington, WildEarth, Johannesburg
Moderator: Peter Hamilton (ex-Sunshine Tech)