StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

BBC STORYVILLE: Mandy Chang departs. A lookback at her strategy. Our panel at virtual CCDF-CNEX


Mandy Chang is leaving her post as legendary BBC-STORYVILLE‘s commissioning editor.

Last year she recapped her STORYVILLE strategy in detail for my panel at Taiwan’s virtual CCDF-CNEX Documentary Conference.

Our fellow expert panelists were:

  • Hong Kong-based, Phoenix TV exec Haibo Huang
  • And from Washington DC, all-knowing veteran programmer and senior consultant Dan Salerno.

Read on to understand Storyville’s recent strategy and priorities as new leadership comes on board.

BBC Pipeline

  • Mandy curates 20 films for the Storyville strand every year:
    • BBC’s flagship international feature documentary strand
    • The only international documentary strand on British TV networks
  • Head of Documentary Acquisitions
    • She buys “an enormous volume of content for BBC 1,2,3,4 and I-Player”
    • Finds and develops content from across the globe
  • Involved in every stage of the process, from Pre-production to Delivery

The Panel: Top: Peter (moderator) and Dan Salerno. Below: Haibo Huang and Mandy Chang

Rate the impact of COVID on your slice of the documentary economy, on a scale from 1-10:

  • Between 6 and 7
  • BBC was able to pivot very quickly and supplement content in all genres
  • Storyville: a lot of films were already in the editing stage
  • It has been a problem for projects shooting in North America

Development & Greenlighting

  • COVID has impacted the development process
  • We have never had more projects in development than right now
  • Sizeable volume of proposals- sometimes fully-fledged films
  • Greenlighting on developing has slowed down:
    • Funding is an issue
    • Modest amount of financing available for new projects: around $100,000
    • Projects must be really worthwhile to secure funding


  • Producers should use the BBC Online Submission Site
  • If it’s not the right project for Storyville, then I reject immediately
  • We try to give feedback when possible, not always the case because of the sheer volume
  • I also receive submissions from other BBC commissioners

Developing New Talent

  • Developing new talent is very important to Storyville
  • Around one third of greenlit Storyville projects come from ‘newbies’
  • Two thirds are from experienced filmmakers
  • “We sometimes know ‘first time Storyville producers’ from the television world, but they’ve never made a feature doc”
  • Half in the ‘experienced filmmakers’ category already have relationships with the BBC
  • Some have never worked with Storyville before

COVID Challenges to Production

  • Filmmakers have been quite creative in the pandemic
  • Many filmmakers have found ways to get into the field in Europe and UK
  • “We encourage filmmakers to find new ways of doing things, for example, by instructing participants to film themselves, recording virtual interviews, and so on.”
  • Limitations bring forth creative innovation
  • Two recent notable examples:
    • Saudi Runaway was shot on Muna’s cellphone and acquired by Nat Geo at Sundance
    • Mating is a Swedish film that uses cellphones and social media
    • Totally Under Control, the new COVID doc from Alex Gibney, who has found ways to continue shooting in the U.S. (as many others have).

Storyville; “Nothing canceled”

  • Some films have been delayed in the edit or in getting pickups, but nothing has been canceled
  • Some projects have been pushed to next year
  • The cancellation of so many scripted and reality programs has been an advantage for Storyville because the BBC is filling many of the gaps with documentaries

The Audience: What do the viewers want? What are they turning off?

  • Storyville has a lot of dark films, particularly in the investigative and geo-political category
  • Those films must have a social or political layer to fly at Storyville
  • “We’re always looking for lighter films for balance”
  • “We still have to reflect the world we live in!”
  • “Make and Do” type content is popular right now in COVID.
  • Examples are:

Are you looking for stories about COVID?

  • There are a lot of COVID film submissions
  • We’re trying to stay away from it for now because its thoroughly covered elsewhere
  • Storyville wants the COVID story later when there will be deeper analysis and reflection
  • The key Takeaway is that Storyville is not straying too far from our established brand during COVID

ENSLAVED: A Recent Initiative

  • “We reversioned a wonderful 4-part series with Samuel L Jackson about slavery called Enslaved for BBC2. We hope it will bring a new and young audience to a subject that might not otherwise come to such a subject. Each film features a dive of a sunken wreck. Diving with a Purpose — “DWP” — features in these stories: Black divers whose mission is to bring ancestors forgotten stories to light… and of course Samuel L Jackson visits his roots, the stories and sites of enslavement. Its already screening on Epix in the US and went to air last Sunday.”
  • Here is the Guardian review of Enslaved.

Changing BBC Eco-system

  • The government is proposing to decriminalize non-payment of the license fee that funds the BBC
  • This will have a huge financial impact on the BBC and on the budgets available for programs
  • The new Director-General’s strategy for the BBC is:
    • Fewer films but higher impact
    • Maximise opportunities on iplayer
    • Renewed commitment to impartiality
    • Find more commercial opportunities for the  BBC
    • And diversity is critical!
  • We have to find new ways of monetizing our programs: For example, BritBox is the streaming service partnership of ITV and BBC
  • These changes won’t have a dramatic impact for Storyville as a strand, but the environment surrounding us is rapidly changing

More about Mandy Chang

More recent UK posts


  • Thanks to Mandy for her revealing presentation
  • To Pat Ferns and the highly-organized CNEX team for such a well-produced panel.
  • And to fellow panelists Haibo Huang and Dan Salerno
  • Longtime Storyville curator Nick Fraser was always a gracious friend to my newsletter, and I’m sending Nick my very best wishes!
  • I proudly co-EP’d with Stephanie Dangel A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD with Bill Gates for Smithsonian Networks and Storyville. Read more here and here.
  • And Mandy, we wish you great success at Fremantle!

Don’t miss my Storyville / HBO Docs / Tribeca Case Study

  • UNITED SKATES: A first documentary feature from Dyana Winkler & Tina Brown wins the Tribeca Audience Award, a HBO Deal and a Storyville slot. A case study with podcasts.