Tag Archives: commissioning

Little Dot’s Adam Gee: “I have made a real effort not to commission the usual suspects.”

In more than a decade at Channel 4 heading up factual multiplatform content, Adam Gee commissioned many multi-award winning productions, including Embarrassing Bodies and the Big Fish Fight. After a stint launching All 4’s short form video service, he is now commissioning for Little Dot Studios, who have earned astonishing viewing numbers with their flagship Real Stories documentary channel. A regular guest speaker for my digital engagement class, Adam excels at spotting trends and keeping ahead of the game in a dizzying, fast-changing media landscape. I chatted with him about his work finding new pathways for documentary filmmakers. 

Adam Gee by Matt Locke
Adam Gee

Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about your role at Little Dot?

Adam Gee: I was brought in last summer to commission the first original content for Little Dot’s Real Stories, their documentary channel, which is the biggest of their portfolio of channels. It’s a very pure form of commissioning in that I was given a blank sheet, a pot of money and instructions to fill up the blank sheet with stuff that would fit properly onto the channel. So I set about basing the brief on the data underlying the channel. The data makes it really clear both who your audience is and what they actually like. This does not constrict your commissioning, it just shows where the most fertile territory lies.

CN: What kind of films do you commission?

AG: One of the things that characterises Real Stories is by and large they are uplifting and inspirational and have a feel-good vibe about them. And that is probably to some degree a product of the time – I think people are quite up for hearing things which are uplifting about humanity. So I commissioned eleven documentaries in the second half of 2017. I’ve just started on the next five. They are very varied subjects which range from restorative justice to proxy marriage to social media addiction and all things in between. They also range from traditional observational documentary to things that are much closer to the border of factual entertainment. And to some degree they have been done in the spirit of experimentation, to see what fits happily onto the channel which has been built up on acquisitions, what people find an easy transition to if they’re watching the 60 minute, relatively high budget documentaries which are the foundations of the channel.

 

“There are plenty of places you can go to make documentaries about ISIS or fetishes and this doesn’t need to be one of them.”

 

CN: What don’t you commission?

YouTube is the core online presence of Real Stories and there are certain subject areas which are vulnerable on YouTube to being demonetised or slapped with an 18 certificate – in other words, are vulnerable to being made invisible. So I was careful to stay a long way inland from those borders so the investment wasn’t at risk in that way. There are plenty of places you can go to make documentaries about ISIS or fetishes and this doesn’t need to be one of them. My favourite part of the brief is the slide that says what we don’t want at the moment. And that reads pretty much like my Channel 4 job description – sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt and am happy to move on.

CN: Who have made the films?

AG: By and large these commissions have been done with small indies and individual filmmakers. I have made a real effort that they not be the usual suspects. So when I read down a list of the commissions to date, the first ones were directed by the founder of a new BAME-owned company (Andy Mundy Castle, Brittle Bone Rapper); a woman returner who’s coming back from a career break (Debbie Howard, Absent From Our Own Wedding, below); a woman who has been in Holloway prison twice for gang-related offences but is now on the straight and narrow (Nicole Stanbury, Sorry I Shot You).

Sorry I Shot You Real Stories Original copy

A number are first-time commissions. Taken as a whole, they are quite a weird and wonderful bunch that are really talented and have delivered without exception. At a tight tariff like the UK online video one, if you’re not going to take a risk on emerging talent then, when will you ever? 

As well as straight-forward commissions, we have experimented with something a bit more like completion funding. Travelling on Trash is an example of this – constructed out of contemporaneous social video material. So the ability to have some flexibility of approach like that is also very interesting and helpful.

 

CN: Looking back on your time at Channel 4, what is your perspective on where multiplatform commissioning is in the UK right now in terms of health?

AG: I think the focus in the UK, as everywhere else, is on the online video wars – surviving and with a bit of luck thriving on this global battlefield. Multiplatform filmmaking is somewhat on the back burner because online video is so much the business imperative. There is still some really interesting stuff being done but it’s on nothing like the scale that it was in its peak in the UK. That said, it is still a powerful form and I have no doubt more juice will be squeezed out of it in due course.

CN: What are you most proud of from your days multiplatform commissioning?

AG: I think the thing that particularly stands out would probably be Embarrassing Bodies, because it was such a perfect blend of entertainment and public value. And the integrated roles played by television and interactive media were totally hitting the sweet spot, so that people were engaging with their health in a way they didn’t normally.  At its peak, there were 70 million visits a year to the web site. It was the number one competitor to the NHS online, and, more importantly, it was also the number one referrer. So there is this sweet spot between popular TV and interactive media which Embarrassing Bodies perfectly typified – the TV prompting emotion and action, the online giving the opportunity to act on them immediately. It was also a great platform for experimenting because it was on such a massive scale.

 

CN: Do you envision a time when public service broadcasters will return to that kind of experimentation?

AG: I think multiplatform television is far from played out. It’s a very powerful combination of media. I have no doubt that at some point people will return to it and fulfil its full promise. I’ve seen some really good stuff in the last couple of years, but done on a more modest budget. And in fact the things that I’ve seen in recent times have come from perhaps unlikely sources such as LADbible, for example, which did an ambitious campaign around plastic pollution which was really imaginative and cost effective.

CN: Moving on to online video. Can you tell me what you learnt from your time at Channel 4 launching short form video?

It was exciting and a pleasure to set up the factual short form video service on All 4 for Channel 4 because it was to a large extent a matter of range-finding creatively, developing a distinctive editorial tone and voice. Also, it was an exciting area because, as I mentioned earlier, it is by its nature on quite a tight tariff, so it’s a great place to take risks with new talent and new approaches.

CN: And as you’ve shown in my classes you were really gratified by the number of people watching the content.

AG: It quickly became apparent what a large canvas one had to play on. The last piece of content I commissioned for All 4, when Channel 4 put it onto social media on Facebook, got 124 million views in ten days (Naked and Invisible, above). And that really underlined what kind of scale you’re playing on. I see the same kind of thing now at Little Dot Studios, where we have conversations with indies who have licensed their films to the Real Stories documentary channel. And when they come in they often seem as interested when you tell them “Oh, you know that film you let us have three months ago – that’s had another million views”.  The money they get as a result of that is a nice cherry on the cake, but the increased exposure seems to fire them up just as much – getting more eyeballs on something they’ve poured blood sweat and tears into rather than it languishing in a cupboard or buried deep in a website or catalogue.

Adam’s latest commission, Vanished: The Surrey School Girl, can be found here.


Interested in documentaries? Live in London? I’ll be teaching an evening doc appreciation course in June and July at the Crouch End Picturehouse.

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BBC Exec Fergus O’Brien on the Making of The Met

In September 2013, veteran doc maker Fergus O’Brien took up a new post as Executive Producer at the BBC, working with head of documentaries Ayesha Rafaele. On his first day, he was handed a very big project: “Literally I was walking in the door and I bumped into Ayesha and she said ‘Do you fancy exec-ing the Met?’ I’m not sure I knew exactly what that would mean but I said yes.”

O’Brien soon found himself immersed in steering one of the biggest access-driven documentary series in the BBC’s recent history. Airing on BBC One, The Met: Policing London is the first time a broadcaster has been given comprehensive access to London’s police force.

fergus head shot
Fergus O’Brien

For O’Brien, it has been rather a bumpy ride: “Inevitably with stuff that’s dealing with the law and criminality and so on, the phone never stopped. You’re often managing people’s worries, and people’s concerns, and keeping an eye on the legalities of things and keeping a steady line of contact open with our editorial policy team and our legal team.”

Initially a six part series, the team had to drop one of the episodes, when legal restrictions prevented them from airing a major storyline about domestic abuse: “That was very difficult – it’s hard to say goodbye,” says O’Brien. “It would have been a really strong story and often those stories, where the victim is willing to be on camera, aren’t told. Unfortunately through the peculiarities of the legal system we couldn’t show it.”

As director of such films as Channel 4’s Seven Days and the acclaimed, and very funny, The Armstrongs (BBC One) O’Brien is used to following a variety of strong characters across numerous settings. But helping the four shooting teams negotiate their way through the labyrinthine Met was a job like no other: “Each of the teams was assigned to a response team in a different borough of London, and a cross-section of boroughs which would reflect the diversity of the city,” he says. “And each team also took on one or two specialist units, whether it was homicide or Trident. The idea being that the bigger units would hopefully provide us with a spine for each film and something we could come back to, and then we could pepper it with a mixture of different response stories to flesh things out and give a sense of variety in each programme.”

Whilst access had been given from the top, it continued to have to be negotiated throughout: “We had to get consent from everyone, even if they were in the background,” says O’Brien. “It’s the usual thing, from our point of view: unless people want to do it there isn’t a point. If they feel they are being forced into it, it just isn’t that great.”

The production ended up with 2,000 hours of footage, shot over the year, and edited over many months. Even now, as the series is airing, O’Brien is still putting out fires: “It’s not the same as covering a story and when it is done and dusted in the courts you put it out. It is just ongoing; it’s daily. Every day now we have to check every single case across the series to make sure people haven’t re-offended and we’re not in contempt of court. It’s a huge part of it.”

The Met: Policing London is airing on Mondays on BBC One at 9pm until early July. Read about a very different way to film police docs here.

How did Vanessa Engle Get Inside Harley Street?

If you haven’t yet tuned into it, get thee to the BBC I-Player to watch the first part of veteran director Vanessa Engle’s series Inside Harley Street. I’ve watched every minute, fascinated, and think it’s an exemplary portrait of a unique community – something very tricky to do. What Engle does so successfully is weave a rich tapestry of the human condition, through the many storylines we bear witness to over the three hours. Engle’s approach is very direct: conducting interviews, on site, as people undertake, or administer the myriad of medical, cosmetic and complementary treatments on offer in the Harley Street neighborhood. She also speaks to the community that keeps it humming, from the florists to the cleaners, to the rather fantastically powerful behind the scenes uber-landlord, who treats the neighbourhood like a Monopoly board (and indeed gleefully shows Engle his own custom made board replete with his properties).

Despite the simplicity of its construct, it’s clear that Inside Harley Street must have been a monster to put together. I spoke to Engle on the telephone to ask her just how she got inside the exclusive neighborhood:

Can you explain a little about the research and development process which went into making this series?

It was immense. I had this fantastic assistant producer called Liz Kempton. We started with all the conventional medical doctors, which is what Harley Street is best known for. And she just contacted enormous numbers of them…The levels of complication in putting this particular jigsaw together were beyond anything I’ve ever attempted, and I’ve done some pretty complicated ones. It’s not unusual for me to do a series where I have between 80 and 100 contributors. But for each contributor you had to get the doctor to go with the patient, you also had to get permission from the clinic. If they go for a scan in another hospital, you have to get permission from that hospital…the permissions proliferated. I’d never come across anything as complex as this.  And they’re not only places where medical confidentiality is an issue but they are all private businesses who are extremely protective of their clientele and their reputation. So you can imagine the difficulty. But the starting point was Liz contacting literally hundreds of doctors as an initial approach. She met quite a lot of them. If she thought there was something there then I would meet them as well.

Vanessa Moscow
Vanessa Engle

I know often when you go about getting access, people tend to club together one way or another. Did things get easier or harder for you?

My experience in any community is once you’ve got some really impressive names that have said yes, then it does get easier, it gets significantly easier.

And that happened with you?

Yes. With some of the doctors in the film, they hold a lot of sway – their reputations go before them – so once they say yes then others will follow.

Did you use any of your films as a calling card?

I do do that – I absolutely do that. And quite a lot of people in a lot of the clinics, they have hefty marketing and PR departments, and some of them asked to see my films and others checked me out online.

Maryam's leech therapy
Maryam’s leech therapy

There have been quite a few series which are location based on British television lately, like Inside Claridges and Welcome to Mayfair. How did you plan your approach for this series – did these influence you at all?

That’s a very good question.  There has been a spate of commissioning around luxury brands. I’m sure it is possible that Harley Street was also commissioned in that spirit – that there appears to be an audience for films about luxury. For me, right from the outset and in the original treatment I wrote, I always knew the series wouldn’t be about that. To make 180 minutes of television – as long as two feature films – on a premise that would just be ‘here are some rich people, and here they are paying for stuff the rest of us can’t afford’, for me as a filmmaker that doesn’t take me anywhere. There is nowhere to go with that proposition. And it’s certainly not going to keep me going for three hours. Not if you are a genuinely curious documentary maker and trying to find stuff out about humanity at a slightly deeper level. Rich people buying expensive shit isn’t of enough interest to me personally and I always knew that. It was clear from the outset that there would be huge issues thrown up about aging, about illness, about how we feel about our appearance, about why women are altering their appearance frequently, about why people are choosing treatments and therapies that are anti-scientific when we live in a scientific era. It was obvious to me that there was something meaty there that was never just going to be about rich people.

I’m very proud of the access that we did achieve. Because it’s one thing to make a film where you say to someone ‘oh you can afford a ruby necklace, or you can afford an expensive hotel room’. But to say to a very rich person, who is paying a lot of money for privacy and discretion, ‘can we film you butt naked having your prostate gland removed?’ is access of a different order really.

By the way, I love the soundtrack…

I’m glad you asked me about that. That’s what I mean about this series: I just worked so hard. All films are hard to make, but some films are really a lot harder to make than others. For this I listened to over 1,800 tracks to get the music for these films!

Episode 2 of Inside Harley Street screens Monday, 20 April, 9pm on BBC Two.