Not just kids’ stuff

Docus also top indie producers' slates

Independent television companies in New York might not be supplying big-budget entertainment properties for the big networks, but the increasing demand for nonfiction and children’s programming both here and abroad has provided a solid niche for many of these smaller operations.

For many of these businesses, production activity is often an outgrowth of distribution. That’s how Tapestry Intl. got into producing documentaries, according to prexy Nancy Walzog. It was her vision to create nonfiction programming when she launched Tapestry in 1987, but Walzog found “the timing was right for acquiring finished programming” and distributing it internationally.

About two years ago, after Tapestry had established relationships with a number of docu-mentary filmmakers, production became intertwined with distribution. Walzog began going to television markets to raise funding for new projects. “There are definitely benefits to owning and controlling your own properties,” she says.

Even though most of Tapestry’s programs are shot on location all over the world, Walzog sees a number of advantages in being headquartered in Gotham, although it can be an expensive place to do business.

“We deal a lot with European companies,” she says. “You need to do a lot of international distribution, because these projects are hard to fund domestically. Also, many of our customers, like National Geographic and Discovery, are on the East Coast, so it’s more convenient for us.”

Tapestry is involved with enough activity to operate its own post-production and editing facility, which is used strictly for the company’s own projects. For the Image Group, producing documentary and non-fiction programming came out of managing facilities.

“Our parent is a very large production and post-production facility operator in New York,” explains Michael Schlossman, VP production and development, the Image Group.

For most of New York’s indie TV companies, Schlossman believes producing drama and comedy series is not only very expensive, but can be a weight on other resources.

“Producing documentaries is a business in which you can count on cash flow,” Schlossman notes. “You pitch an idea in a treatment and have that idea sold in a relatively short period of time.” The nature of these programs also allows for creative financing. “We have provided the use of our production and post-production facilities in exchange for equity for some productions,” Schlossman says.

Another distributor-turned-producer, Unapix Entertainment, set up a New York-based in-house production unit to concentrate on more serious projects, according to Rob Miller, executive VP of the company’s North American operation. “We now have two producers on the West Coast producing more commercially oriented properties,” he explains. “Projects coming out of New York tend to be more socially conscious, high-brow programs.”

The “Great Minds” documentaries, for example, puts Unapix in partnership with different New York publishing concerns, depending on the subject matter. “We are working with Forbes magazine on ‘Great Minds in Business,’ ” Miller reports. “Sports Illustrated is working with us on sports. Magazines all seem to want to get into television.” Most of this programming will be aired on PBS.

Children’s programming is another arena of focus for some New York production companies. Curious Pictures gained its reputation doing animation and effects for television commercials. “Even when we were doing work for commercials,” explains company president Steve Oakes, “we were always keen on entertainment value and storytelling.” Oakes adds, Curious Pictures’ transition to children’s animated programming is a natural one.

Curious Pictures has experience in diverse forms of animation, from cell to 3-D CGI, and that’s what Oakes says is being brought to the company’s first long-form series, “A Little Curious,” which is being produced for HBO’s family-oriented program service.

“We also know we have to be competitive,” Oakes says. “When you’re smart about the way you use the new technology, you can be more productive.” Oakes reports that Curious is also in discussion with Fox Kids and Nickelodeon to develop additional animated series.

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