Euro digital growth gooses nonfiction field

Increase in channels ups demand for docs of all genres

The documentary business, which once again gathers at this year’s Mipdoc confab, finds itself in the midst of a digitally driven golden age.

The surge in digital channels across Europe over the past year has made the demand for docs of all genres greater than ever. That, and the growing strength of local productions, has prompted companies to flex their creative muscles to produce content that can play across multiple markets.

“I think it’s extremely important that you look out for things that aren’t too local,” says Stephanie Rockmann-Portier, head of factual programs for Alliance Atlantis. “You pick programs that stand out and are not necessarily something that people can or would do locally — either because they would not be able to afford it or it’s so good it would be difficult to compete against,” such as Alliance Atlantis’ long-anticipated historical documentary “Exodus Decoded,” executive produced by “Titanic” helmer James Cameron.

Mark Gray, Fremantle Intl.’s VP of co-productions and acquisitions, agrees.

“Twenty years ago, the Germans were not making much TV, and now they’re making most of their own. Because channels around the world are doing their own local productions in their own languages and using their own cultural framework, to get any program to work internationally it has to be on a grander scale.”

Gray also observes that “as channels have fragmented and specialized, so has factual programming. We feel there are three main genres: the multi-episode cable and niche shows; the big-budget programs involving CGI and other digital technologies; and the investigative documentary.

“I would say one of the trends in recent years is the way a lot of the commercial channels, in Europe particularly, have started getting involved in high-end documentaries as part of their primetime schedule.”

Although there was concern among the documentary community that broadcasters would lose interest, the opposite has happened.

“We’ve seen the rise of these extremely expensive, high-end drama documentaries, and the appetite for those don’t seem to be diminishing,” says Mark Reynolds, Granada Intl.’s head of factual programming.

“The big commercial channels in Europe who previously would have never run any factual programming have targeted this area,” he continues. “It’s a way to bring factual programming to their core audience they wouldn’t do through regular documentaries.

“These are films not quite as expensive as a TV movie but potentially can deliver as good of an audience or better. You’re not trying to drag an audience to a completely fictionalized story; there’s already a knowledge, and the audience is usually coming to it because they want to know more.”

Another advantage of grand-scale documentaries is ancillary rights. Gray says Fremantle’s big offering this market, “Prehistoric Park,” was conceived as a multiplatform project.

“There are publishing rights, DVDs and certainly other media because, from our point of view, it’s imperative to take an all-around approach and make sure you get as much out of the program as possible.”

While the large territories such as the U.S., U.K., France and Germany remain the largest buyers and sellers of documentary programming, Granada’s Reynolds says, “There’s a lot more volume going on in Eastern Europe and countries in Asia now. Inevitably, I think documentaries are easier to sell because there are less cultural barriers than scripted programs and entertainment formats, which tend to be more culturally specific.”

To that end, Granada’s “Inside China,” is generating a lot of premarket buzz because of the access given to the filmmakers by the Chinese government.

“It will be an absolutely objective look at the country,” Reynolds says. “Plus, because of the upcoming Olympics, there’s a growing interest in China right now.”