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Good times for indie production companies

Discover how independent TV producer Hello Dolly is successfully embracing the challenges and great potential of a rapidly evolving industry.

Small and agile UK TV production companies are thriving and have a positive future in the face of a changing commissioning landscape, rapidly evolving audience expectations and the impact of Covid.

Hello Dolly, founded in 2017 by highly experienced husband and wife executive producers Victoria Ashbourne and Stuart Shawcross, is a case in point. Its credits include international singing competition show, Sing On! and game show, Awake: The Million Dollar Game, both for Netflix.

Victoria believes smaller producers are potential winners in the current landscape – particularly those in non-scripted programming – as the industry seeks to meet growing demand for TV content.

Demand for non-scripted content

Victoria says: “The UK has a great track record for original TV formats that sell overseas – my understanding is around 30% of all international formats are UK-generated.

“Non-scripted TV show formats always come in waves and trends. Currently more reality TV shows are being produced, and game and quiz shows are definitely ‘in’, with viewers looking for the reassurance of some feel-good factor as a result of lockdown. In contrast, drama productions have faced a lot more challenges due to Covid-related restrictions.

“Developing original quiz and game shows takes a long time, because when you’re pitching them you have to be absolutely certain the format works. But once you crack it you can often film multiple shows in a day, even under Covid restrictions – and their international sales potential is huge.”

The Covid factor

The pandemic has of course impacted on the cost and time involved in the production processes, but has also brought some positive changes, particularly from an independent’s point of view.

Victoria explains the upsides: “The impact of video calls on pitches and briefings has been exciting – they’ve very quickly become the norm and that’s been a real leveller for smaller independent production companies in the UK. We don’t have to fly to LA to pitch to a US broadcaster, which is normally a big, expensive undertaking as it’s now much more acceptable to make a video call. That opens up increased opportunities as we’re on the same playing field as, say, a big US producer.

“Briefings with broadcasters are also now quicker, cheaper and more efficient, the same goes for pitches.”

However, commissions can take longer to complete, with the decision-making processes of broadcasters and platforms slowed by internal pandemic-related challenges. Development can also be lengthier as people aren’t on-hand for a quick chat in the office, while remote editing and post-production is more challenging to carry out.

Talent challenge

As a true, self-funded independent, with no outside investors, Hello Dolly is very much creative-first, focusing on pitching fully formed ideas.

It’s a lean operation with a small core of four full-time staff, scaling up or down as needed and peaking during the height of development and production.

Getting the right team together for a show is always vital, but harder now because people are not able to work together in the same way.

“Luckily we’ve a lot of great talent in the UK but we do face a challenge in finding new grass roots talent in an industry that’s hard and unpredictable to enter,” says Victoria.

“Covid has also been tricky for freelancers, who have little protection and nothing to fall back on, although the industry did a great job of lobbying government to make sure they were included in the furlough scheme.”

Financing productions

Hello Dolly largely self-funds development and production – with an occasional distribution deal – which makes it nimble and agile.

While approaches to financing production among terrestrial broadcasters vary, the advantage of subscription videos on demand (SVODs) is that they tend to cover costs steadily along the way.

Victoria says: “However, the financial needs of a production are uneven, often involving rapid scaling up at very short notice, whereas SVODs tend to spread their payments evenly.

“With Barclays supporting us we don’t have to wait for money in order to proceed, and they’ve also supported with additional accounts in order to deal with different currencies. They really understand production and know that when we need support, we need it quickly.”

Looking forward

Victoria concludes: “Personally, I think it is a great time for independents. So much opportunity has been opened up by SVODs, which don’t have capacity limitations and during lockdown, TV has proved how valued, important and comforting it is to people – and that is great for the wider industry.”

Read our full report on the UK TV Production sector