|Sideline Productions’ Billy McGrath: “It’s a win-win for everybody”|
THE NETHERLANDS, the Nordic territories and Israel have done it. Now it’s Ireland’s turn to position itself as a formats hot spot, drawing on its centuries-old storytelling tradition to create formats with universal appeal.
But while Ireland undoubtedly has the raw talent to entertain the world — Irish-originated formats are already on air from China (Super Star Ding Dong) to the US (Take The Money And Run) — its format community is still relatively inexperienced when it comes to exporting and exploiting its IP. This was the motivation behind Screen Producers Ireland’s International Focus seminar, held in Dublin earlier this month. The session, co-organised with Screen Training Ireland and mediated by Billy McGrath, creative director of Sideline Productions, was aimed at Irish producers active in format creation, and specifically those interested in developing concepts for the global market. Speaking at the event were several respected names on the international circuit, including Ilan Astrug, Warner Bros International Television Production’s recently appointed vice-president of acquisitions; ICM Partners’ Pippa Lambert, who runs the London TV arm of the US talent and literary agency; and entertainment industry veteran Phil Morrow of Wild Rover Productions.
“Even before I joined Warner Bros, I’ve been keeping a close eye on what’s happening in Ireland,” said Astrug, who recently acquired VIP Productions’ hotly tipped song-writing contest The Hit from RTE’s Format Farm incubation project. “The big advantage that the Irish have as a nation is that they are very visual, literate and creative, with great storytelling skills. They also want to entertain you.”
But, the panel argued, Irish broadcasters need to be braver and more market-conscious in their commissioning, and offer more broadcast slots to original formats. Meanwhile, Irish producers need to work together more closely and collaboratively if they want to emulate the international success of other small territories that have made it big in formats, such as the Netherlands and Israel. McGrath reported that this process has already started, with top Irish producer Phillip McGovern from Big Mountain Productions now on the board of Screen Producers Ireland and actively lobbying broadcasters, enterprise boards and government agencies to persuade them that an active, successful and well-funded formats industry is not just “great for the production community, but also for the creative capital of the Irish economy as a whole”.
|Dirty Old Towns: optioned in Germany, France, Italy, Denmark and Norway|
Lambert said she came to Dublin “to listen and learn” — and left the Irish capital with the impression of “a vibrant marketplace, full of entrepreneurial spirit and ripe for international expansion”.
“For a small country, Ireland has always punched above its weight in comedy, music, literature, film and animation — so why not TV formats for the international market?” she added, pointing to the steady flow of “great new format ideas” that have been emerging from Ireland in recent years. Examples include Dirty Old Towns from Seamus Cassidy’s Happy Endings Productions, which has been picked up by distributor Nordic World and has now been optioned in five European territories; and Good Company Productions Farm Factor, which crossed the Irish Sea to Wales in 2009, where it was transformed into a BAFTA-nominated series for S4C. The farming elimination format, also distributed by Nordic World, has now been optioned in France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, with deals pending it the US, Australia and New Zealand.
One of the founding members of FRAPA, McGrath has been a champion of formats in general and Irish formats in particular since his days as commissioning editor of RTE Entertainment in the early Noughties. “Back then, the idea of Irish producers developing original formats was just starting, so we initiated training for producers in format creation, and followed that up with an invitation to Irish producers to pitch to a new RTE formats lab for studio quiz and game shows,” said McGrath, explaining the background to the Screen Producers Ireland educational initiatives.
McGrath freely admitted that, in those early days, Ireland’s format execution skills and distribution network left much to be desired, but said that, 10 years on, the climate and culture surrounding Irish formats is very different — as is the Irish production community’s burgeoning self-confidence. He observes that even commercial broadcaster TV3 is now growing an original format slate, and has signed a deal with distributor DRG to sell both finished shows and formats. TV3, which has just opened a state-of-the-art, Sony-sponsored studio close to Dublin airport, is also actively seeking international partners to co-develop studio pilots.
“We all realise there’s a growing buzz internationally around Irish shows and production companies,” McGrath added. “Most are led by experienced producers who have held senior exec roles in UK TV. That’s one of the major reasons why the commercial pipeline is now opening up for our formats — we know we can deliver high quality at low cost.”
McGrath also applauded RTE’s renewed focus on the Irish formats industry, backed by a five-year investment programme aimed at fostering original formats. Combined with pro-active investment by several global distributors including Warner Bros, Sony, Nordic World and DRG, “it’s a win-win for everybody”, McGrath added.
Astrug agreed: “The announcement in early December that RTE wants to expand its investment in original formats over the next few years is exciting for the very focused and talented group of Irish format creators.”