UK indie Keo Films is eyeing expansion at home and abroad after a successful, award-winning 2011. Clive Whittingham went to hear about the company’s plans.The stock of UK indie Keo Films has rarely been higher than it is now. An outstanding 2011 saw the firm pick up Baftas for Hugh’s Fish Fight and Welcome to Lagos, a Scottish Bafta for the controversial but acclaimed doc Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die and a Grierson Award for Fish Fight.
In 2012, the focus is on turning quality programming and an ever-improving reputation into genuine company growth. The company recently appointed Debbie Manners, chair of producers’ body Pact, as a non-executive director to advise on its expansion.
When C21 went to meet Manners and company MD Zam Baring in London there was a sense that Keo still had some work to do in a corporate growth sense, despite excelling on the production side. “Creatively, I can’t help Keo at all because they’re doing brilliantly,” Manners says. “But it’s really interesting to help on the commercial and the business side to see what we can do to make that effective.
“There has been the potential for growth for a few years and it has been bumping up against the same number for a few years so it would be nice to see us break through.”
Certainly Keo’s potential to engage a large audience with an unfashionable topic, and mobilise that audience into a campaign, is there for all to see. Its Chicken Out online campaign, which led to the Chicken Run television series on Channel 4, attracted 188,000 signatures of support. When supermarket Tesco then told the company it would need to raise thousands of pounds to have chicken welfare added to its AGM agenda the supporters raised £88,000 (US$144,000) in less than 24 hours.
At press time 782,591 people had signed up to back the company’s Fish Fight campaign to change the rules on European fishing quotas. At the moment North Sea trawlers up to their limits on certain species must toss thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible dead fish back into the sea.Not only was Fish Fight a tremendously successful series for Channel 4 in the UK, it’s also a campaign that’s making a real difference, with changes to the rules now being discussed by the European Parliament. “We’ve never claimed to be able to provide any solutions to the problem,” Baring admits. “We’re just saying that discarding 50% of what you catch can’t be the right way of doing it.
“It’s a very complicated issue. We always knew it was going to be a challenge. When you’re making a programme about fish conservation there’s not much inbuilt jeopardy. But the little nub at the heart of it was really depressed and frustrated fishermen throwing back perfectly good food.”
Keo has since been approached by marine conservation charities offering funding to try and roll the campaign out to key European battle grounds in the fisheries debate. Discussions are ongoing with broadcasters in Spain, France, Germany and Sweden about local versions of the programme, fronted by a local equivalent of chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who presents many of Keo’s programmes.
“It’s tricky because we’re selling a format and a website so you have to engage with talent, a production company and a broadcaster,” Baring says. “It’s an interesting exercise for us to take a digital and television format internationally. We haven’t taken formats abroad very much, or at all in fact. We do very good tape sales and get commissioned internationally. It’s an interesting process.”
That clearly makes format sales one of the areas Keo can look to grow into, and Manners is keen to exploit it. “I would like to see some headline growth and maybe a little bit more diversification,” Manners says. “The Keo brand is very strong and you don’t want to pull away from that too much but it would be good to expand into some areas around the edges and do more projects that could be formats that are made in other parts of the world.
“International profile does have real potential, and Keo programmes sell incredibly well around the world. We can definitely grow that revenue line.”
The most lucrative market of all, if you can crack it, is the US and while Keo has had commissions in that part of the world the company is keen to do more. “We get the odd commission from the US but have not really nailed a proper returning series, and we’re making a big focus on that this year. I want us to get a couple of commissions away and begin to target America,” Baring says.
“We may possibly partner with other production companies in terms of setting up offices, although not immediately. We think that our Living With The Amish brand might have legs in America, and Three Hungry Boys probably has some legs as a format.”
The company’s digital arm also continues to go from strength to strength. Baring has high hopes for its Landshare website – a ‘dating’ site where people with land they’re not using meet with people who don’t have land but want to grow their own food. It recently launched in Canada and Baring says seven other territories are being lined up.
Another website project, People Funder, could also spawn television series in the same way as Chicken Out, he says. The site operates like Kickstarter but helps to fund social projects rather than television ones.
Baring says he’s particularly proud of the way the company’s television production side and digital arm integrated and worked together in 2011.
Growth, however, can bring its own problems, particularly for production companies. With growth comes a bigger staff, more overheads, more costs – ‘speculate to accumulate’ is the mantra but it’s easier said than done, hence Manners’ arrival to offer her expertise.
Previously with Hat Trick Productions and still at Pact, Manners has the know-how that could prove valuable to Keo. “A lot of indies get towards that £10m turnover mark and it starts to be a difficult balance between being a small company and a large company,” she says.
“You have to get the balance right or you end up with too much cost and not enough revenue so there are a lot of indies that fall into that category. I’m particularly interested in how you break through that.”
Having already run campaigns on fish quotas, and previously the Chicken Run series of programmes on the welfare of birds in Britain’s poultry farms, the question surely has to be which animal is Keo going to launch a crusade to help next? Cows perhaps?
“There are interesting areas that can still be tapped in for campaigns and we’re thinking of a couple of things,” Baring says. “What you can’t do is just say ‘right we’re going to have a campaign’. You have to have somebody at the centre of it that really cares about it because that’s the only way you can engage the viewer. The model is there, we’d love to do more, it’s just the issue of campaign fatigue.”