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C21’s Big Picture is an ongoing initiative to support positive change in and through the content business across four key areas of focus: inclusivity & diversity, sustainability & environment, business practice & operations, and content & storytelling.

‘Diversity is vital to the future of storytelling’

Since it launched in Amsterdam in 1994, Off the Fence has produced more than 700 hours of non-fiction programming, won an Oscar and opened offices in London, Bristol and Toronto. Now, under new CEO Bo Stehmeier, the company is committed to making the same success of positive change.

What does your role involve?
I oversee the delivery of Off the Fence (OTF)’s overall strategy.

Do you have a specific stated mission with regards to the four verticals within The Big Picture Network?

• Inclusivity & diversity
We all know biodiversity is key to safeguarding the future of our planet. At OTF, we believe narrative diversity is vital to the future of storytelling. The traditional mono-mainstream narrative that the West has been exporting to the East is harmful and unhealthy – which is one reason why we recently signed a deal with Korea’s RAPA, under which we’re collaborating on the development of Korean factual IP for the international market.
As both a company and an employer, we’re keen to show, on screen and off, that we’re diverse and inclusive. In practical terms, that means we recruit staff from all backgrounds and liaise with companies like Bristol-based BoomSatsuma on work-experience and other opportunities. We also make sure everyone working at OTF knows we have an equality and diversity policy and that we value people as individuals and respect their different opinions, cultures, lifestyles and circumstances.

• Sustainability & environment
Natural history, the environment and impact have been at the heart of OTF’s content strategy since we launched in the early 90s, long before these issues became fashionable or urgent. Recent examples include My Octopus Teacher, which won us an Oscar for best documentary in 2021, The Letter: A Message to Our Earth, Going Circular, The Future From Above and My Gorilla Dream. Off screen, we attempt to practice what we preach in our programming, so we’re working with an environmental, social and corporate governance consultant and have set up an in-house ‘Green Forum’ to create our mission statement on sustainability.

• Business practice & operations
We’ve been creating sustainability guidelines with the support of Albert, which helps the global film and TV industry to tackle its environmental impact and create content that mobilises positive action for the planet. We use a green energy supplier, recycle where possible, and encourage staff to use our cycle-to-work scheme and be as paperless as possible. But there’s so much more we can do, which is why we’re now working to create a mission statement on sustainability.
We’ve also made mental health and wellbeing a priority. We offer staff mental-health days off, talk openly and without judgement about mental health in meetings, and carry out regular team ‘temperature checks’ to make sure everyone’s coping with what can be a stressful work environment. Added to that, we have several qualified mental-health first-aiders – and are training up more – subscribe to TeamDoctor and circulate useful short films to encourage mindfulness.

• Content & storytelling
This bleeds into the genre for which OTF is best known: programming focused on climate change and its impact on society, the natural world and the future of our planet. But as a content-investment company, we also want our IP to find international homes, so our projects tend to have a wider representation and point of view than the average commercial narrative.

Off the Fence and Netflix documentary coproduction My Octopus Teacher

What is your main focus?
Narrative, diversity, mental health and ensuring that everyone who works at OTF feels included and supported.

What are the biggest challenges?
The traditional media outlets’ lack of bravery and innovation. They could also do so much more in terms of bringing everyone along on the journey towards sustainability. No single person, company or organisation has all the answers but, working together and learning from one another, we can set targets that everybody feels are achievable.

Can you give specific example of a challenge you have faced in this area? What were its core issues and how did you resolve or try to resolve them?
As a company, we’ve recently gone through a major organisational change. We wanted to make sure our staff were aligned with company policy, not just in terms of how we move forward strategically, but how we address issues such as bullying, harassment, diversity, communication and inclusion.

For the first time in OTF’s history, we questioned the workforce directly and asked for their feedback. This gave us clear information and insights upon which to build. Communication has been key throughout and it’s clear that, by holding regular ‘tribal’ meetings with the entire OTF family, we can build and sustain a much more unified company.

In terms of content, we avoid using the same experts in the factual shows we help fund. There’s a tendency to wheel out the usual suspects – the same middle-aged white men – time after time, so we make sure we cast our genre experts from a wider and more diverse pool of talent.

Can you give an example of how you set about trying to influence positive change?
We actively seek out projects that we believe have the power to change hearts and minds. Recent examples include The Future From Above, which focuses on how the world could look in 2050 – the defining year for our planet’s future – if we embrace the revolutionary technology and thinking needed to transform how we communicate, harness energy, travel, live, eat and recycle waste. Also exploring the climate crisis is Endangered Generation?, narrated by Jurassic Park star Laura Dern, which challenges the myth that the world is driven by selfishness and competition.

Then there’s My Gorilla Dream, which is an epic natural history doc about cinematographer Vianet Djenguet’s lifelong dream to embed himself in a family of wild gorillas. As eastern lowland gorillas head towards extinction, it’s an important story in ecological terms, as well as a stunning example of natural history storytelling.

We’re also working with biologist and passionate conservationist Dan O’Neil – one of the first openly gay natural history broadcasters – on Giants, a five-part series about the planet’s largest creatures, past and present.

WaterBear doc Slay focuses on the animal-skin trade

What are the most common issues that need to be addressed?
Accepting that people are vulnerable and that everybody is on their own DNI [diversity and inclusion] journey. We’ve created a safe space for difficult discussions – a time and place that isn’t driven by bottom lines or box-ticking.

Who has impressed you in terms of how they are working to bring about change? And what elements do you find most inspiring?
WaterBear, which is the first interactive streaming platform dedicated to the future of our planet; the National Geographic Society’s Exploration Technical Lab programme, which builds and deploys systems to help us explore and understand our natural and cultural heritage; and, most recently, David Lindberg’s project Tribe, which is melding ancient indigenous wisdom with technology to help change our world for the better.

Who do you look to for inspiration?
I look outside our ecosystem for new – or very ancient – thinking that can help improve our corporate and creative processes. I lean heavy into shamanic, tribal psychology and how it can be applied to enhance contemporary culture.

Which organisations or processes have you worked with to help and what did they bring to the issues?
As mentioned above, we’ve worked with Albert, which is knowledgeable about the ways in which the film and TV industry can reduce its environmental impact; and BoomSatsuma, which improves access to the creative industries by providing realistic, real-world training. I’d also recommend Narrow Quay HR, which helped us create and then interpret an anonymous company-wide survey that everyone felt comfortable responding to.

Which TV companies or shows do things well in meeting the challenge?
I’d single out WaterBear’s Slay, which is a brilliant and timely film about the animal-skin trade and whether it’s acceptable to kill animals for fashion. It brings together celebrities, experts and campaigners to expose the fashion industry’s unethical practices, while offering practical solutions.

How would you like to see things change in future?
I’d like DNI not to be seen as an exercise in box-ticking but treasured as the valuable resource it is.

What would you do differently if you were to approach the problem again?
Pay greater attention to mental health and set up internal mentorship and/or scholarship programmes to foster diversity.

What is the best advice you have been given?
Bias is real – don’t try to see what you can’t.

What advice would you give to someone working in a similar role to you?
Change is a process, not a destination. On this journey of change, anger will only get us part of the way. Nurturing change is a bit like nursing a terrible hangover – in this case, the aftermath of the party we’ve been having at the expense of ourselves and our planet. Taking care of change and helping it through the daily ups and downs is our best hope of living to see another, better day.


Bo Stehmeier
Bo Stehmeier is the CEO of Off the Fence. His professional journey started 20-plus years ago in London, working in content sales for TVF International and Optomen. His progress eventually led him to German production and distribution giant Red Arrow Studios International, where he served as president. In 2020, he moved to Amsterdam to head up Off the Fence, returning to run a company where he had once worked as head of distribution. His love of the natural world and his fascination with the Nordic mystical cultures has inspired him to write two books – Wake Up! Rise & Shine and Borealis – “to help adults reconnect with their true self.”