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The stories behind the news.

Postcard from Sunny Side of the Doc in La Rochelle

Business was actually being done at last week’s Sunny Side of the Doc in La Rochelle, thanks in part to the event’s heavy focus on coproduction.

The mood was more upbeat at this year’s Sunnyside of the Doc

Change, like bankruptcy per Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or electoral collapses per Britain’s Conservative government, comes slowly and then all at once.

Television has long sweated its loss of young audiences and the advertisers that crave their attention and money to digital and online. Then it happened. At first gradually over a long period of time, and then – driven by recession, inflation, pandemic and war – all at once in 2025.

To attend television markets in this climate is often to play a game of hunt the buyer. Can you even find one, never mind get a commission from them?

At Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this month the challenge and tension was clear. The buyers who were there and apparently open for business were only in the market for 10-12 so-called ‘docbusters’. Big, glossy, headline-grabbing, subscription-winning projects which require a big-name director or production company with a string of recent hits to its name as part of the sell. Companies like Raw, 72 Films, Nutopia, directors like Kevin MacDonald, do well in this environment.

Bar Channel 5 and its air fryer fetish, the channels who used to buy in bulk were largely absent. There would once have been separate buyer panels for documentary, specialist factual, factual entertainment… now just one general buyer panel, and three buyers on it. Channel 4, whose whole reason for being is to commission projects from British indies, didn’t appear on stage at all.

Is this a permanent change? Some say not. The grim “survive to 25” phrase was the mantra to cling to when we reported from RealScreen in January. Just get through this and we’ll all be making “telly”, as they call it at Edinburgh every August, by next year.

If it’s not, though, then what?

Patrick Hoerl

Patrick Hoerl, founder and MD of German factual distributor Autentic, gave a stark assessment to C21: “The industry is really changing in a much more radical fashion than ever before. Sometimes it feels like we’re hanging on to the idea of a media environment that doesn’t exist any longer. It’s a bit like a Matrix situation – somebody will switch off the illusion at some point and then we’ll all find ourselves in a desert. It’s a challenging time for many of us in that the old models of how programmes are being financed are breaking down, at least in Europe. Everybody’s trying to develop new strategies of how we can finance content and understand how the consumer wants to consume factual content in the future.”

Part of the solution may lie in what I’ve found on my first visit to Sunnyside of the Doc in La Rochelle last week. Sunnyside has been much more upbeat in tone and businesslike in nature than any other event I’ve attended this year. It feels like there’s stuff getting done here this week – one interview with a buyer was interrupted by the delivery of champagne on ice in time for their next meeting when they were going to break the news to a producer that their series had been greenlit.

That’s for one simple reason: it’s a coproduction market.

As Kirstie McLure, MD of Brighton-based factual indie Bigwave TV, put it: “I’m still waiting and wondering whether the taps are going to turn on for us again and we can get series away like we would in the old days for Channel 4 or whoever. At the moment it’s just not happening. So, you have a choice. I could sit back and just wait, hibernate, or we go out there and make things. You have to make things.”

Every buyer appearance here (SVT, BBC, Blue Ant, Nat Geo) has been talking up co-funding and coproducing. They have all been pushing the importance of this in the current economic climate as the only practical way of getting programmes made with fully-funded commissions now the domain only of the mega-rich streamers.

Ben Noot used to acquire finished content for National Geographic, now there’s nothing to acquire he’s putting together copros for the Disney-owned channel’s international team. He said: “Coproduction has always been really important for National Geographic. I’ve been at the company for 11 and a half years and we’ve always been into coproduction but now more so than ever. I think it’s an era of collaboration. The amount of finished tape I’m able to acquire these days is very minimal because people aren’t commissioning, but they are coproducing and we’ve been very flexible and agnostic with who we partner with.”

The BBC was here showing off its lip-synced doc D-Day: The Unheard Tapes – Simon Young, head of history, said of its high production values: “that’s what you get with coproduction isn’t it? That’s why we’re so appreciative of the international broadcast partners who can improve the programme.”

Crowds gathered in sunny La Rochelle

Another doc, The Whistleblowers: Inside the UN was also shown but had been done without coproduction money – this a project from the glory days of 18 months ago, a long time in politics and television. “We didn’t have any coproduction on that, we weren’t forward-facing enough to get coproduction partners at that stage,” said exec producer Sarah Waldron.

They are now, as is everybody else it seems. Walking across the harbour to take in the latest thrilling instalment of England’s attempt to bore the European Championships into submission I got chatting to another indie producer who’d been able to go back to coproduction partners and tell them he now needed less money from them because he’d brought a brand on board. “This is the business now, you need five broadcasters, a distributor, a toothpaste brand, perform the pitch through the medium of modern dance…”

Sitting around waiting for full commissions from Channel 4 to come back is, as Tremors’ Earl Bassett said, “no kind of plan”. Coproduction is very much front and centre, however laborious the process can be. With that markets like Sunny Side will quickly accelerate up the priority list as opposed to the more traditional, mainstream conferences and events.

Embrace the change. Sweat it out in the French sunshine and put together a multi-part project with seven different Nordic broadcasters all sticking a tenner in. It’s the new normal.