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The mechanics of forward-thinking business strategy.

Swim with bigger fish: Marshal Bishop's partnerships strategy

Mark Westcott, who launched UK prodco Marshal Bishop Productions with Duncan Gaudin last year, discusses the company’s ‘growpro’ partnerships strategy as it looks to make waves in factual entertainment, returnable series and adventure formats.

Mark Westcott

Mark Westcott and Duncan Gaudin had been long-time collabroators on Bear Grylls’ adventure formats when they founded new indie Marshal Bishop Productions in early 2020. For the pair, both creative directors, the strategy is to partner with established production companies on content.

This approach, known as a “growpro,” can be vital for new or smaller firms that need to get their feet off the ground, according to Westcott, whose credits include Bear Grylls: Mission Survive (ITV) and Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word (Channel 4).

While the exec did not coin the term, he is quick to extol a growpro’s virtues, explaining that a more established production company adds clout to a smaller outfit that may need help convincing buyers they are ready for big commissions.

As to how this applies to Marshal Bishop, Westcott says: “[Commissioners] have some notion of mine and Duncan’s track record, but do they know us as a production company? Do they trust that we’ve got an infrastructure in place? More often than not, they’d rather take that element of doubt away and go with a bigger partner. This is particularly true in the US, where a small fish can struggle to be seen – or gets eaten.”

An unexpected advantage of the growpro strategy was how it enabled international shoots to take place that would otherwise have been called off due to the pandemic, Westcott says. For example, Marshal Bishop joined forces with ITV America’s ITV Entertainment to coproduce Called to the Wild. The adventure series, which follows humans and dog teams as they try to survive in Maine, was commissioned by National Geographic.

But when production began stateside, regulations to curb the spread of Covid-19 prevented UK travellers from entering the country, including production teams. “With the might of ITV America and their network, we were able to shoot the show, while we had our input over Zoom,” Westcott says. “The growpro strategy paid dividends during the pandemic.”

The only potential snag of a growpro is that, with additional partners, a production company will have to share the rights to a show, as well as the profits. Westcott acknowledges this is a “downside,” but adds: “You’re not going to earn anything from an idea sitting on a hard drive. It’s better to share a show on good terms with a partner so it can actually get made.”

Marshal Bishop coproduced Called to the Wild with ITV America for Nat Geo

The aim of Marshal Bishop is to produce unscripted programming with an “adventure twist,” says Westcott. Rather than turning viewers away from adventure-focused content, Westcott says that the pandemic has boosted the genre’s popularity. “Going to the supermarket before the vaccines were rolled out was perceived as a considerable risk and was like an adventure in itself,” Westcott says. “We did question whether audiences would still want to watch adventure programming, but they did, and possibly relate to it even more after living through the pandemic.”

Marshal Bishop develops programming across all subgenres of unscripted, including but not exclusively true crime, history, science, paranormal and lifestyle. On the outfit’s current development slate is a car challenge show with an “eco spin” and a history series about an “extraordinary” Tudor woman that history seems to have forgotten, Westcott says.

In addition to the US, which has traditionally been a huge consumer of adventure and survival shows, Marshal Bishop is targeting broadcasters and streamers in the UK and Asia Pacific. In Asia Pacific, and specifically India, Westcott says there is a buzz surrounding adventure and survival programming, making it fertile ground for commissions.

While Marshal Bishop’s UK and US slates are similar, the indie develops separate programming for audiences in Asia Pacific, where the approach to survival content is different, according to Westcott. Programming is tailored to fit a specific country’s culture and tradition, he says. For example, content that involves killing and eating animals to survive is not pitched to buyers in India where there are large vegetarian and vegan populations.

Westcott’s priority for the year ahead is to win a commission on home turf, adding that the UK has been a pioneer in producing adventure and survival programming.

As for trends within the industry at large in 2022, Westcott believes that co-viewing is here to stay. “There will be more emphasis on shows that bring everyone together, ideally in front of one screen at the same time,” he says. “And to reflect a broader audience there will be more diversity on and off screen, as well as more older people on screen.”