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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

Learning to navigate the coproduction minefield

By John Smithson 01-08-2022

Arrow Pictures’ creative director offers his top tips for building successful coproduction partnerships, following his recent collaboration with Stranger Than Fiction on ABC and BBC feature doc River.

One of the terrible truths of this business is that coproduction is often a minefield.

At its worst, it is a toxic brew of competing egos, rapacious greed and relentless cultural and nationalistic jousting. But when it works, it delivers in spades and is an incredibly rewarding experience.

I’m focusing here on the scenario where two production companies work together, not alliances with broadcast networks or streamers.

The scenario might be an arranged marriage, brokered by networks. Or it might be pragmatically driven, a chance to work on a great idea or collaborate with some A-list talent or set up to access soft money from another country.

It is on my mind because last week, River, a theatrical documentary I jointly produced with Australian indie Stranger than Fiction and their mega-talented director Jen Peedom, landed on the BBC.

River is a beguiling mixture of elements – sunning cinematography, music from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Radiohead and Jonny Greenwood, and words written by award-winning author Robert Macfarlane and narrated by Willem Dafoe. It’s an epic journey, across six continents, as it explores the relationship between humans and rivers.

Ordinarily, this would not be my cup of tea. I’m too story-driven and love the challenge of engineering the story beats out of a complex story. But I liked the idea of tackling something outside of my normal comfort zone. And what sealed the deal was the great experience I had working as a producer on Jen’s film Sherpa.

River, narrated by Willem Dafoe, aired on BBC Four last week

Aussie pals had introduced us, I really rated her work and Jen’s plan to make a film about the ascent of Everest from the Sherpa’s POV was an interesting project. I could make a contribution in helping to raise finance outside of Oz and also helping to craft the editorial, given what I had learned on other mountain and adventure films I’d been involved in.

Then, as the team were filming on Everest, a giant block of ice crashed onto the climbing route, killing 16 Sherpas. It was a heartbreaking moment, the worst disaster in the history of the mountain. Suddenly, the film we were making was no longer possible, but we realised there was a chance we could make something altogether more important and relevant. And that’s the point of copros – they provide opportunities, experiences and relationships beyond the confines of what you are doing in your own company.

Turning the film around and shaping what became an internationally acclaimed, award-winning theatrical doc was highly satisfying creatively. It’s why we do this job. It was also the ultimate stress test. Get through that, which we did with flying colours, and you could work on anything together.

What are my thoughts on how to navigate the complexities of copros? The key message is do all the hard stuff at the beginning. Don’t keep it all vague in a bid to keep it sweet.

How is financial and editorial responsibility divided? Who is handling the financiers? What’s the relationship between key editorial talent? How do you share the rewards, if it all goes well? And how do you share the pain if you are fighting overspends, or a film that’s not working in the cutting room? The more you can sort up front, the better the template to help you survive whatever comes up next.

One other rule when working in a collaboration: clearly speak your mind, during the shoot and in post. Don’t sugarcoat to avoid potential conflict. It’s not a Machiavellian ploy to grasp control, just a desire to make the best possible film.

I fondly remember on Sherpa some epic moments in the edit as a rock met a hard place. But we sorted it. Never forget, the second you leave the cutting room, it is all smiles again.

today's correspondent

John Smithson Executive producer and creative director

Smithson has been responsible for multiple projects that have received global acclaim. His most recent project, Positive – a three-part series marking Britain’s 40-year struggle with HIV/AIDS, told by the key players who confronted this terrifying disease – has been shortlisted for this year’s Grierson awards. Arrow Pictures’ first commission for Sky, it premiered on World Aids Day 2021.

Smithson’s other recent high-profile projects include Generation 9/11 (1×120’), a collaboration with PBS, Channel 4 and Arte France, which tells the stories of the children born in the wake of their father’s deaths on that fateful day; and River (1×75′) for the BBC and the ABC, which explores man’s relationship with rivers, narrated by Willem Dafoe and featuring music by Jonny Greenwood and Radiohead.