This week KEO Films’ Head of Production, Maddy Allen, discusses working across a number of platforms whilst juggling ever decreasing budgets.
How did you get into television?
It was a mixture of luck and determination. Although I had always wanted to work in television, I didn’t do any media courses (I studied German at university). I worked my way through a couple of corporate video companies and became corporate producer at a company that did both corporate and broadcast productions. Then I spent a couple of years learning the skills of production before I moved over to the broadcast side of TV.
As a Head of Production, I don’t necessarily look for people with a media education. I like to have production crew with a variety of backgrounds so whether you’re a media graduate, have spent time travelling or have been working in other industries, all experience is valuable. I’m far more interested in your innate skills and experience than what grades you’ve got on paper.
You have recently produced Skint and Bradford: City of Dreams. How have you seen the demand for factual entertainment television change in recent years?
Trends in broadcasting come and go and obviously how and when people watch TV is changing massively, but I believe that if it’s good TV people will watch it, whatever the genre.
Terry Pratchett, Choosing to Die, was a very sensitive programme. How do you go about producing sensitive content but always able to keep the audience interested and engaged?
As I said before, I believe that if the content is good and well produced, people will watch it. Never underestimate the audience – they know the difference between observation and exploitation.
I think the key is gaining the trust of your contributors – if you are both honest and open with each other, that trust will come across on screen.
You have recently opened up a new office in Cornwall for KEO Digital, focusing on online content. In your opinion, how important is it to keep up to date with the online and digital markets?
It’s important for a television production company like KEO films to produce content and tell stories across a number of platforms above and beyond just television. In doing so it helps us keep up to date with expanding content market, wider opportunities and digital’s economic production methods.
Budgets are constantly being stretched. As a Head of Production, how are you able to factor this into your planning, without having to sacrifice the quality of production (particularly when HD is now being expected as standard)?
Ever decreasing budgets alongside ever increasing demands on quality and content are a constant concern. You have to start with the elements of the budget that you know you cannot sacrifice: Don’t fool yourself that they’ll edit it in 5 weeks when you know that they’ll need 7 or that the PD can shoot all day and then data wrangle all the material back at the hotel after a 12 hour shoot day! If you do that, you’re only setting yourself up for an overspend at a later date when it may be too late to find the money elsewhere in the budget.
Obviously, the longer the schedule, the more impact on the budget so we try and be inventive about how to keep the production weeks down but it’s increasingly difficult. And, unfortunately, production crew are inevitably being asked to take on ever increasing responsibilities in order to cut down on numbers of people.
Increasingly, co-funding or pre-sales on distribution are becoming the only viable options for making programmes. Producing the content that the broadcasters expect on the budgets they’re offering is nigh on impossible.
After a project is greenlit, what are the first things you have to think about?
Crewing it up with the right production staff and working out the budget.
Is it easier planning and producing one off documentaries, or TV series?
They both have their own challenges.
As a successful, award winning independent production company, how are you able to compete with much larger corporations and broadcasters, who may have a lot more disposable income?
I don’t believe that larger companies do have “disposable” income. The larger the company, the larger the overheads and the costs of simply running your business from day to day. Keo is a growing company but we are at a size where we can ensure that our budgets go onto the screen.
How do you compensate when projects end up surpassing their budgets? Can other departments/projects suffer as a result?
I’m very firm that each individual project has to shoulder the burden of any overspend it incurs and that another, perhaps more financially strong project, should never “suffer” – in terms of taking value off screen – to support a loss making project. I think it’s important as a company to have clarity on which projects / type of project is profitable or not. That’s not to say we wouldn’t still take on a programme / series that we know probably won’t make a profit, but if we’re going to do it, we need to know what kind of financial performance to expect so we can look to other financing. Of course, on the other side of the coin, there are some kinds of projects, particularly series, which can be very profitable for a company and I don’t think that anyone should be embarrassed of having those shows on their slate. We are, after all, businesses!
How do you think the industry has changed in recent years? And is it for the better?
Well you could write a book on how the industry has changed over recent years but I would say two of the key changes for me have been: 1: The wealth of choice of programming and broadcasters, as well as viewing platforms for the audience. With so much choice, it’s given production companies a big challenge to reinvent content and how that content is served to your viewers, which can be very exciting. 2: It’s a constant gripe but the ever-decreasing budgets are depressing. In light of the wealth of competition, production companies are spending more time and effort simply getting the money together to produce the projects when those resources should be going into making great TV.
Maddy Allen is Head of Production at KEO Films.