Off the Fence gets its facts right in the latest C21 Digital Screening Campaign
Loren Baxter, head of acquisitions at international producer and distributor Off the Fence, discusses the company’s playlist of factual series on C21 Digital Screenings and explores how the industry is changing.
Off the Fence (OTF) has enjoyed great success over the past two years despite the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered productions worldwide and left the industry in a precarious state.
Last year, the ZDF Enterprises-owned company’s production arm in Bristol went from strength to strength, producing around 50 hours of content, while the firm made a flying start to 2021 by winning the best documentary awards at both the Oscars and the Baftas for My Octopus Teacher.
Produced by OTF, Sea Change Project and Netflix Originals, the feature doc follows filmmaker Craig Foster as he develops an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world.
Though My Octopus Teacher is exclusive to Netflix, OTF Distribution is this week showcasing a slate of premium factual programming that is available to global buyers, with titles spanning history, wildlife, science, lifestyle, travel, feature documentaries, crime as well as people and culture.
Loren Baxter, OTF’s head of acquisitions, says broadcasters are moving away from rigid genres and are instead looking to commission content that blurs boundaries. “We are seeing factual genres blend together, such as science with history or wildlife with travel,” she explains. “We’re now looking at shows that have elements of various genres intertwined, while maintaining their international relevance at the same time. It’s something broadcasters are specifically interested in to keep the more traditional genres of nature, history and science fresh and interesting.”
To that end, the first show on OTF’s playlist is science and history series The Secrets to Civilisation (3×60’). Produced by Impossible Factual, CuriosityStream and OTF Distribution, the three-parter sets out to offer a fresh and eye-opening perspective of the ancient world, from the Bronze Age to the fall of Rome.
Baxter says: “The Secrets to Civilisation uses state-of-the-art CGI to recreate environments such as forests, coastlines and cities. It investigates key turning points in history, using characters such as Cleopatra and Ramses III to further understand how certain forces, including the climate, lent civilisations a helping hand – or played a role in their extinction.”
The exec says science has become a key tool for retelling history in a different way, whether that’s through the use of DNA, data or technology. History series Viking Empires (2×60’) uses archaeological and scientific discoveries to provide a fresh take on the Vikings, combined with vivid drama re-enactments and interviews with international experts. Baxter says the 4K show, from Tile Films, offers a more nuanced portrayal of the Vikings as “shrewd traders and empire builders.”
As for traditional science programming, Baxter has chosen The Global Vaccine Race (1×60’, 1×90’) for OTF’s Digital Screenings playlist. Produced by Infield Fly Productions, the doc is about the quest to create a successful vaccine for Covid-19, a process that normally takes 15 years but was given a deadline of just 18 months by governments worldwide. “The show has unique access to BioNTech/Pfizer, Imperial College London, Canada’s Entos Pharmaceuticals and China’s CanSino, and audiences will discover the laborious journey towards the vaccine from the scientists who created them,” Baxter says.
On OTF’s history slate is Royals: Keeping the Crown (6×60’), which is produced by WMR, CuriosityStream and OTF Distribution. “The show takes us through six fascinating episodes, colourised by esteemed French outfit Composite Films,” Baxter says. “We look back at international royal families, using Queen Elizabeth and the UK royals as our dominant thread, at their critical moments in history where circumstances or arrogance have caused the crown to be in question.”
Classic history content also remains a high priority for international broadcasters, according to Baxter. As a result, the exec has selected Go Button Media’s new series Forgotten Frontlines (6×60’), which launches at the end of the year. “It takes us through the lesser-known stories of the war with insightful tales that give us a better understanding as to how these events impacted the overall efforts of WWII as we know it,” Baxter says.
Produced by VisionHawk Films, Prospect TV, Aquaterrafilms and Nedo Producciones, alongside CuriosityStream and OTF Distribution, The Humboldt Current is about the cold marine highway that flows along South America from the tip of Patagonia to the equator, which provides a food web that supports the largest creatures that live on our planet.
Snow Leopards And Friends is produced by Terra Mater Factual Studios. “The doc was filmed during the midwinter in the mountains of the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau,” Baxter says. “It captures the diverse variety of wildlife and the home of the rare snow leopard.”
Produced by OTF Productions, wildlife special Winter Wonderland showcases a range of animals including a pregnant polar bear, a baby walrus and a tiny white weasel. “The doc is set entirely in the snow and shows cute animal stories brought to life by a fun, cheeky script, evocative seasonal music and immersive sound design,” Baxter says.
As for travel programming, Baxter has picked out two long-running series: My Greek Odyssey, from The Rusty Cage, and Raw Travel, from AIM TV Group. “Both series offer high volume and escapism set against the backdrop of beautiful, exotic locations,” she says.
My Greek Odyssey, of which four seasons have been produced so far and another two in production, centres on the charismatic and larger-than-life character of Peter Maneas. Born to Greek migrants who settled in Australia over 50 years ago with nothing but their suitcases, Maneas has gone on to build a highly successful business and is the proud owner of a superyacht. Throughout the four seasons, Maneas takes viewers on a tour of Greece, from the local cuisine to the history, on his yacht.
Raw Travel, meanwhile, focuses on the growing popularity of socially and environmentally conscious travel across 14 seasons. The show incorporates eco-tourism, adventure sports, indie music and authentic culture, with locations including Ecuador, Cambodia, Nicaragua, South Korea and Spain. Another two seasons of the series are delivering this year.
Rounding off OTF’s playlist are two lifestyle series: Beyond the Pole and The TS Madison Experience. Both series are part of OTF’s exclusive distribution agreement with AMC Networks-owned US cablenet WE tv. Under the deal, OTF distributes more than 1,200 hours of WE tv content internationally and more than 1,000 hours in the US in the second window.
Reality series The TS Madison Experience is fronted by TS Madison Hinton, also known as Maddie, an American entertainer, entrepreneur and LGBTQ+ activist. The 6×60’ show, from World of Wonder, sees Maddie set out on a bold, unfiltered and authentic journey to be the first black trans woman to host a mainstream talkshow.
Produced by Triage Entertainment, Beyond the Pole takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of Atlanta’s strippers and exotic dancers as they try to reach financial freedom and peace of mind outside of the strip club.
For Baxter, demand for non-scripted has increased year-on-year, with the pandemic acting as an accelerator for the trend. “The non-scripted world became the go-to last year, when scripted struggled to materialise over the pandemic. Factual production was much more adaptable, and the subjects and tone had more gravitas, which in turn appealed to those audiences craving drama and entertainment,” she says.
Baxter also credits the growing interest in factual programming to the proliferation of AVoD and SVoD platforms across the world. “They are targeting a global audience and, as a result, we have seen a greater acceptance for subjects that would have previously been seen as too local or not local enough. Having said that, we do still see hyper-local programmes being developed to target specific audiences and territories,” she notes.
Despite the boom in the number of streaming platforms over several years, Baxter says the extent of their influence is not yet clear: “The streaming market is constantly causing things to change and evolve. However, its true impact is yet to be revealed. Once the dust settles around the recent major non-scripted M&A, with many of their linear businesses pulled back in favour of streaming services, a whole new media landscape will reveal itself, creating a significant effect on the current traditional outlets. In addition, AVoD is becoming the dark horse of the non-scripted space and we expect to see this grow.”
Baxter adds that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to pitching content, with international broadcasters having varying needs. “Generally, for the streamers and the first-window linear broadcasters, there’s a real interest in shows that have unique access or new findings. For the more digitally skewed networks, we’re seeing an ever-increasing need for talent-fronted shows that can draw in bigger audiences faster,” she says.
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