At the Producers Hub this morning, Pat Ferns, president/executive producer of Ferns Productions (left) and Ove Rishoj Jensen, web editor and film consultant of European Documentary Network (EDN), provided invaluable advice on co-productions: their advantages and disadvantages, and what to keep in mind when seeking out partners.

“Co-production is often mistaken for co-financing, which is simply having enough money to make your film,” Ferns began, using the examples of resales and tax credits. “Co-production is when there is true sharing of some of the creative roles of the production, and that is much harder.

“Basically, successful co-production all goes back to relationship and trust. Because in any enterprise where you’re sharing something, whether a marriage or co production, things are going to go wrong at some point, there’s going to be challenge. And if in the face of the challenge you just walk away, you haven’t got a co-production … or a marriage, or a friendship.”

So make sure you like each other and enjoy each other’s company.

We also discussed co-production treaties. “The advantage of such a treaty is you can have people in one country and another who can work together under these rules, and in each country it will be treated as domestic product and be eligible for all domestic benefits,” Jensen explained.

Take the example of a Canadian-European co-production. “If I’m a Canadian, I know… I’ll get higher license fees from the broadcaster, I’ll be eligible to get investments from federal and provincial funds, and I’ll be eligible for tax credits,” Jensen went on. “So it means I can bring a bunch of money to the country. But the other country – France, Denmark, Germany – will be able to take the same film and call it European content while accessing money and subsidies from their own countries.

Treaties come with bureaucracy as well as cost, however. Never mind that each country has its own specificities; but to qualify for co-production treaties in the first place, you must use talent and labour from both countries involved.

So for a co-production treaty for a $50,000 documentary, it’s likely not worth the bother. On the other hand, a three-part series that costs $1.5 million may be easier to finance and produce under a co-production treaty.

“It’s not the subject matter that determines the coproduction, it’s who the creative partners are. There has to be a producer on each side … and you have to have a sharing of roles and responsibilities,” Ferns said.

Ferns’ last docudrama was co-produced with Australia. 40% of the money came from the Australians, 40% came from Canada, and 20% came from Europe, particularly France and Germany. Canadian and Australian financing patterns are very similar, enabling them to provide something of a high standard while sharing resources.

Such smooth relationships can be difficult to find, for a multitude of reasons. One of the challenges is timing — reception of funds from respective countries may not sync, so “it’s very important that you’re as transparent as possible” about the requirements and timing expectations on each side of the partnership.

“One of the reasons co-production is more and more important is that the percentage of money you can get for your budget is getting lower and lower in each country,” Jensen added. “We got detailed data from the Danish Institute … if you look back upon the last decade (2000-2010), 12 years ago the Danish Institute would give about 50%, and now it’s down to about 40%. So what you can get on your home field is less and less.”

In Canada, broadcasters must invest 20%, which guarantees you a floor.

“There are always special circumstances depending on where you are,” Jensen added. “Canada is a very attractive country for this” — indeed, it has a grand total of 60 co-production treaties — “but if you look upon Europe there are always special circumstances.”

Differences between the US, Canada and Europe were discussed at length.

Ferns pointed to how Canada’s proximity to the US puts it in a uniquely frustrating position. “[The US] can basically fully-fund their own productions and Canada couldn’t tell its own stories unless it had some measure of protection, subsidies” and development of treaties, which is why co-production is so richly rewarded in Canada.

“We had to find various ways to be able to aggregate money so we could compete creatively with a very strong industry to the South. Early on in Canada, a lot of Canadians just looked South and went South, so there’s a huge diaspora in LA. But some of us decided to stay and build an industry, and over the past 40 years we’ve built an industry that is very substantial.”

The biggest number of Canadian co-productions are with France, which has good subsidy arrangements and is a “natural” partner for the bilingual country, said Ferns. The UK has also proven itself a good partner that opens the way to a lot of large markets.

“I think for many of us, the US represents the largest market in the world. So if you can find a way to crack that market you’re doing well.” When Ferns did drama, he’d co-produce with Britain and sometimes that path would present opportunities in the US — “and when that happened, it was bonanza time,” he recalled.

Jensen elaborated more on the European market vis-a-vis America. “It was not the marketing department that invented Europe,” he joked. “It is a bit more complicated and tricky to get your content out.

“The European market and the American market are two different mechanisms,” he went on, adding that these fundamental differences make it hard for one to work in the other’s country.

To start with, Europe is not one market: it’s more fragmented, due to both languages as well as to culture. “The traditions of storytelling, what you put on TV and what format, is very different depending on where you go to,” Jensen said. The norms for subtitling and dubbing also vary: in Nordic countries, subtitling is stronger; in France and Germany it’s dubbing.

Jensen admonished listeners to consider traditions, different ways of storytelling, when approaching Europe. Ask yourself, “what kind of output will you be delivering?”

“The advantage of working in Europe is that you have a lot of doors to knock on,” he pointed out. “But it’s country by country, door by door … in the US, if you’re lucky, you only need to knock on one door and the market is open.”

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Angela Natividad writes regularly for AdWeek, AdVerve and MIPBlog; she is also co-founder of esports-focused marketing company Hurrah.

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