Producers and factual content are in high profile at MIPTV this year. So ahead of this year’s market we asked Thierry Detaille – head of Brussels-based factual distributor and co-production company Visible Film, president of the European Co-ordination of Audiovisual Distributors (ECAD) and a past MIPDOC Project Pitch winner – for some advice to producers about choosing the right distributor. “Over the past 10 years it has become less of a pure sales market and more of an editorially defined business,” Detaille says. “So our world is changing. In our business, distribution has to come as early as possible – as it has always done in fiction…”
It is not unknown for some producers and production companies distribute their own shows. Would you ever advise a producer to take this route?
I really believe that anything we are doing in this industry is closely related to personality.
Everything is down to personality and distributors are people who are conveying content in the best way in order to reflect the creative intentions of creators. That is particularly the case with independent distributors. In that regard I would just ask, ‘Are you a team player or do you prefer to do things on your own?’ Everything I’ve done over the past 27 years has been as a team player. I really believe that distributors have an important place in the chain when it comes to conceptualisation, finance, pre-production, production and then releasing the content. And in that regard, I would just say to anyone who wants to do the job on their own, work according to where your energy is. But the market is no longer a straightforward sales market; I think you need a partner with whom you can talk things over in terms of being represented internationally. But if you want to do it on your own, do it on your own. You live and learn.
How do I know if there is a market for my show?
When you are at the moment of conception, you are already engaging in the marketplace. So speak with people who are aware of the market and particularly who are aware of existing programmes that relate to the theme that you are working on. Are there already 10 productions on the same subject? That may not matter. But good feedback and good interpretation of market needs from a distributor, may enable you to be flexible enough to re-think your proposition and bring something new to the market.
Should I try to match my show to a distributor who has had success with similar shows?
I think the answer is in the question. It’s only logical to do that. Every distributor has a particular profile and I believe that looking at the catalogue of a distributor, before you discuss business, makes sense. Ask if you fit in with that distributor’s business – or am I disruptive with my project? Disruption can be good. ‘Findability’ is the big word today. More of the same is not always a good thing, but similarity is something that can help the ‘findability’ of a project.
What are some of best ways to meet distributors?
We are aware that access to television events or festivals depends on a lot of things, including where you are based. But don’t worry. There are multiple ways to contact people. I really believe that physically meeting is very important. Even in 2023, physical meetings can help to determine whether or not you are likely to be well matched in professional and personal situations. Travelling can be considered a bit of a luxury nowadays and if it’s not always possible to attend such events, the best way to meet distributors is to write to them. We reply to all our emails and it’s very important to do that. And if somebody doesn’t reply to you, then that’s already proof of a no-go.
But however you communicate with a distributor, always be extremely clear about what you are offering. Put it simply to start with. We are trained to understand even one-liners and to be extremely efficient. We can have a 15-minute meeting with a client and we know how to get straight to the point. And this is what we expect from other people too – even creators. Also, there are multiple platforms – physical and online – where you can pitch your projects, and for distributors these work as filters. At markets, our priority is to meet our clients – to sell.
The traditional film industry has Festivals everywhere in the world where their work can be seen before a distribution deal is in place. Is there an equivalent for television?
It depends on the genre. But there are multiple events that serve as co-production forums, gap-bridging events, where there are rough-cut screenings where you can present your work to professionals. Otherwise, you have online solutions – in my case I have tried to introduce online marketing to get buyers interested in a project. But television is different from film – you have to know who you should be talking to and who should be sitting there watching your rough-cut. I really believe that producers should team up with distributors for that purpose because we know the people who should be seeing your work – we wouldn’t exist if we didn’t. We have learned not to waste people’s time, so if we invite someone to see a rough-cut, they know it’s for a good reason.
Windows are complicated – especially now the streamers are so dominant. How do I navigate the complexities of windowing?
I really believe that today any model has to fit with the project itself. Channels are very editorialised and platforms are becoming increasingly aware of their audiences’ needs. Channels have defined more and more over the past 10 years what is the target audience of a given slot. And you have to know your audience if you are producer too; you have to know if you should be playing both games – platforms and channels. Or you have to make a choice. But it’s very seldom a game of surprises.
Know exactly what your target audience is and then consider the chronology. In television, the chronology is quite clear. Of course, do it as early as possible because once you have signed an important deal with a television channel you have to have a very clear plan on who you want to bring to the table because once you sign, it’s over. So you have to be very strategic nowadays, I think.
What about rights ownership? Can I retain my rights in some way when making a deal with a distributor?
It’s really on a company-by-company basis. These are valid questions to put forward when in discussion with a distributor. We’re always very clear about this from the beginning. Distributors know how to finish their plate – and so should never put too much on their plate that they can’t eat. I don’t believe distributors necessarily retain rights they can’t use, because if they do so it’s going to become a hassle for them – because if you don’t make people happy, then it becomes time consuming and it drains your energy. Producers and distributors should be clear on these points. And it’s give-and-take also. If a distributor is interested in your project but does not cover the full arc, they might put you on the right track and put you in touch with someone who can do a better job than them. That should be the attitude of proper distributor. If they’re not covering the whole arc, they should give you other leads – and there is no reason for them to retain rights they are not using.
How has streaming changed the distribution business?
Firstly, I think they have brought a breath of fresh air to the business. They brought big money, alternative ways of financing for given projects – so they are a new source of financing. And we work very differently with streamers than with broadcasters, because streamers are structured to enable creators to retain their independence. Streamers know exactly what they want and their relationship with producers is more on a commissioning basis than that of broadcasters.
There are fewer interesting acquisitions from platforms – platforms are more interested in co-producing now. They remain as an opportunity and there are always sales to do there, but as far as I know, there is room for everyone. You know a few years ago everyone was scared about these big platforms arriving and completely reshaping the business – and that has happened in a certain way. There is a predictability of content and genre and quite defined needs. But these are needs that match or don’t match your business. It depends on your project really. But it’s always great to have a new source of finance and new outlets. I’m happy that there are some new players here. Competition is good.