Beyond Co-pros: The Many Faces of Production Partnerships in Documentary

There are official co-productions, with the close to 60 countries with which Canada has signed treaties, but there are also other ways to get your film, TV or digital project made that involve partnerships that aren’t necessarily part of bilateral treaties.

With the market for entertainment being more global than ever, partnerships have gone from a way to dip into more than one bucket of funding to a whole new way of getting projects made and, perhaps more importantly, new avenues for getting them seen. A number of sessions at the Hot Docs Industry Conference held recently in Toronto spoke to the array of new financing and production options available to documentary filmmakers that include—and go beyond—conventional co-production structures.

“There’s never been so many places for long-form content to go”

WGBH Boston is home to World Channel, a factual programming network that describes its mission as presenting documentaries that “examine and celebrate the human condition through personal stories from around the globe”. World Channel’s Executive Producer and Editorial Manager Christopher Hastings explained his programming mandate to the Hot Docs conference crowd this way: “We’re trying to get as many voices that you wouldn’t otherwise hear from.”

What that has looked like in practice up until this year is short-form and long-form documentary content dealing with topics ranging from social and cultural to environmental and political, acquired from independent filmmakers in and outside of the U.S.

Starting later this year, World Channel will be expanding the way it works by moving into co-productions. As Hastings put it: “What we’re finding is that a little money from here and a little money from there really helps to get things across the finish line.” And what lies on the other side of the finish line for a World Channel documentary is 38 million people reached annually, with an audience that over indexes on diversity and has a viewership that is 50% under the age of 50, an unusual feat for a public broadcasting audience.

On the commercial networks side there’s also cause for optimism. “There’s never been so many places for long-form content to go,” said ABC News’ Senior Producer Terri Lichstein. Among ABC’s recent documentary productions are the 6-part series 1969 and Unfaithfully Yours, the story of the fall of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, which Lichstein points out brought in a whole new audience of younger people who didn’t live through the glory years of the Bakkers’ PTL Club television ministry.

From film fest favourite to network TV and from network TV to podcast

Perhaps most interesting about ABC’s activities in the documentary space are the ways in which non-fiction content is being adapted and sometimes even taken cross-platform. One example is ABC 20/20’s The Wolfpack, a television adaptation of the documentary that told the peculiar tale of six siblings who spent most of their lives locked in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment, culling most of their knowledge of the outside world from movies. “We saw it at Tribeca and were so blown away by it that we wanted to do something for the network,” revealed Lichstein. “We used some of the doc but also did new interviews and were able to create a new entity that aired on ABC.”

More recently, the network has been experimenting with concurrent podcast and broadcast production, as was the case with The Dropout, the story of ex-Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, and A Killing on the Cape. On top of being able to enjoy some of the efficiencies that come out of producing audio and video at the same time, Lichstein pointed out that the network was able to reach a whole new audience with the audio versions of the story, an audience that, over the past few years, has been moving away from network television and toward streaming video and audio entertainment.

“It’s not just a financial transaction, it’s a creative and business relationship. I have to feel I can navigate those relationships, and that there’s respect on all sides”

To co-pro or not to co-pro?

But how does one decide if a co-production is the way to go? Co-productions are different from regular productions in many ways, not the least of which is that they multiply the usual difficulties encountered by a factor or of two or three. According to Ina Fichman, a producer with dozens of producing credits, the most recent being the France/Canada collaboration Inside Lehman Brothers: “It’s not just a financial transaction, it’s a creative and business relationship. I have to feel I can navigate those relationships, and that there’s respect on all sides,” she added.

Paul Cadieux, a veteran with 150 co-productions to his credit, among them the 2019 feature documentary Gaza, knows from experience that agility is also key. “If Plan A doesn’t work, there are still 25 other letters in the alphabet.” According to Cadieux, there’s also something to be said for creating ways of working as you go along. “If you get through one co-pro, then you’ve got a model that can make it faster and easier in the future.” At the same time, producers need to be aware of the various non-negotiables that come with doing a project as an official treaty co-production. “It generally means a lot more legal fees and a lot more requirements,” Cadieux reminded the audience. “Vs. co-financing partnerships where you work it out on a case-by-case basis.”

And there definitely are some red flags producers need to be aware of. “Changing the composer may not be a big deal in some countries in terms of the bottom line and tax incentives,” points out Cadieux, but in Canada it is. He remembers a co-production earlier in his career with France, during which he received a call from a counterpart in France who said, “You know those things we were going to do in Canada? Well, now we’re going to do them in France.” As Cadieux reminded that producer, and the audience at the Hot Docs conference, “It doesn’t work that way.”

For more detailed information on co-production opportunities, consult the online resources for Canadian filmmakers and international partners on our website.

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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