Thursday, July 5, 2018

The group of Davids taking on Streaming Goliaths Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu

A consortium of documentary buyers is taking on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming giants. Here's how, and why, they're doing it.

As over-the-top (OTT) providers grow their subscriber bases around the world, billions are being invested in content acquisition. For 2018, Amazon Prime Video has earmarked $5 billion and Netflix has budgeted $8 billion for creating and licensing new shows.

Not surprisingly, the top-of-mind question for many producers is whether or not reaching a deal with one of the streaming giants is the way to go in what is becoming a post-broadcast world. The budgets are sizeable, the reach is global and the subscriber base is only going to get bigger over time. However, there are trade-offs, of course, the most significant of which is that ownership rights must often be handed over.

Enter the International Buyer’s Coalition, a consortium of global documentary buyers that came into being at Sundance 2016 where it made its first acquisition, Nanfu Yang's Hooligan Sparrow. 


The coalition includes PBS’s Independent Lens, BBC’s Storyville, The Netherlands’s VPRO, Israel’s DBS/YesDocu, Denmark’s DR, Norway’s NRK, Ireland’s RTE, Spain’s Telefónica, Belgium’s VRT and Sweden’s SVT. This initiative is part of a global movement toward strategic alliance-making between legacy media to counterbalance the power of Netflix and Amazon. Other ecent examples include the European Media Alliance and the France Télévisions–RAI–ZDF partnership.

Speaking recently at the annual Hot Docs documentary conference in Toronto, Ro*co Films’ Annie Roney, one of the driving forces behind the International Buyers’ Coalition, admitted that despite the pooling of multiple players’ budgets, it was unlikely that the coalition could come close to matching the financial enticements of major OTT providers.

So why even try? It turns out there are advantages to working with public service broadcasters.

Mandy Chang, commissioning editor for BBC’s Storyville, and a coalition member, sees the group as embodying the spirit of public service broadcasting: people and organizations centered around a shared goal of telling important stories and getting those stories out to as many people as possible.

Lois Vossen of PBS’s Independent Lens, another coalition member, noted that she had witnessed firsthand the frustrations of filmmakers who believed in the importance of having a broadcast window for their documentaries, generally on public media. However, the terms and conditions of Netflix’s deals prevented such airings.

The coalition therefore fills a blank space for documentary producers, where competing with the major streaming platforms happens not in terms of dollars but of deal terms. 

The benefits of working with the coalition include the following: 
  • One-stop shopping for multi-region deals
  • Rights and ownership retention
  • On-the-ground marketing and publicity support
  • Versioning assistance
  • Data on a film’s impact both online and offline 
A recent International Buyers’ Coalition acquisition was The Fourth Estate, a 4-part series documenting a year inside the New York Times’s coverage of the first 18 months of the Trump presidency.


The Fourth Estate was the closing night selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and will be aired on Showtime in the US, the BBC in the UK and RTE in Ireland. A different edit of the series was made for the Irish national broadcaster to better speak to the knowledge level of viewers there. According to BBC’s Mandy Chung, “this kind of collaboration is very rare these days”, adding that it is what sets public media apart in a world where a handful of streaming platforms are imposing new rules and norms.

“If a filmmaker’s first priority is revenue and a Netflix Original offer is on the table, a coalition offer won’t compete,” said Annie Roney. “But if a filmmaker is also interested in a film’s impact and developing their relationship with the international broadcast community, a coalition offer can prove to be competitive.”


Note: This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Trends blog.