Q&A With Off the Fence Managing Director Ellen Windemuth

Founded in 1994, Off the Fence has emerged in the last decade as one of the most important independent distributors, producers and co-producers of major primetime documentaries. Ellen Windemuth talked to Multichannel News International about how the Amsterdam-based company has managed to thrive in factual programming business dominated by large public broadcasters and global cable and satellite channels. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What have you been doing to adapt to the challenges the factual programming and documentary business?

A: People in our business have talked a lot about the dollar’s exchange rate. We saw this coming quite some time ago and opened offices in Cape Town and Singapore so we wouldn’t be so reliant on the U.S. currency.

We are doing more production in the South Africa instead of doing all of our post production in our U.K. and Amsterdam offices. We are working smart so we can be as little affected by the change in the dollar as possible.

Having local offices also helps us take advantage of what the local production community has to offer and helps us acquire more high quality programming.

So we’ve worked to make our business global. The mainstay of my business is to bring programming from all over the world into the global distribution market. We do that by producing, co-developing, co-producing from all over the world and by being smart in the way we acquire programs.

Q: About how much product a year are you putting into your distribution pipeline from your productions, co-productions and acquisitions?

A: About 150 hours a year.

Q: How important is the U.S. market for producers of the kind of large, big budget documentaries you offer?

A: Most producers and distributors will tell you that the U.S. is at least 50% of your market when it comes to co-productions. The U.S. doesn’t like to buy finished films. They really need to be part of the editorial conversation on a project. The time to get the U.S. involved is co-production, co development or at the latest, a pre-sale. If you can do that, there are significant dollars involved.

Q: What kind of factual programs are you focusing on?

A: We are focusing on natural history and science and archeology at the moment. We think they are the most compelling show for most markets, with the highest ratings and the highest commercial returns. All of our programming has also been in high-def for at least three years. We made the switch very early.

We also focus on high-quality productions so that everything we select will cross over from cable television to primetime slots on free TV.

Q: How difficult is it to place documentaries in primetime on the big terrestrial broadcasters?

A: It is very competitive. In order to get your film into a prime time free TV slot, it has to be very well produced, you need to demonstrate exclusive access and show real revelation.

Q: As budgets continue to go up, are the license fees for major primetime docs also rising?

A: What is happening is that the demand for exclusive unique product and technical quality is going up but the fees are staying the same.

Something has to give if broadcasters are offering you the same amount of money for higher level of production values. We are trying to put as much value as we can on screen by producing and especially post producing in economically viable but technologically advanced and stable areas.

So we are working in Singapore, South Africa. In Singapore you have access to subsidies that have been hugely helpful. In Cape Town, there is a fantastic production infrastructure but lower prices. And owning our own production equipment is very important.

Q: How important is newer media?

A: At the moment online doesn’t have a very big impact on prime time documentaries. We are having conversation with some organization but because we’re conservative, we don’t quantify the potential results from online media in our projections.

We do believe though in the potential. We worked with Joost on their launch -- I think we were first nonfiction company to sign with them -- and we work with Babelgum.

We just think that one needs to be selective and not rely on revenue until you see it.

Q: Are broadcasters trying to acquire those new media rights as well?

A: Yes.

Q: Presumably, they don’t want to pay any more money for those rights?

A: Correct. But I must say this is an interim stage. I understand broadcasters’ concerns about organizations like Joost. You don’t want to be putting broadcaster dollars into co-productions for television and then find people watching them on Joost.

So I do understand the broadcaster point of view. I feel that we will have to fumble through the rights issues for the next couple of years until the revenue streams become clear. Then we will all be able to streamline our agreements between broadcast and online distributors.