Gary Davey, CEO of Sky Studios, outlines his approach to commissioning standout shows such as Chernobyl, Gangs of London and I Hate Suzie
"This is my perfect job.” During more than 40 years in television, Gary Davey has worked across the board – from taking charge of all content and creative services at Sky Germany, to being the CEO of Hong Kong-based Star TV.
But it is only now, as CEO of Sky Studios, that he feels like he is in his dream role: as “the gamekeeper turned poacher – having been a broadcaster all my life and now being a supplier”.
Davey was in conversation with journalist Kirsty Wark as part of the RTS Digital Convention 2020. Wark had provoked his admission by asking if his current role appealed to him because “you get to work with small companies, vision stuff, but you also get to be that small-time creator who looks at a script”.
Davey agreed that his remit was ideal, but he also noted the unique and unforeseen situation: “I couldn’t have picked a more challenging year to do it in!” The Covid-19 lockdowns have seen many people turn to on-screen entertainment to pass their time stuck inside, with a surge in both linear-TV and streaming compared with last year.
Davey admitted a few of the guilty pleasures he had discovered during lockdown, including some from competitors, such as Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. “And of course, the one show that everybody’s currently obsessed about, HBO’s The Undoing.”
Reflecting on some of Sky’s newer programmes, including the comedy Brassic and drama Gangs of London, Davey acknowledged some hesitation following the success of the award-winning series Chernobyl. It was, he said, such a “tough act to follow. I mean, I remember trying to pitch the idea to my bosses. It was like – you want to make a drama out of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster? Really? But, having read the script, I mean, Craig Mazin just created a masterpiece with that script.”
Wark wondered if he had shared her early concern about how viewers would find anything on the streaming services that have taken the world by storm: “I remember when this was kicking off, and it was, ‘Oh, people will never be able to find their way between Amazon, Netflix, Peacock and Sky.’”
Davey said he welcomed the competition: “We present Netflix shows in our user interface, alongside BBC, ITV and Sky shows, because it’s all about the customer experience, right? And so, Sky shows have to compete… and the customer decides.
“It’s the most incredible, powerful, dangerous democracy that God ever created and it’s brutal. Our customers will abandon shows quickly if they don’t like them. So, it really keeps us on our toes, both in what we’re choosing to make and how we make it.”
However, predicting the popularity of a show is far from easy. Big names can help attract audiences. Wark pointed out that “Netflix has signed Harry and Meghan [Markle], and we have Amazon and Phoebe [Waller-Bridge].”
Davey said that Sky Studios had not done any deals with on-camera talent at all – out of choice, because he believed that “the idea of a talent deal is dangerous”.
“What matters first is the story,” Davey insisted. “Then, finding the right people – the writers, producers, directors, cinematographers and [only then] on-camera talent to fit the story. It might be an old-fashioned approach, but I think it’s the one that works best.”
He continued: “We much prefer an organic approach to development, where we start with the story outline and spend an enormous amount of time getting scripts right, working closely with great writing teams.”
Davey enthused about actor Billie Piper being a “perfect match” for I Hate Suzie writer Lucy Prebble’s vision for her show, but said he would not have wanted to start from a position of “having to find a project for Billie – it just doesn’t make sense to me”. He said he would rather find the right actor for a brilliant story.
Davey explained his view on “the really tricky balance” of creative freedom: Sky might have many conversations at the script development phase, but, once production had started, “you have to have enormous trust in your director and the rest of the team.… I very rarely visit sets – I don’t think it is constructive.”
While Sky did not do talent deals, Wark noted that it had taken stakes in independent producers, such as Bad Wolf, maker of His Dark Materials. Davey explained that Sky Studios “took a very, very small equity piece” alongside HBO in Bad Wolf. “We had a very simple motivation. It’s called proximity. Sky [does not have] the right to stop them from doing what they think makes sense for their company. However, we have a proximity to the Bad Wolf team that is really helpful to both of us.”
Wark asked if Sky had a first-look deal with Bad Wolf or other indies. “Only in a very vague, soft way.… They are independent companies that need to make shows for everyone. And we want to encourage them to be successful.” Davey clarified that Sky Studios was not actively seeking more such relationships, “but never say never. We are highly opportunistic”.
Which is not a word that could be used to describe its commitment to build a 11-hectare studio complex in Elstree, Hertfordshire. The 12 sound stages will open in 2022 and support some 1,500 production jobs. Davey said that Sky and its owner, Comcast, had both been getting nervous about the supply of sound stages for their growing needs – and, indeed, about the availability of craft skills in general.
“We think that there’s going to be a significant deficit in all of the crafts, all the way from painters, carpenters, electricians, grips… So, we will be investing in full-time employment and… to make sure that we’ve got a pipeline of young people coming through in all of the crafts – it’s really important.”
Wark said that this had been a really tough year for freelancers and Davey agreed. When the coronavirus crisis struck, Sky Studios suspended 29 productions. “If you take that 29 and multiply it by the hundreds of people who are typically attached to a series production, it’s an enormous number of people.”
Some shooting recommenced in June. “We’re back in full flight,” said Davey. He expected the very detailed production planning that made that possible to remain a strong feature of the way that TV was made from now on.
He accepted that “there may be some negative by-products of that, because, sometimes, the true genius of production comes out of thinking or seeing something [on set] that you might not have done in a planning meeting.”
He also expected technology to continue transforming production, with “studio walls of LED screens showing backgrounds generated by a games engine. You will be able to have mobility inside a virtual world, which opens up almost infinite creative opportunities for spatial creation.”
But Davey brought the focus back to the human element in production – and particularly the mental health challenges that many currently face.
“We will have a rethink about how we deal with our freelance community,” he said. “When you say to a young person, look, you need to go home and self-isolate for 14 days, because someone you were working with has had a positive test – what happens to them? Who’s taking care of them? That is still a gap that we have yet to address.”
Report by Omar Mehtab. Gary Davey, who is retiring as CEO of Sky Studios in summer 2021, was in conversation with Kirsty Wark. The event was part of the RTS Digital Convention 2020, sponsored by YouTube. The producer was Helen Scott.