Working Lives: Distributor

Working Lives: Distributor

We Are Who We Are (credit: BBC)
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Distributor Jamie Lynn has been a fixture at the world’s TV content markets for the past two decades. 

Fremantle’s EVP head of EMEA distribution recently brokered deals for the upcoming BBC Three drama We Are Who We Are and BBC Two documentary series Enslaved: The Lost History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

What does the job involve?

In its simplest form, distributors sell the international rights for programmes. Channels and platforms around the world cannot produce all their own shows, so they need to acquire content.

Has the job changed over time?

Distribution used to be an ancillary part of the TV business, but it is now fundamental to how shows are funded and made. It’s rare now, especially for premium shows, that the commissioning broadcaster pays the entire budget. Producers need to bring partners on board early, including distributors, to make a show internationally viable.

So, we get involved at the earliest stage and have creative conversations about what we think will work around the world. This can lead to early support in the form of a pre-sale, or even co-productions, which can be effective creative partnerships and allow the scale and ambition of high-profile projects to be realised.

This has made my job that much more exciting over the past five to 10 years, as the industry has evolved.

Is creativity ever compromised to make a programme more sellable?

No, I think the best work results from allowing the creator to make the shows they want to make. Lots of people were gunning for the rights to My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante’s incredibly popular series of novels set around Naples, and there were producers in the States who wanted to set it in the US. But our partnership with HBO and RAI had it set in Naples – not only in Italian, but in the local dialect. Even in Italy, the show had subtitles. It is entirely authentic and Fremantle has sold it around the world.

Surely, distributors can’t concentrate solely on high-end dramas?

We’ve just sold Oscar-nominated director Luca Guadagnino’s series We Are Who We Are to the BBC – this is high art on television. But Fremantle is also one of the world’s premier gameshow and entertainment producers and distributors. We’re a company with breadth and depth, which makes the job fun.

How did you become a distributor?

When I was a kid, records and movies were my obsession. I was a budding journalist in Canada, before moving to London in my mid-twenties, but I couldn’t find work in music journalism.

I was hired by a PR company that represented international production companies, which sent me to Mipcom in Cannes. My eyes were opened to the world of television and I knew what I wanted to do. Soon after, I landed my first job in distribution, covering Asia for an animation company. Without planning it, I picked the right vocation. Lucky me.

Enslaved: The Lost History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade  (credit: BBC)

What was the first TV show you sold?

I think it was a British animation series about animated ghosts to Hong Kong. I showed it to a broadcaster, pitched my heart out, and the buyer said he’d take it. I said: “Great, so you liked it.” He replied: “Not really, but I liked your effort, so I’ll buy it.”

What programme are you most proud of distributing?

So many, but probably Deutschland 83, because it was such an unlikely mainstream success – we loved it from the outset and it came together so beautifully. We had a few high-profile places interested in taking it, but chose the new Walter Presents service on Channel 4 here in the UK. The ratings and reaction were great, despite it being a German show in a prime-time slot usually reserved for the best of US drama – great kudos to Channel 4 for not underestimating its audience.

Is it a glamorous life?

There’s a lot of pressure and it can be exhausting with all the travelling and juggling involved, but I’m not going to tell you it’s not fun.

Are you missing the TV trade shows cancelled as a result of coronavirus?

I’ve been to Mipcom and MipTV every year since 2000. There’s an immeasurable value in sitting with your clients and international partners, whether it’s in Cannes or visiting them in their home territories. Now, we’re using video conferences and it’s worked better than I anticipated. But, trusted relationships are key to our business. Existing relationships are as strong, but I don’t know how easy it will be to build new ones on Zoom.

Has the lull in production boosted the market for older shows?

The demand for classic programming was already growing with new platforms and services such as BritBox, Acorn and UKTV Play. It’s been a good year for selling classic stuff, but it’s not entirely coronavirus-led. The gaps in schedules due to production shutdowns are only starting to appear now.

What makes a good distributor?

You need to be curious and interested – and listen. You have to understand the challenges local producers face and their shows.

What are the best and worst parts of the job?

The best is when you know you’ve helped producers realise their creative vision, found an audience and got a success on your hands. A little bit of international travel is also great. Last week was “budget week”, when I had to look at spreadsheets for hours on end. I understand its importance, but I’m happy when budget week is over.

Are there any tricks of the trade you can share with us?

Our former CEO taught me early on that going for the best financial deal is not always the right decision – finding the right home for a show will serve it better in the long term. Fremantle is still a company that believes in finding and connecting with audiences, which is why we work closely with public and free broadcasters, as well as platforms.

Recently, we’ve placed some great programmes with the BBC, including Enslaved: The Lost History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, fronted by Hollywood star Samuel L Jackson. We could have sold it to a US streamer but, although this deal was harder to seal, it was better for the programme to not be hidden behind a paywall.

What advice would you give to someone looking to work in distribution?

Curious people get the most done. Passion is an overused and corny word but that matters, too, as do tenacity and resourcefulness. When you have to, you can learn how to write a programme contract and dissect a rights agreement, but the other traits are skills that have to be nurtured.

Jamie Lynn, executive vice-president and head of EMEA distribution at Fremantle, was interviewed by Matthew Bell.