Paul Blake talks to us about the Channel 4’s Alpha fund, opportunities for diverse talent online and his latest project Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest.
Hey Paul, it’s been a while since we last touched based what have you been up to?
I’ve just made an amazing film Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest, which aired last Thursday at 9pm (5/7/12) on Channel 4. It’s still available on 4oD for those that missed it.
Give us a brief outline about what the film was about and what you were hoping to achieve?
Survival of the Fastest will follow former Olympian Michael Johnson as he embarks on a personal genealogical and scientific journey in a bid to understand what made him and other world class African America and Caribbean athletes superior on the track (in the sprinting disciplines) to other athletes from across the globe. The film will examine the link between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and genetic selection, question the part that slavery and its privations may have had in altering the genomes of the slaves and their descendants and question how this will play-out in the blue ribbon sprinting events at the 2012 Olympics in London. I wanted to shed a light on the experience of my ancestors in a new way. Channel 4 and Michael gave me the opportunity to do that.
Last time you spoke to the Collective your company had just received money from the then new Channel 4 Creative Diversity Unit’s Alpha fund. Was this programme a direct result of their involvement?
The film came about following a conversation I had with specialist factual senior commissioner David Glover, about this time last year. We had a discussion about the trans Atlantic slave trade and principally the ‘middle passage’ and whether this created a genetic bottleneck that somehow changed the genomes of those that were transported. David came back to me a couple of months later, saying he loved the idea and wanted us to develop it. Part of that was getting Michael Johnson onboard to author the film. This posed a big challenge, not only did we have to develop the idea from scratch but also secure an A – list iconic athlete – Michael Johnson! It took a few months to develop the idea and eventually it was commissioned around March/April of 2012 this year. Where the Creative Diversity Unit and the Alpha Fund helped was they a put a little cash into the film – not a massive amount but a sum that was very useful. The area where they really helped was when I was trying to find the right route to Michael. I had a contact for the agent but needed a warmer in. Michael often works with Channel 4 sports so Ade Rawcliffe helped me navigate a better route to him. She was incredibly supportive but ultimately, I had to negotiate with Michael’s agent and secure a deal that was right for Channel 4 and Maroon.
What was Michael initial reaction when you approached him with the idea? Did he buy into the idea?
Yes absolutely, he had written a book called Gold Rush were he questioned whether his talent was god given or down to something else; so he was the natural fit for this idea. He also brought an informed point of view to the film that was objective when it needed to be and but brave enough to let us into his family life and explore his family tree.
How much do you think his involvement helped with the success of the film?
It would have been a different film if Michael weren’t involved. Still a great idea but somehow less powerful. It was a bold move for Michael to make the film but once he was onboard he added value at every level with his insight, thirst for knowledge and commitment to the project.
Where you surprised Channel 4 commissioned the film?
No not at all in all honesty, I’ve known the commissioner David Glover for a few years now, and I think he commissions some of the most inventive programming of any of the other broadcaster out there full stop. He’s a fantastic commissioner, really accessible, easy to talk to and helpful in the edit. I felt like I had his support from the moment we had the conversation and I told him all about the idea. I think sometimes black or brown folk, in fact those from diverse backgrounds, sometimes self-censor our ideas, by thinking that people might not be interested but it’s important to just get out there and talk to people. So no I wasn’t surprised in the least.
What has been the response so far?
It’s been incredible we’ve had fantastic reviews in the press, a great review in the Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Independent and The Guardian. In fact most of the mainstream press seem to have picked up on it. On the whole we had great reviews, and a good audience share, which Channel 4, is very happy about.
As a black owned Production Company do you find it easier to sell stories about your community or do you deliberately aim to tell stories like this?
Maroon is around so I can tell the types of stories I really want to share; it’s that simply really. If I wanted to do more mainstream stuff I would have taken the route of an Endemol and would be making Endemol money! I’ve always wanted to tell stories about things that interest me and of course that are interesting to a mainstream audience. The one thing I love doing is taking a – so called – niche idea and thinking ‘who’s going to be interested in that’ and finding ways to scale it up for mainstream audience. Some niche ideas will only remain conversations in the pub, but you have to find a way to scale it up. One way of doing that is getting the right on screen talent on board. The quality of research, the way you direct it and shoot it and obviously the way you pitch it in the first instance.
Do you get concerned as a production company from a ‘diverse’ background that commissioners will only commission ‘black’ ideas from you, and do you think this is a frustration from those submitting ideas from diverse backgrounds?
Not really. I’m just trying to do what I like and what I’m interested in. Do I feel like I’ve niched myself? No I don’t. As I have progressed and grown I’m even more adamant that there are certain types of films I want to make, so that’s what I do. So no I don’t feel niched at all! I love the way Spike Lee has done things, before he went off and made other types of films he made films about the people and the experiences he knew. It’s like you’ve almost got to, if you’re smart, or at least that’s what I believe; you have to control the way you’re represented before going out and trying to make a film about anything else. For example if I wanted to make a film about David Hockney because I’ve got a degree in the History of Art, the chances are there will be at least 50 people in front of me that will probably get to make that film first and that’s just the reality of the way it goes.
Because of the reluctance to commission ‘diverse’ voices people are choosing to go straight to their audiences online. Do you think this is the future or are there still opportunities for diverse content on mainstream TV?
I think there still is. If the idea is good enough it will still punch its weight in the schedule. I think people have to understand how to offer an idea, not just how you pitch, but how you make the idea work. Is it a Channel 4 type of idea or maybe Channel 5 that’s the first question you have to ask yourself? In many cases people are offering up ideas that just wouldn’t make it. If you had to be really objective about it, you know that idea wouldn’t make it on TV. Some stuff is just an online idea and there’s nothing wrong with that. You have to ask yourself how will you raise the money to make it a really good online idea – as opposed to thinking online stuff is a platform to nowhere. You can still make your idea big and powerful. Online is an incredible resource and gives you the potential to reach 100,000 or even millions of people. For example, Jamal Edwards of SBTV is a massive fan of Hip Hop. As the story goes his mum brought him a camera, he started filming gigs and we ended up with SBTV; which is one of the most exciting things around to have happened in the past five years. It’s so influential that Sony records and other major record labels needed to cozy up with him to stay relevant and reach their target audience(s). You have to look at the positive, if you’re passionate and you believe in something, online isn’t just a dumping ground it’s actually quite a powerful place for content to be noticed and shake things up. As far as young people are concerned that’s where they go first, there are no longer watching TV in the same way as the previous generations. They get online as their first port of call and watch an awful lot of content online (some TV too). So if you can deliver something successfully online the corporate machine will eventually come calling with a chequebook!
What are you up to next?
I’m taking a couple of days off and having a much-deserved rest!! Then I’m starting work on another project that I’m talking to a broadcaster about. So hopefully I’ll be working on that in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for more info!
Do you still think there’s a need for organisations like The Collective?
Most definitely. The Collective is becoming more important as it matures. It’s great having a creative community to share opportunity with, to help lobby – if need be on our behalf and send a message to those hiring that there is a great well of talent within reach at the click of a mouse.
What advice would you offer to those trying to get their content commissioned?
If you think you’ve got a great idea talk to someone about it. You have to be brave enough to have that conversation to see if your idea has legs. The most important thing after all of that is determination and work hard. Simple truth – don’t give up. Great content be it feature films, documentary, drama, comedy – whatever the genre – are all born out of hard work, and passion and belief in their ultimate success – that’s how great stuff gets made. That’s how its ends up on screen, whether that’s a computer, big screen or television. Believe in what you do and just get on with it!