Off the Fence on the Global Stage
See what Loren Baxter and Stefanie Fischer have to say in our WorldScreenings Exclusive Report.
A leading 360-degree nonfiction content company, Off the Fence develops, finances, produces, co-produces and distributes top-tier factual programming for the global marketplace. With titles that cut across natural history, science, travel and adventure, lifestyle, history, people and culture, crime and feature docs, Off the Fence knows what makes for content that can prove compelling in a multitude of regions—with international relevance, alongside access, style and story proving to be the winning ingredients for successful shows.
“The stories really are key, and if you can craft a great story, then that really sells itself,” says Loren Baxter, head of acquisitions at Off the Fence. Baxter references the feature documentary My Octopus Teacher, from Off the Fence, Netflix Originals and Seachange Productions, as “an unconventional tale about a man and an Octopus, and yet the story itself was remarkable!” The company is interested in such documentaries that have a strong narrative interwoven amongst internationally trendy topics such as ancient history, international crime stories, aerial travel shows or those that explore unique places around the globe. Of high priority also includes natural history shows that explore environmental solutions and science series that relate to engineering or quirky health topics.
With headquarters in Amsterdam, London and Bristol, Off the Fence has long had to think and operate on an international scale, says Fischer, pointing to the relatively limited commissioning appetite in the Netherlands. “We therefore had to rely heavily on pan-regional channels such as National Geographic, Discovery and European broadcasters including ZDF ARTE, BBC and similar,” says Baxter. Like thinking internationally, co-productions and early development financing have also long been a part of the Off the Fence DNA with its Bristol- and Amsterdam-based production arms. “We consider ourselves an international company, whose remit has grown to include Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, CuriosityStream and many more,” says Fischer. “With more options and choices for content, it can be difficult to navigate which is the best deal financially or editorially. With our team of ten salespeople, we can penetrate territories deeper than most and provide continuous sales after the first financing window.”
Also separating Off the Fence is its London acquisitions and marketing team, according to Baxter, who runs the London office. Baxter explains that they are in a prime position to welcome global producers and are the first point of contact for those looking to connect with the company on new shows. “We're uniquely positioned to offer a range of services, including production and sales,” says Fischer. “The level of creative models is endless, and with our Head of Commissioning Leila Monks on hand to editorially pitch shows in early development, including from third-party producers, to a range of premium broadcasters in the U.K. and the U.S., but also working closely with the sales team in other key markets, we can seamlessly transition between different production and distribution needs.”
“Outside of the U.S. and the U.K., we sit comfortably within Europe, where our ZDF Enterprises ownership puts us in a strong position for co-production opportunities with German and French channels,” Fischer adds. “Whether content comes to us looking for editorial shaping or co-production or just financing, we can contribute towards a multitude of scenarios. This is our unique sweet spot!”
Off the Fence’s recent acquisitions include Titanic: Into the Heart of the Wreck, produced by Bleu Kobalt, which came to the company at an early stage with only France Télévisions on board and in need of a quick turnaround and with a good portion of the budget still to be financed. “This is a perfect example of a third-party project, which we helped finance through co-productions and pre-sales” says Baxter. “Eventually we brought on board History Channel U.S. and Leila Monks, head of commissioning, oversaw this version editorially for the channel". “This is where our production office can be extremely valuable” notes Stefanie Fischer, managing director of sales who goes on to mention other sales secured by the company including a co-production to Terra X in Germany and pre-sales with Channel 4 and SBS Australia.
Off the Fence are also working with SWR Media on Plane Crash Recreated, a ten-part series that Off the Fence helped finance and will be launching at MIPTV next month. “This was a project we'd been trying to get off the ground for some time and we weren't giving up,” explains Baxter. “Our close connections to the German market allowed us to bring in NTV in Germany, and with financing from Off the Fence and SWR/Dash, we were able to greenlight the production.” Off the Fence is also looking for pre-sales for The Global Vaccine Race, produced by Infield Fly in Canada. Taking an international look at how the race for a Covid-19 vaccine kicked off, it visits countries on the frontlines of the research to witness the endless work of scientists looking for an answer to combat the pandemic.
At MIPTV, Off the Fence will also highlight programs from its exclusive relationship with Terra Mater Factual Studios, including What a Colourful World and a one-off with music legend and icon Cher, Cher and the Loneliest Elephant, which follows her years of campaigning for the release of an isolated elephant named Kavaan.
Roughly a year since the severity of Covid-19 hit home around the world, setting off a spate of turbulent months within the industry, some positive developments have manifested amid the mayhem. “The focus being the rise of the streaming platforms and the accelerated success of the existing platforms,” says Fischer. “Aside from SVOD, AVOD has been around for quite a while but is now gaining a lot of traction, which is very exciting for distributors like us. The streamers have created a much wider appetite for global content, so we're seeing much more diversity, more localized productions and a keen interest for bigger, bolder stories that challenge the narrative.”
Fischer admits that the endless sprouting of new streaming services from traditional players with linear offerings, along with other new platforms consistently cropping up, can make things complex—though the complexity is not without its opportunity. “Content can be exploited in many ways outside of the traditional route, enabling further financing opportunities, with smaller partners starting to come on board early and investing in co-productions and pre-sales,” Fisher explains, adding that Off the Fence has also seen a surge in demand for natural history from many different channels, some of whom had previously not expressed as much of an interest. “With natural history being one of our specialist areas, it's very encouraging, and we can bring a wealth of expertise and experience when it comes to production and distribution, including additional impact campaigns and support from our friends at WaterBear Network.”
Amid the ongoing restrictions due to Covid-19, Off the Fence, like many companies, has relied on technology to keep the deals coming and production moving, finding an environmental silver lining in the disruption of business-as-usual. “Stories have become, by default, more internationalized, and we've reduced our carbon footprint in the process by traveling less!” says Baxter. “Hopefully there'll be some takeaways here to stay with regards to our global footprint when producing these shows now and in the future.”