Woodcut Media’s Kate Beal on cutting through with fact ent

Kate Beal, founder and CEO of UK indie Woodcut Media, discusses the formation of The Association of True Crime Producers, a move to grow factual entertainment output, battling a commissioning slowdown on both sides of the Atlantic, and her company’s plans for the future.

It’s been a tough summer for UK indies by most accounts. How are things for Woodcut at the moment?
We’re in a good place because we have returnable series. That is a blessing in difficult times, it was a blessing during Covid-19 and we’re finding the same during the cost-of-living crisis.

We work in four main areas: true crime, specialist factual, premium docs and factual entertainment. True crime is our most prolific genre in terms of hours – we have the long-running World’s Most Evil Killers in season eight, and by the end of the summer we’ll have done 160 episodes of that. We’ve also done true crime limited series and feature docs for Amazon, and we’re making an as-yet-untitled 10-part series for Oxygen plus Suitcase Murders for Discovery in the UK.

Specialist factual is mainly science, history and engineering. We’ve just finished The Queens that Changed the World for Channel 4 and long-running series Combat Ships for Smithsonian. Although we’re not as prolific in hours, we do more projects in this area than people realise and we’re forging ahead with female revisionist history.

The Queens that Changed the World enabled us to break a few moulds, not only in content but also in style of programming. I call it ‘Bridgerton history’ – history about women for women. We’ve got other projects in that space. There aren’t many female execs in the world who are hardcore military history experts and come up with and produce shows like Combat Ships or Hitler: The Lost Tapes, but I’m proudly one of them. I want to tell women’s stories. I’ve been telling men’s stories and Hitler stories for years, and I want to tell women’s stories now.

Premium documentaries are few and far between by their nature. ‘Premium’ gets banded around quite a lot. They have to be properly unique access.

Factual entertainment is a great area of growth for us, and Meriel Beale joined us earlier this year to work in this area. We want to bring joy to the world and I want to bring joy to my life with happy programmes as well as all the serious stuff we do. We’ve done magic shows, paranormal shows, clip shows – now we’re really focusing on this as a growth area.

The Queens that Changed the World was made for Channel 4

What trends are you seeing in the true crime space?
Everything is trending now. There isn’t a fashion like there used to be in terms of form or shape. All forms and shapes have grown in the last few years. Sky Crime has tentpole specials but also has series, and has space for both. Some are three-part series on one story, some are feature docs.

What we’re not getting anymore is 10-part Making a Murderer-style series on one story. I think people realised they were a few too many hours long. It did an enormous amount of good for the genre, but the genre has matured now and has lots of sub-sections. We have 20 episodes of World’s Most Evil Killers, but also 90-minute one-offs like Confessions of a Psycho Killer, and everything in between. World’s Most Evil Killers is very formatted, with a bible, whereas Confessions is an authored doc.

Every single network is doing it, which is incredible. Everybody is a customer for true crime now, all with a different way of doing it. I thought the boom would be over about three years ago, but the appetite is still there from the viewer.

As that genre has proliferated, how do you find new cases that haven’t been covered and avoid it becoming exploitative?
It’s easier to find stories in the US, where there are more people and more murders. It’s increasingly hard in the UK, where you have the infamous stories and the people surrounding those stories get approaches every few weeks.

It’s something I have worried about and have been thinking about for the past year, which has led to the formation of The Association of True Crime Producers to tackle exactly that. It came from a worry for the victim’s families when we all run to the same story and fight over it. There needs to be some rules of the game and fair play among each other and, most importantly, with victims and families. We all want a commission, but it’s only television. We’re thinking about the best ethical approaches.

What plans do you have for expansion in factual entertainment?
Like every indie for the last few years, we’ve been surviving hand to mouth. ‘Can we get through Covid?’ ‘Can we deliver this show?’ We’re doing OK at the moment, we’re in a stable place, and we have ambitions. I want to grow the company and the team do too.

We don’t want to grow it to sell it; we want to grow it with things we love doing. We want a work environment that people are drawn to, that develops talent and makes the best programmes. We want to change the way television works. There’s a bit of a mission there. We need to get bigger to do that, and we’ve written a five-year plan, one part of which was factual entertainment.

Commercially, we’d like to grow the formats side of the business. There is longevity in fact ent and formats, so we took the decision to invest heavily in that. Meriel Beale is hugely experienced and she’s been developing and pitching since February. Hopefully, this time, I can sit here and say the strategy is working. It’s always a risk; we’re a small to medium company but we’re choosing to invest rather than take the profits. It’s an exciting risk to take – Meriel is really talented and we’ve got a diverse team, which provides you with different ideas and ways in.

World’s Most Evil Killers is in its eighth season

How have you been affected by commissioning freezes at places like Channel 4 and Channel 5, plus warnings about a lack of freelance work?
It started off in the US last year and had a bigger impact on our indie sector than I think anybody realised or admitted. Discovery completely shut down commissioning, while [others reduced their hours]. There was a tectonic shift in the US. And because of the amount of work the UK indie sector does there, it had an impact.

Then you add in a very slow C4 and C5 year. We’re in production with them, but the deals were signed before Christmas. We’ve got 11 things in production at the moment but the worry is what it will look like in 12 months’ time. That’s always a concern – you can be successful and it’s still a blank sheet of paper on January 1, and if a commissioner leaves a job or a channel changes direction, you’re screwed.

You can never take anything for granted. We decided a long time ago, and I’m really glad we did, not to have more than two or three shows with any one channel at a time. Our slate is spread across seven different networks. C4 and C5 slowing down is not great for any of us, but we’ve got other stuff going on. If they were to all shut down at once, we’d be in trouble.

We changed US agent at the start of the year and started with A3. That has been brilliant. It’s a really tough time in the US, but we’ve had a revitalised way in and new ideas.

Finally, probably only in the last couple of weeks, things are starting to change. The redundancies are over for now and we’re heading into a more stable period – Discovery are buying now, Nat Geo never stopped buying, and there’s Amazon, Netflix, Hulu. Everybody has been very cautious but things are starting to open up.

Is that because of the strikes, creating an opportunity for unscripted?
I didn’t think the writers’ strike would affect us at all. However, [actors’ union] SAG-AFTRA joining has changed everything and made it more difficult for productions to happen. [While it was only the writers striking] productions could carry on to a certain extent; now they can’t and there are immediate needs. There could be some interesting opportunities for UK production companies in the next few months. It won’t be a gold mine, because are commissioners really going to replace Grey’s Anatomy with a true crime series? Probably not.

What worries you most at the moment?
Inflation is huge but it’s not new, it’s been going on for a year. My head of production’s aim is to come out on-budget now. You can’t come out under-budget in this environment – you wouldn’t be able to make the programme. The aim is just to not lose money.

We have our own distributor, Woodcut International, but they’re not able to deficit finance as they were because the international distribution market has slowed. If you speak to distributors at the moment, they’ll tell you they’ve had the worst six months for many a year. The start of 2023 has been terrible for distribution. It will quickly catch up, and deals are coming in at Woodcut International, but it’s been so slow. That natural advance, minimum guarantee, isn’t as easy to maintain.

As we go more to non-linear, they don’t need as much content. They don’t launch new things every year. We do still have linear channels, but people are more accepting of repeats on them. People always bought content because they always needed content and slots needed filling. But now, maybe not.

Long-running Smithsonian series Combat Ships

Other than fact ent, what else is in your five-year plan?
We want to grow in the US. I’m not sure what it looks like yet – whether it means an American office, I’m not sure. We have a lot of people working for us there and, with our agent, we aim to grow.

Woodcut International needs to keep growing and increasing the amount we deficit finance. We co-financed £1.5m [US$1.9m] worth of programming in the first three years, which has proven successful, but we want to do more and increase the investment pot. We want to start financing third-party projects and working with other producers. We’re not trying to be the next Abacus Media Rights, but doing a little bit here and there with complementary programming. It’s been a service business to Woodcut Media so far, but we want it to be a business in its own right.

We’re going to put down some roots a little bit more. We’re all working from home and we have people all over the world, which is great, but we want to formalise a more regional base. We want to buy our own house and grow up a bit. In the UK, being regional is a good thing.

And we also want alliances with other companies. I’m not saying we’ll be out there acquiring other companies, but we want to form interesting alliances and partnerships with other companies, gathering together to punch above our weight. Indies have become more friendly to each other since Covid, talking much more than we ever did before. The Association of True Crime Producers could never have happened before Covid – the pandemic enabled us to start sharing our problems and worries.

What big changes do you see in the industry?
Reasons to be optimistic: the market is starting to shift, with people buying and being clear with mandates. Warner Bros Discovery is the best example – they’ve suddenly woken up and are being really clear about what they want.

Reasons to be fearful: I’m not sure they need as much as they did. But this is not necessarily in unscripted – I’d be much more worried if I were in high-end scripted at the moment, because I don’t think anybody will be doing as much of that. Some of the investments made previously have clearly not paid off yet.

In terms of M&A, that will be more of a buyers’ market than a sellers.’ It will be more fire sales and rescue bids than getting a multiple of twelve for your company. Some of the bigger groups will start consolidating their labels; we’ve seen that already from Fremantle, which is starting to fold labels in under one leadership.