Berlin-based entertainment lawyer Christoph Fey represents talent working on films and TV shows such as A Dangerous Method, Babylon Berlin, Deutschland 83/86/89, Eyewitness, Grand Budapest Hotel, Homeland (Hatufim), Inglourious Basterds, In Treatment (Be Tipul), The Cleaners and Unorthodox.

He also runs the film finance packaging company Fred Films and is co-founder of the Entertainment Masterclass.

During his virtual Keynote Address ‘The Show and the Business of the Show' at Nordic Talents on October 22, 11.30 (CEST), he will provide practical tips on how to address the business of showrunning and get a market value for an idea.

NT-participants will be able to submit questions to Christoph Fey during the Zoom presentation through the Chat, or beforehand by e-mailing Emma Mørup:

Could you describe your job in a few words?
Christoph Fey: I’m an entertainment lawyer - or a talent lawyer as they say in the US -representing writing, directing, acting, producing talents etc. who run their own company. I do this around the world, as good ideas can come from anywhere.

Basically, I package the ideas, help people take them to the marketplace and find the right buyers.

The clients have the ideas, someone else has to bring the money - that can be the big streamers like Amazon, Netflix, Apple or the local broadcasters and multi-financing sources across Europe, with co-production partners. It all depends on the type of idea you have.

What are the key steps that a novice filmmaker, writer or producer has to focus on to bring his idea to screen and earn money out of it?
The first thing is to understand who you are, the buyers, the market and to get a grip of what you’re looking for. Do you want to make money or is making money not your main objective? Perhaps recognition is more important, or creative control.  Understanding all this is crucial as it requires different strategies when you take your idea to the market.

As a general rule, there is no innocent money. Everyone who gives money expects something in return and you should know what is being expected. Big players’ business models are different - Amazon is a retailer, Netflix sells global subscriptions to make money on the stock market. They all have their own logic, but you have to understand if it fits with the idea you have.

The second thing to consider is: who is the right person to make the idea come through, as the one pitching the idea might not be the right person to turn it into a really good film or show. How can you be perceived as the ‘safe hand’ in the eye of the buyer? You might want to attach a group of talents, or a production house, most adapted to make your idea come through.

Basically you’re saying: get together with skilled people as early as possible, which is for instance what is being taught at the National Film School of Denmark, where writers, directors, producers work together from day 1...
This is very wise. You may be the one with the idea, but it takes a village to make the show or movie. And sharing is essential. The one who doesn’t share doesn’t grow.  

In TV drama, showrunners do tend to combine different roles -writing/directing/producing. This is a relatively new concept in Europe…
CF: Some people can be the sole showrunner, but sometimes - ever more so for newcomers - showrunning can be done as a team. But you should understand from the get go if you know how to manage creatives, and if you know how to write and create on budget. 

Do you think the younger generation of creators is more attuned to audiences and gaps on the market?
CF: I’m not sure but what I can see is that the young talent who grew up with YouTube, iPhones, social media, definitely know how to connect with an audience. And the more they can connect, the more they can work as showrunners. Even by taking little steps - creating YouTube content from a bedroom, they create an instant link with the people who watch their show. You don’t need to reach millions of people; it can be just a group of friends. The world of digital makes it easier to prototype, and what you learn from it is what works and what doesn’t work.

Going back to evaluating an idea on the marketplace, especially in the digital world, what other basic questions can one ask himself or herself?
CF: There are three important questions to ask: 

  • Firstly is the idea scalable? Can I produce it on a low budget, or does it need to be produced on a big budget? Big markets give big budgets, small markets give small budgets, and if you’re in Scandinavia, you can pool several small markets together to get a bigger budget. But again, you may not want to have millions, and it might be detrimental for the idea to have a big budget. It really depends on the idea.
  • Secondly you can ask yourself: is the idea formattable? Can you create a spin-off, or a sequel, a prequel, a remake or 2-3-4 seasons where other writers will pick up where you started? This is another indicator of the value of your idea. A format like Who Wants to be a Millionaire which has travelled to over 100 countries, has a lot of value as it can be produced on a low budget in Poland and on a high budget in the US and it’s still a good show. 
  • Thirdly, you can ask yourself: is the idea transferrable from one media to another? Does it only work on prime-time public broadcasting or also on a streamer? For instance, I’ve worked on Unorthodox for Netflix. In the old days, that show would have had a hard time to come out on a normal broadcaster, as it’s shot in German, Yiddish and English. You would even wonder if this would attract prime-time viewers.  What it surely does is reach a global niche, and taking that project to Netflix was thinking of the global niche. But the series also has universal elements to it.

How can a creator and/or a producer avoid ownership claims from third parties?
That’s a tricky thing. The best protection would be to hide your idea forever and never do it! Taking it out is already a risk in itself. You can negotiate cleverly or be stupid. But you need to know who you can trust, and create a package that is strong in itself, with undeniable talent. The problem is that sometimes, people don’t buy your idea, but access to your talent, therefore it is essential to have some protection. At the end of the day, as a creator, you will have to give away your rights. Therefore do your homework to know what’s the best outlet to turn your idea into money.

What you do want is for the deal to be transparent and to have a fair share, which means sharing the risk and the rewards as well. This is often where creators struggle. Is it better to go with a streamer that offers a global reach in 150 territories at the same time, or with a local broadcaster and sell the show internationally territory by territory? How can you know if a show is a success on a streamer and do you get a fair share if it’s seen by more people? Streamers do have that data but aren’t always very transparent.

An interesting point here is how to evaluate success. It’s not only via B.O. or ratings, but through reviews and festival exposure. But with the current pandemic, it is harder for global distributors to make estimates and the lack of festival platforms is detrimental to arthouse films in particular…
It brings us to what we said at the beginning. What do you expect from your content? If you want recognition, festival exposure brings recognition. But if you expect commercial success, festivals are not particularly the way to go.

In Europe where a lot of the funding schemes are based on protecting the theatrical window, they have in a way invented all kinds of success parameters, avoiding the ugly question: can the movie be a commercial success? Will viewers love it? How many people will actually watch it?

It’s worth reminding people that the essential question is: who are you making the film for? There is nothing bad about reaching a big audience.

You’re running the Cologne-based Entertainment Masterclass. Could you give examples of projects or talents that took part in your training programme?
The list is long. If you look at documentaries, I’ve been involved on Citizenfour, an idea that travelled well, or Nowitzki-The Perfect Shot on Netflix, about a basketball player. I’ve also had a young Belgian guy who came to the Entertainment Masterclass with a comedy show - Benidorm Bastards. He was the safe hand. His idea was formattable, scalable, and transferrable. It turned into a hit show, which won awards and sold to more than 60 territories.

What tips would you give up-and-coming talents?
Share what you know with others, don’t shy away from making money with what you love. It’s not a bad thing to try to earn money. And don’t let anyone say there is no money in it. It’s always about the money!

What are your personal views on talents and creativity from the Nordic region?
As the Nordic markets are small, they have to be creative and clever to travel. This has translated well in the formats that they have created. They are well-educated and Nordic audiences are digitally-savvy a bit ahead in terms of viewing behaviour, compared for instance to Germany. Beyond that, I think that good ideas can come from anywhere. And it may come from the streets, not always from the schools.

This Keynote is only available to participants of Nordic Talents.

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Ann-Sophie W. Birkenes, Nordic Talents Project Manager: