C4’s Growth Fund must not become a Covid-19 casualty
By Kate Bulkley
For Broadcast July 06, 2020
Kate Bulkley says it is a lifeline to producers – and generates healthy returns
We may not know whether there will be a second wave of Covid-19 but we are starting to get a pretty good grip on how the pandemic has hit the bottom lines of creative companies.
It’s not a pretty picture. From those who have had to abandon productions, to commercial broadcasters which have watched their advertising drain away, it’s clear that the pandemic has put cashflow management at a premium and shone a light on those businesses with built-in resiliency or an ability to pivot.
But not all media businesses felt the pandemic hit in the same way.
SVoD services reported more sign-ups than their pre-pandemic predictions. Netflix added 15.8 million subscribers for the three months to the end of April, more than double its original 7 million estimate.
“The M&A market seems to be riding out the pandemic and the squeeze on production margins may make some producers eager to sell”
It had the good sense to play down the growth, saying it was “fortunate to have a service that is even more meaningful to people confined at home”. Meanwhile the timing of the launch of Disney+ was something to behold, although Quibi’s short-form, on-the-go viewing model fell flat.
Elsewhere, the M&A market seems to be riding out the pandemic and the squeeze on production margins may make some producers eager to sell.
We’ll see what this does to the multiples they can attract, but I consider suppliers that have shows with the SVoDs will fare better than those focused on ad-funded broadcasters. The appetite for cut-through content is not abating in the subscription neck of the woods and neither are their budgets.
But who’s buying? Sony Pictures Television (SPT) for one: it announced its pre-pandemic agreed, multi-million pound purchase of Sex Education producer Eleven Films earlier this week, continuing an expansion into content production which has included kids content maker Silvergate Media and sports and live entertainment producer Whisper Films.
As part of its deal for Eleven, SPT will buyout the stake held by Channel 4’s Indie Growth Fund which acquired 20% of the indie in 2014 - its first investment in a drama producer. Sony also bought out C4’s stake in Whisper.
Set up under former chief exec David Abraham and initially overseen by Laura Franses, the Indie Growth Fund has been good to C4’s bottom line.
Its investments had a carrying value of £10 million at the end of 2018 but perhaps the more interesting number is that following its £23.5 million pound sale of Barcroft Media to Future Plc late in 2019 and the recent exit of Whisper and Eleven, the realised mark up on its investments is believed to be about 80%.
Not a bad return, especially at a time when diversifying revenue streams is the new broadcaster mantra.
“My sense is that smaller, London-based indies, which may consider the PSBs as their principle buyers, are those most in need of funding”
Current chief exec Alex Mahon seems keen to build on the Growth Fund, now managed by Caroline Murphy in Leeds, with a focus that aligns better with her overall strategy.
That means a focus on producers based in the Nations and Regions and those run by BAME talent.
But it’s been a slow re-start, and not all pandemic-related: since April 2019 just two investments have been made; one in Bristol-based Five Mile Films and a second in Eagle Eye Drama, a start-up from Walter Presents founders Walter Iuzzolino, Jo McGrath and Jason Thorp.
However my sense is that smaller, London-based indies, which may consider the PSBs as their principle buyers, are those most in need of funding. Take My Grandparent’s War-producer Wild Pictures, which decided to shut down to avoid going bust this past week.
In this difficult environment, the Growth Fund should continue to nurture smaller indies with the most potential regardless of their location or ethnicity of their owners.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the fund has less than £10 million available to invest.
Given the financial pressures facing C4, it is crucial this remains ringfenced for indie acquisitions. The opportunity cost of the broadcaster not making the right investments, based on the fund’s returns to date, is not something to be ignored - even in a pandemic.