ITN Productions Top Executive Talks First Oscar Nomination, U.S. Expansion

Mark Browning, managing director, ITN Productions - H 2017
Courtesy of ITN Productions

Mark Browning says the nomination for 'Watani: My Homeland' in the documentary short subject category is "another big milestone" for the arm of British news powerhouse ITN as it looks for more U.S. commissions.

ITN Productions, the commercial production arm of British TV news powerhouse ITN, which is owned by ITV (40 percent), Daily Mail and General Trust (20 percent), Thomson Reuters (20 percent) and UBM (20 percent), has made a name for itself in the U.K. and beyond with its current affairs, factual, sports and other programming for TV since its launch in 2010.

ITN Productions has been building out its work for U.S. networks and grew its revenue to £32.0 million, or $39.8 million, in 2016, up 35 percent from the £23.7 million, or $29.5 million at current exchange rates, in 2015.

This year, the company earned its first-ever Oscar nomination. Its 40-minute Watani: My Homeland, which documents the refugee journey of one Syrian family from Aleppo to Germany, will on Sunday compete for the best documentary short subject Oscar.

The Hollywood Reporter international business editor Georg Szalai spoke to London-based ITN Productions group managing director Mark Browning about the Oscar nomination, the company's growth, its U.S. ambitions and what's next for ITN Productions.

How did you come up with the idea for Watani, and did you expect Syria and immigration to still be such a hot-button issue this awards season?

The genesis was in one of our newsrooms at ITN. We produce the news for all the commercial networks here in the U.K. and one of them is Channel 4. Channel 4 News ran a short film around the issue of the Syrian civil war and the effects it is having on young children. Not with the family that we have in our Watani film, but that was the genesis of the idea. 

We then worked on access to Syria, which is one of the skills ITN has — getting into hostile environment, complicated subject matters, delicate and sensitive material. And we want to make this into a longform film, because it is a really important issue for pretty much every citizen in the world. The purpose of the film was to tell the story through the eyes of this family and the story of the real human cost of the refugee crisis and war.

We tend to talk about it all in the third person. We talk about refugees rather than people. The purpose of the film was to show that we are talking about human beings and families here and people with names. When you do that, you make what is a very easy conversation to have around refugees a much harder conversation. Right now, it's the single issue that is foremost in the major conversation of the world. 

How important is it for ITN Productions to get its first Oscar nomination?

We're absolutely thrilled. Clearly, this is another big milestone moment for us in growing the business, particularly in growing the business in the U.S.

Are you going to the Oscars with members of your team? 

We are going. It's a small contingent from ITN Productions.

Hala, the mother featured in Watani, also just got the clearance to travel to the Oscars after the recent immigration ban in the U.S. threatened to keep her away...

Without Hala's extraordinary generosity and courage allowing us to film her family through the most dangerous and distressing period of their lives, there would be no Watani. It is absolutely right that she should join our filmmakers at the awards to recognize what she has brought to the world's attention. I could not be happier that, despite our initial fears around the travel ban, she will be able to travel to Los Angeles and continue to spread her message of humanity. 

Some have said the Oscars category for best documentary short subject seems to be between your film Watani: My Homeland and The White Helmets, with the Netflix association making the latter a favorite. How important is winning versus being nominated for you?

When you are nominated for an Oscar, you reach the top table. You may not be sitting in the center seat, but you are at the top table. That is excellent from our point of view in terms of helping us to get the narrative around the business we are building and how we can help people in the U.S. Certainly, we all want to win, but at this level, any one of these films is good enough to win the Oscar. Who wins comes down to the decision of the Academy members. 

Can you tell us a bit more about how the U.S. has been going and your U.S. plans?

The Oscar nomination has come at a rather perfect time as our business in the U.S. is expanding very rapidly. Something like this clearly helps to increase the noise around the narrative. 

We started our U.S. TV production business in 2013, and it has been growing exponentially over the last three years. ITN Productions is part of ITN, which is targeting to get 10 percent of its revenue from the U.S. by 2020. ITN Productions will over the course of the next 12 months hopefully have 20 percent of its business from the U.S.

A number of key commissions is really driving this. We have a relationship with Discovery and a third season of Killer Instinct With Chris Hansen [on Investigation Discovery]. We have quite a lot of ambitions around both that strand and with Chris himself. We also have a new CBS Sports commission, Power Triumph Games, a sports program around military veterans. We have a sports business, so we are quite familiar with that territory, and to get on CBS with that is another major moment in our U.S. expansion. 

What has been driving interest in your productions?

There is an opportunity we have found that the U.S. networks want, and the cable networks particularly. There is a real demand for high-quality, high-volume, cost-effective production. And to get all three of those is a real challenge for the cable networks in particular. That's where ITN is able to meet a need. We are known for high quality with our background in television news and are very well geared to deliver high volume, because we are a very large production company here in the U.K. High quality and high volume is what the networks really need, and of course they need it at a very competitive price. We have a U.S. team supported by our U.K. cost base where we do a lot of production. 

Since the Brexit vote, the pound-dollar exchange rates have been better for U.S. companies. Has that helped?

With the current exchange rates, that's making us very competitive indeed. It certainly has helped, but even before Brexit we were very competitive, and the exchange rate has made it even more so.

What are the key growth opportunities for you in the U.S.?

We believe there is a big need for high-volume, high-quality and cost-effective productions. We also see a particular opportunity in the factual and crime space to help U.S. networks. As an organization that deals with news, we have access to an archive that is very well disposed to those stories. With the series we do, we would measure success both by volume and the number of networks we work with. We currently work with networks from A&E and History to Discovery to Smithsonian and now the CBS network. 

I think the next phase of growth will come from working with some of the West Coast companies. We are in advanced stages with some. We are also increasingly developing IP in what we call fact-based drama. We will be in a strong position in the coming months to be announcing some progress there. What do we mean with fact-based drama? As a preeminent factual producer, we see a line from documentary factual into drama where we would produce a drama not inspired by the story, but actually truthfully retelling the story in dramatic fashion. We already do some of that in our work with Discovery where we use dramatic reconstruction. And instead of doing that, we are actually going to do a drama that tells the story in a true-to-life way for the big U.S. networks that is very much in the advanced stages of development for us.

Do you also see chances to produce for digital players like Netflix and Amazon?

We are very confident that what we've got in development is very suited to Netflix and Amazon and the new SVOD players. I think we will see hopefully that we've got enough traction with those sorts of organizations that we will get commissions in the next 12 months.

What’s next for ITN Productions?

We expect in the coming months we will be announcing further significant new U.S. commissions with some tier 1 partners, with some big names. We also have a business-to-business that we are building quickly in the U.S., based in New York and Washington. It's a corporate communications business where we help brands and businesses tell their stories, which is related to our ability to tell authentic high-impact stories.

And along with that comes expansion in people and locations. We are currently an East Coast-based business, operating out of Washington and New York. And I hope that with the following tailwinds of an Oscar nomination we might be able to do business on the West Coast as well in the coming months.