Coproduction is a generic term that covers a variety of production arrangements between two or more companies undertaking a television (or film or other video) project. International coproduction refers to the situation of two or more organizations from different countries undertaking such projects. It encompasses everything from a straightforward co-financing arrangement in which one partner provides partial funding while another company undertakes the actual production, to more complex arrangements that involve joint creative control over projects. In both cases the allocation of distribution rights and other after-market rights is a standard element of the negotiation. More complex coproduction agreements generally involve more permutations in such matters. While coproductions in film have a history dating from the 1920s, in television they were rarely popular until the 1980's. They now appear to be more and more common as the cost of production rises and as international markets for television mature.

Simple coproductions--those that provide financing in return for distribution rights--offer significant advantages to the partners and have been undertaken for many years. Having multiple partners means more money for a project, and in an era of escalating production costs the financial needs of television production can be tremendous, particularly for certain genres. Historically, coproductions have been especially popular with television networks that required programs or films but did not have a sufficiently large budget to produce programs of their own. In the U.S., for example, coproductions became common between the public broadcasting stations in major markets (Boston, Maryland, New York) and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Coproductions offered U.S. public television stations the opportunity for high quality product at a fraction of their production cost. In return, the arrangements offered the BBC, with its huge sunk costs in production facilities, a means of stretching its budget with no threat to its other distribution rights or its own primary market, the United Kingdom. The first such coproduction, a 1971 U.S. public broadcaster-BBC venture called The First Churchill, was a BBC period saga that won an Emmy. Since then, such ventures have become common fare for PBS stations and, more recently, for cable services such as A and E (Arts and Entertainment) and Discovery. Popular television fare has included the Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited (produced by ITV in Britain), with a typical contribution of about 10% of the BBC production budget from U.S. services.

Many countries maintain coproduction treaties. Such treaties establish terms which, when met, enable productions to qualify for various forms of government support. While the specifics of such treaties vary, they generally ensure that, over time, creative, technical and financial contributions will be balanced among the participating countries; the treaties may scrutinize crew composition, investment, actors, sites, and perhaps even the language of the production. For countries such as Canada, France, or other European Union members, coproduction treaties ensure that the resulting product qualifies as "domestic," a category crucial in meeting legally established quotas determining allowable amounts of imported television content. The treaties also assure that co-produced material is eligible for government financing or investor tax credits in terms of the national policies. The 1995 Co-production International handbook identifies the BBC, Italian broadcaster RAI, British Independent Television (ITV), the combined U.S. PBS stations, and British Channel 4 as most active coproducing broadcasters over the past 15 years. (At this writing, the best annual trade review of television coproduction is published jointly by PACT (Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television) of Great Britain in conjunction with Television Business International. Edited by Charles Brown, this compilation, called Coproduction International 19__, examines the television production finance structure of many countries, focusing on coproduction. Specific organizations - public and private broadcasters, producers and distributors - are profiled, and their production needs and processes are highlighted.)

As cable networks developed in the United States during the 1980s, and as additional commercial and satellite channels proliferated around the globe, the search for affordable programming has intensified, and coproductions have become even more attractive ways to maximize production and distribution. One result of this development is the clear evidence that the international aspects of television programming now receive greater scrutiny from the outset of program planning. Making television programs that can cater to multiple audiences across national boundaries increasingly requires careful planning and an awareness of audiences as well as broadcasting conventions around the globe.

Another consequence of some concern regards the range of content accommodations coproductions entail when the products must satisfy different national audiences. A great deal of scholarly interest and some attention by policy makers has been directed at the perceived threat to "national" television that international coproductions may represent. Its most extreme version invokes a scenario of homogeneous, global programs driving out national television production that caters to and captures what is meaningful to local audiences. In a sense, some concern over coproduction joins the worry focused on "Americanization" or "cultural imperialism" of international television programming. Selection of the primary language in which to record dialogue, and the choice to dub or subtitle, also figure into this issue. The response of the European Union (EU) to such problems to date has included a loosely worded 1989 Broadcasting Directive that urged members to insure that at least 50% of their television programming originated from within the EU. The EU has also established several programs (eg. the MEDIA program) to support and invigorate the production and exhibition infrastructure within member countries.

As a financing vehicle, coproductions have emerged as particularly significant means for smaller market countries to ensure that some local production remains possible. Insofar as the television schedules in many countries rely heavily on films (indeed, in certain countries--France, for example--broadcasters are major investors in film), the financial clout available through coproduction is almost mandatory for film production destined for television airing. The ability to produce high budget feature films is moving out of the reach of single companies, but with partners from several countries or companies the opportunities still exist. The European Council of Ministers created the organization Eurimages to facilitate coproduction among three or more countries, hoping to ensure the vitality of film among all European countries.

One consequence of the demand for more product has been more intense competition for these coproduction partners, a factor that both has driven up the cost of coproductions and threatened arrangements for financially strapped public broadcasting in the United States. Moreover, the process of coproducing is itself not without problems. On the one hand coproductions offer a mechanism for films and higher budget television to garner the capital they require, as well as ways to penetrate other markets, but they may also create production headaches emerging from the very difficult process of being accountable to multiple funders and multiple audiences. And they must encounter and deal with issues related to multiple styles and cultures among the cast and crew. Many efforts have floundered when partners could not agree on script, production technique, cast, or post-production. One of the most notorious failed coproduction efforts was Riviera, a $35 million project of several European broadcasters. This soap opera, set on the Cote d'Azur, ultimately pleased none of its backers (nor their audiences), and has gone down in history as a costly lesson in the frailties of joint production efforts.

Coproductions will continue to figure into the growth of international media corporations looking for ways to maximize their investments in productions; partnering with local media companies in various countries has become a way to guarantee broad distribution as well as a method of obviating certain national restrictions on "imported" television product, and that trend shows no evidence of slowing. However, coproduction does seem to be yielding some production lessons, so that partners and contracts are more carefully initiated than was perhaps the case in earlier years. The "Euro-puddings" and failed efforts that garnered trade press headlines in the late 1980s have given way to growing understanding that coproduction makes most sense only under certain conditions, and only for certain types of projects.

Coproduction's partner vehicle, format licensing, also became more popular in the late 1980s and 1990s. Format licensing represents a useful scheme for adapting tested, lower budget formula programming (especially quiz shows and soap operas) for new markets in a way that allows them to be tailored to local tastes and styles. It eliminates many of the production problems coproduction may present, and effectively domesticates a content and a format originated elsewhere.

-Sharon Strover


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