Words and Interview by Simon Bland
For most people growing a company, planning an exit strategy isn’t exactly a high priority early on. However, it’s something you’ll ultimately have to put a bit of considered thought into at some point in the future if your hard work pays off. For Barry Ryan, Managing and Creative Director of production and development house The Format Factory, this thought has been floating around his mind for some time. Having spent years working in the industry, Ryan has held almost every industry job going – from on-screen presenter to Executive Producer and Head of Department – and he’s gained an enviable level of practical experience that’s helped him become an expert at producing, developing and delivering award-winning TV.
It’s a path that led him to co-create The Format Factory with his husband, joint MD and creative director David Walton. This new endeavour is a sister company to the pair’s successful first production outlet Free@LastTV which delivered the hit series Agatha Raisin. “The name of Free@Last TV was a war cry,” admits Ryan, speaking to us part way through his time on Creative Enterprise Evolve, our support and mentoring scheme for screen-based business. “It was all about the fact that we are free of gatekeepers and free creatively to do the things we wanted to do, when we wanted to do them and how we wanted to do them. We did everything but drama for about 12 years, then we had a major drama commission with Agatha Raisin which is about to embark on its fifth series.”
While this success was welcome, Ryan missed creating the show formats he’d helped helm previously in his career. “We noticed we weren’t doing a lot of the things we were doing before like factual entertainment, documentaries, science and kids shows – all that stuff,” he explains. “The Format Factory was born with the same ‘war cry’ ethos – we’re going to tell stories we want to tell in our way – and all these years later, everything we’ve made has either been nominated for or won an award. It’s a company born of my 35 years in this business, from multiple perspectives and multiple roles,” he adds. “We’re here to invent, create, develop, produce and distribute first-class content.”
With their goal set, Ryan and his team put their efforts into developing and commissioning content that filled currently vacant sector gaps. “I’m more concerned about whose stories aren’t being told – whose voices aren’t out there? There’s a huge amount of programme types and genres that have been lost over the years. I don’t think British telly does enough live content, particularly when there’s a healthy demographic available during the daytime,” he suggests. “I’d love to see programmes about the uniqueness, individuality and vibrancy of communities rather than those that demolish them. What we’re doing is finding stories that we want to tell and thinking ‘What’s the route to market here?’ We’re very lucky to live in a time when there are many content platforms. You don’t have to be on BBC one or Channel 4 – you can be somewhere else to tell your story and streaming is a very exciting space.”
It’s a strategy that has worked well, with the company successfully developing new content for the likes of the BBC, ITV and international broadcasters. It’s also allowed them to push the expectations of what content can be. This is perhaps best illustrated in Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted, their new documentary feature co-produced by Anderson Entertainment, an organisation run by Gerry’s son Jamie. Here, The Format Factory has utilized innovative creative techniques to shed new light on the man behind classics like Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90.
“For our Gerry Anderson documentary, we had 35 hours of previously-unheard Gerry Anderson archive audio and we worked with his son to make a deep fake, which was quite controversial. We weren’t making him say anything he didn’t say himself but there’s a debate around the ethical use of deep fakes,” explains Ryan, detailing their disruptive way of telling Anderson’s story. While sure to raise debate, it also caught the attention of the wider industry: “Others who also have audio archives have seen the documentary and approached us to ask if they can do the same. We’ve become the go-to people for those who have audio archive but are unsure what to do with it, which is lovely.”
Then there’s the company’s incubation arm, a way in which Ryan and his team can reinvest their experience into the content creators of tomorrow. “We call ourselves an IP incubator; we work with people who haven’t got telly experience but have got great stories. We’ve got the expertise and experience to help those who don’t know the language and the system and we help people get their things made.”
With so much on their slate, things are going well. However, Ryan has kept his eye on future progression and even a potential endpoint for The Format Factory. It’s this line of thought that led him to Enterprise Evolve, Creative UK’s mentoring scheme that helps prepare high-end screen sector businesses for growth and future investment.
“We needed to build a long-term future end to the company,” he reasons. “I thought the process of Evolve offered a way for me to look at what we own and what it says and adjust that message to become something bigger. Investment is also essential for growth. We’re lucky that Free@Last TV had a hit show that provided revenue to reinvent ourselves. Format Factory doesn’t have that yet – but it will,” he assures. “We’ve got a huge archive that we’ve made for previous productions that we want to make available and monetise. I chose Evolve because when I read about what it had achieved before, it looked like it was looking at the bigger picture. It’s not just 10 telly companies – it’s games makers, VFX people, feature filmmakers – the pool is wider for collaboration,” says Ryan. “Evolve isn’t just looking at telly, it’s looking at creatives. There’s a real fertilization of ideas going on that I’m finding really refreshing.”
So far, the experience so far has been invaluably eye-opening for a long-term industry guy like Ryan: “It’s been brutal,” he laughs. “The first thing they asked us to do was to create a company elevator pitch and I thought ‘I’ve owned a company for 20 years. I don’t know if I can’ but just standing up, saying it out loud and having people nodding along like they got it felt like a major step forward for me. It was only day one and I’d done something I hadn’t done for years which was self examine.”
Then there’s the mentor support: “They’re there to prompt and poke you, not clap along – and thank God. They make you do things that aren’t in your comfort zone. I’m here to take things to the next level and it’s probably our hardest task yet which is justifying ourselves to external people – plus it’s all catered towards getting investment.”
As for that all-important end goal? Ryan’s sure it’s on the horizon but he’s keeping his options open: “I’d love The Format Factory to have a huge catalogue of successful programme, platform and content brands and for us to have busted a few genres together to create something original” he says, looking ahead. “If that leaves us on the brink of sale and with me waving goodbye, that’d be quite a nice picture.”