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Published on: June 17, 2024

Research and Development (R&D) for independent production companies: interview with Louise Bray, Little Bird Films

Having the time and budget for Research and Development (R&D) can be challenging, especially for indie production companies. But R&D can open up new horizons and opportunities. In October 2022, Media Cymru and BBC Cymru Wales launched the BBC Innovation Fund, a new opportunity for Wales-based independent production companies to R&D innovation-driven content for commission.

We caught up with Louise Bray, co-founder and managing director of Little Bird Films, to find out about their experience with R&D into using AI for factual programming and the difference that the Innovation Fund has made.

Why did you apply to the Innovation Fund?

When we heard about the Content Innovation Fund and the opportunity it could give us to explore innovative ways of producing factual TV content, we knew that we definitely wanted to apply.

“Little Bird have a history of and passion for pushing boundaries”

The team at Little Bird have a history of and passion for pushing boundaries. So the possibility of receiving funding that would enable us to spend significant time carrying out R&D and developing a raft of specialist factual ideas with innovation at its core was incredibly appealing.

What experience did you have of R&D previously?

The opportunity for true R&D is very limited in the TV industry.

Development is usually initially carried at a basic level across a wide range of areas, and the TV commissioners will then choose which, if any, they want further development on. The subsequent development will often be quite specific to that one idea – there aren’t usually the resources (time and money) to deploy R&D and develop around that idea widely.

With TV budgets and profit margins being increasingly squeezed, most TV companies can’t afford for their development teams to spend months developing around an area of interest. Instead we have to be responsive to commissioner needs – and these often change fast.

What are the challenges around doing R&D, particularly as a small indie?

“Small companies can’t usually afford the luxury [of R&D]”

As a small indie, the main challenges are time and money. As previously mentioned, small companies can’t usually afford the luxury of having their development teams spend six months or so just focusing on one area.

That’s not to say it doesn’t ever happen – of course some ideas can take over a year to get commissioned, and I’m sure some of the larger companies are able to invest in more long-term development and R&D – but small indies usually have a small development team. And small development teams are most likely working on multiple ideas with specific targets in mind, rather than carrying out long-term R&D and thinking about new innovative techniques and ways of working.

What opportunities did the Innovation Fund open up?

The Content Innovation Fund allowed us to spend six months exploring and interrogating the use of AI in specialist factual content. We were able to create and build a vast global network of academic and scientific contacts, develop multiple ideas across a wide-range of genres, and learn, understand and interrogate the very latest machine learning technology.

We had the full freedom to go down development rabbit holes, go off on tangents, follow an interesting thread into a completely different subject or area, knowing that everything we were doing was both useful and warranted. Nothing ever felt “wasted” – everything that we discovered on our R&D journey informed our final idea in some way.

We had creative input from the Media Cymru team and from PDR, as well as from the BBC commissioner, who helped us to focus on the most commissionable territories.  This opportunity to initially go wide and all encompassing with our development before ultimately narrowing down and focusing on those areas which had the most appeal enabled us to create far richer and more original ideas than we would have done if we hadn’t had that space to develop.  It was an opportunity that was as enjoyable as it was creative – thanks Media Cymru X BBC Cymru Wales!

What difference does doing R&D make to entering a commissioning process?

“R&D was a much more collaborative, creative and explorative process”

Carrying out R&D in this way was hugely enlightening.

It was a much more collaborative process – enabling myself and my colleague Jane to work closely together, thrashing out ideas and playing with form. We had the time we needed to think about and develop ideas without looming deadlines.

It was a much more creative process, knowing the traditional boundaries of TV commissioning were removed.

And of course it was a much more explorative process – I often find myself going off on tangents when thinking about ideas, and having this safety net was wonderful.

At the end of our R&D journey we feel as though we have a deep specialism and insight in this field – a USP which gives us the confidence to approach commissioning editors with our ideas.

What did you learn from the project?

“R&D can facilitate great innovation, great creativity and great ideas”

We learnt that when the usual development challenges are removed (such as tight deadlines and specific targets and of course lack of funding) R&D can facilitate great innovation, great creativity and great ideas. Every aspect of it was massively enjoyable and we relished and appreciated the opportunity we were given.

Do you think there are ways the industry could change how it works to become more R&D friendly?

It would be transformational to the sector if commissioners understood the value and impact that R&D has on originating and developing programme ideas. Providing financial support to help indies interrogate territories in-depth would not only give companies the time to become “experts” in those territories but would ultimately increase the number of ideas fuelled by innovation.

What advice would you give to other independent production companies about R&D?

“If you have the opportunity to carry out R&D … run with it!”

If you have the opportunity to carry out R&D then I would say you should definitely run with it.

It will invigorate the team, bring back a sense of adventure and its experimental approach means every day is different. And the knowledge and insight that you will take from it will help you to establish yourselves as a leader in the market.