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British Pathé goes OTT

Holly Ashford talks to British Pathé managing director Roger Felber, and OwnZones CEO Dan Gorman, about a new VoD service from one of the oldest content providers

It dominated the world in newsreel, its visual archives chart more than a century history, and it established a benchmark for cinematic journalism. Now, British Pathé is returning to screens for the first time in over 40 years, with the launch of subscription video on-demand service, British Pathé TV. Available for Chromecast users and Amazon Prime customers, and through dedicated iOS and Android apps, the multi-platform offering will provide a rich library of content, aimed at a global audience.

Roger Felber bought British Pathé with his business partner in 2008, from its then owner, the Daily Mail and General Trust. “It took a lot of revitalisation,” says Felber, to turn it back into a “highly mechanised business”. British Pathé’s last golden era ended in the mid-1970s, when “pretty well everyone had a television, and they didn’t want to or need to see newsreel in the cinema.” The company relied on the big screen in the early years for its success, screening footage to audiences across the UK. Going back further though, the British Pathé roots are actually across the channel – hence its slightly oxymoronic name.

The three Pathé brothers founded Société Pathé Frères in Paris in 1896. One stayed in France, while the other two left for New York and London, and soon established “a world network of newsreel” says Felber. Despite cinemas not being around in the early days, the brothers started filming, amassing hours of footage and capturing “everything they could plan for”. This includes film of Queen Victoria at a garden party, her Diamond Jubilee, and her funeral. In 1908 the newsreel was conceived, and two years later the company launched an American newsreel arm to produce Pathé News, as well as opening a newsreel production office on London’s Wardour street, which today remains the city’s TV and film post production heartland.

Building a business

Fast-forward one hundred years and enter Felber, who bought the company after “it had passed from pillar to post” he explains, and “no one knew what to do with it.” Felber was not in the broadcast industry, having worked as chairman of a manufacturing and distributing company. However, he talks animatedly about the opportunity; “I heard it was for sale and thought ‘this is an incredible archive! And bought it.” Felber took the company “out of cold storage” and “turned it into a business.”

Despite Felber lifting British Pathé from relative obscurity, its previous owners had made one significant move, obtaining National Lottery funding to digitise the archive, which paved the way for British Pathé TV. Before embarking on this project though, there was money to be made elsewhere. “Every day dozens of licenses [for British Pathé content] will be issued electronically”, says Felber. “Most of our customers are regular customers. They have access to our content, they can download the content, and they are invoiced digitally or pay the subscription.” Customers include broadcasters, producers and museums, which “we do a lot of business with.” On the morning I met Felber, he tells me, a museum in Poland spent £15,000 on British Pathé footage.

It is expensive to license footage, Felber admits, so in his early days as MD, he started arranging joint deals and co-productions with other companies; “I decided there were some programmes that would never be made if we charged our normal prices.” Footage was provided either at a low price point, or for nothing. It would be shown in TV in one country, but rights for the rest of the world would be retained by British Pathé, or else TV rights would be granted for a certain time period, before reverting to the parent company. These deals have helped build relationships in the industry and allowed viewers across the globe to witness fascinating film of events and eras which have shaped our lives today.

Revolution in Colour is an example of this; a feature documentary film produced in association with Irish indie Zampano Productions, which will be part of the British Pathé library. Ninety-five per cent of the footage is from the company’s archive and “would never have seen the light of day”, according to Felber, if it wasn’t for the joint venture. The footage tells the story of the Easter Uprising in Dublin, Ireland, in April 1916, captures key personalities from the time, and has been restored in full colour which – from the brief trailer I saw – offers an engaging and surreal viewing experience. It is ‘forgotten’ footage like this which left Felber questioning “what are we going to do with these things?” and concluding “why don’t we start our own television channel”, taking British Pathé material and that of others which otherwise would sit “gathering dust”. This also includes collaborative works such as The Story of British Pathé, originally shown on BBC Four.

Sweet, simple and good value

And so, over a century after the Pathé brothers began their visual documentation, British Pathé TV was born. The online on-demand channel will feature the company’s own historical archive, as well as documentaries, film and custom made productions, divided into four strands: royalty, British Pathé history, cinema history, classic movies, and railway history, and for £5 a month “subscribers will have access to the whole lot”, says Felber. The project has been realised with the help of US-based OwnZones, a company which aggregates and distributes bundled subscription-based digital content.

The two companies were introduced about eight months ago, OwnZones CEO Dan Goman (pictured) tells me. At this stage, Felber says, the team at British Pathé “thought that we had foundations of content in order to create a channel, and the people to work with and license footage to, and we knew how to get content that we wanted to bring into the channel.” But, he continues, “we did not have the know-how, were not a technical company and we never would have been able to do it alone.” Enter Goman et al at OwnZones.

“Originally we were thinking of placing the content on”, explains Goman. Instead, for British Pathé TV, the organisation has utilised OwnZones’ solution services, including design, content ingestion, data migration and tagging, subscription service and payment gateway, on a bespoke site and native iOS and Android app. The company also programmed British Pathé content under their deal with Amazon Video add-on subscription. OwnZones’ “massive software platform” has been developed over the course of six years, and over the last year or so, “we’ve seen tremendous improvements in integrations with other platforms to the point where we now have a media network that stretches globally”, says Goman.

As a result of OwnZones experience, the main challenge was therefore not technical, but “the look and feel on the front-end” explains Goman. “British Pathé has a very rich history and the look and feel has to convey what the organisation is about.” Felber also admits to taking time to perfect this: the project could have been completed in March, but “we kept on wanting to change this, or we thought, ‘hey, lets add that’, or ‘what a shame not to put this in’, and so forth.” When we spoke in May though, Felber assured me he was “pretty resolute that we’re adding nothing and changing nothing” in terms of design.

Both Felber and Goman are confident that British Pathé TV will grow “in scope and size”, says Felber, with Goman calling the project “an ongoing enhancement and improvement process.” Enhancements and improvements will be made based on audience behaviour data, with OwnZones providing analytics services. One thing that won’t be changing any time soon is the pricing and the strategy for monetising content; “if we’re successful at this level, there’ll be no reason to change”, says Felber. “I think I’d like to keep it sweet, simple and good value.” This is a strong, honest mantra, and one that has been received well by audiences. In tests prior to launch, Goman explains, “the feedback has been very positive in terms of the overall value: the volume of content versus the cost.” Goman describes this winning matrix as “a no-brainer”; having exclusive content at great value equals success in the OTT world.

An education in philanthropy

The availability of such a fascinating range of content at a low cost will also, Felber believes, be highly attractive to students. Not only is the managing director launching an OTT service to the ordinary content consumer, he also harbours a much grander ambition. Felber would ultimately like to make British Pathé content available in low resolution to “all film students throughout the world who are somehow or other affiliated to a school or a college or an organisation”, allowing them not only to see “the great film directors, cinematographers, films and actors” but also to access “some real material to work with on the editing front” – something which Felber tells me many students lack. He sees this approach as “combining business with a little bit of philanthropy”, stating grandly that the “three and a half thousand hours of footage” British Pathé TV would offer “should cost [students] £50,000”. Yet his aspiration goes further: “we’ll probably run four competitions a year, and you can submit your films and the winners, or top three each time, their films will go onto our website and will stay there forever.” Quite a coup for a film student.

Felber continues to describe further plans for British Pathé TV – at this stage, weeks before launch – including going to “Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador” to market the service, and attracting 52 million Amazon Prime members in north America to subscribe. British Pathé has had over one hundred years to evolve from film gathering pioneer to digital content outlet, and with Felber’s ideas and hopes for the British Pathé TV and its “ongoing evolution”, I expect it will be around for some time yet.