Charlotte Jones was an executive producer at BBC Earth before she left in 2018 to set up her own production company, Bristol-based Mustang Films. Her decades in the industry have included producing TV for the UK, US and Asia markets, as well as pushing boundaries at the intersection where technology and storytelling meet. So she’s well positioned to compete in the ever more international and multiplatform production landscape.
But regardless of how much experience one has, setting up a new indie and starting from scratch can still be daunting. A crucial part of the challenge is landing that first significant commission, which Charlotte managed this year in the form of China’s Greatest Treasures, a 6 x 30' series for CCTV and BBC World News. We caught up with her to find out about the experience of making that UK/China co-pro, and what she’s learnt so far about running her own indie…
Can you tell us a bit about China’s Greatest Treasures?
China’s Greatest Treasures is a 6 part series, commissioned by CDIMC, which is part of Chinese broadcaster CCTV, and broadcast on BBC World News and CCTV9. The series is presented by BBC art critic Alastair Sooke who travels through China, immersing himself in Chinese art and culture, past and present. With privileged access to some of their most prestigious museum collections and precious objects, each episode explores a theme such as family, food and technology. From a 3000-year-old ceremonial bronze cauldron in Shanghai to a ceramic camel carrying musicians in the ancient city of Xi’an and an immense jade statue of ‘King Yu Taming the Floods’ within the walls of Beijing’s Forbidden City. It’s an ambitious journey helping Alastair to reveal the stories of these treasures and their connections to China today.
How did you get the show away?
While I was at the BBC I had spent time in China with the BBC team in Beijing, researching the local TV market and opportunities. We were very close to greenlight with one particular project but this unfortunately fell over at the final hurdle. A familiar phenomenon wherever you’re working! But this experience gave me valuable insight into how the market works and importantly contact with several key players. Spending time with your Chinese collaborators is of paramount importance in building working relationships. One of my colleagues from the BBC moved to CCTV and it was through this contact that I was approached to be the international co-production partner with CDIMC/CCTV on this project. The access and support that CCTV could offer made this a no brainer, even though it was our first project as a newly formed indie! I have always thrived on challenges and this presented possibly one of the biggest to date.
What was it like working in China? What were the biggest surprises and challenges?
Working in a co-production model, there was a lot to be sorted out about how our UK and China teams would work together and how we identified key strengths and responsibilities. Across an eight hour time difference, that is quite a challenge. Obviously language is a massive barrier, so we hired a great bilingual Chinese producer who worked in our team in Bristol. This was essential not only for translation but also understanding the nuances of culture which come up daily. Knowing how to approach any given issue really helps you not only resolve it quickly but also to not put your foot in it!
Chinese technical crew are generally of a high standard. There is a community of bilingual camera assistants, soundies, etc. who work across TV and film. Their bilingual skills make them more expensive but they’re very used to working with international crews. It’s a great advantage to have some of the crew already in China as the visa process for international filming crew is quite tough; once you have your crew names submitted and agreed by the Chinese production partner, they then take several months to process. And if you need to change the names on the list, things become complicated. So it's not very flexible.
I was also surprised to find out that planning much further than a month out is not the usual way of working for Chinese teams. I was hoping to be able to secure filming permissions in certain locations so that I could plan shoot logistics at least three months out. We had multiple shooting blocks with a wide range of locations, so I needed to be able to work around confirmed locations. This isn’t always possible as most people confirming access will only do so the week before! Working with CCTV enabled a lot of privileged access, although they never made us feel as if it was a given. At the end of the day we got into nearly every location we needed. Working with a well-established partner is essential.
You’re based in Bristol. What do you feel are the pros and cons of being a start-up indie there?
Bristol is world renowned for its expertise in factual programme production and being part of that community is a positive thing. Nationally and internationally there is an awareness of the skill, talent and the quality of programming that is produced in Bristol, which helps create confidence in our ability to deliver ever challenging projects.
There is a big focus on Nations and Regions this year, across the industry, but it is still challenging to travel to seminars, events and workshops. More sharing events online would be useful.
How have you found the first year of running Mustang Films?
Our first year has been very focused on delivering the series to CCTV, which has meant that I’ve had little time for much else. But what it’s given us is the ability to set up our company with all the processes and protocols needed to deliver a very complicated international shoot.
What has been the biggest challenge of running the business so far?
The biggest challenge is the feast and famine phenomenon experienced by small indies. Navigating our way between projects without investment is challenging. Finding investment when you don’t have enough of a track record is also challenging. So how does the industry help key talent stay within the system?
Why did you decide to become a Pact member and how has it helped?
I decided to join Pact because they were be able to offer us support and insight into the China TV market. This was a highly pragmatic decision at first, and Dawn (McCarthy-Simpson, Pact's Managing Director of Global Strategy) and her team were very effective with providing me with the support and information I needed to feel confident that I could pursue the project to contract. Once a member, I’ve been very impressed with the range of events, access and information Pact offers its members.
You have a lot of experience in the crossover space between new technologies and storytelling. How big a part do you see that playing in your business?
It is challenging to create a financial bedrock for the company via new tech and interdisciplinary content creation, but I’m pursuing a range of projects while establishing a pipeline of television production to provide a level of financial stability. In my experience its vital to keep across how content creation is evolving, not only from a future proofing perspective but also to keep storytelling inventive.
As a burgeoning indie, how important do you feel it is to be looking for international opportunities as well as those closer to home?
Most of my experience is in the international market and now more than ever this is where most of the business is being done - either through emerging markets such as China or through the importance of co-production funding. We are talking increasingly about global issues; having contact with these enables storytelling that chimes with the widest possible market.
What will you take away from the experience of making China’s Greatest Treasures in terms of moving forward with your indie and the way you work?
As a first project, negotiating a deal with CCTV was a real learning curve. But the detail and planning that went into every aspect of this project will hopefully provide me with invaluable insight and experience for other projects.
What are your ambitions for Mustang Films and where do you hope to be in five years’ time?
The market is moving very quickly at the moment, and being a loyal advocate of change and innovation, it’s hard to say! But we’re going to pursue our work with China, focus on the UK market and ensure that there are a number of totally unpredictable projects that fire up the imagination. New markets, creativity, innovation; things that we’re very good at and essential for such a fast moving media landscape.
Pact would like to thank Charlotte for taking part in this interview.