The old adage states that “a change is as good as a rest.” It’s apparently advice that Plimsoll Productions founder Grant Mansfield heeded 10 years ago, when he made the transition from CEO of Zodiak USA, a major arm of an international production and distribution company, to the boss of an indie prodco.
Mansfield left Zodiak USA in early 2012, after having been with the company since its earlier incarnation as RDF Media Group, and transplanting from London to L.A. to take over the American office following the 2009 departure of Chris Coelen (who is now head of his own label, Kinetic Content). In leaving Zodiak, Mansfield and family headed back across the ocean, but this time eschewed the big-city noise of London for his relatively less hectic hometown of Bristol.
But, as Mansfield recalls now, even though he wasn’t throwing himself back into the hustle and bustle of the British capital, he was deliberately staking out ground for his next move.
“Outside of London and Manchester, Bristol is the closest thing the UK has to a proper TV city,” he says. And with it being home to numerous natural history content creators — including the giant of the bunch, the BBC’s Natural History Unit — “it seemed daft to set up a production company in Bristol and not have a go at doing natural history,” he remarks.
The move has paid off, and then some. This year, Plimsoll celebrates 10 years in operation, its status as a major force in factual programming firmly established via such landmark productions as Night on Earth for Netflix (pictured below) and Tiny World for AppleTV+.
While the company initially made its mark in natural history — and is currently one of the biggest, if not the biggest, producer in the genre outside of the NHU, now part of BBC Studios — the goal at the outset, says Mansfield, was to cover multiple genres and move beyond the “specialist” tag.
“What tends to happen in the UK is you have a company that deals in natural history, or science, or factual entertainment, and from the start our ambition was to be more broad,” he says. “It’s quite interesting to have people from a factual entertainment background developing natural history ideas, and vice versa. But we also thought it would be a way of building an independent production business of size and scale and longevity, and that’s how it turned out.”
Mansfield is quick to point out that the ability to traverse genres is dependent on having a well-rounded team, which was another of Plimsoll’s goals from the beginning. One of his first hires, former BBC NHU exec Martha Holmes, took oversight of natural history, while another BBC alum, Karen Plumb, joined the team in 2014 to head up factual entertainment.
Over the course of the past decade, the company has also brought on myriad well-respected executives from across the non-fiction content industry, ranging from former BBC NHU and Discovery veteran Andrew Jackson (now retired) to longtime Nat Geo production and development SVP Alan Eyres, who now runs Plimsoll’s U.S. office.
Another key element to the company’s growth, says Mansfield, was its move early on to control its own IP via a distribution arm. That came in the form of Magnify Media, a UK-based distributor founded by Andrea Jackson, which Plimsoll fully acquired in 2020 after initially purchasing a minority stake in 2016.
“We were in the very fortunate position that a number of very big distributors offered us quite significant advances for what was then a non-existent catalog,” Mansfield says of the early days. “But I wanted to be in a position from the start where we could control our IP.”
As a veteran of massive multinational companies with experience in M&A, Mansfield was also keen to build scale in order to attract investment, which came in the form of a US$100 million deal with private equity firm LDC in 2019. At the time, the move was seen as a unique one, as it bypassed the typical M&A recipe in the production sector of selling to a larger, multinational producer.
“Truthfully, when I was looking for minority investors the first time around, I just wanted to get as much competition into the equation as I could,” recalls Mansfield. “The non-exec chair of my company had a background in private equity, so we did a deal. And they were great partners. They were very supportive and had a certain amount of financial expertise that was very useful.
“But in the end you get to a stage where as supportive as they were — and they’re still friends of mine — we needed more trade expertise on the board,” he continues. “I felt we needed partners/owners who really understood our business, and a lot of things that we were originally interested in doing and remain interested in — owning natural history IP, deficit financing — you really need a partner that understands the business.”
Thus, in 2022, Plimsoll exited the deal with LDC and took the more traditional route of teaming with a major international production firm, in a deal that saw ITV Studios take a majority stake in the company for a cash consideration of approximately £103.5 million (around US$125 million). The move also saw Magnify Media become fully integrated into ITV Studios’ distribution business, and Andrea Jackson move into the role of creative director of factual entertainment.
Beyond the business deals, the key to any prodco’s success lies squarely on the content, and Mansfield, while proud of the past milestones mentioned earlier, prefers to focus on what’s ahead. The success of competition format Handmade: Britain’s Best Woodworker (now in its third season on Channel 4) illustrates Plimsoll’s intent to craft hits across genres. The company’s TV pact with Free Solo star Alex Honnold will see the mountain-climbing icon front a new series for Nat Geo, Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold, in February. And upcoming projects such as the “real-life Pixar movie” A Real Bug’s Life (pictured right), also commissioned through Nat Geo and hitting Disney+ in January, point towards new ways to marry natural history and science content with existing IP — an attractive formula for global content companies such as Disney.
Returning to the notion of a change being as good as rest, the upcoming programming reflects Mansfield’s aim to position Plimsoll as a company that attacks the most tried-and-true of genres — natural history, for example — with innovations that move beyond technical developments and instead incorporate new approaches to character and narrative development. It’s content about exploration, but it’s also created in an exploratory context, which suits Mansfield’s forward-looking ethos to a tee.
“As they say, ‘the past is a foreign country,’” he offers. “I’m much more interested in reflecting on the next 10 years than the past 10.”