John McKenna is one of the pioneers of premium sports documentaries. He founded Noah Media, which has become the go-to company for producing smash hit feature-docs like Arsene Wenger: Invincible and making title sequences for major shows and sports federations
You can listen to my conversation with John in this week's episode of THE BIG SWING PODCAST on Apple Podcasts, or listen on YouTube below:
And now the team at Noah Media have pioneered a data-driven approach to commissioning their own premium documentary projects - selling the resulting films to the world's biggest streamers.
John and his team first used this approach to fund the production of 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible, which went on to be a breakout smash hit when they sold it to Netflix.
But John's career started right at the bottom, as a runner for ITV London's sports department. Before long he was covering huge tournaments:
I was the tape librarian for ITV Sport on Euro 96... it was amazing. One of my best mates in TV and media now is a guy called Rob Levi, and he was a couple of years younger than me... And both of us were like, Well, we can't believe we're in there. We're going to just keep our eyes open, our ears open. And the one thing they're not going to kick us out for is, is for not working hard enough. And so we were first in, we were last out. We were like sponges.
John's positive, can-do attitude meant he progresses steadily up the career ladder. Before too long he was directing huge live sports events:
But all the way through, I was drawn to the short form storytelling, which became longer form storytelling, and started to work with a guy who one of the co-founders of Noah with me, Gabriel Clarke, who's a who's a very well respected journalist. And Gabriel and I started to make three minute features for On The Ball for ITV. And they became five, became seven. And then and then I got a shot of doing a half an hour documentary. And Gabe was like, Can I do that with you? So we did it together. And then we started making our documentaries and, and that's how it sort of grew.
And John rose to become Creative Director at ITV Sport. He decided to go it alone as a freelance director, taking the pick of the best events, even though his heart was taking him in a different direction:
My drive was a documentaries and I was offered the live studio for the Premier League. In terms of directing, it was as big a job as you could be offered. I remember going over speaking to my wife and thinking like, I feel like I've got to take this... And so it lasted three or four months for me. And it was it wasn't great. You know, it was a horrible experience. With hindsight, the foresight of the gob shite, it was a lesson in really making sure the decision is right for you and not for what you think people think is right for you.
Once John had realised his future lay in documentary production, he went out to build Noah Media. And he was surprised by the industry's poor regard for producers:
I went to an early meeting after we'd set up Noah with with a big, big distribution company. And this lady in the meeting said, "It's amazing. Producers will just give you anything." And I remember just thinking... the audacity of this, this was said with glee in the room. And I'm thinking, that's not going to be us.
John decided that the way to prevail in the feature documentary world was to find a way to stay in control of their projects. So when they started to make 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible, John decided to self-fund the project rather than accept a full commission:
It was an amazing process from the moment that the 14th mountain was conquered. We were all really excited. We were all pretty confident with what we had. And then it was about making sure we have the right conversations at the right times, and always check ourselves. And... don't make a decision that you don't feel comfortable about. And that was at the heart of everything amazing.
I loved speaking with John. He is a true innovator and a warm and positive person. Let me know what you think of the episode via email.
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