Red Bull Studios Global Head Bernadette McDaid Teases The Real Mo Farah Producers Ambitious Plans, Upcoming Slate
When “The Real Mo Farah,” a documentary about the Olympic gold-winning athlete, aired on the BBC in the U.K. last month, it was front page news.
The feature doc, which had been kept so tightly under wraps even some of those working on it didn’t know exactly what it contained, revealed that the story Farah had repeatedly told about his upbringing – on talk shows and in his published autobiography – was a lie. In fact, his real name was Hussein Abdi Kahin and at 9 years old he was torn from his family and trafficked by neighbors from Somaliland to Britain to work, he says, in indentured servitude.
A co-production between the BBC, Atomized Studios and Red Bull Studios, “The Real Mo Farah” dominated U.K. headlines the week it came out, receiving numerous accolades for both Farah, who had chosen to tell his story at risk of potentially losing his British citizenship (which was obtained in his fake name as opposed to his real one), and for the documentary itself.
For Red Bull Studios, a new entity related to but legally separate from both the energy drink and extreme sports media companies that share its name, the documentary could not have been a better calling card as their debut into the marketplace. “We were thrilled because it represents everything that we wanted Red Bull Studios to be known as,” says the studio’s global head, Bernadette McDaid, in an interview with Variety.
“It’s a story about an extraordinary person and an extraordinary situation that really celebrates all the really positive aspects of humanity in terms of resilience, fortitude, courage, optimism, hope,” McDaid continues. “Because we genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen in terms of the Home Office and Mo [in terms of his citizenship].”
In the event, the Home Office reassured Farah they had no intention of revoking his passport. A police investigation is now underway to examine how the athlete was snuck into the U.K.
When the BBC and Atomized brought Farah’s story to McDaid some eighteen months ago, to see if Red Bull Studios wanted to join as a co-producer, she said it was greenlit almost immediately. “It’s a premium, prestige production,” she says. “And it’s also representative of how we hope to work moving forward in the marketplace. So working with premium partners like the BBC, forging those kinds of co-productions, that allows films that need to be told to be told in the best way possible.”
Headquartered in Austria, Red Bull Studios sits under Red Bull Media Network and was launched under McDaid in 2020 with an eye to making what she describes as “a premium strand of programming that’s focused purely on commercial content for co-production with broadcasters and streamers.” Although it bears the Red Bull name, McDaid emphasizes the studio is a distinct legal entity, which enables them to work with public service broadcasters such as the BBC who are not allowed to host advertising. “When we set up part of our opportunity was getting that messaging across to the production market: we’re not sponsoring content,” she explains.
The remit of the studio versus its parent media company is also much broader. “We go beyond sports,” says McDaid, adding that Red Bull Studios are “purely tailored to the TV and featured doc market.”
It is a coincidence, therefore, that both “The Real Mo Farah” and the studio’s sophomore project, “The Moment: How Sports Changed the World,” are sports-related. It is also a coincidence that both are in English. When it comes to breadth of content in the unscripted space, neither subject nor language are a barrier. The company’s slate already includes two foreign language documentaries. “What they all have in common is these incredibly powerful, human, relatable, timeless stories with universal appeal,” says McDaid.
Each project is assessed on its own merits. In the previous financial quarter, the studio green-lit four projects. However if a quarter goes by where nothing hits the bar, McDaid says they won’t green-lit a project just for the sake of it. “I would say that [Red Bull] Studios is very much a story-first company,” she explains. “And one of the advantages for producers that I think we bring is we’re very driven by finding the right home for the project.”
That applies as much to format. Documentaries have been switched from feature to series mid-production and vice versa. McDaid cites one project that started life as a series but, as it developed, the team realized it could be a premium feature doc. “So now we’re targeting it for Sundance in the hope that Sundance will agree with us that it’s a really exceptional story and we’ll go the festival route,” she says.
As suggested by the cultural weight of its debut project, Red Bull Studios has big plans. As well as Sundance, McDaid is already thinking about the Oscars and documentary features that would qualify.
“The plan for five years time, is that we are the number one choice for top tier filmmakers, not just in the U.K. and in the U.S., but worldwide,” she says. “And then in parallel to that, and interestingly we’re already seeing this start as a result of ‘The Real Mo Farah’ film, we want to be the number one call for broadcasters and streamers to say, hey, we’ve got this really ambitious project, we’d love to do with you.”
For the moment the studio is focused on unscripted content but eventually, McDaid says, “my intention is to move into scripted.”
In the meantime, her focus is on making the studio the number one destination for creatives to realize their visions – both in terms of making their projects and making sure they’re given the best possible chance of flying. “It sounds quite idealistic but I was a filmmaker for a long time so I decided that I wanted Red Bull Studios to become what I would have loved to have had when I was on that side of the fence,” says McDaid.
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