Protagonist inks with drink co. for prod'n

Producer Matti Leshem has left Michael Davies’ Diplomatic Prods. and partnered with Pepsi to launch his own shingle.

Leshem’s new company, Protagonist, will focus on creating branded TV projects for major advertisers, such as the cola company.

Pepsi has already invested $1 million to cover Protagonist’s overhead costs.

“This is like a production deal at any other studio, except that it’s with Pepsi,” Leshem said. “They’re going to be spending money in programming, and they’re looking for people who will think about producing shows with Pepsi built in.”

Leshem also hopes to sign at least one other top-tier client, such as a computer company. Protagonist will then specialize in creating programs that incorporate those companies’ brands.

“I’m looking to find different business models than a regular production company,” he said. “I’ve always been attracted to new ideas — I guess I’m a glutton for punishment when it comes to new things.”

Unlike product placement, in which marketers look to include their brand into pre-existing programs (such as “Survivor”), Leshem said Protagonist will incorporate its clients (like Pepsi) from the very beginning of a show’s development.

Leshem’s relationship with Pepsi came from his time at Diplomatic, where he helped create the WB project “Live From Tomorrow.”

Diplomatic had signed Pepsi to help sponsor “Tomorrow,” billed as the first ad-free primetime series in decades. Variety show was scratched, however, when other sponsors dropped out.

But Diplomatic and Pepsi partnered again this summer for the WB special “Play for a Billion.”

That two-hour contest, hosted by Drew Carey, featured contestants who had won a chance at competing for $1 billion after buying Pepsi products. Event — which scored only lukewarm ratings — was the culmination of Pepsi’s summer advertising campaign.

Leshem said Pepsi is in talks about reprising “Play for a Billion” again next summer.

“The thing I love about Pepsi, they think about things in such a big way, it is like working with a studio,” he said. “Clearly there is an appetite over there for new ways (to get the company’s message out).”

As part of launching Protagonist, Leshem has signed with UTA for representation.

“I think there’s a perspective at UTA that understands this isn’t business as usual, and that there’s a real opportunity out there,” he said.

Leshem said he’ll continue to partner with Diplomatic topper Davies (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”) on projects, and that the duo opted to split after realizing they had different business interests:

“I wanted to focus almost exclusively on one specific area — branded entertainment — while Michael continues to be involved in the kind of shows he’s doing. I had an amazing time working for him, and I think he’d say the same.”

Leshem had been with Diplomatic since February 2001; prior to that, he was CEO at AntEye.com and an exec at USA Broadcasting’s WAMI-TV.

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