Selective new studio gives talent co-ownership

They’ve got money, relationships and a more attractive backend definition than any other studio in town. What’s not to like?

Hollywood creatives are increasingly pondering that question about production finance company Media Rights Capital. Already established on the film side, the Century City, Calif.-based company has come on strong in the TV biz during the past few months, and will have its primetime coming-out party with this week’s network upfront presentations in Gotham.

The shingle, founded in 2004 by Endeavor alum Modi Wiczyk and his college roommate, Asif Satchu, has lined up a slew of series commitments and pilots for broadcast and cable nets under the direction of MRC TV head Keith Samples, who founded and ran Rysher Entertainment in the 1990s.

MRC’s business proposition to talent is simple. Forgo the big upfront payday that is the norm for major studio development pacts in exchange for more creative latitude, the flexibility to sell to any outlet and most important, a larger ownership stake in the final product. Wiczyk emphasizes that MRC’s creative partners are part owners of the copyrights on their work, not just profit participants.

“You own it when you work here,” Wiczyk says. “You don’t get that anywhere else.”

Of course, MRC is not a bank open to anyone with a spec pilot script under their arm. Its business model dictates that the company must be highly selective about the projects and partners it takes on. As has been MRC’s modus operandi on the film side, it is looking for bankable talent and properties with strong international appeal and multiplatform exploitation opportunities.

“We’re entrepreneurs, and we seek out other entrepreneurs,” Wiczyk says.

In another major move, MRC has struck an unusual deal with the CW to take over the net’s struggling Sunday night sked. CW is essentially outsourcing its three hours of Sunday primetime real estate to MRC, which is contracted to produce two comedies and two dramas for the block.

MRC will have a stake in advertising revenue derived from the shows, though CW’s sales team will still oversee the sales. Tribune Broadcasting, which owns CW’s key affils, is also partnering with MRC in handling the block.

MRC is bankrolled through equity investments from a clutch of blue-chip heavy hitters including Goldman Sachs, AT&T, ad giant WPP and investment fund D.E. Shaw. Wiczyk established key relationships in the industry and in the global finance community through his stint at Endeavor, where he specialized in setting up film financing projects for the agency’s clients. Satchu comes from a background in finance and launching Internet-based businesses.

Wiczyk emphasizes that MRC is not a private equity fund looking to make passive investments in film and TV production with a strict timetable for recoupment and profit disbursements.

MRC has “built a syndicate of investors who have both deep pockets and a deep understanding of our business,” Wiczyk says.

Earlier this month, the company put another major piece of its TV biz strategy in place by sealing a deal with Elisabeth Murdoch’s ShineReveille Intl. to handle international distribution of its TV product.

Industry observers say they’re impressed by the strategic approach and amount of business MRC has been able to generate in a short time. Some question whether MRC’s business plan will work as smoothly on the TV side as it has on the feature side, where foreign presales and post-theatrical TV and DVD sales help offset a great deal of the risk. On the other hand, there’s not much aftermarket for a busted pilot, unless it’s embraced by another network.

Wiczyk says the risk involved is a matter of degrees: Feature films involve a commitment of tens of millions of dollars in production and P&A costs, while a pilot is a few million bucks at most.

Moreover, MRC has put a lot of its focus on the cable side, where production costs are lower and the chance of a pilot making it to air is generally higher than for the Big Four broadcast nets.

MRC’s leaders are mindful of the fast rise and equally fast fall of the last indie to make a splash by using its own coin to finance shows. Nearly a decade ago, Michael Ovitz’s Artists Television Group had no trouble selling shows to the networks; but when most of those shows were canceled after one season, the costs of the deficits did the shingle in.

“They had mostly broadcast network pilot situations,” MRC TV head Samples says. “For all the talk of everything we’ve got going, we have just one traditional broadcast network pilot (Fox comedy “Outnumbered”). … If I was sitting on five broadcast pilots, there would be a gun to my temple. That’s a tough game.”

The emergence of a new player that comes to the field ready to finance TV production in a significant way is welcomed by Hollywood’s creative community, particularly at a time of great upheaval in the biz.

One of MRC TV’s first big moves was landing a 13-episode order from ABC for an animated comedy, “The Goode Family,” from “King of the Hill” vets John Altschuler, Dave Krinksy and Mike Judge. Altschuler and Krinksy, who penned the Will Ferrell hit “Blades of Glory,” also have several feature projects in the hopper with MRC.

MRC “is fulfilling a very important place in the business right now,” Altschuler says.

“You have to step out into the great unknown a little bit. You’re betting on yourself. There’s no overall deal, they’re not paying a ton of money for a blind script. They’re there for people who really feel a need to do something special. … MRC is not going to put the studios out of business. It’s just filling an area that I think needed to be filled.”

Wiczyk says the long-term goal for MRC’s TV biz is to become a significant indie competitor to the majors in the way that Lorimar and Norman Lear’s Embassy Communications were a generation ago.

Of course the business landscape in the post fin-syn era of vertically integrated network and studio congloms is much different than in the late-’70s/early-’80s heyday of indie-financed TV. In success, industry observers say, MRC is sure to face some strong-arming from networks to give up stakes in its shows as the price of getting on the air.

Samples sees a wide-open opportunity in the creator-friendly niche that MRC is firmly focused on honing.

“One of the things that’s happened in the past 10 to 15 years is, as companies got bigger, it was more difficult to have the kind of relationship where everybody felt really a part of the process,” Samples says. “What we’re trying to do is be a sort of streamlined studio, with the sales and financing process as close to the actual production process as we can get it.”

That means keeping talent invested in every aspect of decision-making on their product, Samples says.

“The way we do it is not for everyone,” he says. “For a ton of writers and creators, it doesn’t make sense. The way we structure things, you need to be entrepreneurial, (and) have that independent spirit.”

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