WME-IMG Moves Into New TV Territory with ‘Night Manager’ Sales

Licensing pacts for a miniseries to channels in Germany, Italy and Denmark don’t usually get much attention among industry insiders in the U.S. and the U.K. But last week’s news that the “The Night Manager” had been licensed to channels in Europe and other markets drew unusual interest, not because of the program but because of the seller: IMG.

IMG arranged the international sales pacts for “Night Manager,” the high-profile BBC-AMC co-production that stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston in an espionage drama based on the John le Carre novel of the same name. The deals reflect an effort underway at WME-IMG to expand the company’s operations to include program sales on behalf of clients. It’s an effort to take advantage of the reach and relationships that IMG has with TV outlets around the world, after decades of handling sports rights to events such as Wimbledon. And it’s another sign of how the largest talent agencies are branching out into all manner of new businesses in an effort to diversify and grow.

IMG’s expansion into distribution of scripted programming inevitably raises questions about the potential for conflicts of interest with WME clients. Could a deal point or other opportunity arise as part of a sales process that would be more beneficial to WME-IMG than it would for the creatives behind the show?

The “Night Manager” sales spurred chatter on both sides of the pond that WME-IMG is poised to aggressively chase program sales pacts in competition with production-distribution entities that they do business with on behalf of clients. It was noted that the “Night Manager” sales announcement came a few days before WME served as a co-sponsor with BAFTA/LA, Technicolor, Pinewood Studios and others of Tuesday’s U.K./U.S. TV Summit that brought top U.S. and U.K. producers together at the London hotel in West Hollywood.

Speculation about WME-IMG’s ambition on the TV distribution front is overstated, according to WME TV chief Rick Rosen. Arranging program sales for projects on behalf of clients where possible is a goal but there is no intent to significantly ramp up IMG as a third-party distributor of TV programs, he said. “The Night Manager” sales came about because WME not only packaged the project but arranged the financing with London-based producer Ink Factory, which covered the production deficit on its own. That gave Ink Factory the leverage with BBC and AMC to retain some international rights (AMC grabbed the project for its portfolio of international channels) and North American home entertainment rights, which IMG set up with Sony Pictures Entertainment. “Night Manager” is set to premiere next year on BBC and AMC.

Rosen likens the arrangement to the way talent agencies for years have helped clients set up financing and distribution for independent films. The explosive growth of the worldwide TV market has opened up myriad options for financing and distributing TV programs. The agency has also handled direct sales of books to publishers in foreign territories on behalf of clients for years. With “Night Manager,” the agency will be compensated through a sales fee in the same way indie film deals have been long been structured.

Chris Rice of WME’s global finance and distribution team has of late been focusing on television ventures on behalf of WME-IMG clients. Rosen emphasized that IMG handling “Night Manager” was beneficial to all clients involved because the sales fee was lower than the distribution fees that would have likely been charged by BBC, AMC or a third-party company.

“Now that the television business is in this explosive period, film financiers and others are looking at the TV business in other ways,” Rosen said. “This presents a lot of opportunities for our clients to be empowered in new ways.”

Expanding WME-IMG beyond representation into content and distribution is a goal for the agency since its 2014 merger with IMG, as co-CEO Ari Emanuel has articulated. TV presents clear opportunities because of IMG’s existing sports-focused infrastructure with more than 100 offices around the world.

“We have people who are talking to the heads of networks about Wimbledon, about the U.S. Open. Now we have something else to talk to them about,” Rosen said. “This is an outgrowth of our reach through IMG.”

But even with that size and the formidable roster of creative talent on the WME side, significant distribution opportunities for IMG will probably be limited just as they are for other independent players. The major U.S. media congloms rarely part with international rights as they are crucial to the profitability of programs. But when clients bring leverage to the table, with star power or independent financing, the prospect of IMG handling distribution will be a benefit, not a conflict. Rosen said.

“The television world is changing. It’s not 1990 any more,” Rosen said. “You can’t sit stagnant and not look for ways to grow. And we’re always looking for new ways to service our clients.”

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