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Amblin TV: One Example of How Independent Studios Are Taking Back Their Power

No “Bull,” it’s been a tremendous few weeks for Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank. The Amblin Television co-presidents enjoyed overwhelmingly positive reviews for their HBO movie “All the Way,” while their FX series “The Americans” wound down its fourth season with yet more critical acclaim, and the marketing campaign for their new CBS summer series “American Gothic” took off.

Adding to that, the Eye ordered Amblin’s new legal drama “Bull,” starring Michael Weatherly, for fall. It’s all part of what has made Amblin arguably TV’s most successful independent producer: the ability to work with any writer or actor, regardless of where they’re based, while partnering with any network or studio that the show fits.

“In this 400-series universe, where there’s over 70 buyers doing scripted programming, it allows us the most amount of flexibility in the deal-making process,” Frank says. “If we want to go in and just be producers for hire, we can do that. If we want to go in and co-produce with somebody and allow the network’s in-house unit to own part of it, we can. Because we’re not beholden to anyone.”

Much was said, after the upfronts, about the networks continuing to own more of their own programming, as vertical integration remains the norm.

But the rise of “too much TV” has widened the door for indie producers, who eschew first-look and overall deals (and the money that could be used to fund overheads) in order to shop shows to whomever, and wherever, they want. In the process, they’re providing a bit of check-and-balance to the network/studio dominance.

And investors are taking notice: Last year, Entertainment One acquired a 51% stake in The Mark Gordon Company, allowing Gordon (who didn’t renew a first-look deal with ABC Studios) to create a studio on his own. In its first year, Gordon’s now-indie company landed two high-profile projects on the ABC fall lineup: dramas “Designated Survivor” (starring Kiefer Sutherland) and “Conviction.”

“The larger studios have a harder time being nimble or flexible,” Gordon says. “We live in a world now where there are many, many opportunities.”

DreamWorks TV (as Amblin TV was then known) launched in the mid-’90s as an indie studio just as the financial interest and syndication rules, which limited how much primetime programming the networks could own, were repealed.

Despite an early success in ABC’s “Spin City,” the company battled with networks, which wanted an ownership stake in their shows. DreamWorks TV eventually opted to downsize and become producers, aligning at NBC with a first-look deal.

But such a pact “hindered our ability to produce elsewhere,” Frank says. When Jeffrey Katzenberg spun off Dreamworks Animation in 2004, and Steven Spielberg took over TV oversight, he, Falvey, and Frank decided to end the Peacock deal and go it alone.

“That was a time when people were making exclusive deals that were really handcuffing them,” Falvey says. “We had many friends who would throw their arms up in the air because they weren’t allowed to go out into the marketplace and sell outside.” Adds Frank: “In many ways it was the only way as a tiny production entity that we could maintain any kind of control or leverage.”

Now, as a part of Amblin Partners — the new partnership between Spielberg, Participant Media, Reliance Entertainment, and Entertainment One — Amblin TV has even more resources to keep things independent. “We’re able to do what we’ve been doing, but it has also given us access to money to develop and finance shows and buy intellectual property,” Frank says. “It’s given us a whole new playground.” And that’s good news for creatives who want to find the best home for their projects.

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