IMG Original Content Team Talks Growth Spurt, Steve Harvey Show, UFC Plans and Global Ambition

Expanding aggressively into content production and ownership has been a top priority of Endeavor, the holding company for WME, IMG, and Endeavor Content.

IMG co-president Mark Shapiro and his lieutenants, senior VPs Mike Antinoro and Will Staeger, have helped rev up that strategy by growing the IMG Original Content unit into a bustling unscripted, documentary, and live events company with more than 50 series and specials on its active roster. All three executives are alums of Dick Clark Productions and ESPN, and they all joined in 2014 after WME completed its purchase of IMG.

IMG Original Content has become a hub in Endeavor’s effort to diversify through the ownership of such franchises as UFC, Miss Universe, the Professional Bull Riders league, and various fashion ventures. The production operation works with each of the brands to develop TV properties, and with the Endeavor Global Marketing wing to recruit sponsors and branded content opportunities. The IMG Media international TV sales unit is being retrofitted to handle a stream of entertainment programming, including an expected supply of scripted programs from the newly launched Endeavor Content wing.

The end game is to grow Endeavor’s content holdings and to yield better business opportunities for WME and IMG clients than traditional network and studios offer. IMG Original Content is producing numerous TV series, from daytime syndication’s Steve Harvey talk show “Steve” to ABC’s “Battle of the Network Stars” revival to E!’s “Model Squad” to “This Happened,” the upcoming retro-news documentary series for MSNBC. Shapiro’s unit also fielded the 2016 sports/ALS documentary “Gleason,” Michael Moore’s recent one-man Broadway show “The Terms of My Surrender,” and the fashion-centric Made to Measure digital channel.

Shapiro, Antinoro, and Staeger spoke with Variety about the changing content marketplace, how they guard against conflict-of-interest concerns with their sibling agencies, and why IMG Original Content has grown so quickly during the past three years.

What did you find at IMG when you arrived?

Mark Shapiro: IMG wasn’t in this business. They had a couple of packages and a couple of shows. It was mostly stuff they’d had for years. We came in and had to reorient the entire team, reorient our entire development strategy, and put a sign out that we were open for business and then do a lot of introductory meetings. I credit Mike and Will for going door to door knocking and telling the buyers what we were all about and finding a few projects here and there and building off that one by one.

Mike Antinoro: We spent a year and a half reeducating the market about IMG. Everybody knew IMG and IMG Sports. “Oh, you’re the guys that do those sports shows.” Until you get a project or two, it’s just a great story. Finally we got a couple of projects and people were like “That’s what you’re doing.” People wanted to be part of what we was going on at WME/IMG, now Endeavor. But they really needed to see us do a few things first.

Will Staeger: We consider ourselves agile storytellers. We’re agnostic with respect to genre. We can find the story with athletes, with models, with talk, with documentary. And tell it at a high level almost regardless of budget.

Shapiro: We’ll take big chances. We want any and all creative ideas from any and all content creators…So much of my job is really connecting the dots inside this company. It’s a big company with all kinds of assets and IP. We control, stage, produce, represent, and license so many properties and so much content. We’re trying to think globally about how we can maximize our opportunities. 

What are the advantages of being affiliated with powerhouse talent agencies in WME and IMG?

Shapiro: You might think there’d be more immediate approvals and agreements with talent because we’re part of the same company. But what it does provide us is that we know where to go. We know the phone call to make. We can get the fastest “no” really quickly. But when we talk to talent, we’re not asking them, “Hey, do you want to be part of this project?” We can explain to them why we think it’s smart for their brand as part of a larger plan. That’s really a competitive edge that we have. But we’ve had just as much trouble booking artists as I used to have on the (American Music Awards). At the end of the day the agent and manager asks “How much?’” Everybody has to get a fee and nobody works for free. We have that immediate line in but competitively we’re lined up with everyone else. We have to bring the best proposition.

What do you do to ensure that the dealmaking in the end is arm’s length?

Shapiro: It’s an arm’s length deal and it’s extremely transparent. The talent knows all the offers that are on the table. We have to bid and give and take just like everybody else and try to get the best deal. … We want the artists to have a real hand in the creative process and to have a transparent path to reaching upside on the backend. That’s one of the major differentiators that our companies offer. Remember the agent or manager is incentivized to get the highest number because their commission is based on the amount of revenue they bring in.

You are also in the midst of setting up a new TV rights deal for the UFC. What’s the status?

Shapiro: Conversations to renew the domestic deal are ongoing. It’s up at the end of this year. The window’s now open, we’re talking to any and all platforms, and we’re still talking to Fox which has been a tremendous partner. I think we’ll have something to announce in the next few months.

IMG Original Content made a big move in 2016 by signing a deal with WME client Steve Harvey to produce his daytime talk show after his previous daytime TV deal with NBC and Endemol Shine expired. That was a signal to the industry that you were thinking big.

Antinoro: Steve was getting frustrated creatively.

Shapiro: We had an early meeting with Steve in Chicago. He told us, “If we’re doing this I want to make sure I have a say in the entire process. I want it to be sustained input.” That’s exactly what we’re bringing to the table. We told him, “Who knows you better than you?” Steve brought on all the (revamped show’s) comedy writers. When we came down to two showrunners, he made the choice.

NBC was not happy about the situation, although they remain the distributor and the core station group for “Steve,” which has been renewed for a second season. Did that make you nervous about the larger business relationship between NBCUniversal and Endeavor?

Shapiro: At the end of the day, (NBC) cut a very healthy deal on distribution and their commission on sales. And we ended up doing it at their studio (in L.A.). In terms of the overall deal, NBC has no risk and a very healthy partnership. The risk all lies with us. Are we making as much as Endemol did? No. But it’s profitable for us and it’s been a very healthy opportunity for Steve.

Staeger: We see it as our job to bring new opportunity. We don’t see it as a competitive situation with clients. Especially being in-house to a degree it’s incumbent on us to find those opportunities that talent might not otherwise have.

Shapiro: We have a tremendous (affiliate) agency with tremendous talent. They’re looking for production companies all the time. Now that we’re established, from sports, fashion, documentaries, entertainment; now that we’re working with everybody, we’ll get a lot of inbound calls… The mandate at the company is if there’s an open bidding process, if you have a show and there’s a marketplace and you’re in search of a production company, give them a chance. Give them the chance to pitch their creative wares and their expertise and if they lose, they lose. Not knowing is really the sin. Not knowing about an open opportunity is a mistake. But it’s an open marketplace. With any project we have with WME, we’re bidding with the best of them and we lose all the time.

Can you give me an example?

Shapiro: We were pitching “World’s Strongest Man.” That’s a property IMG has had for 37 years. It airs on CBS Sports, and we had the ability to turn it into a primetime series. We went to (WME agents) Brad Slater and Jason Hodes who represent (Dwayne Johnson). We spent months developing it and months pitching it. We didn’t sell it. The Rock was into it but it didn’t click with the platforms we were pitching. Now fast-forward a few months later and NBC’s launching a primetime series with the Rock and (producer) Arthur Smith & Co. called “Titans.” And we’re not a part of it. And that’s OK. You win some, you lose some. (WME) worked with another partner and sold the show and did the best that they could for the client. It’s a win from where I sit because (the company) is still getting a primetime series with the Rock.

Is it hard as an independent to hang on to the international rights that make producing shows most lucrative for you? Most of the premium outlets want to own everything outright on a global basis.

Shapiro: Most of it is work for hire.

Antinoro: Especially on the live events side. Disney has a Christmas Parade (TV) special every year. They brought us in to produce it, and now that’s grown into three shows.

Shapiro: Decent margins, high volume. That’s the work for hire business.

Staeger: Our checklist on the business side is: we’d love to own it, we’d love to distribute it internationally. On “Battle of the Network Stars” we do have a bigger stake there and we’re able to sell it internationally. With (Netflix’s) “Coach Snoop” we supplemented the cash flow on that series, which empowered Snoop to get a license fee rather than a work for hire deal on the show.

Shapiro: We spent a good deal of development money on clients and talent that will come to us with ideas. It’s a good concept that needs some development. We’ll write a check to develop it out, take it on the road and try to sell it. Having IMG as a production company means that a lot of WME talent will come to the table saying, “I’ve got an idea, I want to test this out.”

Have there been any issues working with rival agencies? Have you seen any hesitation from them to put their clients in IMG shows?

Shapiro: We don’t have any problems. Shane Farley is the showrunner of “Steve” — he’s ICM. (Producer) Mike Tollin came forward with (Peter Guber’s) Mandalay — Peter does all of his business with CAA. But he wanted to develop some film projects and documentary ideas. We had a history with him at ESPN, so we did a deal to work with Mandalay Sports. 

What made the difference for your reputation as a production company?

Shapiro: Look at “Gleason.” When it came to us, (former NFL player suffering from ALS) Steve Gleason had shot some video capturing his personal diary for while. We were told, “We don’t have any money but we want to make a documentary. We think we have an advertiser on board but we don’t want to commercialize it. Can we send you a sizzle reel?” When we saw it we knew this is the kind of content you want to be associated with. We gave them the money they needed to finish it out…I never thought we would be working with Michael (Moore) on a Broadway show. This unit has the ability to stretch into so many lanes.

Staeger: There’s the “Model Squad” series with E! following IMG models. The “First Team: Juventus” (soccer docu series) in Italy for Netflix. We have that access by virtue of our IMG relationship with soccer around the world. Subscriber growth matters a lot to Netflix in Italy.

Shapiro: Ari and I had a call with Ted [Sarandos]. He said. “I see you’re doing a lot of follow-docs. If you can get us the access we’re looking for in soccer outside the U.S.”…and we went to work. A credit to IMG Media, they were able to walk us to the doors to different teams.

What’s the biggest opportunity for you going forward? Will you launch more OTT channels a la the fashion outlet M2M: Made to Measure? You produce the shows for that ad-supported streaming service.

Shapiro: There was no content creation around fashion when we got here. So you have all these great events, you represent all these incredible models, designers, and photographers. You have this incredible access and influence. And it was just going untapped and un-monetized.

Antinoro: There was actually a company we were paying to stream our events. We were creating this great content which they owned. We had a meeting, and we said that’s not right.

Staeger: The original purpose (of IMG Original Content) was to really look at the conglomerate that was WME/IMG and all these verticals that weren’t necessarily talking to each other. Certainly content wasn’t being mined. Our role was to help each of those units find opportunities to create content and push it out there.

Shapiro: We’re leaning in. There’s more platforms than ever before. Everybody’s thirsty for meaningful content. Creating these opportunities for talent to spread their wings creatively, have a transparent process and know that the upside at the end will fall to them — that’s when we’ll know we’re doing our jobs right.

(Pictured: IMG Original Content’s Mark Shapiro, Mike Antinoro, and Will Staeger)

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