LONDON — For someone reputed to be only marginally less humble than Mohammad Ali in his prime, it’s a shock to hear Simon Cowell admit he still has something to learn from other entertainment biz leaders.
Take Harvey Weinstein, with whom Cowell is collaborating on a biopic about “Britain’s Got Talent” winner Paul Potts, played by James Corden.
“I’ve asked Harvey to teach me everything he knows,” Cowell admits. “He came to my house in L.A. There was no small talk; he told me what my areas of responsibility were if I was going to be a producer.”
Earlier this year, Syco Entertainment, the company Cowell co-owns with Sony Music Entertainment, hired Sony Pictures executive Adam Milano as senior VP of film, because Cowell thought his company needed the expertise. The move signalled the shingle’s intention to shift beyond reality TV and into feature production following a production/distribution pact with Sony Pictures.
“We needed to have a movie specialist onboard,” Cowell says. “I wasn’t going to say, ‘We know how to make movies.’ I haven’t got a bloody clue. I don’t understand how they’re financed, how the money works. All I knew was that I’d like to be in a position that if we offered something, we had the right person here.”
Not that Cowell is straying far from his comfort zone.
The Potts biopic, due to be released in October 2013, stars boy band One Direction, finalists in the 2010 U.K. edition of “X Factor.”
“We created the group, and One Direction is on our label. We understand its audience, and we’ve now got a guy who can guide me through it,” Cowell adds. “Like I taught myself how to make TV shows, I am going to get Adam to teach me how to make movies.”
Cowell’s business acumen is beyond reproach; the titan of the TV talent show is estimated to be worth in excess of £200 million ($324 million). In a good year, Syco is reckoned to be responsible for generating 75% of Sony Music’s U.K. profits, with acts developed on the British versions of “Got Talent” or “X Factor,” like Susan Boyle and One Direction, going on to become international earners.
And then there are global revenues from the shows themselves. “Got Talent,” a format Syco co-owns with FremantleMedia, is produced in 49 territories, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, plus the U.S. and the U.K. This year, “Got Talent,” despite being six years old, bowed in nine more territories. In the U.S., season seven of “America’s Got Talent,” seen in 180 countries, recently completed another successful run for NBC.
Even so Cowell, who is reputed to never rest on his laurels, reckons that as competition intensifies in the U.S. and elsewhere, “America’s Got Talent” needs to raise its game.
“I am guessing, but I think 12-14 different talent shows have aired in the U.S. this year, including ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ ” he says. ” ‘The Voice’ has been the only new format where you feel you’ve got someone knocking on your door. But you have to respect the competition. It’s made us work harder.”
Just as “Britain’s Got Talent” was recently reinvigorated, the U.S. show is similarly being readied for a makeover.
“Two years ago in the U.K. we didn’t have a great show. The talent wasn’t great. It just felt flat. There was apathy among the public and the media,” he recalls. “I always believe that every year, everything can be improved by a minimum of 20%.”
For starters, in the U.S. Cowell wants to introduce a more rigorous selection procedure for the talent.
“For me these shows rely on finding a superstar,” Cowell says. “I’d like to believe that in America, you could find a great new comic or the next David Copperfield or maybe a singer.”
Cowell also is considering doubling the $1 million prize or another element added to make the prize more enticing to draw the best talent to his show.
Meanwhile, he is reluctant to predict the prospects for the second season of “X Factor” on Fox, following the relative disappointment of the debut run, for which he had predicted 20 million viewers and wound up in the 12 million-13 million range. Ratings also are off for the show in the U.K. in its ninth season.
All of this increases pressure on Syco to develop new formats. Inevitably, given the international success of “MasterChef,” the shingle is now turning its ambitions to food.
At the Mipcom TV mart in Cannes next month, the company is launching cooking competition format, “Food Glorious Food,” made in partnership with Optomen Television, which has a good track record with another larger-than-life camera-friendly Brit foodie, Gordon Ramsay.
Cowell maintains “Food Glorious Food” is “less about shiny kitchens or celebrity chefs, and gets back to normal people.” In the U.K. show, the creator of the winning recipe earns a modest $33,000 and space on the shelves of one of Blighty’s top food retailer, Marks and Spencer.
Cowell claims there is already interest in a U.S. version, adding that adaptations in France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand are likely.
Syco’s debut drama is also being prepped, but Cowell declined to provide details other than saying the story is taken from a book to which Syco acquired the TV rights.
“Drama is very, very risky,” Cowell says. “Like with ‘Idol’ and ‘Got Talent,’ we always find a great production partner to work with. We would not have been in this position were it not for Fremantle. They gave us the expertise to show us how to make TV shows.”
Could Mr. Nasty be morphing into Mr. Modest?