As independent film producers gather at AFM, one of the biggest things on their minds isn’t officially happening in the market: producing, financing and selling TV series.
“In my Cannes meetings, people were talking through their film and television slate, whereas maybe a year before everyone was just talking about their film slate,” says U.K.-based producer Iain Canning of See-Saw Films, which produced “The King’s Speech,” moved into TV with Jane Campion’s SundanceTV miniseries “Top of the Lake,” above, and is now on Steve McQueen’s HBO pilot “Codes of Conduct.” “There’s a dual agenda that I’ve never experienced before.”
Specialty film directors have lensed cable episodes for years, big-name auteurs Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and now “Birdman” helmer Alejandro G. Inarritu (Starz’s upcoming series “The One Percent”) have launched their own series, and movie stars including Scarlett Johansson (Sony Pictures TV’s upcoming limited series “Custom of the Country”) have followed. But right now, the list of pure-play indie film producers breaking into TV is growing about as fast as the number of cable and Web outlets looking for scripted series.
Sales outfits and divisions are looking to mine the smallscreen boom, too: Annapurna, Gaumont, Lakeshore, Relativity, Sierra/Affinity and Engine Entertainment (Sierra/Engine), Voltage and Weinstein Co. are just a few that have expanded from film to TV, and sources say several film sellers at AFM are looking to launch TV arms in the near future.
Producer-manager Steve Golin of Anonymous Content (HBO’s “True Detective”) is packaging talent and launching series (including adaptations of “The Alienist” and “Fatal Attraction”) via a new first-look deal with Paramount TV covering development, deficit financing and international distribution. Producer-financier Big Beach has created a TV division led by former IFC development and production VP Dan Pasternack. They’re part of a growing group of film production shingles courting and being courted by far more TV buyers than just premium content pioneers HBO and Showtime.
Cablers like the Paramount-MGM-Lionsgate-backed Epix, the Mark Cuban-Ryan Seacrest Media-AEG-CAA-CBS partnership AXS TV and Participant’s Pivot, more established nets including Starz, Bravo, SundanceTV, WE tv, A&E, TV Guide Channel and WGN America, and Web outfits Netflix, Amazon, Yahoo and Hulu are all hunting for prestige scripted episodic series.
And it’s a sellers’ market, with many willing to pay far more than theatrical distribs for comparable projects.
“In premium cable, we have the same artistic ambition as indie film, but we have the money to make it and do it right,” says Gary Levine, exec VP of original programming at Showtime, which has pilots from Marc Webb (“Crazy Ex-Girfriend”) and more in the pipeline.
Some film producers entering the TV space this year — think Megan Ellison (Annapurna), Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf (Big Beach TV) or Michael Benaroya and Darryl Taja (Revolution Media) — come with their own financing. Others, like See Saw (which fell into “Lake,” its first miniseries, when a Campion feature stalled at the same time See-Saw had beefed up its TV staff) get outside funding. With “Lake,” See Saw brought in Sundance, two BBC channels and two government funders (Screen Australia and New Zealand’s Screen NSW), plus Fulcrum Media Finance for gap financing on Australia and New Zealand tax incentives.
But often, even with self-financed outfits, the network will cover all production costs. So for indie producers used to cobbling together a budget from many sources and taking a gamble on distribution at markets, not only does TV bring in more reliable and regular income, it can also end a bigger hunt for funding.
“Between the studio and the network, it’s one-stop shopping” for financing, says producer Howard Gertler (“Shortbus”), who’s developing his first scripted series with a studio. “There’s sometimes an international component, but that’s driven by the studio or network as well.”
Is it worth it to the networks? For Levine, “the primary revenue is undoubtedly our subscription audience” — something that can increase when a prestige show such as “The Knick” (from Anonymous and exec producer Steven Soderbergh) ups the rep of an established channel like Cinemax or, even more crucially, makes a new outlet like Netflix a must-have for must-see shows “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.”
“Companies launching their brands are willing to pay a lot of money for something they think is going to differentiate their channel,” says Golin, who hopes to have 10 shows on the air in three years. “A Netflix or an HBO measures the success of a show by the amount of publicity and awards it gets, because that creates a desire for people to subscribe, and they (often) see the subscription rate go up. Even if people don’t watch the show, it’s still a win to have them feel good about paying that fee.”
Golin likens this to consumers who’ve purchased DVDs they never got around to opening. “When Netflix bought ‘Cards,’ everyone was saying they overpaid. But it put them on the map, and their market cap increased so much, it was probably one of the smartest investments ever made.”
How much networks and subscription VOD services are willing to pay — and risk — can vary.
“A lot of the new players — the small cable channels dipping their toes in the water of original scripted programming — have business models that don’t necessarily anticipate taking on the full freight of a show, but if it’s something where we feel there’s value in sharing that risk, we will,” Pasternack says. “In those cases, we can bring gap financing or deficit financing to a show and retain ownership or a share of ownership. You just have to figure out if the rights you retain in exchange for the financing you bring makes sense.”
He aims to have three shows on the air by the second anniversary of his new division, producing in a range of business models at indie-film level budgets.
But much like the lead character trying to figure out her new life in Amazon’s hit original series “Transparent,” many are still evaluating how to transition.
“Producers have gotten a little smarter about getting properties developed, so they can go to the talent to get them attached to it,” says IFP head Joana Vicente, citing HBO lit adaptations from Bona Fide’s Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger (“The Leftovers”) and Killer Films’ Christine Vachon (“Mildred Pierce”).
Mega Films’ Morris S. Levy (“The Ten”) is producing Colin Quinn’s upcoming spoof “Cop Show” as a Web series with guests like Amy Schumer, and though he got an offer from one of the newer outlets to turn it into a TV series, he just inked a deal with online shingle L Studio (Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy”) for eight episodes instead. “If we get a good network offer, I’m sure we’ll look into it,” he says.
For less-established producers, Vicente says TV grants are scarce, but they’re getting help from programs at IFP and Sundance Institute’s Episodic Story Lab, and support from fests with new TV sections like SXSW and Rotterdam. Terence Gray’s New York Television Festival has given some producers industry connections.
While many feature-length indie dramas are having a tough time in foreign sales (“Drama is basically a dirty word in the movie business,” as Golin puts it), Showtime’s Levine notes that “high-end, high quality (TV) dramas play very well internationally.” Ray McKinnon, producer and showrunner on Southern gothic series “Rectify” (SundanceTV’s first scripted show) was surprised when U.K. broadcaster ITV snapped up foreign rights while the first season was in production.
“Networks are seeing there’s a bigger market beyond America,” he says.
Not everything is perfect in TV land: AMC put “Rectify” into development in 2008, but like many other development projects, it languished.
McKinnon was told he could shop it elsewhere until execs at parent AMC Networks brought it to sister network SundanceTV in 2011, part of another wave of smaller-scale scripted series networks hope to use to brand themselves. And in July, Microsoft cancelled plans to launch Xbox Entertainment Studios, which would have created interactive TV and exclusive content for its console platform.
Is this latest wave a bubble? SVOD, Netflix windows and other possibilities have been mentioned as future revenue sources, but at June’s Producers By conference, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf noted that while there were 60 or 70 original scripted series on air in the three-network era, the number jumped to around 350 this year and could hit 400 in 2015.
But for the time being, at least, they prove a rare axiom in Hollywood these days: quality sells.
“Audiences’ appetite for substantial quality series will never go away,” Levine says. “I don’t think anyone’s gonna un-ring that bell.”