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Anonymous Content Thrives on TV Boom, ‘Spotlight’ and ‘The Revenant’ Awards Heat

At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, HBO’s programming president, Michael Lombardo, director Steven Soderbergh and his longtime manager Michael Sugar were on top of the world.

Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” a project the director had tried to make as a feature for years before HBO gave him the greenlight, had a triumphant premiere at the festival, marking a rare Cannes splash for a TV movie. With spirits high, Sugar and his business partner, veteran movie producer Steve Golin, seized the opportunity to make an unconventional pitch to Lombardo.

Anonymous Content, the management-production company Golin founded in 1999, had done considerable development on a drama series examining the birth of modern medicine through the eyes of a cocaine-addicted surgeon in turn-of-the-century New York. The first few scripts were already written by rising-star screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Clive Owen was on board to star, and Soderbergh was committed to direct all 10 episodes of the first season.

Golin and Sugar assured Lombardo that HBO was the first stop with the glossy package. But the caveat was that Owen and Soderbergh had carved out a tight window in their schedules for production. Lombardo had to say yea or nay quickly to a straight-to-series pickup. The project could not go through a lengthy development process — a big ask given the typically long gestation of most HBO programs.

The Knick” went into production nine days after Cannes. And with that, Anonymous, a company known mostly for its film work, began a run of fielding distinctive TV projects at a rate that rivals the track record of any major studio in recent years.

HBO’s “True Detective” garnered Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson for its impressive first season on the strength of the script that Anonymous developed with writer client Nic Pizzolatto. “The Knick” wound up becoming the calling-card series for the revamp of HBO sibling Cinemax. USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” became a sleeper hit last summer, and is now off and running as a top contender in TV kudos races.

THE RIGHT R/X: Cinemax has made Clive Owen starrer “The Knick” its signature series.

HBO in particular is not accustomed to buying shows that come in the door fully baked and camera ready. But “True Detective” and “The Knick” were too compelling to ignore. And the Anonymous team has proven to be trustworthy partners, Lombardo says.

“Their success is not a fluke. It’s a testament to good taste and talent and a strong work ethic,” Lombardo says. In the coming year, Anonymous has seven more series bound for Cinemax, Netflix, Amazon, Starz, Epix and TNT. The Turner cabler paid a hefty $5 million-per-episode commitment in a heated auction last year to land “The Alienist,” shepherded by “True Detective” helmer Cary Joji Fukunaga, an Anonymous client. TNT hopes it will lead the charge for a dramatic makeover of its programming brand, just as “Mr. Robot” has heralded a new era for USA.

Amid the burst of TV activity, Anonymous is also smack in the middle of the film awards season as a producer and key catalyst for the much-praised dramas “Spotlight” and “The Revenant.” “ ‘Spotlight’ would not have been made without them,” says director Tom McCarthy, who is not repped by Anonymous. “They served the roles as producers very, very well.”

Golin and his team are poised to capitalize on their golden moment by enlisting an investor or strategic partner to help expand their production business. Anonymous recently retained investment bank Guggenheim Partners to help sort through the best options for the company, although an outright sale is not in the cards. Nor does Golin intend to give up control of the Culver City-based company, which has about 100 employees spread among its management, production and commercials and branded content units.

“We have a lot of momentum right now,” Golin says. “It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of laying of pipe over the years.”

Anonymous has scored by bringing feature talent into TV on unusual terms. Between Soderbergh on “The Knick” and Fukunaga on season one of “True Detective,” the company sparked the current mania for top-tier directors treating entire TV seasons as one long movie. And, Anonymous has so far been successful setting its own terms for avoiding development hell by landing straight-to-series orders.

“What we don’t like is going around to networks and getting development deals,” Golin says. “We would much rather find a piece of material, hire the writer, develop it and package it the way we like it, and figure out what broadcaster out there likes what we have developed.”

That model is not infallible. “Mr. Robot,” the brainchild of Anonymous client Sam Esmail, initially went out to buyers as a package with Paul Dano and Evan Rachel Wood attached to star. USA Network ordered a pilot, and took a fresh stab at casting, winding up with Rami Malek as the show’s enigmatic lead.

“Honestly, it’s become kind of a hobby. It’s very difficult to make real money being a movie producer unless you’re producing Marvel movies. We love film, and once in a while, we may make some money at it.”
Steve Golin

“True Detective’s” disappointing second season is presenting a challenge for the company and client Pizzolatto, who went solo in writing all episodes for both seasons. There’s little doubt that another installment of the crime drama anthology will be forthcoming, but it’s looking more likely that Pizzolatto will get some assistance on the writing side next time around.

Anonymous’ fortunes also will serve as a larger test of how content companies prosper in the “peak TV” era, when the economic fundamentals of primetime series production are in flux. Anonymous is still dependent on studios and networks to finance its shows, which means it doesn’t own the copyrights. But even with Guggenheim surveying prospective investors, Golin is not chasing capital to get into financing and distribution. He’s turned down those offers many times on the film side. “The idea of administering a film fund does not appeal to me,” he says. “We’re in the management-production business. If we get the right material, we’ll get the project made.”

In TV, the company usually commands higher-than-average fees upfront and a big slice of profit participation. How significantly that back end will translate to profits on Anonymous’ signature projects — edgy premium cable dramas — remains a big question mark. But in any era, having an eye for talent and a knack for delivering shows that stand above the pack is the name of the game. And success breeds success.

“The quality of the experience people have working with us is important,” Sugar says. “It’s philosophical, but it’s also strategic. Josh Singer wrote ‘Spotlight’ for us because he had a good experience with us on something else. Amiel and Begler gave us ‘The Knick’ because they had a good experience with us. The more we create that feeling the more likely we’re going to continue to work with great people.”

The company’s reputation as a strong producer is growing and not strictly dependent on the clients Anonymous has to offer. Ari Greenburg, co-head of TV packaging at WME, has worked with the team extensively as its TV operation has grown.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Greenburg says. “They bet on themselves. They’re doing the work and they’re really in a position now to elevate their own business and their clients.”

The company’s culture of championing artists with singular creative vision is evident throughout its offices in Culver City’s budding media business district in the Hayden Tract area. The industrial-style design is brightly colored, accented with communal spaces and a well-stocked kitchen that sits just off the main lobby. Golin’s corner office looks out at street level on National Boulevard, where every 12 minutes or so on weekdays an Expo Line train slides by. On a sunny day in early November, Golin’s good-natured dog Friday (yes, she’s a girl) roams freely around the complex.

As the trending lines for sales in film and TV head in opposite directions, Golin says he’s gratified that the company that largely had focused on film is thriving in TV. Anonymous also has long been bolstered by its prolific commercial production operation. Nonetheless, Golin says TV production is poised to eclipse the profits reaped from commercials as Anonymous’ shows start to pay their back-end dividends.

As chairman-CEO, Golin does not directly manage any clients. He focuses on running the company and leveraging his experience and relationships to advance the larger goals. The exec, who previously headed the influential Propaganda Films, is widely respected for his taste, and skill at shaping projects. Anonymous “genuinely embraces the idiosyncratic vision of its artists, and helps them fulfill it,” says Jeff Wachtel, president of Universal Cable Prods., which produces “Mr. Robot.” “I think that’s where Steve gets his greatest satisfaction.”

Hot Roster
TV series are fueling the growth of production at Anonymous Content
Current Shows
The Knick (Cinemax) Status: Close to renewal for season 3
True Detective (HBO) Status: Close to renewal for season 3
Mr. Robot (USA) Status: Renewed for season 2
Coming in 2016
The Alienist (TNT) Police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt hunts for a serial killer in turn-of-the-century New York.
Counterpart (Starz) J.K. Simmons stars in a supernatural thriller about a lowly bureaucrat who discovers a big secret.
Berlin Station (Epix) Richard Armitage, Richard Jenkins, Rhys Ifans and Michelle Forbes star in this
CIA drama
Quarry (Cinemax) Logan Marshall-Green plays a Vietnam veteran drawn into a network of killers in early 1970s Memphis
The OA (Netflix) Brit Marling stars and co-created the series, with details being kept under wraps
13 Reasons Why (Netflix) A high-school student who committed suicide leaves behind a box of tapes explaining why she took her life
The Good Girls Revolt (Amazon pilot order) Female staffers at a weekly news magazine in the early 1970s demand equal treatment

Golin ascribes the company’s growth to the intense focus his team puts on what he feels is the neglected art of being a pure producer. That means being proactive in brainstorming, packaging and selling projects, keeping a laser eye on troubleshooting and problem-solving, and planting yourself on the set, day in and day out, while a TV show or film is in production. Anonymous faces an added hurdle in battling the stigma that talent managers who receive screen credits as producers only ride their client’s coattails, and as such only leech money out of the budget.

Sugar moved to New York for the production of “The Knick.” Chad Hamilton, Esmail’s manager, did the same for season one of “Mr. Robot” and will return for season two. Keith Redmon, an Anonymous Partner and a producer on “The Revenant,” relocated his family to Berlin earlier this year to be on the set of “Berlin Station,” the upcoming spy thriller for Epix.

“Steve has taught us how to be producers and entrepreneurs,” says Redmon, who joined Anonymous about 10 years ago. “The environment here is that perfect balance of autonomy and support.”

The drive to rev up TV came about two and a half years ago, as the spike in the number of buyers hungry for nontraditional series became impossible to ignore.

Golin admits that the inspiration for its approach to TV development came from another company’s example: the $100 million, two-season sale of “House of Cards” to Netflix that Media Rights Capital orchestrated in 2011 for director David Fincher and star Kevin Spacey.

“We saw that and said, ‘Holy shit, we can do that,’ ” Golin says. “We saw that they were basically using the independent feature packaging technique that we have spent a lot of time doing ourselves.”

The boom time in TV has corresponded with a depressed market for the kind of films Anonymous champions. “Spotlight” took more than six years to get off the ground. “Revenant” took nearly 12, although Redmon assures that it was always a question of “when, not if” the movie would be made.

After an hour of talking strategy, Golin makes a startling assertion about the “bruising” film business in such a clear-eyed way as to explain why HBO’s Lombardo calls him “an elegant, thoughtful man.”

“Honestly, it’s become kind of a hobby. It’s very difficult to make real money being a movie producer unless you’re producing Marvel movies,” Golin says. “We love film and once in a while we may make some money at it. It’s part of the DNA of our company. (But) I’m glad we have the other segments of our business to balance it out.”

Golin quickly assures that he has hopes of a turnaround, especially with Netflix and Amazon starting to spend money and well-heeled new distributors like STX Entertainment and Broad Green Pictures popping up.

Now that lieutenants like Sugar and Redmon are excelling in their roles as producers, Golin is turning more of his energy to building up the overall business — hence the discussions with Guggenheim. For now, growth means television, and also figuring out if there’s a sustainable business to be built in producing original digital content. He wonders out loud how Shane Smith’s Vice Media is managing to make it work.

The clock is ticking down to Golin’s next meeting. Before opening the door to his office to get an enthusiastic greeting from Friday, he adds a final thought about Anonymous’ future, speaking with conviction if not bombast.

“As long as the market stays as buoyant as it is, we’re going to kill it,” he says.

(Pictured above: Michael Sugar, Steve Golin)

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