Two years ago, WME-IMG partner Chris Rice hit Mipcom with one show and a mission to establish IMG as a player in international sales of scripted series. Based on the portfolio he’s bringing to Cannes this year, Rice achieved his goal.
“The Night Manager,” the spy thriller starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston that aired on AMC and BBC, was a sales juggernaut for IMG in 2015 and 2016. This time around, Rice has four high-profile properties — including the Beau Willimon Hulu/Channel 4 drama “The First” and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC America series “Killing Eve” — in his portfolio, and more on the way.
IMG has been aggressively growing its production financing and distribution operations as part of the parent company’s larger goal of investing more in content, rather than simply playing matchmaker for creative talent.
IMG’s focus has been on shows with high-end auspices and appeal to buyers around the world. BBC America’s “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” now in its second season, fits that bill because it is based on a well-known book series by Douglas Adams. The same goes for the deal WME-IMG brokered earlier this year for a series of seven Agatha Christie-branded limited series to air on Amazon and BBC.
“Connecting with a global audience is very much what we look for in the kinds of shows we sell and the business we’re trying to build,” Rice says.
To that end, IMG is making its presence known at Mipcom for the first time. Rice’s operation does not have a formal both but they are holding court in an IMG Lounge for the for the first time in the Croisette 22 space just off the main entrance to the Palais.
Most of the shows to date have stemmed from U.K.-related series commissions because TV creators there by law retain the underlying ownership of their shows — in sharp contrast to the U.S. model.
In the U.S., IMG’s push into the distribution territory that had been the province of studios has raised some eyebrows because of the potential to raise conflicts of interests with clients repped on the talent agency. IMG-WME took a step toward reinforcing the separate operations of the WME talent agency and IMG content- and distribution-focused activities by renaming the parent holding company Endeavor, a nod to the dynamo agency that was the predecessor of WME prior to its merger with William Morris Agency in 2009.
IMG takes multiple paths to its distribution deals. In some cases, the shows stem from clients repped by the WME end of the company, such as “Night Manager.” IMG can offer clients a lower distribution fee than a larger distributor would take and the promise of highly focused sales effort. Observers say that is inevitably offset by the fact that IMG doesn’t wield the same clout with buyers as an established studio.
From Rice’s view, small equates to nimble and not beholden to deal precedents that can get in the way of setting the most optimum market-by-market transactions.
“Unlike a legacy business, we’re in a position where we can sell into every window in every country on every platform,” he says. “We can take the time to figure out what is the best set of partnerships for an individual show, or client or any form of content.”
This approach demands that a project have clear marquee value — such as the anticipation around Willimon’s follow up to “House of Cards” with a show that persuaded Sean Penn to sign on for his first series lead role. “The First” is an ambitious tale of the first effort to send humans to live on Mars.
IMG is a co-financier of “First” with Hulu and Channel 4. Landing that show is a notable development for the distribution business as neither Willimon nor Penn are WME clients. IMG came aboard through its relationships with Channel 4 and Hulu.
IMG has had a TV sales operation for years to handle sporting events, fashion and awards shows and other mostly unscripted content. Rice’s group has waded into the world of scripted TV at a time when there is a deluge of series chasing international licensing coin. The high level of competition only reinforces Rice’s drive to find the most marketable properties.
“The effect of the [increased] number of shows coming out of the U.S. is that international buyers are very focused on shows driven by premium talent,” Rice says. “I’m fearful of the middle market shows. I’ve got no fear of selling talent-driven premium shows. There’s more appetite in the international marketplace than there are shows to feed that right now.”