Later this month BMG’s first feature-length documentary, “Bad Reputation,” a film about Joan Jett’s life and career, will make its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film is the first feature-length documentary project from the integrated record label and music-publishing company, which is making a strategic move into music-related films and TV production.
Documentaries on T. Rex — which will be accompanied by a tribute album — the influential reggae label Trojan Records, and the legendary concert promoters and agents who built the rock touring industry are slated for next year, with more projects in the works. The goal is for the new business unit to include feature-length documentaries, narrative features, concert films, scripted and unscripted series, both long and short-form.
The move has been so stealthy that the film was announced for Sundance without anyone publicly noticing that it was a BMG production, under the umbrella of the company’s audiovisual-production department, which was founded in 2014 and now numbers five people led by Los Angeles-based SVP Justus Haerder.
BMG CEO Hartwig Masuch spoke exclusively with Variety about the company’s venture into film and TV.
You’ve been working on this for three years, how did you keep it quiet?
That’s how we run things: We try to deliver a result and then announce it. There was really no agenda not to talk about it, we just weren’t aggressively communicative. It was the same thing with [recorded music], when in 2009 we did our first recording deals we didn’t make a big noise about it — we only started to make more noise when Janet Jackson’s [“Unbreakable”] hit No. 1, after we’d already released 13 albums. We understand how this market works and what the expectations are. We started audiovisuals four years ago: Our first move was when we started a production line in Germany with Arte [network], which is a bit like PBS here, producing live concerts with interviews; I think we’ve done 44 of those shows up to now.We took our time and did our research and figured out what we really want. I feel much better figuring out if we’re capable of doing something before we make a lot of noise.
Actually, 3-4 years ago we tried to make a big move to buy Eagle Rock [Entertainment, a large video-production company specializing in concert films and music docs] and at the last minute we lost out to Universal, so obviously that would have changed from day one our presence in that market. That’s another good reason to be a little more cautious about the situation! But if we were willing to spend $30 million to buy a company, an alternative agenda would be: We won’t make one big move, we’ll build our presence step by step and maybe in 5-6 years have the same scope that we would have had with Eagle Rock.
Some of the projects would seem to have a fairly limited audience — can something like the Trojan Records documentary be profitable?
We have a very intense look at the cost structure — we’re not spending just to win whatever prize there is, but make it work. We own the Trojan catalog, but if we do single-artist projects we do a joint venture so they have an interest to make this financially attractive — not by paying a big advance but by sharing all the proceeds and deciding the strategic framework. There are certain projects we look from a total portfolio perspective – we could spend a lot of money on TV advertising for a best-of [compilation] or we could go the other way and create a documentary to get the same amount of airtime but in a much more credible way.
Would you do video deals with artists whose rights you don’t own?
Yes, although the economics of doing something with someone on another label would have to be clearly convincing to us from a return perspective. For instance, we don’t publish or own T. Rex or [T. Rex leader] Marc Bolan’s recordings, but we think it’s an attractive property to have and to generate returns. And we have the tribute album with fantastic artists on it, and in this time of multimedia and streaming we’ll do pretty well.
How many potential outlets do some of these projects have? Spotify and Apple Music have their own video content you’d have to compete with.
We talk to them — the door is open to partner with them on certain things. But there are a lot of potential outlets, and not only here — there’s China, Asia, hotels and digital services, in-flight entertainment, packaging it [in a boxed set] if we control [the music rights]. One of the key success factors will be the distribution system, we can tap into [Bertelsmann-owned] Fremantle’s system and talk with them about global sales and whether we can piggyback on their presence in sales conferences, that’s a huge advantage in this kind of situation. And we also can tap into other related companies, for instance BMG does books about artists — we can go down to the 14th floor to [Bertelsmann-owned] Random House, the biggest book publisher in the world. There are multiple ways to monetize it.
Are you thinking about doing music biopics?
We have a lot of things on the table, we have to figure out what our capacity is.
How about non-music projects?
No, that would be Fremantle — we have a mission statement to look at whatever the context is with music. I can’t just go out and do a Ken Follet or Dan Brown project, that would not be appreciated! (laughs)