MGM Television is back in the ring in a big way. The Lion’s TV operations are thriving on the success of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as well as the unscripted franchises that were acquired when prolific producer Mark Burnett set up shop at MGM in 2015. MGM’s acquisition of the Epix pay TV network last year also promises to expand the TV division’s horizons. Burnett spoke with Variety recently about the studio’s growth, navigating the global TV marketplace and his excitement over the revival of his boxing competition series “The Contender.”
The best drama series win for “The Handmaid’s Tale” after its first season capped a big year for MGM last fall. What do you think has given you such momentum?
MGM clearly right now is in a very, very strong position, and it’s all because of one reason: the shows are really great. In the end you can have the best sales machine in the world, if you haven’t got great shows there’s no real value. The foreign market for “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been amazing. “Get Shorty” on Epix has gotten really fantastic reviews. It’s premium-level quality. We have a great new show we just made for [DirecTV], “Condor” with William Hurt and Mira Sorvino and Max Irons. It’s a re-imagining of “Three Days of the Condor.”
Epix is a big platform for you now that it is fully in-house. You are giving it a big push in original programming including the revival of your 2005-09 NBC series “The Contender.”
One of my favorite series that I’ve ever made in my career is “The Contender.” The excitement in the boxing world is palpable. The casting already is amazing. When you think about how many young boxers who are absolutely brilliant but don’t get a shot, then you get this show. It also ties in very nicely for MGM and the fact that we’re bringing out “Creed 2” soon. Michael Wright who now runs Epix for us is someone I’ve known for a long time. I sold him shows previously when he was at Turner. He completely gets the premium content that will be on Epix.
Will you shop the U.S. edition of “The Contender” or the format rights to the show to international buyers? Or both?
We’ll do both. Because in the U.K. for example boxing is huge and they’ll want to have their local fighters. After a few seasons of the new “Contender” I’m sure we’ll have many country vs. country series. Of course “Contender” will absolutely be happening in Mexico. Boxing is a huge sport there and we’re already making “Lucha Underground” [wrestling series] for El Rey. We really like that space. There will be an announcement soon on something we’re involved with in the MMA world.
MGM TV is also venturing into Spanish-language production for the first time. Is that a priority for you?
We have a venture in Mexico, Gato Grande, which means big cat, that’s a little nod to MGM. We’ve just finished our first premium scripted series in Mexico, “Luis Miguel.” It looks amazing. We’ll be at the [MIPTV] market with that. It will be airing in April on Telemundo. This will certainly be the beginning of many big projects we’ll be doing in Spanish. We’re very committed to Spanish-language programming.
“Different projects require a different strategy. You’ve got to be open-minded. The fact that we have our own channel is very, very helpful.”
How are you navigating the new world of global platforms a la Netflix and Amazon. Those buyers want to retain all worldwide rights that have traditionally been a big source of profits for studios like MGM.
It’s a case-by-case scenario. In most cases we would prefer to retain all foreign rights. Chris Ottinger, president of worldwide television distribution and acquisitions, does a great job. In the end it comes down to whether that’s the place a show should be. In that case, they’ll pay a big premium [for worldwide rights]. Different projects require a different strategy. You’ve got to be open-minded. The fact that we have our own channel is very, very helpful. Right now we have a project we love based on Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Heart Goes Last.” There’ll be a lot of desire for that project and we anticipate that we’ll retain the foreign rights on that.
Other than “Contender,” what’s the next big thing on your unscripted slate?
“The World’s Best.” It’s a talent show. Not just singing, but all kinds of talent. We’re 50-50 on this with Mike Darnell and Warner Horizon. It’s on CBS and shooting in the fall. It’s going to be huge. It’s taking a big talent show, combining it with Olympics with 50 foreign judges each giving a score and three American judges for a combined score that will tell you whether you go through or not. It’s got what we love about scoring in the Olympics. It was a show that CBS bought in the room. We will bring it out at the next MIP.