In an effort to produce quality shows on a leaner budget, Sony Pictures Television is launching a yet-to-be-named boutique TV production label inspired by independent film, Variety has learned exclusively.
Leading the team as head of creative is Marie Jacobson, who was most recently executive vice president of programming and production for the company’s networks group. She will report to Sony Pictures TV Studios president Jeff Frost.
“Think of it as: how do we do independent television?” Sony Pictures Television chairman Mike Hopkins told Variety in an in-depth interview about the new direction of the studio that included details about the new production unit. “The ethos of it is [that] we’re going to create new TV shows that are high quality but we’re not going to make them the same way we make every other show around here.”
The idea originated from Sony’s media networks team, which wanted to create original programming for regions such as Central Europe and Latin America, but couldn’t pay the per-episode costs that premium U.S. programmers do.
Instead, the group re-redesigned the production process, taking inspiration from indie film productions and creating templates that incur far lower hourly episodic costs.
The team has already been successful, said Hopkins, ticking off several shows using a similar model that are profitable.
There’s “Absentia,” which was produced for Sony’s international networks; Amazon later bought the U.S. rights for the series, and has renewed it for a second season. Then there’s “Carter,” also produced for the international networks and picked up by Tribune for WGN America. The group is also running point on Polish procedural “Ultraviolet,” according to Sony.
And a new show, “Reckoning,” is being produced via this leaner, meaner model. Filming just wrapped in Australia. Sony is creating the show for international networks on spec, with the intention of taking it out to the marketplace to sell later.
“The idea is to allow us in a variety of ways to make quality TV independently, without the super high budgets that have crept into the system,” Hopkins said.
Kathryn Busby and Carolyn Carbone have been tapped to serve as senior vice president and vice president of the new production label, respectively. The team will work closely with Steve Kent for production and Steve Maynard for business affairs, said the company.
Among the many ways SPT plans to reduce costs are: cross-boarding episodes every season, forming smaller writers rooms, developing shorter-order seasons, and striking more back-end-heavy deals with above-the-line talent.
“With this model, I think we can safely say that these shows will be break-even or profitable almost every time, and therefore I can almost guarantee profit to a profit participant,” said Hopkins. “And if I can do that, perhaps they’ll be willing to take less of an episodic fee, which makes the show more profitable, which feeds the back end.”
The new label will have “an eye toward unique, high-quality, efficiently produced content for all platforms, including Sony’s own network of channels such as AXN,” according to the company.
Hopkins believes that basic cable is a “great example” of where such shows could land, but is also targeting streaming platforms and networks that need more content abroad. Sony notably has a significant presence internationally, with 21 out of its 24 wholly owned and joint venture production companies located abroad, and nearly 60% of its 127 currently airing shows overseas.
“Consumers want to see themselves, want to see their communities represented in the shows they watch, all over the world,” said Hopkins. “And what we’re also building out is a local production capability that we believe is going to be a very important part of our future where we can make shows in Latin America, make shows in Central Europe, make shows in Asia for those platforms in those markets, and for the streaming companies as well.”
Here’s Frost’s internal memo that was circulated through Sony Pictures Television on Tuesday morning:
We are delighted to announce today the launch of a new U.S. production unit. With an eye toward creating unique, high-quality content, this new production label will efficiently produce content for external and internal platforms, including Sony channels such as AXN. The new label is focused on producing distinct television programming in the indie feature film style and paradigm. Establishing this new label presents a tremendous opportunity to continue serving our customers as well as our own networks with programming that audiences love and that makes financial sense in today’s new entertainment landscape.
Marie Jacobson will oversee and serve as the head of creative for this exciting new division reporting to me. As a dynamic leader that has driven production and programming for SPT’s networks division, Marie’s experience in producing shows that deliver both creatively and financially makes her ideal for this position. Kathryn Busby will serve as SVP and Carolyn Carbone as VP of the new unit and the team will work closely with Steve Kent and Steve Maynard for production and Business Affairs, respectively. The newly established production label will tap into new and emerging voices and draw from our roster of high-level creators and top-notch actors in key roles. Marie and her team are in a unique position to capitalize on shared learnings from their combined experience as programmers and producers to create premium content on a sensible budget.
An outgrowth of the leadership offsite we had last year during which we challenged ourselves to think differently and explore new models, the idea for this new label emerged as one way to reimagine, revitalize and reinvent our development and production models, creatively and commercially. The new label will be a complementary division to our current SPT studio business and will be additive and incremental to what we already do. We have already seen success with similar models on shows like Absentia and Carter: studio-owned IP that premiered on SPT networks and were distributed wide to SVOD and cable platforms in the US and beyond. The group will continue to run point on a few scripted dramas in varying stages of production, including the second season of Absentia, Carter Season 2 and Ultraviolet Season 2. In addition, they are overseeing Reckoning, a new psychological thriller series SPT is taking out to buyers this spring.
Please join me in congratulating and supporting Marie and the team in this new endeavor. We look forward to working together to produce even more brilliant content from all divisions of our US studio.