If there was any question about the original content ambitions of Comcast-backed pay-TV operator Sky under its new leadership, a 125-title film and TV slate for 2021 reflects a company poised to build a distinct, autonomous service that can compete with its deep-pocketed SVOD rivals.
Sky in late 2019 renewed its output deal with HBO — which allows the business to offer the U.S. cabler’s top shows on its Sky Atlantic channel — for “multiple years,” but the company is clearly planning for a future where WarnerMedia pulls the plug on international licensing in favor of its own platform, HBO Max, which is now getting its house in order in Latin America and Europe.
The contract has “quite a few years to run,” says Zai Bennett, Sky U.K.’s managing director of content, “but you can put two and two together: where people are going direct-to-consumer, we have to have our own unique content…We need to future-proof our business.”
Bennett notes that Sky has to “plan for a scenario in which HBO says it’s now [expanding HBO Max] around the world and we need to be able to tell them, ‘Okay, good luck, but we’re okay.’ Equally, we need to be able to put a lump of money down and say, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to license programs to us?’ But ultimately, we need to stay in control of things we are in control of.”
And, for Sky, that’s original content, which generally pulls in higher ratings than acquired programs (Pulse Films’ “Gangs of London” was Sky’s most binged show of 2020), with the exception of Stateside hits like Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman thriller “The Undoing,” and of course, “Game of Thrones.”
The 125 films and TV shows represent a 50% boost from 2020, and include 30 Sky Original films along with 30 original documentaries.
Bennett says that despite the major leadership restructure at the company — which sees the departures of long-serving executives Gary Davey and Sky boss Jeremy Darroch, bringing an end to the old Sky regime — figures such as Stephen van Rooyen, CEO for Sky U.K. and Europe, “offer stability.”
Bennett reveals that incoming Sky Group CEO Dana Strong has arrived in the U.K. and is beginning to meet the teams after her mandatory quarantine period.
“The main thing for us is Comcast has owned the business for a number of years now, and we made a big announcement about investing in our original productions [in June 2019] and they were very much part of that,” says Bennett, citing Sky’s plans to invest $1 billion in content by 2024. “Their backing resulted in that, so no changes there and we’re still going to be powering towards that.”
In the short term, there will be a heightened investment in movies, with plans to launch two new original films each month, with a target of one new feature per week in 2022. The strategy is “partially COVID-inspired,” says Bennett, “but it’s also about having distinctiveness in the brand.”
The film slate includes “A Boy Called Christmas,” “Extinct,” “Monster Family 2,” “Save The Cinema,” “Creation Stories,” “Six Minutes to Midnight,” “The Glorias,” “Jolt,” “SAS:Red Notice,” “The Comeback Trail,” “Breaking News In Yuba County” and “Antebellum.”
Sky Cinema’s marketing hook is an offer of movies “you can’t get anywhere else,” says the executive, who personally set out to lean harder into the film space, particularly as competitors such as Netflix ready an eye-watering film slate that offers movies every week of the year. “We’re providing a variety of genres, including some family pieces. The main thing is they have top talent and are high quality.”
So far, the pay-TV operator has deals in place with every Hollywood studio except Disney.
Bennett also makes clear that Sky “wants the [theatrical model] to work,” so that it can provide a pipeline for the service. That being said, a variety of models are being explored. Films like Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” launched day-and-date on the platform, while “Wonder Woman 1984” debuted following a unique month-long theatrical window, as agreed with U.K. exhibitors, revealed by Variety in December. While the “Wonder Woman 1984” deal wasn’t exclusive to Sky in the end despite advanced negotiations, exclusivity is the ultimate goal.
“For some films, we are commissioning scripts and there from the very beginning,” says Bennett. With other films that studios can’t necessarily release in COVID times — not necessarily the big blockbusters, but the next level down, he says — Sky can buy out the U.K. window and brand them as Sky Originals. For example, “A Boy Called Christmas” is with Netflix in most global territories, but on Sky in the U.K. For other films, a PVOD deal may make more sense.
Elsewhere, Sky will also roll out new original documentaries, including “Liverpool Narcos,” an exploration of how Liverpool became the epicentre of a drugs boom that was to change Britain forever; “Chernobyl 86,” a revealing look at newly discovered footage from the Chernobyl disaster; “Positive,” a look back at Britain’s 40-year struggle with HIV/AIDS; and “The Bambers: Murder at the Farm,” a forensic examination of the case of Jeremy Bamber and the White House Farm Murders, executive produced by Louis Theroux and Aaron Fellows.
On the drama side, the pay-TV operator is looking to build on the success of shows including smash hit “Chernobyl,” “Gangs of London” and “I Hate Suzie.”
Sky revealed on Saturday that “Tenet” actor Kenneth Branagh will be playing Boris Johnson in its forthcoming drama “This Sceptred Isle,” written and directed by Michael Winterbottom. The highly anticipated series will detail the U.K.’s chaotic response to the coronavirus crisis.
Other new TV originals include “Wolfe,” starring Babou Ceesay (“Guerilla,” “Rogue One”) as a lauded forensic pathologist and written by Paul Abbott (“Shameless”); “The Midwich Cuckoos,” a modern adaptation of John Wyndham’s classic science fiction novel from David Farr (“The Night Manager”); and “Extinction,” an action thriller about a man who keeps reliving the same day over and over again, written by Joe Barton (“Giri/Haji”) and starring Paapa Essiedu (“I May Destroy You”), Tom Burke (“Strike”), Anjli Mohindra (“Bodyguard”) and Caroline Quentin (“Men Behaving Badly”).
Ultimately, all content will also land on Sky’s popular SVOD service Now TV, which hosts films and TV made available to subscribers various dedicated “passes.”
Asked whether there’s any chance NBCUniversal’s Peacock may land on Now TV in some form — similar to what Disney Plus is doing with its adult-oriented Star service, which will become a tile on Disney Plus internationally — Bennett says no plans are afoot so far.
“Right now, Peacock is a U.S. service,” says Bennett. “At the moment, we share an awful lot of stuff: they have a lot of our comedies and we took ‘Brave New World,’ and we’re co-producing some docs together as well. But in our territory, it’s Sky, and in the U.S., it’s Peacock. I don’t see them co-existing any time soon.”