In the ever-changing world of entertainment, it is crucial that one continue to keep abreast of current trends, audience needs, and executive decisions. So recently at the 2017 Produced By Conference sponsored by the PGA –Producers Guild of America – held at the Twentieth Century Fox Studios on June 10 and 11th, I was overwhelmed with so many wonderful choices of seminars that it was hard to pick what to attend.
Susan Sprung – COO of Producer’s Guild welcomed us as she described the myriad of choices for the day’s events. She introduced us to the first seminar held in the Zanuck Theatre. “Content Is King – Meet The Buyers” was sponsored by the Hollywood Reporter and was moderated by Sanjay Sharma – President and CEO – All Def Digital. He led panelists Janet Brown – EVP of Distribution for Gunpowder &Sky; Matt Kaplan – President of Awesomeness TV and Films, David Levien, co-writer/producer of Ocean’s Thirteen and Rounders; and Beatrice Springborn as Head of Originals for Hulu most recently awarded for ”The Handmaiden’s Tale.”
What once was the separate worlds of traditional and digital have begun to merge together says Sanjay Sharma. Despite the changes happening in the media today there are still plenty of places to sell you material. A lot of creative producers feel frustrated with traditional Hollywood. Many excellent projects are greenlit but not made or are made and not watched. Independent movies are often now done guerrilla style.
As Beatrice Springborn says “it is now a seller’s market. There are so many buyers competing for content yet the content still has to be exceptional high quality and geared for each individual platform whether it be a traditional network, digital, cable, web series, video, or anything else.”
Keeping the attention of the ever-searching viewer material is now more challenging and many shows and films have become edgier and sometimes darker. An example of this might be “The Handmaiden’s Tale” which contains a lot of swearing, nudity, sex, raunchiness, and some satanic storylines.
“It took two years to develop The Handmaiden’s Tale which came to us as a script. The book by Margaret Atwood was not at all what we would’ve expected. She helped a lot in developing the story and was very involved in the adaptation from the beginning making it edgier and more exciting. Many authors are unable to adapt and work with scripts the way she did.”
Doing one’s homework is crucial if you plan to sell anything. Each platform has its own distinct goal, characteristic, and audience. Competition for original premium programming it is high and the writer, producer, or director must be keenly aware of what the audience of each platform seeks. “We’re all going after the same projects and who likes originals especially comedy. They feel they’re able to offer the younger audience more premium shows”.
Hulu’s core demographics range from 18 to 34 years old though they will consider projects with older characters. “Our programming spans a wide berth. We tend to be somewhat traditional and compete with stations like ABC, Bravo, and other networks but need their stories to be more unusual and original. They like shows with some romantic elements so that it will appeal to a larger audience. Every project is different and the development process for each is also different. Like HBO and FX they will at times license to others and like being thought of as an original cable channel. Two and a half years ago they started doing original programming and Beatrice quickly realized younger more powerful material was required but they like older characters, as well.
One of their series is Power – based on a novel told from the CIA and FBI point of views about the events leading up to 911. This year they also started doing documentaries.
Hulu does most of its shooting in the USA whereas Gunpowder & Sky often shoots in global locations.
Acquisitions are required through the usual channels. Cable and networks vary in what they want and need. Each project is different and the development process for every story varies.
Gunpowder & Sky, originally founded by MTV exec Van Toffler, it is aimed at the under 30 audiences. Janet Brown as head of their distribution spoke of expansion across the globe. “It’s a new market out there and the age of partnering is coming to the forefront. Yes, there are more problems but there’s also much more new material. No one has a majority. Look at the buyers and their histories. Every story can find a home but you have to be open to different places and different platforms. Focus on what the audience wants. Does the program match for this station, this audience is looking for?”
They describe themselves as a new kind of studio who do everything from producing, developing, financing, and distribution both domestically and internationally. Some creating is done here as well. As she explained it the new digital ways of distribution in storytelling gives one more leeway for risks and adventures.
She finds the most important thing about a story is the obstacles the characters go through and how they must work to achieve their goals. Every story development has a different type of distribution. Stories now need to own their characters and show more risk-taking because it is in this which captures our core audience.
One of their new films is a comedy – “The Little Hours” – which is a raunchy tale of medieval nuns that they picked up at Sundance. Another item they picked up at Sundance was an animated but untold history of music.
Trying to get the attention of an audience 16 to 30 is more of a challenge than ever before and they try to stay aware of what this age range seeks and give them what they believe their viewers want. They look not only for awesome stories but also things that are different and unique. While they do some traditional studio type shows for budget reasons they seldom do celebrity-driven things. The traditional budget for features is between ½ million to two million. Even at that price, you need to have an awesome story. When we can we prefer to fund things but do not want to go into development hell but at times we will partner with others and coproduce a series. There is a lot of risk in films and TV and many shows are overdone.
A lot of material is developed in-house but they encourage submissions and like to help with the development of other projects. “Our goal is to empower the new writers to tell their stories. We aim to create video independent of form, genre or platform.” Much of the day Janet is connecting with the foreign markets. “We prefer to do things ourselves rather than relying on third parties for selling material. We attended many festivals, make sales and often pick up lower budget films at these events.”
She tells writers and producers “don’t make things without knowing the audience you’re aiming for. Try to stay within a 2 to 3 million budget and you will have more of a chance of selling especially if you are not well known yet.” She advises writers and producers to network as much as they can. “Linked in is a great way to meet people.”
Matt Kaplan, who used to be part of Chapter One Films, now serves as president of Awesomeness Films has deals with NBC Universal and Netflix. “It’s almost like traditional studios and producers are on one side and the independents, which seem to be taking over, are on the other. He often competes with Hulu since Awesomeness TV tries to be a station in of itself but sometimes sells to Hulu, as well. “We evaluate each program individually and sell to many different platforms. At Awesomeness we have different areas set aside for each type of programming.
He agrees that sex and edginess, as well as LGBT, are part of the new medium. “We realized early on that Gen Z doesn’t consume media the same way we did as children.” Their efforts and focus are on trying to program each platform so that it feels organic to the audience known as Gen Z.” It’s for this reason that their programs have such variety and range. They go from 2 to 3-minute videos as “Behind The Curtain: Todrink Hall,” which talks about the originator who created many original music videos, two feature-length films soon to be seen on Netflix as ”You Get Me.” Each film must be organic to the character.
The company interacts with social media and depends on this to help attract their target audience. Matt says it’s a great time to be a producer for a digital studio. Often they will partner with products and brands as Pepsi, NAL, Nike and Gatorade to create both short-form programs and feature films using the said product. These often appear on YouTube which likes quick fast shows.
Matt loves getting IP’s (intellectual properties) as books and articles from other sources. He also likes to focus on fostering young talent. “New kids often start in small media since they want to build their brand. The best place we found is to start with middle-age kids.”
Writer David Levien says the independent filmmakers versus proper network producers are all about the people who bring them into Netflix or where ever they are shopping them. He gave MTM as an example. For the last five years they focused on interactive stories in started the awareness of social media’s importance. “The best way to push your story forward is to help the network recognize their audience you are writing for. Now many producers have found the best way to touch the audience is directly through social media.”
Amazon and Netflix started the streaming shows and now Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are getting involved doing not only shows but features, as well. Yes there are more choices, but there is more competition, too. Many other places as HBO and FX are now doing original cable shows as well as licensing to others.
Many writers and producers are now looking at old movies and series to see if they can revive them. If this is something you are considering you need to take wild risks and think outside the box. What twists can you add? Whatever you do it’s crucial that the audience remain glued to the screen and be involved in the characters.
They all stressed the importance of knowing your pitch and being prepared for it. Pitching is so much more different than the actual writing or producing. Having visual material can help a lot. Do not have a pitch longer than 10 minutes – less is better.
Unless you have relationship contacts you still need a manager, agent, or attorney to get you in the door. “But if you can get your project to me somehow, I will read it,” Matt says.
If you are trying to pitch a series, you not only need a sense of what that network wants but that the show will last a long time and perhaps can franchise into related shows. Understand where your characters are now, as well as where they were before the story started. Why is this series important to be shown now? Why are you the right person to write or produce this?
Attachments are great if they are the right people and if they meet the budget for the show you are pitching. Janet warns writers and producers not to have too many fantasies about whom they want for their projects. “Often these people are unattainable either because they are swamped with material, they’re price is too high or perhaps the network had a bad experience with them in the past. Being insistent on one particular actor for your film can destroy your sale.”
Matt says “I love packaging projects. Sometimes it is the packaging which helps with the sale but attachments can also limit where the story can be taken to. Then I look at the platform and decide who to approach before I try to market. Look at the platform you are approaching. Understand what they need and who their audience is. Then you can decide where and how the best way is to open your story. Even then it can take years to make a sale. We are really story driven. It is good stories which sell.”
Beatrice warns that Hulu usually prefers to do their own attachments.
In the Newman stage those attending the seminar “ Financing Your Film: How To Get Your Film Made Outside the Studio System,” which was sponsored by Delta Airlines, was moderated by Gary Lucchesi who as president of the PGA and producer at Lakeshore Entertainment brought us Lincoln Lawyer and Million Dollar Baby. The panelists included Doug Belgrad– the CEO of 2.0 Entertainment (Peter Rabbit, Bad Boys 3); Carla Hacken –Producer; Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (The Book of Henry/ Hell or High Water) Rena Ronson – Head of UTA Independent Film Group; and Kevin Turen – President Phantom Four Films (The Birth Of A Nation.)
The right partners are crucial when it comes to financing your film. Each participant discussed funding from various angles as well as protecting the production every step of the way. This included raising capital from outside investors and or banks from foreign presales as well as red flags to be aware of when producers pitch their projects at the starting point.
The Producers Guild of America (PGA) concluded its first day of the 9th Annual Produced By Conference at Twentieth Century Fox. Over 1000 people attended ten mentor roundtables and twelve speaker sessions, which included the headlining “Conversation With” panels featuring Ted Sarandos & Jerry Seinfeld, Damien Chazelle & John Wells, and Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay & Bruce Cohen.
But wait – there’s more to come….