Electus Chiefs on Ben Silverman's Role, Next Hot Reality Genres and Barry Diller's 3 Pieces of Advice (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Neither Chris Grant nor Drew Buckley is Ben Silverman, the name that likely comes to mind when one hears about Electus. But the pair is hoping that will change as they take over day-to-day management of the TV and digital production company. Silverman -- the former agent (William Morris), producer (Reveille), executive (NBC) and then producer (Electus) -- will now serve in a still-intimately-involved chairman role, they say, while CEO Grant (a William Morris mailroom vet who, with Silverman, left to launch Reveille at age 23) and COO Buckley (a former venture capitalist who spent time at Terry Semel's Windsor Media) focus on the future of the nearly 5-year-old, IAC-owned company. Although Electus, often billed as a "next generation studio," can claim a vibrant international business, digital assets (CollegeHumor, Dorkly) and strong relationships in the ad community, traditional TV continues to be its chief revenue generator, with 11 series on the air in 2013. That portfolio includes a mix of broadcast reality series (ABC's parenting game show Bet on Your Baby and a forthcoming NBC competition show called Food Fighters), unscripted cable entries (VH1's Mob Wives, TBS' King of the Nerds and a Diane von Furstenberg docuseries at E!) and a growing collection of scripted shows (Netflix's Marco Polo).
Grant, 35, a married New Yorker with his first child on the way, and Buckley, 42, a Texas native who has two kids with his wife, E! News president Cyndi McClellan, sat down in their Los Angeles offices to discuss the new management structure, reality TV's recent woes and the show they wish were theirs.
What's the wildest thing you've done to sell a show?
GRANT: When we first took on Dog and Beth [Duane Chapman and his wife], I was going on my honeymoon with my wife and not permitted to use the phone. I love Dog and Beth. They're fantastic -- and they are also very, very involved from a creative perspective, and I hadn't learned that yet. So I went overseas and the phone started to heat up [from networks that were interested in Dog and Beth: On the Hunt, which ultimately sold to CMT]. Let's just say I had to close the deal on the show quickly and then had to fly to Hawaii to resell it with Dog and Beth [participating]. (Laughs.)
What's the most interesting new trend to emerge in the global reality market?
BUCKLEY: What's happening a lot in reality TV in the U.S. that has not transferred as well [globally] is all the docudramas and docuseries. Those are hard to replicate in certain territories, so for us, it's about finding a fun, unique game show or competition series that can travel abroad. There's a real marketplace for those.
What have you been surprised by in different parts of the world?
GRANT: That a good concept is global. Bet on Your Baby was a clean, great idea, and all of these different versions look unbelievably similar. It's now in over 40 countries around the world, including China, Turkey and Ukraine. But we work with the broadcasters, and we're flexible with these formats. Back when we were selling The Biggest Loser [at Reveille], it was every night of the week in Australia and a studio-based show in Brazil.
Different cultures have very different perspectives on weight loss, no?
GRANT: Yes, and there were places where it didn't sell. Shine [which acquired Reveille in 2008] still hasn't sold the format in France, I don't believe, because weight loss isn't so much of an issue in France.
The unscripted genre has struggled to launch a hit in recent years. Why?
GRANT: There are just so many places right now to find programming. And while so many buyers makes for a great market to sell content in, the audience also has so many choices and only so much time in any given day to watch, so it's harder to get that great big hit. It will come, though. A great idea will break through.
You're now selling to new reality chiefs at ABC, CBS and Fox. How have the networks' tastes shifted?
GRANT: I think we're going to see the docusoap tried at a network again. We did it with The Restaurant [in 2003], and we're definitely interested in exploring others. But it's scary. Look at how often cable can run these shows, whether it's Dog or Mob Wives in our case. They allow the audience to fall in love with it, and cable has that luxury from a scheduling perspective that a broadcast network does not.
What unscripted genres haven't been tapped but should?
GRANT: I always look to the international markets. We've had a lot of success with David Blaine projects internationally, and that's an arena ripe to be explored. The struggle with doing something like magic is how do you make the audience at home feel that it's real, but I think there's something in having magic or illusion be a driver of an unscripted dramatic series. We're also intensely looking to crack that next evolution of the big dating/romance show in the network space. In cable, it's always figuring out who are the best characters across America to shine a light on.
What differentiates an Electus pitch?
GRANT: We've thought it through from every angle -- from an international perspective, how well will this travel overseas? And from an advertiser perspective -- is this something that will be appealing to brands? If the idea is attractive to both those parties, it's also going to be attractive to a domestic buyer.
How would you describe the new working relationship with Ben?
BUCKLEY: I started this company with Ben close to four and a half years ago. We've known each other for 20 years, but I took a different route, a financial/tech one. The funny thing is, 12 years ago, Ben called me to say, "Hey, I'm leaving William Morris and I just met with Barry Diller and Victor Kaufman [of IAC] and I pitched them what would be Reveille." He said, "They asked me for a business plan and a financial model," and I said, "Great, I can help with that." He's like, "Great, I told them I'll give it to them on Monday." I go, "Ben, it's Friday!" So Chris and I put together the plan, and Ben kept on saying, "Hey, buddy where are you on this plan?" And I had to say, "Ben, I'm a venture capitalist. I sit on boards of companies like this. If you get to the point where there's a board position, think of me." I keep joking that if anybody can find that napkin where he gave me 5 percent of this entity in a L'Ermitage cushion, I'd love it so I can show him. (Laughs.) The second time he called to say, "I want to talk to Diller again. Let's do this together," I decided to join.
But Ben is no longer running the company day to day. What changed?
BUCKLEY: Nothing specifically changed in terms of how we were operating when Chris arrived [in November 2011]. I just think that we all kind of know what our lanes are in terms of how we're building the business. Chris and I run and operate the business; Ben is the founder and chairman who sees around corners. He's the one who says, "Hey, these are some investments we should look at."
GRANT: Ben is a visionary. I've known him since I was 21 years old at William Morris, and he can do things that no one else can do. [Silverman will continue to package programming and spearhead digital and ad initiatives.]
How involved is Diller?
BUCKLEY: We see him every other week. And whenever you need to pick up the phone, Barry is there for you.
What's the best advice he's given you?
BUCKLEY: There are three things. Number one, be prepared, do not go in there haphazard. Number two, be passionate about what you're going to be pitching because you're going to have to defend it, and he can see it if you don't believe in it. And number three, don't you ever lie to him. If you try to skirt an issue or not come in straight with him, he can sniff it out faster than anybody in the world.
You produced with Sofia Vergara the short-lived adaptation Killer Women on ABC. What went wrong?
BUCKLEY: We took a format from Argentina and changed it to make it a little more Americanized, and it didn't work.
GRANT: We've been in the format game a long time. We did [NBC's] Coupling, and that's the one everyone thought was going to fly. And then we did The Office, and that's the one everyone thought was going to drop. With formats, it's tricky -- it's just about how you play them and whether you make the right changes.
What's the show you wish was Electus'?
BUCKLEY: The Voice, no question.
GRANT: Gold Rush or Moonshiners. If those were our shows, I'd be really psyched.