Emerging TV Studio Chiefs Explain the Appeals of Being Independent

Emerging Studios_Panel_ATX - Publicity - H 2018
Maggie Boyd/ATX

In an era of more than 500 originals and 30-plus buyers in the scripted space, the emergence of independent studios like Blumhouse Television, Annapurna TV and Entertainment One is only going to grow, executives said Friday at the ATX Television Festival.

During the Emerging Studios panel at the Austin, Texas, event — moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's TV staff writer Bryn Sandberg — Blumhouse TV co-president Marci Wiseman (USA/Syfy's The Purge), Lauren Whitney, president of television at Miramax (who developed Hulu's The Looming Tower at Legendary TV), Annapurna vp TV Ali Krug (Netflix's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and eOne president of global scripted programming Pancho Mansfield (HBO's Sharp Objects) explained the benefits their independence.

"It's multifold. All of us here are serving different parts of the marketplace," Wiseman said. "[It's] the ability to be closer to the artist, brand-focused and flexible in working with buyers. When you're making content and you don't have your own needs of distribution, it makes you flexible in finding partnerships. We've found that the major buyers are more willing to do business first with their related companies and in working with indies rather than their competitors."

Wiseman has been at Blumhouse TV for two years, boarding from Fox 21, AMC Studios and eOne, with her mandate to produce small-screen content in the gurilla-style fashion its film counterpart is best known for. The company is in the deficit-financing business as it serves as a full-service studio.

"The best content comes out of a healthy ecosystem: a buyer with a studio in the middle and a creative entity," added Whitney, who stressed that indie studios often are champions for creators in ways that vertically aligned studios may not be. "In-house production entities are focused on the business model [while indies] are about the whole [of the show]."

All four executives stressed that their respective companies needed to have something different that the traditional studios don't — be it a specific IP, a relationship with a creator or simply a hot project that can't be found elsewhere.

"We need to have something they have to have, and that's material," said Mansfield, whose Sharp Objects opened the festival on Thursday night.

"You had this wave a few years ago of international formats and you could get that going," he said of international formats that led to AMC's The Killing and Showtime's Homeland. "And then everyone went away from formats. It's all about either reinvention motion picture [rights] or novels."

Mansfield's eOne started as a Canadian-based studio that now has hubs in Los Angeles, Toronto and Sydney and produces in local markets and beyond with a staff of 1,100.  

The panelists also addressed the proverbial elephant in the room with deep-pocketed Netflix and larger companies like Warner Bros. Television inking nine-figure overall deals with the likes of Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and Greg Berlanti. While many are not in the market to land mega-producers, the benefit for creators to come to indies is considerably different.  

"For us, we have strong interest in working with creators and filmmakers who want to bet on building their businesses," Wiseman said. "We want to create tools for filmmakers who want to be entrepreneurs and who want to own something and don't want to get a big [immediate] payday and work for someone else."  

Whitney, who left her agency job to work for Legendary and now brings Miramax's feature library to the small screen, noted that a large company like Warner Bros. has a massive staff who determine how to best make use of a $400 million deal with a producer like Berlanti. But for indies, the business model is different. "We have to pay more money upfront. We have to say how being in business with us makes points later on more valuable," she said.

Noted Krug, who started Annapurna's TV division in October 2016: "We have the opportunity to be the studio down the line, but if a writer says they want to [sell] to HBO or FX, they like to own everything — and then we can be nonwriting exec producers. It's artists first."