Hollywood Agencies Shift TV Toward Indie Film Model

"Black Box"

"Black Box," which premieres on ABC April 24, is part of a wave of new shows backed by foreign pre-sales as agencies increasingly work around the big TV studios.

A shorter version of this story first appeared in the April 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When the rights to her series pitch Black Box reverted back to writer Amy Holden Jones in 2012, she took the project to her agency, WME. But instead of shopping the show around to the studios, the standard agency procedure, WME did something unusual: It went outside the studio system -- indeed, outside the country -- to package the show. After hooking Jones up with WME clients including X-Men director Bryan Singer and producer Ilene Chaiken (The L Word), who joined Black Box as executive producers, WME's Chris Rice started pitching the project to buyers in London, Munich and Stockholm.

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When European giants Tele Munchen Group and Sweden's MTG got on board, pre-buying the series about a brilliant neurologist (Kelly Reilly) who happens to be bipolar, WME came back to the U.S and sold Black Box to ABC, with WME client Bold Films producing and financing and Sierra Engine handling international distribution. Black Box premieres on ABC Apr. 24.

Selling a project internationally first -- getting financing from European buyers and tax incentives before closing a U.S. deal -- is a model that's long been used by the indie film business and the top talent agencies that serve it. What's new is agencies applying this same model to the small screen, going outside the studios and to global buyers to package and finance TV series.

“What's happening is, the TV business is starting to mirror the film business in becoming more international,” says Rice. “Remember when 70 percent of a film's box office used to be domestic and 30 percent international? Now that's flipped -- it's 70 international, 30 domestic. We're not quite there yet with TV, but for certain shows the value from the international market can be huge.”

Black Box involved WME taking a U.S. project to the international market. But the agencies are also stepping up to help package and sell internationally made series to U.S. networks. CAA did that with crime procedural Crossing Lines, which features showrunner Ed Bernero (Criminal Minds). Produced by German group Tandem (a subsidiary of France's StudioCanal) and starring William Fichtner and Donald Sutherland, Crossing Lines was fully financed by pre-sales to European broadcasters. CAA came in at the end, helping to set up the domestic deal with NBC, which aired the first season of Crossing Lines last summer.

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CAA did something similar for their French client, production giant EuropaCorp, helping to package action series Taxi Brooklyn (which features WME-repped showrunner Gary Scott Thompson). European networks provided the main financing, with NBC picking up a greenlit straight-to-series show. UTA did something similar with Tom Fontana's period drama Borgia, which was set up by European producers Atlantique Productions and EOS Entertainment as a French-German-Czech co-production and was fully financed by pre-sales to Euro broadcasters, including France's Canal Plus, Germany's ZDF, Italy's Sky Italia and ORF in Austria. After the show was finished, UTA co-founder Peter Benedek came in to set up the U.S. deal for the series with Netflix.

Other examples of shows that combined agency packaging with international financing include NBC's Hannibal (produced by French-controlled Gaumont International Television), Amazon Studios's Bosch (from Germany's Red Arrow), TNT's Transporter (from France's Atlantique and Canada's QVF), Fox's straight-to-series procedural Broadchurch (from Britain's Shine) and Dig, a WME-packaged drama series from co-creators Tim Kring (Heroes) and Gideon Raff (Homeland), which was sold to USA Networks and will be shot in Jerusalem.

“U.S. Networks are looking to reduce their risk, and they are happy to take an internationally packaged show if it means they can get the same value onscreen but pay a reduced licensing fee,” says Ted Miller, co-head of CAA's television department, explaining how American broadcasters have become more open to outside-the-studio-box models. This is particularly true of the flood of new networks commissioning series -- from Bravo to Amazon, Netflix to WE-tv.

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“These channels' business model means they can't pay $4 million an hour for a series, but they still want a $4 million an hour show,” Miller says.

And with deep-pocketed international companies like BSkyB, CanalPlus and TF1, which used to be focused on local, low-budget productions, commissioning English-language series with American-style budgets, the agencies see an opportunity.

“Canal Plus is aggressively trying to be the HBO of Europe. BSkyB is doing the same,” says Rice. “Suddenly, for our clients, doing an international show doesn't mean lower quality and less money.”

Miller notes that, compared to the studios, international production companies and broadcasters can be “considerably more flexible” when it comes to carving out back-end profit positions for talent, another key incentive for agencies moving into the small-screen packaging business.

In general, the international industry has welcomed this more-active approach to series producing and financing.

“They can be great partners for us, since they have access to the best talent and the best content,” says Tele Munchen's Herbert L. Kloiber, who negotiated the deal for Black Box.

But one prominent European buyer warns the agencies not to overstep. “We've seen in the film packaging business where the agencies have become too powerful -- offering up take-it-or-leave-it packages with this director, this actors, this writer, etc,” he says. “The agencies should stick to what they know and not try to replace an entire, quite successful, business model.”