How a Mighty Morphin' Studio Grew Out of "Dad's Garage"

Courtesy of MarVista Entertainment; Courtesy of Lifetime

A "buyers-first approach" (and 'Power Rangers') drives 15 years of growth at MarVista.

"It was literally a company started in my dad's garage," says Fernando Szew, who launched MarVista Entertainment in 2003 off the back of Whamo Entertainment, a sales agency distributing animated content that was owned by his father, Joseph Szew.

Fernando's Westwood-based company began primarily as a global TV distributor but expanded into original TV films. Through partnerships with companies like Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Lifetime and Hallmark, Szew, 43, has built the banner into a multifaceted production and distribution company, with recent projects including Lifetime's A Deadly Adoption, starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig in 2015; 2017 dramedy thriller feature Bitch, starring Jaime King; and January's The Year of Spectacular Men, with Zoey Deutch.

Szew, a married father of three daughters, spoke to THR about MarVista's 15-year journey and the challenges of today's ever-shifting landscape.

TV movies were a major part of your business in the past. Why did you start out with those?

TV movies or MOWs (movies of the week), as they were called back in the day — neither is the right name for them anymore because it's not necessarily made for TV, and they're definitely not the movies of the week, like when CBS and USA ran them. And they're not necessarily TV movies: What Netflix is doing right now is [similar], and nobody considers [Netflix] a TV station.

And why did you find it to be a good business?

TV movies allowed for "reverse engineering," preselling. We found it to be a very valid business. Now, after weathering some storms of broadcast outlets attempting other types of programming, there is something appealing about what we were calling TV movies.

When it comes to what your partners and buyers are asking for today, do you see any changes compared to maybe the ones they wanted a few years ago?

I think everyone is, fortunately, moving toward more inclusivity — in storytelling and talent in front of and behind the camera. We really, whole-heartedly believe in that. And the thing that's becoming more prevalent than before is proven IP that, as people say, they can hang their hat on with some kind of marketing hook. So, that, which has always been traditionally a part of what people look for, has become even more important.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry today?

The challenges are the same as the opportunities — it just depends what we make of them. The challenges are happening in and around the change in the environment by major consolidated players who have a huge amount of capital and who want to own and control. It almost seems that no matter how much we have grown — and we've grown to a point that I'm proud to say where we are ­— we're still not market makers. But we can be nimble, we can adapt and we can innovate.

You made Lifetime's A Deadly Adoption, which starred Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. When news of the film leaked, the actors denied they were making it. What was that like for you?

Basically, we answered a call from Will, who wanted to be in a Lifetime-type movie, and we had to thread the needle of making a very serious Lifetime kind of movie but at the same time not making fun of our own brand or Lifetime's brand. I think we were successful.

What has been the most disruptive factor in the business over the past few years?

The ever-changing landscape of the windowing strategy, which, like many things in the fast-paced world we live in, changes dramatically faster than it used to. That's been disruptive to the way that content is exploited. It also leads to innovation — what used to be kind of tried-and-true ways of taking the content downstream now is no longer the case for the content. Just [look at] TIFF, where these major, major movies — that would [previously] have started with theatrical — are now starting as straight-to-consumer projects. The same is happening with TV content, so it's become a highly complicated way of understanding how content gets to the consumer, to the audience.

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MIGHTY MORPHIN' STUDIO
MarVista founder Fernando Szew on one very powerful partnership

In 2010, MarVista landed international distribution rights to the Power Rangers TV series (it had more than 700 episodes at the time) after Haim Saban bought back the rights from Disney, which had inherited them with its 2001 purchase of Fox Family Worldwide. “He could have picked anybody,” says Szew. “From a business perspective, I was really proud that we were able to do that.” 

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.