MIPCOM: Ryan Kavanaugh's Strategy to Turn Film Flops Into TV Gold

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Ryan Kavanaugh

With small-screen versions of "Act of Valor" and Bradley Cooper's "Limitless" in the works, the Relativity Media CEO talks up a new way of doing business.

CANNES – Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh offered an object lesson in how to turn a little-seen film into a hit TV show.

Catfish, the 2010 teen-targeted Relativity film, grossed $3.2 million at the U.S. box office and a mere $240,000 internationally.

"By all traditional measures, this movie was an underperformer," Kavanaugh told an audience gathered Tuesday for a MIPCOM keynote presentation.

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But the film had a young and passionate fan base that may not have been large, but was big enough to become a hit in the increasingly niche medium of television. When MTV bowed the series version last year it was the highest-rated premiere on the network in five years, pulling in 2.7 million viewers and easily winning its 11 p.m. cable time slot.

Relativity sold the show to dozens of international markets. The second season of Catfish is currently airing on MTV, with the third in production. And the company has begun to sell the format internationally; there are versions of Catfish in production in the U.K. and Mexico.

"They came because of the movie, and the TV show was good enough to keep them," noted Kavanaugh.

It is an approach that is simply not possible at legacy studios where divisions are walled off from each other, Kavanaugh asserted.

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For studios with film and TV units, working together is "completely foreign," he said.

Relativity's strategy, which Kavanaugh calls the "theory of everything," involves extensive data crunching. The company runs up to 10,000 output scenarios to uncover all manner of demographic and psychographic information about moviegoers; a scheme that has earned them their "math men" moniker.

Said Kavanaugh: "We know their age, gender, likes, dislikes, what they liked about the movie, what they didn't like, do they eat popcorn? Diet Coke or Coke?"

It is a highly granular approach to TV production. And one that has begun to bear fruit. Relativity just sold the series version of Act of Valor to NatGeo. And the company is also producing a series version of Limitless with the film's star Bradley Cooper on board as executive producer. And Kavanaugh teased that Cooper may also appear in the first episode.

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Films, concluded Kavanaugh, "are perhaps the greatest TV pilots ever known."

His goal is to sell five or six TV series properties a year. And Relativity is also busy leveraging its sports and fashion management units.

It is in talks with distributors for exclusive digital content featuring some of the 400 sports stars it manages. With one in five U.S. homes currently not paying for cable, Kavanaugh sees opportunity among the so-called "cord-cutters."

"We are at perhaps the most pivotal moment the industry has ever seen," he said.