MIPTV: Gaumont International Television Head on Starting a Studio With an Ambitious Slate (Q&A)

Katie O'Connell Headshot - P 2013
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Katie O'Connell Headshot - P 2013

Less than two years old, the upstart indie already has big shows and top talent for its premium drama programming with an international eye.

When France's oldest film studio decided to hang its beret in Los Angeles, it looked to branch out from film into producing premium television with global appeal, and brought on a former NBC exec to start up a Sunset Strip office.  Just a little over a year and a half later, it's launching two ambitious series within two weeks -- Hannibal premiered last week on NBC and Hemlock Grove will debut April 19 on Netflix -- instantly establishing itself as a leading independent studio with an impressive roster of talent.  With a presence in both Paris and L.A., execs have held meetings in airports as they cross flight paths, but being hands-on requires a lot of frequent flier miles. Gaumont International Television CEO Katie O’Connell spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about building a small studio with global vision, working with Netflix and binge-watching.

The Hollywood Reporter:  Looking back to 2011, you’re approached with a fairly big undertaking with launching Gaumont TV.  What led you to take on the project of launching an entirely new company?

Katie O’Connell:  I was looking at the landscape, not to sound pretentious.  I had worked in the traditional studio system, at NBC as head of drama, and wanted to stay inside of what I was used to doing, which was putting together television series.  But I had just spent a year traveling the world on a sabbatical, and was really fascinated with how to work more globally.  Obviously, when I worked at NBC, Imagine, and CBS, all the shows I had a hand in were distributed globally.  I wanted to look at how we look at television in this global environment.  One of the things I did right before coming to Gaumont was consulting for Fox International Channels and they were putting together the mechanism that ended up being their participation in The Walking Dead.  So I looked at that and saw how robust that experience was for AMC and Fox International Channels to team together on a show, and frankly take what seemed to be this little show about zombies and make it a worldwide sensation.  That really motivated a desire on my part of how I could fit into an international company that still does American, U.S.-style television but distributes them globally from the get go.

THR: Gaumont is 118 years old, but you were starting something new within this established company.  What was that process like?

O’Connell:  We’re the newest division of the oldest entertainment company in the world.  It really started with Christophe [Riandee, Vice CEO of Gaumont] and the team in Paris.  Christophe had this notion of putting together an international television division, which for our purposes is an English-language television, and he had the idea that it would probably be best to locate that in Los Angeles and probably be best to hire experienced U.S. executives to put that together.  There wasn’t an operation in Los Angeles, so the first bit of time was really building a strong team, getting offices, setting up the operations and putting together the mechanisms for development.

THR: The field is already very crowded, how does Gaumont come in to that environment?  How do you differentiate yourself within the marketplace?

O’Connell:  You know I didn’t think of it that way, and you’re right.  Maybe if I had thought about it that way I would have panicked and wouldn’t have done it!  But I’ve been in the business a relatively long time and I came in with this goal of putting together a slate of projects with a lot of people I’ve worked with over the years -- Bryan Fuller I’ve known a long time -- and being really patient about what we put together.  We put it together almost like a creative lab with those people to make it an environment where they feel protected and feel like they can flourish.  I guess I had blinders on. The Warner Brothers and the Sonys and the NBCUniversals are always going to exist and have amazing shows and have a lot of volume.  There’s a group now of independent studios and we’re all kind of doing our thing.  I focused on working with a great group of people and didn't really concern myself about a slate or a time frame or pilots or all the traditional stuff one thinks about.

THR: Launching two shows at the same time, and developing a third, is ambitious for such a young company.  Did you find that intimidating at all?

O’Connell:  We’ve developed the slate in a way that fits with our planning.  We put together both Hannibal and Hemlock Grove around the same time and frankly spent the better part of a year just producing those shows. We wanted to really focus on the production and we put them together, we sold them, we got the production orders and it was all about making these shows.  Then coming out of that we started working on Barbarella and some of the other projects we are working on now.  It has been a very measured approached.

THR: As the executive producer of both Hannibal and Hemlock Grove, how hands on are you?

O’Connell:  I’m really involved on a day-to-day basis.  So is Elisa Roth, who is the head of our creative affairs, and Andy House, who is the head of production - it’s a real team effort.  Coincidentally we shot both shows in Toronto. Those were sort of independent decisions that happened together, but that turned out to be fantastic for us because there were just economies of scale by being able to be up there together. I was up there and involved in all aspects and I interfaced with the networks, the buyers, our international sales process and the marketing efforts.

THR: You are working with amazing writers, directors, showrunners.  Was the intention always, as part of Gaumont, to be almost cinematical in these TV shows?

O’Connell: I’d like to rewrite that narrative and say yes, that was my plan all along, but it sort of happened that way.  We are a film company so there’s a natural synergy.  The lines are so blurred and they really have been blurred for a long time.  When I was at NBC we worked all the time with feature directors, especially in the pilot process.  For us it was all about building the best team.  So like on Hannibal, when Bryan and I met with David Slade, he came with an entire lookbook, an entire vision.  One of the photos that he brought as an example of his visual style is now framed in my office.  We just tried to match the best people for the project.  There’s a lot of synergy when you work for a film company, so Nicolas Refn’s involvement is directly related to Christophe and the fact that they were shooting the movie Only God Forgives.  Christophe was there right around the time we were closing our rights sales to Barbarella and Nicolas is obsessed with Barbarella.  So that synergy and that conversation led to that marriage.

THR: Barbarella is in the pipeline for 2014?

O’Connell: Yes.  We’re working on it, they’re writing.  We’re really pushing Hemlock Grove, which drops on the 19th.  This is pre-premiere.  Eli Roth is coming, Famke Janssen, Bill Skarsgard and we’re doing a panel about the show.  They’re doing the red carpet and we’re having a cocktail reception and so a lot of this is about Hemlock for us.

THR: Hemlock Grove is launching on Netflix.  Why that choice?

O’Connell: It was driven by our partners in Eli Roth, Brian McGreevy, and Lee Shipman.  We all looked at the material, and while there were other places interested in the project (but) Eli is incredibly excited about the opportunity, the platform and the idea that if someone is watching one of Eli’s movies they immediately can be directed to watch Hemlock Grove.  Or if someone’s watching X-Men with Famke, they can be directed to watch Hemlock Grove.  He was really ahead of it in terms of the thought process, because you’re right, when we first set this up there they had announced House of Cards with amazing auspices, but it was something that they hadn’t launched yet. Hemlock Grove really lent itself to the format.  This idea of binge-watching felt the way that Brian wrote the novel, and the idea of the television show was to break it up into the 13 chapters.  It felt like, when you’re reading a good book you don’t stop at the end of the chapter and wait until next week to read the next chapter. I read the book in a night, it’s that kind of book.  So if someone wants to watch the whole thing over the weekend they are able to do that.

THR: Looking at the trend of on demand, do you think that is the future for every show?  Do intricate stories need to be available like this?

O’Connell: I think it depends.  There’s the economics of television and then there’s the desire of the consumer, and I think at some point those will reconcile themselves. Netflix had created a business where binge-watching is part of their business plan.  For the broadcast networks, that’s not quite a part of their business plan yet.  It just depends on how those things reconcile. As a consumer, for example, I watch Breaking Bad after the fact.  I watch it on Netflix.  But I caught up to it and then I watched it live on AMC because I was kind of anxious. Binge-watching has existed for a while now. I was at Imagine when we did 24, and so many people told me after the first season DVD came out that that’s how they watched it, all in one weekend. So I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, it’s just that it was after the fact and now Netflix is presenting the option from the get go.

THR: Working with both NBC and Netflix, has there been any differentiation in the production process?

O’Connell: The deals are totally different in terms of distribution and territories and all of that, but as far as us producing a show and then distributing against the territories that are available to us, it’s really exactly the same. And the creative process is the same. I get that question a lot actually. Netflix has a creative team and they’re involved, just like NBC has creative execs, they have creative execs, and their creative execs are really involved and really smart. I liken it to working with a premium cable channel. They give notes on script, they watch cuts, the whole thing. They’re very involved. They’re actually very smart and it’s not just me saying that, they’re really quite brilliant. You know that if you watch House of Cards. It’s an amazing show.