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When Laura Kennedy joined The Avalon Group as its new CEO in late 2019, she never anticipated that she’d be spending quite so much time away from the company’s main London headquarters.
Although she was hired to be based in the management, production and distribution giant’s growing L.A. office, the experienced British exec — who actually began her career at Avalon and rejoined following a 12-year tenure at Lionsgate where she was COO of its TV group — imagined there would be regular trips back across the Atlantic to meet her team and Avalon’s vast talent roster (which includes a who’s-who of Brit and U.K.-based comics, with Russell Howard, Rob Delaney and Chris Addison among the hundreds of stars on its books).
But then, less than six months into the job, the coronavirus pandemic hit, all trips were canceled and — much like it did for the entire world — everything shifted online.
“It’s been very, very strange,” Kennedy tells The Hollywood Reporter on her first trip back to the U.K. since before the pandemic. “I did not expect to be doing it all by Zoom!”
However, despite the unorthodox and unexpected working conditions, Kennedy has helped — mostly via Zoom — oversee Avalon’s most successful year in operation since it was first established in 1989.
While it’s had a long-standing presence in the U.K. thanks to its domination of the stand-up comedy scene and popular TV shows, such as Taskmaster and The Russell Howard Hour, it only recently began making major waves in the U.S., thanks mostly to HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (Oliver is on Avalon’s books) and Amazon’s Catastrophe (co-created by Delaney).
But Avalon has emerged from the pandemic with a string of new scripted comedies under its belt that have been popping up across U.S. networks and streamers, amassing critical acclaim along the way.
Top of the pile is HBO Max/BBC’s Starstruck from fast-rising talent Rose Matafeo (a London-based New Zealander who won the Edinburgh Comedy Award for best show in 2018). Following Matafeo as a version of herself and her on-off relationship with a famous film star, the screwball comedy has become one of the best reviewed shows of the year (and featured in THR’s own Best TV of 2021 list). Production on season two has just wrapped, Kennedy confirms.
Then there’s Showtime’s Brooklyn-based comedy Flatbush Misdemeanors, based on an award-winning digital series by Kevin Iso (Hulu’s High Fidelity) and Dan Perlman (The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show). Avalon also executive produced HBO’s new late-night series Pause With Sam Jay, which was recently picked up for a second season.
Elsewhere, the second season of FX/Hulu’s parenting comedy Breeders — co-created by Martin Freeman (who co-stars alongside Daisy Haggard), Simon Blackwell and Addison — concluded a few months ago, with a third immediately booked.
Meanwhile, on the unscripted side, its talismanic Last Week Tonight With John Oliver this year landed another seven Emmy nominations, bringing its seven-year tally to 52, with 20 wins.
In total, 2020 saw Avalon able to produce nearly 30 shows despite the lockdown, including 11 new commissions, in what Kennedy says is the “strongest slate” in its history.
“One of our biggest strengths is that we have — unlike almost any other business out there — expertise and infrastructure at scale in both the U.S. and the U.K.,” says Kennedy of the company’s recent successes. “But we’re a small enough operation that we can properly collaborate across the market. And it’s worked — it’s made a very big difference.”
Rather than shopping its shows wholesale to individual networks or platforms, Kennedy says Avalon’s strategy has been to take its various projects out to the global market and consider exactly who they should be pitched to and in which territory. And this is based on the discipline that has been a fundamental part of the company’s DNA for some time: controlling the IP in order to maximize creative control for its artists and the ability to monetize any success.
But with so many networks looking to retain IP themselves, it’s something that Kennedy admits her team has to fight for.
“That’s where our business models often conflict,” she says. “I just believe that everyone wins when there’s a really healthy ecosystem. You don’t want four or five players controlling the whole pie.”
In terms of controlling the pie, on the management side Kennedy has also helped Avalon become an even larger player when in October 2020 — just over a year after she joined — it acquired a majority stake in The Agency. The purchase brought some of the U.K.’s most renowned TV and film creatives under its wings, with names on The Agency’s books including 1917 director Sam Mendes, Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack creator-writer Sally Wainwright, the Old Vic Theatre’s current artistic head and Matilda the Musical director Matthew Warchus, It’s a Sin and Years and Years creator-writer Russell T. Davies and Mamma Mia! director Catherine Johnson.
Kennedy — who admits she’s only now had the opportunity to meet The Agency’s team in person — said she wanted to strengthen its literary roster when she first joined, and that there are already some “very exciting projects” coming through from this additional talent base that are making their way onto Avalon’s development slate. And, given the not-entirely-comedic nature of the Agency’s clients, it’s a slate that could expand away from Avalon’s roots into other genres (although Kennedy says comedy is “still very much core to our DNA and a huge priority”).
In terms of further expansion, Kennedy isn’t ruling anything out. “There’s a lot of momentum and growth opportunity, and where it makes sense, we will look at acquisitions to accelerate that growth.”
Another avenue that Avalon is looking to explore more in the near future is feature films, an area that it has only really dabbled in previously with documentaries and stand-up specials featuring its comedians. Several of its talents have already been moving in that direction, with Addison directing Universal’s gender-flipped Dirty Rotten Scoundrels remake The Hustle, starring Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway and released in 2019, and Matafeo recently appearing in New Zealand comedy Baby Gone, executive produced by Taika Waititi.
Kennedy, who says she has no ambitions of taking Avalon into theatrical distribution, credits the changing shape of the industry — with its traditional TV buyers now very much operating in the feature film space — for its new movie ambitions. She claims the company is about to announce one feature project for a streaming platform that it’s collaborating on.
“I expect that [films] will become a bigger part of our portfolio,” she says.
In the meantime, Kennedy is happy to enjoy the successes after smoothly navigating and managing a business through the choppy waters of the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s been very, very stressful for many people, and it’s required everyone to come together and dig deep and make sure we’re doing everything to keep people engaged, supported and — ultimately — safe,” she says. “Looking back, there were plenty of fire drills. But I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. And I feel really excited about hopefully coming out or adjusting to this new normal and managing the new risks and still chasing the growth ahead.”
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