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Four years after launching the independent studio Media Res, Michael Ellenberg is crossing the finish line with the very first show he put into development as a studio executive: the limited series Scenes From a Marriage. The Jessica Chastain-Oscar Isaac starrer, premiering Sept. 12, brings the 46-year-old back to his former home at HBO, where he spent five years as head of drama. In the interim, Ellenberg’s 30-person company has set up scripted series at all the major streamers, including Apple TV+’s The Morning Show (returning Sept. 17 for its second season) and the global production Pachinko (set for 2022); an hourlong dark comedy at Netflix; and Amazon’s forthcoming Boots Riley dramedy I’m a Virgo.
The New York native, who moved west with his wife and an NYU law degree in 2000, sees his role now as a combination of skills he honed working as an executive and producer at HBO (True Detective, Boardwalk Empire), Scott Free (Prometheus, Robin Hood) and as vp development at Scott Rudin Productions (a tenure he says he would rather not discuss).
In late August, the father of two sat with The Hollywood Reporter virtually to discuss this unique moment for indie studios, the red-hot market for book rights and the ways in which the pandemic forced The Morning Show to pivot.
Hello Sunshine recently sold for $900 million. What do you make of that deal?
What it speaks to is, in a larger sense, independent companies still matter. We’re in the most consolidated period in Hollywood since the 1930s, and there are going to be a few independent companies that really matter. Hello Sunshine is one, and Media Res, we believe, is one.
Does that price tag make you think about selling?
Our long-term goals are to do great work and be a lead supplier not just of scripted series but eventually other genres and spaces too. There are unique opportunities for partnerships, and we’re open to those. If it allows us to do more than we can today, then we’ll take that seriously. But we’re not simply looking to cash in a lottery ticket.
What is the role of an indie studio at a time when conglomerates are almost exclusively buying from their own studios?
If the work is great, the market will take care of itself. Do they need your money? No. But do they need your expertise? Do they need your material? Do they need your work ethic and approach? The answer thus far is yes. If that changes, we’ll have to pivot, but I don’t see why it would.
Media Res is big in the book space. How competitive has the market for book rights gotten lately?
It’s insane. There used to be a couple homes for literary material, now everyone sees the value in sophisticated material. You need to get in early and spend a lot of money. It’s what the film industry was like 20 years ago.
Who tends to be your primary competition?
We frequently find ourselves bidding against the networks themselves — that’s the big change. Networks wouldn’t get in early [before]; they’d wait. So sometimes it’s a small company like ours bidding against Amazon and Disney. And we’ve done OK.
How have you seen the pandemic affect dealmaking?
At the beginning, the primary pressure on the networks was, “Will we ever be able to film again?” The costs you were aware of but were less front-of-mind. Now the reality of it is, their budgets are up double-digit percentages across the board. It is possible to film safely in COVID, but it’s very expensive. It’s affecting how many things are being bought because for everyone to make their [overall programming] budget, you have to order fewer shows.
How has storytelling been impacted by the pandemic?
With The Morning Show, it would have been insane to plow forward and not speak to the world we’re in. That’s the language of the show. The pandemic had just begun, and we quickly rallied around an approach that [showrunner] Kerry Ehrin came up with, which was, “Let’s look at the months leading right up to it. What were we all so busy with that we couldn’t pay attention to the tsunami that was about to take over our lives?” There’s this bomb under the table and, over the season, more of the characters are aware that something really big with the pandemic is coming.
How has the market for high-profile TV packages changed in the years since you sold The Morning Show?
The pandemic hasn’t chilled any of these major packages. The impact of the pandemic is that you better have big packages or it’s a much harder lift.
What did you learn about yourself in the transition between leaving HBO and launching Media Res?
I love doing what I do. I’ve been a film producer and then a TV executive. What got me excited to start Media Res was trying to figure out a way to combine those two things. The inspiration for the company was to build an elite supplier for companies like HBO — basically, build the company I wish was on the other end of the phone when I was a network exec.
Do you think you’ll ever return to the executive suite?
I’m an executive and an executive producer now, and [I love] being able to do both roles. It’s hard for me to imagine giving up either.
You’re back at HBO for the first time since 2016 with Scenes From a Marriage. What’s the most significant change?
Scenes From a Marriage will not only air on HBO but on HBO Max — that’s the most fundamental difference.
There’s pressure everywhere for volume. You’re going to try to buy as much good stuff that’s out there in the market, and then you’ve got to look inward at your cupboard and draw from there. It’s an incredibly intense, competitive market, and not every project can have Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston or Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. So, in that environment, if you don’t have one of those things, or a great book, then, yes, you need to generate new stuff — and if you have a library, you’re going to be mining it right now.
In your career, what’s the best pitch you’ve ever heard?
True Detective season one. There was a complete vision and a clarity of purpose.
Looking back, what would you identify as your highest and lowest professional moments?
The Lincoln Center premiere of The Morning Show has to rank as a highest moment. I grew up on the Upper West Side, so to launch the Apple service at Lincoln Center was magical. And the lowest? When I left HBO. It was the first time in my career I didn’t know what the future would look like. What you can’t see at the time is that we’re not at Lincoln Center if I don’t leave HBO. That’s the wisdom of middle age.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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