Representing clients involved in film, TV, theater, book publishing, sports marketing, and corporate consulting, and counting U.S. offices in Beverly Hills, New York, Nashville and Miami Beach as well as a London, U.K., branch, the William Morris Agency (WMA) is among the most recognized names in the talent biz. Indeed, when indie film heavyweight Harvey Weinstein of Miramax hit upon the idea of applying the Greenlight concept to the fashion industry, he turned to WMA. The result is Project Runway, a behind-the-scenes reality format featuring supermodel Heidi Klum and debuting on U.S. cable channel Bravo this summer.
That deal was brokered by Mark Itkin, the agency’s Beverly Hills-based executive VP and worldwide head of syndication for cable and non-fiction programming. ‘I’ve built my career in the non-fiction world,’ says Itkin, who counts Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Big Brother, Paradise Hotel, The Real World, and Road Rules among the titles he’s managed.
Hilversum, Netherlands-based Endemol and London-based FremantleMedia and Mentorn Barraclough Carey are among Itkin’s clients. His remit, he says, is to creatively package and market programs to enhance their potential for success. ‘Also, having a keen sense of how to fill the voids in the marketplace,’ he adds.
‘My international clients come to me because they have a large roster of formats and they don’t know what to do with them in the States. They don’t know which ones are saleable, and if they are, where to go with them or what elements to add. For example, I’ve been representing Endemol since the early ’90s. One of their formats that had been done in Europe was Now or Neverland. It was a very interesting format, although it needed to be Americanized. We pitched it to NBC, and that’s what became Fear Factor.’
RealScreen caught up with Itkin to discuss the art of packaging, and after singing the praises of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, his weekend reading, he let loose some key dos and don’ts.
Does a crowded marketplace change the way you package programs?
Yes, because you have to continue to evolve. You can’t be derivative, because then you end up cannibalizing the genre. That tends to be how the business works: you have one success and then there’s so many copies that it ends up hurting the business.
What are some of the things people should keep in mind when packaging a project?
It’s got to be a compelling, well-thought-out and fresh idea. And, you have to really work out the beats of the idea so that when you pitch it, you can pitch what an hour will look like. Also, you have to make sure that for budgetary reasons, it’s doable on a network or cable budget, depending on where you’re going to sell it. A network hour is between US$500,000 and $800,000; cable is between $200,000 and $400,000. Then, it’s important that it’s packaged with a highly respected production company. Lastly, if you’re dealing with real people, that it’s extremely well cast and will tell great stories, because that’s what makes a successful reality show: great casting, great storytelling. If there’s talent elements to it, package the strongest talent you can into it.
How does having a recognized name – either a celebrity or a known producer – affect a non-fiction project in terms of sales, budgets, etc.?
The non-fiction and reality business is producer-driven. It’s important to have a Bunim/Murray [The Real World, Making the Band], a Mark Burnett [Survivor], a Mike Fleiss [The Bachelor], an Endemol, a Fremantle [Idol, Oliver's Twist] – companies that have the respect of all the buyers because they’ve done solid work and have had a lot of success.
The talent depends on the type of show. When it’s more format- or concept-driven, it’s all about the casting of the real people in it. The people become the stars. The host is important, but they’re not going to make or break a sale. They’re usually the afterthought. Fear Factor, Survivor, Big Brother, The Bachelor, every one of these shows was sold without a talent attached to it. But, if you’re going to do a show like The Osbournes, then the talent is driving the format.
What do you consider when pairing talent with a project?
If you’re starting with the talent, you have to find a format that’s organic to that talent. If you have the format, you have to find a talent who’s organic to the format. Or, a talent may say, ‘I would like to do something like this…’ and then you try to find a producer to create the format for that talent.
One of the people we’re working with now is Rocco DiSpirito, the chef from The Restaurant (NBC). We’re trying to find a five-day-a-week strip for Rocco to do in 2005, so we’re introducing him to several of our producers and seeing which one can come up with a format that Rocco likes and is saleable. We just did the same thing with George Forman. He wanted to do a reality series, so we introduced him to several different producers and he picked the format that was right for him. It will be a daily series, syndicated.
If you intend to sell the U.S. version of a show overseas, does that affect the way it’s packaged?
It doesn’t really. The U.S. is the locomotive that drives it; the U.S. sale comes first. Oftentimes before it’s finished, you’ve made a sale overseas.
What’s happening now that’s kind of interesting is that a lot of shows are being codeveloped by a U.K. and an American broadcaster. Paradise Hotel, [a Mentorn program] that was on Fox this summer, was first sold to Channel 4 in the U.K. Once it was in development, we sold it to Fox here. They each paid a portion for the pilot.
Is that a plus when you’re taking it to Fox – to say that it has been picked up by a broadcaster in the U.K.?
Sometimes. Sometimes the domestic buyer doesn’t care at all.
What’s next in non-fiction formats?
I’m working on a couple of game shows. We’ve had game shows in primetime like Millionaire, and then there’s docusoap games like Survivor and Fear Factor. What I’m working on is closer to the Millionaire type – a little more traditional, but fresh. There’s a format on in Holland now that’s very successful called Judas Game. It’s unlike any game show you’ve seen. We’re in the process of making a deal here in the United States, and if done right…
We have an interesting relationship show that we’re piloting for NBC called Gay, Straight or Taken that’s already been on in the U.K. Also, comedy-reality. I’ve got something at Fox – it’s not like The Osbournes, it’s more in the genre of [MTV's] Punk’d, which is comedy-reality and hidden-camera.
Any tips for small companies, in terms of packaging and in terms of approaching an agency like WMA?
You can be a small company and have a strong track record. But if you’re small and unknown, the important thing is to follow all those tips I said already, and then align yourself with an established production company to get that idea sold. After that, if you have a success and you get to know the buyers, then maybe the next one you can sell on your own.
It’s very difficult if you’re not established to get a large agency to sign you. It might look at one particular project and decide to represent that one project, package it with one of its established clients, and then see what happens.