In 1989 Bruce David Klein was a one-man show, developing ideas, writing scripts and directing shoots, all while fielding phone calls about sponsors for the content he was producing and distributing. Today, at a time when prodcos have been riding pretty rough waves and either sinking or swimming as a result, Klein’s Atlas Media Corp. continues to grow in its 20th year.
‘It’s a true producer who can adapt to his or her circumstances, keep clients happy, get a lot of repeat business and have a body of work that they can be proud of. That’s not easy to do,’ says Kevin Beggs, president of programming and production, Lionsgate Entertainment, about Klein.
In its original incarnation Atlas Media was in the syndication business, which meant Klein not only had to produce the programs, but he had to sell them to 200 TV stations across the U.S. He was constantly being inundated with calls about sponsors, barter time and scheduling conflicts on remote television stations in the Midwestern U.S.
The turning point that allowed Atlas to become the company it is today came in 1992. Atlas had produced a mini-series called Shark Terror featuring Stacy Keach. Klein remembers being approached at NATPE by an executive from the then-new cable network A&E. ‘This guy walks by and says, ‘I want that,’ and then points to the poster for Shark Terror,’ recalls Klein. ‘I said, ‘What do you mean you want that?’
‘It was like this wave of clarity washed over me,’ he says. ‘That was the breakthrough. The rest is the natural evolution of growing up with the cable industry.’
If hard work and determination had played a role in Atlas’ success up to that point, luck and timing also had their part.
Maria Lane, Atlas Media Corp.’s EVP digital and emerging media, was the first person to join Klein full-time 17 years ago. ‘I remember at one point, suddenly we were expanding,’ she says of the company’s growth patterns, which mirror that of the cable TV industry in the U.S. ‘We were working for History Channel, for the Travel Channel, for the Food Network, and we were doing multiple episode series.’
‘CORNUCOPIA OF CONTENT’
Another key to Atlas’ success over the past two decades is its ability to produce programs across a wide spectrum of genres. ‘By design we don’t specialize in any one genre. We are like a cornucopia of content,’ says Klein. ‘I find that if you get pigeonholed with one specific kind of programming, your creative juices can get a little dry.’
‘Atlas is actually kind of a chameleon – they don’t like to get pigeonholed into any one genre and they always manage to change with the times,’ offers History president and general manager Nancy Dubuc. ‘One year they’re doing heavy recreations, another it’s competition shows, then they’re on to docu-soaps. They read the climate well and stay ahead of the curve.’
It’s a sentiment that is repeated throughout the company. ‘I love the fact that one moment I am working on a show for the Food Network, and the next hour I am working on a heavy-duty engineering show for Nat Geo and then running to a game show for GSN,’ says Cheryl Houser, EVP of programming at Atlas.
That range has given Atlas Media the added advantage of cultivating relationships with dozens of partners. Currently Atlas produces over 100 hours of original content a year for networks including: Discovery Channel, TLC, National Geographic, GSN, Food Network, Planet Green, WE tv, Travel and the Bio Channel among others.
Some of Atlas’ recent successes include Dr. G: Medical Examiner, which is in its fifth year with Discovery Health/TLC, and Travel’s Emmy-nominated Art Attack. The former show in particular stands out for Klein because of the distinct challenge it presented. A year into producing Dr. G, a show about medical mysteries and autopsies hosted by Dr. Jan Garavaglia, Atlas was told by the network that it was no longer allowed to show any autopsies on screen. An autopsy show with no autopsies? Yet, Dr. G has evolved into one of Atlas’ biggest hits with its own spin-off, and a recent book deal with Random House (see sidebar, pg. 42).
Kaki Kirby, EVP of business development and special projects for Atlas, says the success of Dr. G has helped the company hone in on its current development model. ‘Our world is all about talent,’ she says. ‘So whenever we’re looking at talent, we’re looking at people who not only pop on TV, but that we can turn into a successful brand, like Dr. G. It’s not enough just to pop on television.’
NEW SPINS ON THE CONVENTIONAL
The ability to accept challenges and provide fresh new takes on genres has become a sort of calling card for Atlas within the industry.
‘I am impressed by the breadth of their knowledge,’ says Steve Burns, EVP of content for National Geographic Channel. Atlas has produced Everyday Things and Factory Floor with Marshall Brain for NGC. ‘I can always count on Atlas to put a new spin on a conventional topic,’ says Burns.
‘In the kind of programming arena of basic cable in which everything looks like everything else, Atlas keeps coming up with innovative specials and series as well as various things that are original and compelling, and don’t just feel like the same old recipe,’ adds Beggs.
That innovation has helped fuel Atlas’ growth. The production company has expanded to include corporate offices in New York, with its own 25,000 square foot HD facility in Manhattan. Despite the drastic change from its humble beginnings (a tiny office housed in a telemarketing firm’s digs), Klein is not quick to forget the lessons he learned in his early years. Shortly after Atlas was founded a recession hit and Klein was faced with some of the same challenges that are currently facing the industry. ‘I think production is all about being smart and fast. Fast in the sense that you have to immediately turn on a dime based upon market conditions,’ explains Klein.
Citing distribution partners Beyond Distribution, Passion Distribution and Digital Rights Group, Kirby points to Atlas’ international business as a ‘very important part of our business and a key component of our growth.’ When it comes to delivering for his partners, Klein knows creative, visually appealing shows are not enough if they can’t draw audiences. ‘We are not ‘precious filmmakers’ in that sense,’ he says. ‘We have that passion, but [also] the sensibility to understand the commercial need for huge ratings,’ he says.
‘One thing that I love about Atlas is that they are very tenacious at making these shows commercially viable,’ says Burns. ‘They are great at producing stunning images. They are solid on insight and content, and they’re just great storytellers. Those are the qualities we value.’
For Klein, the goal is for all of Atlas’ shows to reach as wide an audience as possible. The last few years at Atlas have seen the introduction of both a film division as well as a digital division, both launched in 2007. Each endeavor stems from Atlas’ entrepreneurial genes. Lane was the spearhead for the development of the digital division. ‘Personally, I was very interested in what was going on in the digital world,’ she says. ‘I told Bruce [that] we should explore digital; this could be a great opportunity for us.’
The film division, which launched two years ago under Kirby and Houser, affords Atlas Media the opportunity to delve into topics that Klein and the Atlas team feel particularly passionate about. Atlas has said it aims to produce three to five theatrical docs a year. Kirby says these ‘run from one end of the spectrum to the other’ in terms of subject matter. Indeed, Atlas’ past theatrical titles’ topics range from the death penalty (Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead) to music (Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise). Houser says Atlas is committed to developing feature docs, but they do not rely on the division to inject large revenues into the company – unless, of course, one of the features becomes a hit.
‘I remember when he was doing the Meat Loaf doc, Bruce thought he was going to shoot for a couple of days. He ended up being on the tour for two months,’ says Beggs. ‘I was marveling at the fact that he could do that. It told me how committed he was, how passionate he was about the work.’
ROLLING UP THE SLEEVES
Klein’s drive, according to Houser, is a by-product of his beginnings as a filmmaker. ‘He is happiest when he is rolling up his sleeves and getting in there in the creative process,’ she says.
Klein certainly had his sleeves rolled up for one of Atlas’ more memorable production shoots, Route 66: A Cruise Down Main Street, a documentary on the iconic American highway. The team had booked 13 days to drive across the highway from Chicago to L.A. Klein had an expensive red Corvette on loan from Chevrolet that was used for exterior shots. The car was being towed all across the country, without incident, until the last stretch of highway in L.A. That’s when a drunk driver came out of nowhere and barreled into the RV that was housing the Corvette, totaling the car. Klein remembers looking on in disbelief as the driver opened his door and beer bottles literally fell out of the car.
It’s the type of yarn that all producers who have been around for a while have, and it demonstrates a point that is not lost on Klein. Despite the success and growth that Atlas has experienced, the next big obstacle can be just around the corner.
Klein admits to being perplexed by some of the current challenges facing the industry. ‘We now have one or two generations of people who have grown up thinking that content equals ‘free,” he says. He fears that it will be difficult to implement a model that monetizes content for a generation that may be unwilling to pay. Klein also identifies piracy as an ‘enormous problem… I don’t know how it’ll work. Uncertainty is always the biggest challenge.’
Still, there is one thing for Klein that holds true; a core message that has guided Atlas Media Corp. through the winding roads of the last 20 years.
‘Despite the fact that it’s en vogue now to talk about how much has changed, and how the industry is going through all these shocks to the system, I think the amazing thing is how little things have changed,’ he offers. ‘Telling stories is the core of the business, no matter what.’
MAPPING OUT ATLAS’ MILESTONES
Realscreen asked Atlas Media Corp. founder and president Bruce David Klein to supply us with a list of major milestones from the company’s 20-year history. Here are a few of Atlas’ marquee moments…
First cable sale: 1992 – Shark Terror: The Mini-Series to A&E Network
First multiple hit series year: 1998 – History’s Lost & Found for History Channel, Extreme Cuisine for Food Network and Royal Families of the World for WE tv
First reality game show strip: 2000 – Spend It Fast for Warner Bros/Telepictures
First docu-movie: 2003 – Breaking Vegas: The True Story of the MIT Blackjack Team
First theatrical release: 2008 – Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise
First publishing project: 2008 – How Not To Die: Surprising Lessons from America’s Favorite Medical Examiner (Random House)
Longest running shows: Dr G: Medical Examiner (five seasons – Discovery Health/TLC) and Top 5 (six seasons – Food Network)