Leftfield Entertainment CEO Brent Montgomery (pictured) kicked off the inaugural Realscreen London today (October 8), recalling the lessons he has learned as his Pawn Stars prodco has grown, to a packed house.
In the keynote opening conversation with Arrow Media creative director John Smithson, Montgomery spoke candidly of a time, seven years ago, when Leftfield was mainly making wedding videos, working out of a garage, and running on fumes.
“We were literally in an office without heat in New York City – it wasn’t supposed to be a commercial office – and we were shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs,” he recalled. “It was hard to get networks to take meetings.”
The company started with just a few investors each putting in US$10,000 a piece. “The wedding videos were keeping the lights on,” bringing in anywhere from $300 to $500 a time, he said, joking that “getting notes on weddings is more frustrating” than on TV shows.
Leftfield got its first TV hour when CBS allowed it to repackage a web series made for CBS.com as an hour-long one-off for TV, and from there the firm grew to build a slate of around 20 hours. Then came Pawn Stars.
Montgomery recalled driving through Las Vegas with friends when the idea struck to do a show based around pawn shops. “We’d driven by a pawn shop and I said to somebody, has there ever been a pawn shop show?”
Initially, U.S. networks worried that the setting was “too shady” for a reality show (or as the Brits put it, “too dodgy”), at which point the prodco’s team refined the pitch to find a shop where the staff were historical experts and the lighting was bright.
The indie took a punt on the cast, despite the fact that “they broke the first rule of comedy in that they laughed at their own jokes,” and that they had had multiple other attempts to break into TV – including a pilot shot for HBO – that all ended unsuccessfully.
History took interest in the pitch and its cast, says Montgomery, but while Chumlee, who Montgomery calls “this great breakout light relief guy in the show,” wasn’t originally considered to be featured cast member material, the prodco “fought for him,” according to Montgomery, and he ultimately made the cut.
There was still the question of what to call it. An intern came up with the title Pawn Stars, but Montgomery credits Nancy Dubuc – who was then head of History – in helping get it past the U.S. network’s board, selling it to them using the working title Pawning History.
As the show became a huge hit, several network execs took Montgomery aside and told him that the he needed to prepare the company for the opportunities that would arrive. It was at this point, he says, that Leftfield made several key business decisions that helped the firm grow.
“I had two people who I brought in who had business degrees,” he recalled, “one of the big ideas was to invest in the infrastructure, add people, and put people on salaries,” which at the time was somewhat risky, given that – as a U.S. indie – Leftfield did not own its IP and was instead relying on its cashflow.
“We went to the banks to take out a major loan [for the acquisition of Sirens Media] and they said, where are your assets? And our assets were all in our cashflow.
“We also signed a 10-year lease [for office space] and that was a scary, scary thing to do when you’ve only got a few shows.”
The other major investment, he added, was in a casting department – Leftfield now has 25 dedicated talent scouts in house, looking for the potential reality stars of tomorrow.
Beyond that, diversification was key. Leftfield’s shows were mostly male-skewing, so the acquisition of Sirens Media in March 2013 helped give the firm a female-skewing production and development arm. A partnership with producer Nick Rigg to launch the joint venture Loud TV helped diversify further.
By the start of this year, it was clear that the TV industry was entering into another major era of consolidation, which meant it was time to assess the company’s equity. Leftfield turned to About Corporate Finance to help broker a takeover deal and in May, ITV Studios U.S. Group paid US$360 million to acquire 80% of Leftfield.
“The idea of being a lone wolf while the rest of the market is consolidating made me a bit nervous,” Montgomery said, adding that part of the appeal of ITV as an owner was that it was a British company, allowing it opportunities to target the UK market.
“We did have a fear that if we sold to an American company, that that would handcuff us,” he added. “The fact that no American producers have come over here [to the UK] and had any great success is a bit frightening, but is also exciting.”
As to how ITV calculated its $360 million figure when Leftfield has no back-catalog of owned shows, Montgomery said it was calculated based on the prodco’s cashflow.
“Hopefully it’s based on more than that through relationships… it’s more of a future bet than a back-catalog bet.”
He added that although U.S. indies do not have terms of trade allowing them to exploit their own shows internationally, the reality is that “a lot of the stuff that we do in the States doesn’t travel well… like redneck stuff.”
Finally, when asked how long he expected Pawn Stars to continue, Montgomery was reflective. While the show will inevitably end, he said, the characters still have a lot of value in them, and there will be opportunities to place them in new shows, such as the spin-off Pawnography.
“We have great talent on that show. Look at characters like Gordon Ramsay and Bear Grylls… what Pawn Stars has is great American talent.”