Our look at 2014′s Realscreen Trailblazers continues with Brent Montgomery, CEO of Leftfield Entertainment.
When Brent Montgomery and his team at Leftfield Pictures unleashed the lightning in a bottle that was History’s smash hit Pawn Stars in 2009, it cemented both the company’s status and that of its founder as one of the unscripted content industry’s biggest success stories in recent memory. The events of 2014 added a couple of important new chapters to the story.
With Pawn Stars effectively kick-starting the “artefactual” trend that still sees new shows commissioned internationally, and the series itself still a crown jewel for History (104 episodes were ordered for 2014 alone, the largest order for any docusoap in the history of the reality genre), Montgomery began a series of big moves in 2013. That’s when he turned the Leftfield brand into a veritable American superindie, through the acquisition of Sirens Media (Real Housewives of New Jersey) and the establishment of two joint ventures: Loud TV with House Hunters International exec producer Nick Rigg, and Outpost Entertainment with Hoarders EP Jodi Flynn.
After building Leftfield Entertainment, Montgomery and team worked on extending the Pawn Stars franchise internationally (local adaptations air in the UK, Australia and South Africa) and moving Leftfield Pictures into new territory, with series such as Bravo’s Blood, Sweat and Heels joining other Leftfield programs such as American Restoration, Counting Cars and Oddities in the New York-based prodco’s catalog.
In May of 2014, the brand-building efforts culminated in one of the biggest acquisition deals of the year, when ITV announced the US$360 million purchase of an 80% stake in Leftfield Entertainment. “The idea of being a lone wolf while the rest of the market is consolidating made me a bit nervous,” Montgomery told delegates at the inaugural Realscreen London conference in October, during a keynote interview, and the move to sign with a UK-based parent company should go some way towards fulfilling Montgomery’s aim to score more commissions internationally.
But beyond the multi-million dollar deals, Montgomery also made waves in the unscripted world in 2014 by making Leftfield one of the founding companies of the newly launched trade association, the Non-Fiction Producers Association (NPA). At a time when the spotlight is shining rather unflatteringly on labor relations and production practices in reality programming, the NPA, according to its mission statement, aims to foster and promote a set of best practices for reality producers. And as with his biggest show to date, the success of the NPA will ultimately be dependent upon teamwork.
Why was the sale the right move to make for both the company, and for you? Many would assume, looking at the dollar figure accompanying the sale, it would be an easy decision to make. Was it?
Financially it was a no-brainer, but emotionally, it was more difficult to sell my life’s passion. Paul Buccieri [now with A+E Networks] and ITV were very convincing and have been great partners, allowing us to focus more on the creative. The result is the strongest development slate in our history, which is a key thing, as we need the volume to allow us to find and keep good people.
Let’s talk about the NPA. What can you tell us about the impetus for being a founding company for this association? What are some of the aims that you hope it can achieve?
The industry as we now know it is only about 15 years old, and there’s no playbook for business owners who don’t have business degrees. I’ve been fortunate to have mentors like Jon Murray and Eric Schotz, and I think the group represents producers who are focused on making this a sustainable industry that gives the current generation and the next a real opportunity for success.
The networks have been extremely supportive, and securing their pipeline with well-run businesses is as vital for them as for us.
As one of the more successful producers in unscripted, what do you see as the prime challenges facing the industry in the year ahead? And how do you plan to meet them?
Reality is at its first major crossroads. Scripted was mulling along and not taking risks a few years back, and all of us scruffy reality producers showed up at the party, where no one told us we weren’t supposed to get better ratings than the shows costing 10 times as much to produce. Even better for the nets, they were able to own the IP. Now, scripted has answered the call and is better than ever, but it’s less profitable and takes three times as long to hit the air.
In the unscripted industry we need to focus less on the last 2% of the show, with rounds of frame and music notes, and more time on the other 98%, being bold with ideas and storytelling. The tight schedules often don’t allow time to focus on both so let’s all be smart. I firmly believe the pendulum will swing back our way, with many of the big budget scripted bets not paying off, as scripted becomes oversaturated.