People/Biz

Viewpoint: Behind the Executive Exodus

Over the last several years, many U.S. indie prodcos were snapped up by larger international entities, creating a wave of superindies vying for global scale in an increasingly competitive market. ...
March 6, 2019

Over the last several years, many U.S. indie prodcos were snapped up by larger international entities, creating a wave of superindies vying for global scale in an increasingly competitive market. Now, some of the principals of those companies are splitting from them in search of new horizons to conquer. Michael Cascio takes a closer look.

You work your way up the ladder. PA, AP, coordinator, manager, director, VP, whatever… but you can’t shake the dream: you want to be your own boss. Get out of this place and go indie. Work on projects that you create. Set up your own company.

And so it begins. You have a solid reputation, a dedicated core of employees, a clever company name and a few projects to get you started. You’re working hard for a few years and finally it happens.

Deadliest Catch. Pawn Stars. Say Yes to the Dress. Top Chef.

Hit shows! You’re doing multiple seasons with money coming in. Success begets success, and you’re now developing, pitching, producing, and developing some more. All cylinders are firing. And then … what?

We’re now seeing the “then” — the Official Next Phase of the evolving factual TV and film business.

Some of the principals and founders of big production companies are taking their sizable profits and heading off on their own. They include all-stars such as Brent Montgomery, Thom Beers, Abby Greensfelder, Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth. They’re not alone, and — trust me — there will be more to come. Are they trying to tell us something?

While a quiet exodus has been going on for a few years thanks to industry consolidation, the most recent departures suggest that now, more than ever before, there may be a wider variety of reasons for making the move.

First, of course, there’s the money. The conglomerates buy into production companies, put them under their umbrellas, and offer a tidy sum for ultimate ownership. The buy usually comes with a window: meet the numbers and after a few years, you get a windfall, and then maybe jump back in with a fresh company. But maybe not….

At the most recent Realscreen Summit in New Orleans, I saw a gaggle of very happy veteran producers leaving their former shops to work on their own under new or different circumstances. They’re thrilled by the money, I’m sure, but they’re also moving into territory that, frankly, seems closer to why they got in the business in the first place, removing themselves from the mainstream. As a network refugee who’s now independent, I can vouch for at least a few of these motives:

Trying something new. Entrepreneurs at heart, these producers are looking for different ways of scratching that itch. And now they can do it. Brent Montgomery, the Pawn Stars guy, went from building and selling Leftfield Pictures to being named CEO of ITV America, and now has established Wheelhouse Entertainment. The new venture boasts a variety of creative projects, scripted and unscripted, including ventures with stars who are also looking for something new, such as Jimmy Kimmel.

Fueling a passion. When faced with reinventing yourself in mid-career, a mentor once told me, “Think of what you wanted to do when you were 22 years old and use that as your guide.” It doesn’t mean going back to being a waiter or janitor, but it does mean revisiting your ideals and goals. Example: Abby Greensfelder, co-CEO of Half Yard, is moving on to start a mission-based enterprise intended to strengthen women’s voices in all forms of media. She’ll stay involved in her company but turns over day-to-day reins to CEO Sean Gallagher, who will keep the engines running at the home of reality series such as Say Yes to the Dress and The Last Alaskans.

Focusing on content. The documentary boom beckons to those who dream of Sundance premieres and Oscars. Many production execs were — and still are — filmmakers are heart. They may be smart business people, but their creative urge still burns brightly. Thom Beers moved on from hundreds of hours at his legendary Original Productions and as CEO of FremantleMedia North America, to his latest venture, BoBCat, where he’s bringing his Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers skills to a smaller outfit, with the freedom to concentrate on as few or as many projects as he wants. Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth, co-founders of Magical Elves, may be known for Project Runway and Top Chef, but they also produce feature-length films, and can now move into either space, perhaps with more autonomy.

Watching the business model collapse. The cable business that once supported the industry is in trouble, or as some might prefer to say, transition. Ratings, revenues and subscribers are down. Smaller networks may fold. The big ones are commissioning fewer episodes and forcing suppliers to spend a fortune on development. The streaming services are not yet picking up all the slack. Production company margins, already tight, are in danger of getting leaner. Is it any wonder why these folks are packing up?

As they say, do the math. While there is still a need for hundreds of hours of programs in the factual TV universe, producers will have to spend even more of their time and energy to stay profitable. And, let’s face it — executives who built companies in the 1990s or even at the turn of the millennium are not getting any younger. Yes, there are plenty of companies that will flourish in the current and future marketplace. But for many who have made it to the top in the last 10-20 years, it’s time to get out while the getting’s good… and do something fun and, just maybe, more fulfilling.

Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.

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