How do you make money in television in 2014? If you’re Charlie Ebersol, you pour US$100,000 into a fly fishing business.
The Company co-founder – whose credits include TNT’s The Great Escape and USA’s The Moment – riled his fellow panelists during a session devoted to the next generation of unscripted producers by emphasizing the importance of ancillary revenue streams when developing and pitching cable shows.
Moderated by Ardaban CEO Chachi Senior, “Raised on Reality: Next Gen Talk Unscripted” featured Ebersol; Monica Austin, SVP of business and brand development for Shine America; Oliver Bogner, exec producer of Bogner Entertainment; Tom Leach, president of Media RED; Geno McDermott, CEO of Blackfin; and Jack Osbourne, exec producer for Schweet Entertainment (and former star of reality hit The Osbournes).
After discussing the impact of consolidation, Skype sizzle reels, casting talent off Vimeo versus offline talent scouting, the definition of authenticity and high-definition helicopter shots that cost $500, the talk turned to business strategy.
“The biggest thing facing us is that unscripted departments had two execs with buying power. Now they have 17 and the other 15 don’t have buying power. They have maybe power. You have to figure out a way around it,” said Ebersol, who estimated that he pitches an average of seven shows a month. “Accepting that system is the reason we’re all in a work-for-hire situation.
“Let me say this positively,” he continued. “What this has created is something else. I don’t take out a television show unless I can spin three businesses out of it.”
He used an example of investing $100,000 in a prospective talent’s flying fishing business so his company would be in a better position to leverage that business when it came time to broker ancillary deals around brand integrations and merchandise around.
Austin agreed that type of revenue is increasingly attractive to networks, but the other producers rebuffed Ebersol’s assertions that building a business first and selling the show second is the way forward, counting that the creative substance of a pitch is what seals a deal.
“I did not have the capital or friends on Wall Street,” said Leach. “You have to be able to wow a network or executive with something that is magic the second you walk in the door… so that the exec says ‘I’m gonna get fired if I don’t buy your show.’”
“If you don’t have a hit, it doesn’t matter how many businesses you have,” added Bogner.
“I have a show that was only two seasons and I’m making more money off it than a show I have that’s in its fifth season,” Ebersol responded.
“I’m trying to push five to six tapes,” said McDermott. “If I was trying to build side businesses, how could I get that volume out?”
Although Austin pointed out not every network exec will be dazzled by back-door bells and whistles, she agreed that others will. “The network programmers definitely care,” she said. “They want to have a show that’s going to be successful.”
The panel also tackled what younger producers can and can’t learn from the old guard, and how the skill sets required of producers are evolving.
While Ebersol stated that he views the older generation as competition, others saw it differently. “You can’t negate the experiences of the old school,” said Osbourne. “These producers know how to save costs and cut corners and some of the new guys don’t know how yet.”
“The business affairs executive that’s been at a network – the first thing they do is define contingent compensation. Our generation has to look past the accepted models because business affairs has caught on,” Ebersol insisted. “I think the new ideas will come in the back door, which is less sexy but will create more value.”
Leach noted that increasingly he looks for talent that can do it all – operate cameras, work After Effects and build relationships. McDermott added he will often give a younger producer with a good idea an executive producer credit in order to keep them committed to it.
A lot of younger producers are not just in it for the money, Leach explained, but for the experience and camaraderie fostered during late nights spent working on a project as a team.
“They want to be part of a community,” said Leach, explaining their mentality thusly: “I don’t need to make $10 million and get an executive producer credit. I just want to be part of something.”
McDermott and Ebersol agreed that taking five minutes to listen to a younger producer’s idea is worthy. Ebersol earmarks un-contracted development money for younger producers because when he was up and coming, filmmaker Brett Ratner once gave him $10,000 – no strings attached.
The young Ebersol had written a letter to Ratner and reminded him that Steven Spielberg once gave him [Ratner] $1,000 to get started. He added: “With inflation, you should give me $10,000.”
“And he gave it to me,” he said. “That is the actual business model: if you invest in people, it pays back in dividends.”