RS West ’17: Diving into development challenges

Budgets, acquisitions and American Idol were top of mind at Realscreen West’s “Let’s Make a (New) Deal” panel discussion on Tuesday. Following up on Realscreen Summit’s session, titled “Under Pressure: The State ...
June 7, 2017

Budgets, acquisitions and American Idol were top of mind at Realscreen West’s “Let’s Make a (New) Deal” panel discussion on Tuesday.

Following up on Realscreen Summit’s session, titled “Under Pressure: The State of the Unscripted Nation”, panelists didn’t shy away from voicing the challenges they were facing in different sectors of the industry.

In a session moderated by Michael O’Connell, senior writer, The Hollywood Reporter, Thom Beers, a partner with BobCat; Howard Lee, EVP development and production, TLC, GM/Discovery Life Channel, Discovery Communications, Gena McCarthy, EVP programming and development, FYI, A+E Networks, Brent Montgomery, CEO, ITV America; and SallyAnn Salsano, founder, executive producer and CEO of 495 productions, chatted about how to reduce hoop-jumping in development and production practices, forging deals that incentivize producers, and, in hypothetical terms, what a writers’ strike would have meant for unscripted.

Here are five takeaways from the session:

There’s no shortage of obstacles
When asked about the biggest challenge in the development process right now, Beers quipped that it was “to live long enough to get a show commissioned.”

Montgomery equated his company’s challenges to that of a seven-layer dip: “There are seven different chances for your project to be killed,” he said, noting that it’s hard for shows to make it through to the last layer.

Although the panelists lamented about the obstacles they face during the development process, Lee noted that there’s not necessarily consistency when it comes to timing — while some development processes are lightning fast, some stretch out a long time.

“I remember the wonderful time when we weren’t even doing development deals and we were just saying we’d figure it out together,” he said.

It’s a cocktail of timing and research
Beers equated the current state of the industry to that of applying to a prestigious school for your children: there’s a specific number of spots you need to fight for. Should you not make it into one of those coveted spots, you need to wait for a show to drop out a year or two later so yours can be slotted in.

“I think networks have gotten much more selective because they have things that are working,” Beers speculated, adding that he remembers a time when six or seven shows were made in a month to see what works. While there’s more intel and research now to help gauge the success of a show prior to its development, Beers also noted that it can lead to some paralysis for when production actually begins.

Knowledge can mean power, agreed Salsano, but increased intel can often mean spending too much time trying to figure out how to incorporate that research into your project, even if it’s not necessarily applicable.

Slim budgets aren’t all bad
The panel lamented that slimmer budgets continue to be a key industry obstacle, for both the producers and networks. Beers voiced concerns that the CFOs in companies are becoming more powerful than the CEOs, and that production choices in companies are now being made by the bottom line.

“It scares me when the CFO dictates what’s going to be done and how it’s going to be done,” he said.

Montgomery agreed, saying he thinks most people in the industry would exchange a higher budget for a more creative autonomy.

But McCarthy played devil’s advocate, noting that team members should be able to work well within strict budget constraints.

“I think when you have final budgets it forces everyone on the team to be that much more creative,” she said, adding, “It’s not the size of the budget that counts, it’s the quality of the idea and how you use it.”

Look to the future
Despite the number of acquisitions and mergers that have happened in past years, McCarthy said she tries not to dwell on how the past will affect future business. If you look back, she said, you run the risk of missing the opportunities ahead.

At the end of the day, you need to swing to get hits, said Salsano, adding that we need to do away with the mindset that it’s production company against network. Rather, everyone is just under an extreme amount of pressure.

“If I don’t get something, it’s not for lack of trying,” she said.

Going forward, Salsano pointed to the nimbleness of prodcos and their ability to overcome obstacles, no matter the nature.

“Put me in a box, and I’ll get out of it,” she said.

Nostalgia can be a powerful tool
A question about the reboot of American Idol gave way to a discussion on the appeal of nostalgia television today. While the panel questioned whether Idol had actually been off the air long enough for a nostalgia factor to be present, Lee says it’s something that’s hard to ignore. In the case of American Idol, Beers said the economics of the decision likely went beyond ad sales and sub fees, noting that there’s a certain cache that comes along with the show.

Salsano agreed, comparing it to her experience working on The Bachelor, referencing the intense brand loyalty of its viewers. Even if there was a dip in ratings, she said, it was still better than anything else.

Montgomery noted that this resonance with fans is one of the reasons ITV opted to revamp a new version of the popular Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and was excited at the prospect of bringing back a well-known brand.


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