Realscreen presents the first in a series spotlighting producers who are reinventing their approaches to their craft — through revamping their business models, exploring new genres of unscripted and non-fiction content, moving into multi-platform territory, or all of the above. Here, we talk to Anvil 1893 founder and CEO Eric Schotz about how he is hammering out a new path after decades in the business.
We all know the old saying: necessity is the mother of invention. And as many producers are finding out in the current content climate, it’s also a close relative of reinvention.
Veteran producer Eric Schotz can attest to this. By 2016, he had been running Encino-based LMNO Productions for approximately 27 years, with a client base that included major U.S. broadcast nets (the late Nineties version of Kids Say the Darndest Things and I Get That a Lot for CBS, Race to the Altar for NBC, Guinness World Records Primetime for Fox) and cable nets of every stripe, from Animal Planet to The Weather Channel and most points between.
But also by that point there were signs that big change was afoot for the unscripted business. The squeeze of margin compression was making its presence felt as network belt tightening impacted budgets and series orders. Meanwhile, unscripted prodcos that had been riding high on a wave of consolidation that saw several shops snapped up by global media behemoths were now expected to deliver on the big price tags they commanded. These were the early signs on the horizon pointing towards what Schotz now calls “the tsunami.”
As all of this was unfolding, Schotz and LMNO became embroiled in legal battles that saw the producer up against his former accountant, Paul Ikegami, with a lawsuit alleging embezzlement of funds, and one of the company’s biggest buyers, Discovery Communications. LMNO, via a lawsuit levied at Discovery, alleged the company was seeking to leverage the skirmish with Ikegami to “steal” the TLC hit The Little People, produced to that point by LMNO, by producing it in-house.
Discovery, in turn, countersued, alleging “false budgets” that “went far beyond ‘padding.’” The network group had also, prior to the initial lawsuit from LMNO, dropped several series produced by the production outfit, saying at the time that it had uncovered “procedures and practices that did not respect Discovery’s contractual rights.” Ikegami also filed a cross-complaint in December of 2016, alleging that the prodco engaged in fraudulent accounting. The FBI conducted a search of the LMNO headquarters as part of what was then being termed as a criminal investigation.
That was then. The lawsuits have since been settled, although no one is able to talk much about what that entails. LMNO and Discovery reached what was called “an amicable settlement” in August of 2018, while the suit against Ikegami was also reportedly settled in April of last year. As for the FBI investigation, according to attorney Peter Morris of Barnes & Thornburg, “The U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed that the investigation of LMNO has been declined. In addition, all materials were returned to LMNO.”
But the event, and the aforementioned market conditions beginning to rock the unscripted production community, provided the impetus for Schotz to rethink his modus operandi, and in September of 2016, he unveiled Anvil 1893 Entertainment. Naming the venture after one of the favorite anvils in his collection — he says he has between 25 and 30 — Schotz says the moniker carried added resonance during that tumultuous period.
“Anvils to me have character,” he says now, speaking to Realscreen in advance of the ABC reboot of Kids Say the Darndest Things, premiering on Sunday (Oct. 6). “Each mark involves being beaten, but it still exists, strong as ever.
“We were running a very large, what I call a factory business – high volume, multiple buyers,” he says of the latter days of LMNO, which is no longer actively producing series but houses a library, distributed internationally, of past projects. “It was a big operation. As you started looking ahead, you could see that those kinds of big operations were going to have difficulties as new business models started to develop. Not owning any IP, consolidation, work for hire, fewer buyers… Moving away from a system where you make pilots and moving towards sizzle reels. Those changes were indicative to us that we needed to ask, as this market changes, how do we reinvent ourselves?
“When you run a large company you have to feed the beast,” he adds. “When you have hundreds of people working for you, you really need to be able to keep food on the plate. This idea of dropping the overhead and focusing on the IP and the stories we wanted to tell was really where I wanted to be at this stage of my life. It’s more about chasing the piece of IP we want as opposed to saying yes to everything that comes our way.”
Thus, Anvil 1893 is aiming for a boutique approach, producing premium content while also being small enough (the team currently stands at approximately 30 staff, including Schotz’s son Andrew, who heads up development, and wife Linda, who runs finance) to pivot wherever the market demands.
“When you look at the marketplace and see what’s out there, I feel strongly that a smaller, nimble company can manipulate between these giant icebergs. You can’t turn an aircraft carrier around quickly, but you can turn a speedboat around in a heartbeat.”
In this case, the speedboat led to a formidable talent in comedian Tiffany Haddish, and a durable format in Kids Say the Darndest Things. Schotz got the rights for the decades-old franchise from CBS and started pitching the project soon after, garnering interest from multiple networks. Haddish come on board after Schotz caught her act and was drawn to her “empathy.”
“I think it hit the right time and place for her and is opening up a whole new part for her brand,” he says. “On the first day she had an instantaneous connection with the kids.
“If you look at our country right now, people just want to smile,” he says of the reboot. “And we have a show where you’re going to smile from beginning to end. It has its edge, but it’s not over the edge. I love the idea that we have a huge talent, a remarkable format, and a super strong production team.”
Schotz says the reimagined Kids Say reflects the realities of the current generation that was “born with a phone in its hand,” and will feature in the field bits in addition to studio segments.
While a show of this size requires scaling up, he’s intent on keeping the core team at Anvil 1893 in the 30+ range. He wants the focus of the new company to be sourcing premium IP, with an eye towards talent-driven programming, strong formats, potential unscripted/scripted hybrids, and even publishing projects.
When the tsunami was approaching in 2016, Schotz was buoyed by support from the unscripted production community, which was also realizing the need to mobilize in the midst of the changes sweeping the industry, and the work itself, producing two projects for History at the time. Now, the buying landscape is evolving at a feverish rate, producing more opportunities as well as challenges in navigating it all. And Schotz remains enthusiastic about making TV.
“I got into TV because it was fun, and I still think it’s fun.”