Outlook 2021: ICM Partners’ Michael Kagan on buyers and budgets

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. ...
December 2, 2020

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. As the novel coronavirus put the TV and film industry on pause, stakeholders across all sectors re-calibrated — as Realscreen covered in ‘Weathering the storm‘ — and, as we heard in ‘Back to business,’ returned to the job with a new playbook. 

Now, with ‘Outlook,’ Realscreen is turning the page on a difficult year, and looking onward to 2021. Here, you’ll hear from execs in various sectors about the challenges and opportunities they foresee for the industry in the year ahead. Here, we speak to Michael Kagan, a founding partner and head of international television at Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C. and London-based talent and literary agency, ICM Partners. 

The pandemic accelerated the appetite for unscripted from audiences and buyers alike. How has that been reflected on the agency side, and how much of ICM′s focus is on unscripted/non-scripted as we look ahead to 2021?

Michael Kagan: Looking at a very difficult year, our non-scripted business in total was very strong. Although we were impacted, obviously; not as greatly as some of the other departments in the agency. Actually, we had growth year-to-year, which is extremely impressive. And if it wasn’t for COVID, we would have had a record setting year this year. To show how strong our business is, if you look at the other agencies, you can see every major agency dropped bodies or lost bodies. During the process, we actually added people, and some very significant agents. So, very excited to have Brian Speiser from APA and Justin Ongert from WME.

Jumping off that, are talent agencies on more stable ground going into next year? 

MK: We’ve always had a lean machine… We put as much content on the air as anyone else if not more, especially on the big format side. I think some of our other competitors had a lot more overhead to deal with when we didn’t have that problem. We’re always on the hunt, and looking for great opportunities in the marketplace, for other agents that we feel would be a great fit for our culture and our team.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing in unscripted content that will be at the forefront in 2021, and how is that guiding the long-term approach you’re taking with clients? 

MK: There’s going to be a certain amount of buyers where things are going to be pretty much the same. But I do see it already that budgets, especially within this next year, are very much going to be lower than they were in the past, and [will impact] what networks are willing to spend on episodes and the amount of stuff they’re going to buy.

I can already see the writing on the wall, especially in basic cable, which has been a very robust marketplace in the past… We’re just making sure our clients are smart about what they’re taking out into the marketplace and understand the realities and what the cost is going to be. I hope we don’t lose more buyers. Quibi — it was unfortunate that they went under. [You] could say whatever you want [about] them, [but] they bought a lot of non-scripted content. Our clients had multiple series with them that they now have to make up somewhere else in this marketplace.

Speaking of that, what are your thoughts on the buying and commissioning market right now and how that’s affecting your clients?

MK: Cable was always in a weird place, just because of the cord cutting and the advertising model they have. I think this sped up them looking at their models and what they’re able to spend, versus what they need on return on investment on these shows, and making sure especially that they repeat well in multiple day parts, and it’s not just an expensive show that rates in primetime, and then there’s not another way for them to monetize it.

Are you seeing more A-list talent interested in boarding unscripted projects? 

MK: It’s been [that way] for the past couple years. Packaging has always been an important part of the business. You’re seeing some people now that might not have been interested before that are interested. I think the networks are actually a little bit more wise and want packaging that makes sense — not just adding someone’s name for the name value.

If we enter another production shutdown in 2021, how do you see non-scripted content evolving in response?

MK: There are ways of doing these shows with low impact. Our clients are very smart and resourceful when it comes to production. If you’re going into the field and going to different locations every week, that’s going to be tough. But some of the docusoaps and some of the documentaries or docuseries — there’s ways to do them in the pandemic.

In addition to the pandemic, a lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera in the TV industry has been an important conversation this year, brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement. How has that been reflected on the agency side, and how is ICM responding? 

MK: I think we’ve always looked for the best producers, production companies and talent, no matter what they are, but obviously, we want the best voices from any group and have always sought out the best. And obviously trying to help develop people with different voices has always been a cornerstone of ICM. ICM in general has a major diversity program, and it’s at the bedrock of what we are and our values.

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