Epix’s Wright Goes All In on Originals

Nearly 10 months after he was named president of Epix, Michael Wright has set a course to transform the movie-centric premium channel into a scripted series-heavy service that will feature as many as six shows in 2019.

Along with the 70 million subscriber network’s current lineup of returning series — Deep State, Berlin Station and Get Shorty — new shows projected to launch in 2019 include Pennyworth, about Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s loyal butler, and Our Lady, a dark crime comedy starring Ben Kingsley. Add unscripted shows, like the Mark Burnett-produced, boxing-themed reality competition series The Contender, and Epix expects to offer more than 100 hours of original series in 2019.

Wright, the former CEO of Amblin Entertainment and former head of programming for TNT and TBS, spoke with Multichannel News about the network’s original programming fortunes and its position in the premium TV marketplace. He also offered his thoughts on the future of the traditional television platform in a wide-ranging interview, an edited version of which follows.

MCN: How do you define the Epix brand?
Michael Wright:
Epix is television for people who love movies. The first thing I did when I came here is ask the research people, “Who is watching this network right now?” And the core Epix viewer is a movie viewer, which makes sense because it was billed as a movie-streaming platform. So demographically, psychographically and any other graphic you can imagine, it’s people who initially came to the network because they love that kind of storytelling.

That offers us an opportunity because there’s a certain kind of movie that people still love to watch on television, but the studios don’t make much of them theatrically anymore. It’s that narratively strong, complex character-driven movie genre that’s missing in the movies. That audience hasn’t gone away, but they’ve migrated to television. So that’s the audience that’s already coming to Epix, and that’s the audience that we’re programming to with our original series like Berlin Station, Get Shorty and Deep State. All of those series are series that appeal to the people that love that kind of movie-going.

MCN: Will Epix at some point look to make more original movies to satisfy its core audience?
Maybe down the road. I think that right now the reason I don’t want to do that is because if you make a two-hour movie, you’re going to spend the same amount of marketing dollars for those two hours that you’re going to spend marketing a 10- or 12-hour series. It’s just not as an efficient use of your resources. Would I love to be able to put original movies on the network? Sure, and as this business continues to evolve and all the screens begin to coalesce, maybe we’ll look at it, but not right now.

MCN: Are you satisfied, then, with the performance of Epix’s original series in terms of their appeal to the network’s core viewer?
We don’t provide [ratings], but I can tell you that Deep State is our highest, most-watched series and I’m happy with that. That series directly targets the audience that I’m describing: great narrative storytelling and great complex characters. I’m not looking to go highbrow and be dry and boring, but there’s a level of expectation on the part of the premium audience. They’re coming to see something that they are likely not going to see on broadcast or basic cable. It’s an audience that’s looking for distinctive storytelling, and they’re willing to pay for something that’s a little bit elevated.

MCN: Are the new Epix owners on board with the network’s continued dive into the scripted series space?
When MGM bought Epix a year ago, part of the reason they brought me in is because they looked at the network and said, “This has been a wonderfully successful movie streaming service that’s sort of dabbled in the series business, but we want to go big now.” In order to compete in this premium space you have to be in the original series business. You can’t dabble in it -– you have to go all in. So one of our goals is to get up to a 52-week schedule of original content and be in original content year round. We want to make sure that when a consumer is deciding to or not to subscribe or renew Epix, we’re going to give you a really good reason to subscribe in 2019. We had 40 hours of original content in 2017; we’re going to be at 130 hours of original content in 2019.

MCN: Does unscripted content fit into your strategy?
Yes. We recently launched a new version of The Contender, which is very character-based, but for the most part you’re going to see a lot of docuseries on the network. We’re also going to do some late-night stuff, including Unprotected Sets, which specifically goes out to find comedians that are working with somewhat provocative fare across the country.

MCN: Where do you see the opportunities for distribution growth? Is it on the traditional linear platform or is it on the emerging digital platforms?
The exciting thing about right now is that the television business has caught up with the consumer. People want to be able to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it. Epix was built from its very beginning with an eye towards availability towards the TV-everywhere model so that it could be available for anybody at any time on any platform. So while we’re focused right now primarily in the MVPD [pay-TV] space we are also available as an authenticated app. There’s so much growth available to us within the MVPD space and on the authenticated app, so we’re focused on that in the short term, but long term we are better equipped to become available on even more platforms.

MCN: Do you see Epix as a strong competitor to HBO, Showtime and Starz in the premium cable space?
Yes, and I embrace the fact that we’re the underdogs. Epix was built as a really wonderful movie streaming service, but as the industry has changed, today you really need original programming to attract subs. Movies are an important part of our portfolio and viewers love them, but the thing that gets somebody typically to lean in and subscribe to your network is a great original series. So we’re still in that [premium TV] universe that you were describing but I think it’s a huge opportunity for us in that space right now based on the amount of resources we’re throwing to our original content.

MCN: Epix is ramping up its original scripted lineup in the midst of a peak TV period of more than 450 scripted series on networks and streaming services. How do you plan to get the word out about your new shows in such a noisy and crowded environment?
There are certain things that are true about programming, whether you’re in the era of peak TV or 10 years ago. Regardless of how competitive it is and regardless of the platform you’re on, it’s always going to come down to one thing: the quality of the content — and even more specifically a hit show — which is what makes it really, really exciting and daunting. I point to [Hulu’s] The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu is a great service and wonderfully run, but when they put on The Handmaid’s Tale, it became a whole new ballgame. You look at Netflix and for all of their amazing success, you can look back and see the tipping point was House of Cards.

When I was at Turner, we didn’t exist until we put on The Closer [on TNT]. All of a sudden after that we mattered. So we’re all chasing that one show that’s relevant, exciting and compels people to find your network. Once you are available everywhere, then that hit show can be a game-changer. The other thing is you have to know your audience. In a cluttered environment in this peak TV world there’s no more passive viewing; lead-ins and lead-outs are irrelevant today. People have become so skilled at finding shows that you have to put on a show that’s going to create a little bit of noise but speak to a specific audience.

MCN: How do you see the traditional television industry developing over the next year and where does Epix fit into that dynamic?
I think convergence is the word that I’ve always come back to. You just see it happening around you: we’re moving to a one screen universe, and I don’t know who the aggregator is going to be and I don’t know how they’re going to do it. But I do know this: if you’re a content curator or a content creator you’re OK. I think that being able to identify great content and curate it for an audience is still going to be of great value.

I don’t think free TV goes away. I think people declare that sector of our business dead prematurely all the time, and I think that’s a mistake. I think you get a better version of what you love but these are the things don’t go away.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.