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Navigating the Way to the Deal

The TV landscape feels like it changes almost daily, with new platforms and outlets — most of which aren’t even “television” in the traditional sense — requiring more and more content. But Peak TV hasn’t always translated into glory days for the creators of that content, and it is up to their agents and managers to find new sources of financing and new ways to imagine deals.

And make no mistake: It takes imagination. There are reworked models to consider, myriad definitions of what success means and often a battle for international rights. The past is most certainly the past, and no two deals are ever going to be the same, it seems. And in this constant challenge, the best dealmakers in the business know how to manage when it comes to getting things done. In this annual special section of Dealmakers, seven top agents and managers discuss some memorable and hard-won successes, the ways to achieve them in this new era of content and even some ways they’d like to see the process changed for more efficiency — and success.

Lee Dinstman
Executive Vice President, Literary, APA

Most Memorable Recent TV Deals: Finding new ways to fund shows is a more and more important aspect; it’s more like the independent movie model, where you have to bring other sources to the table. Houdini & Doyle was put together with money from Canada and England and only then came into the U.S. The deal for 24: Legacy was made because the foreign numbers looked good and because of a new revenue stream from digital. Julia Roberts’ first TV show is Homecoming on Amazon, with a straight-to-series multiyear deal and it was based on a podcast. That’s amazing in showing how things have changed — a show based on a podcast.

Key to Closing a Deal: The heart of any negotiation is understanding the other side’s needs, and figuring out on a micro and macro level how to address them in a way that creates value. They’ll then have a greater willingness to address the needs of your client, and they will be more flexible on things really critical to your client.

Biggest Ways the Deals Have Changed: The evolution is proliferating beyond platforms of broadcast, cable and digital, with Snapchat and Facebook and Apple now making investments and strategizing about content development. It is a more content-driven business and there are not enough creators and showrunners around. We are reorganizing our agency with content as the hub of that wheel and the spokes are scripted literary or top-10 authors or comedian hyphenates; we’re organizing the whole department around identifying, developing and marketing content. But we may be past Peak TV — Spike, WGN [America] and others have pulled back this year. You want to place a product at the end user most responsive to the material but also, going forward, [at] a partner who we feel is committed to scripted shows.

The Change You’d Most Like to See: In an increasingly vertically integrated environment we have less leverage and the consolidation of studios and networks by large corporate owners means dealmaking is now driven by finance more than by business affairs. Finance is not holistic, but by the numbers, and they fail to recognize they are dealing with intangibles and that this is a business of relationships. The number-crunchers in, let’s say, Philadelphia, antagonize the very artists they need to grow their business. Something has to give a little if they’re going to create a show that can be an asset for a company beyond the numbers. The networks and studios need to educate their corporate parents on the handling and feeding of artists.

Ted Miller
Co-Head of Television, Creative Artists Agency

Most Memorable Recent TV Deals: Lauren Gussis’ deal with CBS studios for her first show, Insatiable, which was sold to The CW — that’s part of the CBS family and it was developed there and she wrote it there, even though it didn’t feel like a CW show. They loved it, but could only take so much programming from CBS as part of their structure and it didn’t make it. But Netflix had heard about it and was initially looking to partner but they took the whole show. That’s more of a studio story and less a Ted Miller story but it shows that there’s not necessarily one home for a show. The studio was a fantastic partner in that process.

Key to Closing a Deal: The key is finding a great result for the client while understanding the complexities of the specific negotiation and the network or platform and studio’s point of view.

Biggest Ways the Deals Have Changed: There are a number of changes in the current landscape. These include broadcast-network stacking requirements, diminishing syndication and cable secondary-window values, shrinking international value, international co-production financing and the complexities of making deals with global streaming services who want perpetual rights.

The Change You’d Most Like to See: I would like negotiations to be as straightforward and transparent as possible. Sifting through a traditional backend definition to figure out the value of a show can be a mindboggling experience.

Alex Murray
Manager/Producer, Brillstein Entertainment Partners

Most Memorable Recent TV Deals: The deal that stood out the most was Hood Adjacent with James Davis at Comedy Central. This show started as a live show in the back of Meltdown Comics. It quickly led to a Snapchat original series for Comedy Central. The success of that series led to a pilot and then to a critically acclaimed series. It all started with a new, crystal-clear point of view that had not been seen before and organically found its audience.

This deal was particularly challenging because we had to convince Comedy Central that this relatively unknown talent was worth investing many millions of dollars into. To do that, we had to make a deal for a Snapchat series that restricted our ability to take the show to other networks. I knew that Comedy Central makes comedy stars and, if we did this right, James Davis would be the next one. After a few weeks, James’ Snapchat series was getting 500,000 views an episode. The success of this series gave us the leverage to get James a top-tier deal for his TV series. It was a gamble that paid off for James and Comedy Central.

Key to Closing a Deal: The key is understanding the big picture and end game before an offer even comes in.

Biggest Ways the Deals Have Changed: TV dealmaking is getting worse because the traditional deals are being thrown out the window. There is no back end in most cases; new platforms want to own everything and it is becoming more difficult and less interesting to do business with them. Some cable outlets now want to own touring and other rights that weren’t in play a few years ago.

The Change You’d Most Like to See: I would like to continue to see deals that allow talent to be able to exist in multiple platforms at the same time. The idea of a star living on one network only for seven years is outdated. The audience consumes media in different ways and we should be able to exploit our talent in all of those platforms as long as it protects the integrity of the artist.

Tim Phillips
TV Literary Partner, United Talent Agency

Most Memorable Recent TV Deals: For me, it was selling a four-episode series of 2 Dope Queens specials to HBO, which will air next year during Black History Month. This is the next extension of the incredibly successful podcast and stage show starring clients Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams. What stood out was that although this is a fairly untraditional property and the format is unique from other comedy specials, the talent and appeal of Jessica and Phoebe is undeniable, and we had networks aggressively pursuing the project from a range of basic cable, premium cable, digital and streaming outlets.

Key to Closing a Deal: As with most sought-after projects, the most important thing is landing at the right creative home for the client, with the best deal terms.

The Change You’d Most Like to See: I’d love for studios to just say ‘yes’ to all my asks so my clients could start making their series!

Chris von Goetz
Founding Partner and Board Member, ICM

Most Memorable Recent TV Deals: One of the most memorable for me was The Handmaid’s Tale with our client, Bruce Miller, as creator of the show. The show was originally with Ilene Chaiken at Showtime, but after Showtime passed [and despite initial resistance from MGM, which wanted another woman showrunner] we got Bruce in. It’s a point of pride now with all the Emmy nominations. Like Breaking Bad, which was originally for FX and then helped launch AMC, this can be the same for Hulu. It also really says a lot about television now. Every good show has a chance of succeeding now — 10 years ago, a ‘no’ would have been a final ‘no;’ now it means, ‘Where else can we go?’ There’s always the lens of terrific economics but if you don’t get a show on the air, then it doesn’t matter — one place may have such a need that you might get on the air with a lower budget. That’s a calculation you have to make.

Key to Closing a Deal: The hurdles are beyond just getting more money; it’s about understanding where the money is and how to maximize back-end definition. HBO and others may give more upfront but less on the back end, for instance, so each outlet presents different challenges. The biggest challenge is to overcome some traditional business models, where buyers are less capable of changing at the speed of business. Deals get blown because they can’t adjust and are not being flexible in dealmaking.

Biggest Ways the Deals Have Changed: The artists get it and are excited by the opportunity to be the first big hit that might launch a new platform. But we are still trying to educate the buyers. TV has become much more of an entrepreneurial business; it’s fast-moving and always changing. The indie studios get that and are much more nimble and that’s their competitive advantage.

Tom Wellington
Partner and Agent, Scripted Television, WME

Most Memorable Recent TV Deals: Donald Glover’s new FX overall [deal] was fun. Donald is one of the most dynamic artists working in any medium today. We struck a really creative, high-end deal with FX. Crooked Media and Pod Save America was another: I had worked with Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor as screenwriters, but setting up their output deal for Crooked Media with digital has been by far the most successful thing we have done together. They are now one of the pre-eminent brands in the political podcast space. Working with my colleague in our digital group, Ben Davis, on this was an absolute pleasure and an example of the power of our team.

Key to Closing a Deal: I do believe in the idea of a deal where both parties feel they have wins they can feel good about. Scorched-earth dealmaking is especially unwise in television, where the parties are coming together again and again in relatively small time frames. I also love utilizing the strength of the agency to fight off changes studios make to deals at all levels, not just the high end. WME’s ability to unite on matters like that is a huge strength of ours and a sign that no matter how big we get, we still fight all our clients’ battles.

Biggest Ways the Deals Have Changed: The two biggest issues are the changing nature of profitability of shows and the ‘span issue’ of writers receiving so much less money for similar amounts of work. On profitability, we essentially are working to find a way with the streaming services to replicate the monies that came from big wins in the old model but entirely within closed systems. You don’t see marketplace value for shows at all, yet artists must still participate in the upside of big wins. This is the challenge of this moment in the TV business and a powerful argument for certain shows being better served in the linear system. On span, the old episodic fee structure is broken. Shifting to a weekly or annual payment schedule for writers would make more sense. Of course, the economics of TV shows are still calculated on a per-episode basis so you have to translate the math back, but looking at real-world wages of writers has to be part of the reasoning here. It will be interesting to see as the marketplace of buyers’ contracts, whether a more Darwinian environment will force an evolution not only on how the above two issues are dealt with but also on the creative process, which has room for improvement at more than a few distributors.

The Change You’d Most Like to See: I would love to work to find a more accurate way for creators to participate in what a show really does for the bottom line of a place like Netflix. It’s clearly hard to see how things like subscriber growth and stock price could be attributed, but something along those lines would be completely appropriate. The idea that income streams of a show are separated into what a ‘studio’ and ‘network’ get when all are part of one integrated platform seems antiquated and has the buyer cherry-picking the most favorable aspects of the old model. We are working on more innovative ways for creators and other key elements of shows to share in the upside for the companies for whom they are such a key driver of revenue. It will be interesting to see what models look like for digital platforms such as Facebook, which are ad-supported rather than subscription-based.

Steve Wohl
Head of Worldwide Alternative Programming, Paradigm Talent Agency

Most Memorable Recent TV Deals: It’s been incredible to watch the U.S. scripted television market evolve and be so receptive to international remakes and formats. We have closed three series that are currently in production in 2017 and are all set to air in 2018. There’s a straight-to-series order of Maniac at Netflix through Paramount and Anonymous Content based on a Norwegian series that aired on Norway’s TV2 and was distributed by Nordic World. We also closed Seven Seconds, another straight-to-series order at Netflix through Fox 21; it’s based off a Russian format. On the unscripted side, we sold the Norwegian music competition series The Stream straight to series at NBC, which is set to premiere as The Playlist. The Maniac deal was incredible — Netflix bought the series with no script, just with the package [Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, directed by Cary Fukunaga]. It shows straight-to-series orders are becoming more common. With Playlist there were two networks bidding but NBC was very aggressive — that’s good news, of course, but it can be difficult to navigate for an agent so you don’t leave bodies burned behind you at the other place.

Key to Closing a Deal: We need to balance the demands of worldwide distribution that the U.S. market desires with the needs of foreign distributors and creators; the art is finding a way to navigate between the repositioning of the world markets. The global market has matured over the last few years and the challenge is to progress antiquated models to fit today’s realities.

Biggest Ways the Deals Have Changed: The market has never been better in television. The appetite and the need of linear and [subscription video-on-demand] platforms grows daily. On the other side, how does the SVOD company define success? The old model of syndication and profits doesn’t apply to some of the new platforms. The definition of success has changed and the deals need to reflect this evolution. Also, as foreign local production has increased through these new platforms, the definition and role of the agency has progressed through finding funding and packaging worldwide.

The Change You’d Most Like to See: As television evolves, the mindset and approach of studios and broadcast platforms must evolve as well. The system of evaluating compensation should no longer apply because studios, broadcasters and platforms need to negotiate in a manner where all parties’ interests can be met. With the growing international market, negotiations can’t be viewed as black and white — each project, each deal is different, because you’re dealing with varying broadcasters, distributors and format holders across the world. It’s not as simple as looking back on old deals; each project needs to be viewed as its own individual case and can’t be structured on past precedent.