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Q&A With MGM's Gary Marenzi

Since taking over MGM’s international distribution and production efforts last summer, studio veteran Gary Marenzi has been looking for ways to use international markets to help expand the new product going into the studio’s pipeline. Marenzi talked to Multichannel News International about the studio’s increased production, the global sales climate, the impact of the writers strike and NATPE. An edited transcript follows:

Q: How do you see the international demand for programming as we go into 2008?

A: I don’t see any real slackening of the demand for U.S. product. I just hope that that with the strike the industry can deliver enough quantity.

Whatever happens [with the strike] we are innovating. We’re repackaging the library with international co-productions with a lot of different partners. We are smaller and more entrepreneurial and not tied to one business model. There are some people out there who are stuck in the network production model and you’re going to see a big drop off in quantity from them even if the strike is settled tomorrow.

Our focus is really doing the right projects and not necessarily going after quantity. We are signaling to the world that MGM is back in the movie business and we have some really good things coming down the pipe.

On the TV side, we are doing American Gladiators with Reveille and NBC and that is looking great. It is an interesting franchise that demonstrates there is a lot of value in our library of product that is not so obvious to people.

I am already getting a few of our direct-to-video movies that are based on our library. We have Dead Code that was based on War Games, and we have a movie based on the Legally Blond franchise that is drawing some interest as a series.

We are still hard at work extending the Stargate franchise and we continue to look at our library to potentially make or co-produce new product. I would say half of my time is spent on looking at acquisitions or co-productions or distribution opportunities for new product.

Q: How much new product do you expect to have flowing into your distribution pipeline each year?

A: I think our sweet spot will be 6 to 10, maybe 12 feature films where we have rights to most of the international markets.

On the TV side, we will do 10 to 15 direct-to-video/TV movies. Some of these concepts will hopefully go right to series or work as de facto pilots for series.

We are working on a couple of possible miniseries possibilities and we are looking at series or projects done with cable networks or with international financing. So I would say three new TV projects of some prominence. Some of that will be internally generated and some of that will be acquired externally.

Q: There was a period in the late 1990s when international broadcasters were very important for financing one hour syndicated series and then that money dried up. Are you getting a sense that they are more willing now to co-produce or co-finance cable or syndicated dramas?

A: The Euro is at an all time high versus the dollar and a lot of countries in Western Europe are paying record prices for U.S. product. So they can afford to step up and pay the right price for a good quality production.

Our strategy is to do projects that have a good cache in Europe but do them in English and with an American pacing so they will look like U.S. network shows but their sweet spot will be appealing to a European audience.

We are working on a handful of projects like that which could be set in Europe. Those projects could access above-market revenues from key territories. So I think the climate is much better than it was five or six years ago. There is no question that the weakness of our currency has something to do with it but I also think that people have rekindled their relationship with U.S. series and the American style of production.

Q: How do you see the impact of the writer’s strike on the international business?

A: The strike isn’t good for anyone. But as it continues, people will be looking for new programming and repackaged programming to fill their schedule. So the challenge for us is to be creative and supportive of our clients by either finding new sources of product or repositioning classic product in an attractive way.

No one really wants to see this last very long. But we also have to be good at distributing and marketing our existing catalogue.

Q: So it could great an opportunity to sell some of your library product?

A: As I said, this isn’t good for anyone. But, yes. Here at MGM we focus on our library more than some of the other studios because for so long the library has been our life blood. Without the massive amount of new product that some of the other people in Hollywood produce, we’ve had to focus on our library. I don’t think anyone utilizes the windows that are available as well as we do at MGM.

Q: When you were at MGM in the 1990s, you did a U.K. version of American Gladiators. Are you looking at doing new international productions of American Gladiators?

A: Our partners at Reveille are handling the format sales internationally and we are working very closely with them. We think that there will be a lot of big international productions again, along the lines of the U.K. version that was done the last time Gladiators was out. We have some agreements in some major territories already that I can’t yet announce because it is early days. But when people see the U.S. show they will want to sign on.