EXCLUSIVE: Heroes creator Tim Kring has joined forces with Blacklight founder Zak Kadison and longtime Farrelly brothers producer Bradley Thomas to form Imperative Entertainment, a production company launched with financing from Dan Friedkin and his Friedkin Group. The Houston-based entrepreneur made his fortune through automotive and other ventures, and he will fully finance a company designed to use the trio’s skills and relationships to exploit seams in a fast-changing industry. This, they hope, will provide a strong alternative for content creators who want to develop material across multiple platforms including television, movie, video game, books, comics and new media.
I met the quartet in the two-story Santa Monica headquarters they are building. At that time, the sheetrock hadn’t been hung over the aluminum studs, and Friedkin didn’t expect the space to be ready until early next month. The venture already has gotten up and running, though. They are building their first slate and have just hired their first executive. They’ve brought in Justin Levy, the former senior veep and Head of Scripted Series Programming at MTV, who takes the post of EVP Content. At MTV, Levy helped build the channel’s scripted programming that includes Teen Wolf and Awkward.
Levy’s skills will come in handy right away, because the company figures to get going first in TV, where Kring will hatch projects and lend a guiding hand to others that are acquired and developed by Imperative.
“There is an inflection point here that has changed a world that used to be vertically integrated with only a few key players, to one where there are many players,” Kring told me. “When I started writing, there were four places where you could sell a scripted comedy or drama. Now, there are 53 places, a number that will probably change by next week. It is a time when a lot of disruption is happening, and there are opportunities for innovation from companies that were not birthed from within the confines of the studio system, like Netflix.”
The three partners were put together by WME, after it became clear they shared mutual frustration in the traditional studio/network way of doing business and a desire to try something more nimble and entrepreneurial. Friedkin, like any successful businessman these days, had been hit up for funding for a number of showbiz ventures. He always said no, until now. “I had a desire to be part of a creative process with good partners, something that would be fun,” Friedkin told me. “I’ve been successful in other businesses and want to do something I can enjoy, particularly in a company that hopefully will be a catalyst for change in the industry. That sparked my personal interest.”
Friedkin brings the bucks, but each guy has his strength. Kring knows how to build and run TV shows that have included the Kiefer Sutherland starrer Touch, the upcoming USA series Dig and the Heroes: Reborn series that will air on NBC in 2015. Thomas has for two decades partnered with Peter and Bobby Farrelly in Conundrum, and he has produced all of their movies. Kadison started Blacklight after serving as a movie exec at Fox Atomic. He is sharp on building properties in numerous platforms, and he has seen enough limitations in the traditional system to be able to steer Imperative on a different course.
“This was birthed from all our experiences observing how everything has shifted in how original stories get told,” Kadison said. “In this new landscape, writers are getting paid less and are asked to do more free work, and in the end, it’s for less of a likelihood of a movie getting made than ever before. The thought here was that a creator/writer-centric company with the in-house resources to produce could bring a greater chance of success, and more money on the back end. If you look at the movies being green lit, they are mostly based on true stories and published novels that had some success, or a comic book or video game of some kind. We are positioned to prove out the intellectual property in other media, to establish and demonstrate an appetite, and we can finance or co-finance the film or TV series as well.”
They’ve observed that most studios are not equipped to do that. I asked them about the once promising David Dobkin script Arthur & Lancelot, which Warner Bros bought for $2 million, setting Dobkin to direct, before driving the sword through the project’s heart over an inflated budget. The film never got made.
“David was trying to break out of the comedy space before getting a budget of $150 million and telling him we can’t make an original movie for more than $115 million,” Kadison said. “A retelling of Arthurian legend is not an original story but it is not a sequel either. Warner Bros has a video game group and a comics group. A comic costs $22,000 to generate, but DC Comics can’t take a script that Warner Bros wants to make and turn it into an original comic because they don’t make originals, it hasn’t happened in 15 years. That project would have been helped if someone had made a book, a comic or a videogame before the script was bought by Warner Bros, because once it was bought, none of that could happen. So now that project is dead, encumbered by millions of dollars in costs.” Every conglomerate-owned studio has complications like this that prevents cross pollination on multiple platforms, Kadison said.
“Let’s say you have a deal with Universal, and in your contract there is a legacy clause because they used to be a video game publisher,” he said. “So Imagine can’t do a video game without bringing it to Universal first, but that studio no longer has the ability to make a game. Under their TV deal with 20th, there is a first look for digital as well, but 20th doesn’t make original content. So if you are thinking of doing something innovative to prove out a model for your project, you’re likely not going to be able to if you are confined to the traditional first look deal with one of the networks or studios.” Kadison’s Blacklight and its current projects were acquired by Friedkin and will be absorbed into Imperative.
Thomas has felt the same level of futility on the feature side, persevering for years to make The Three Stooges and more recently Dumb And Dumber To with the Farrellys. “You find yourself begging and groveling, and for writers in particular, it can be soul sucking to go through the studio system,” Thomas said. “You finish your draft and they move on to the next writer and you have no way to get your project back and it takes forever for it to come out. We will certainly do things with studios and network, but we want to establish an artist-centric writer-friendly place where creative can come and work with us to figure out the best way to bring things to fruition.” Thomas, who most recently worked with Larry David on HBO’s Clear History, is essentially leaving Conundrum, but he said he will still produce movies generated by the Farrelly Brothers, and hopes to entice them to hatch projects at Imperative. “They are my best friends, and hopefully this will be good for them, too,” he said. “Why would they set something at Fox and hope and pray? If they’re going to turn over their creative ideas, they should have more control.”
Kring is quick to bring up, and the others agreed, that there are a lot of positives in the traditional studio and network models, and security in overall deals. He said the studios are trying to change with the times, but they can only move so quickly. Not the case for a small company with the funds and acumen to be nimble and grow quickly.
“My career so far has been all about making hits for myself,” Kring said. “I love the idea of attaching to something bigger than me and it behooves me to do my best to build value for this and so this will be the home base for my creativity going forward. I have spent a big chunk of my career working with writers and in the overall deal structure I worked under, I would watch these very talented writers go off and write something, and I waved goodbye to them as they went and had these fabulous careers. We are able to speak the language to the creative people who come in and actually get to take part and participate in their great ideas. I don’t have to say goodbye to them anymore, because we now have a home for their great ideas.”
All of them are convinced that good ideas are good ideas and that studios and networks will be receptive buyers even if they were gestated elsewhere. “They will take projects from anyone,” Kring said. “They have a stable of people with overall deals and it behooves them to find things for those people, but at the end of the day, quality wins out, particularly in a widening playing field with greater competition.” Said Kadison: “The networks see it as value added in the opportunities we will bring, because we also bring financing and they can get 12 episodes of content at a fraction of what they would pay their sister studios for.”
Much of this comes down to Friedkin’s willingness to hang in while his partners test these new platforms. Said Friedkin: “I am careful about the businesses I invest in, and when I do it, I look at it as patient capital. I don’t think you can come here and say, okay guys, you’ve got two years, or even five. I don’t plan to pull up short. I am here for the long haul.”