Lionsgate is making a major move in the unscripted television arena with an ownership stake in Craig Piligian’s Pilgrim Studios — one of the most sought-after independent production companies in the space. The studio is not commenting, but I hear the investment is in the neighborhood of $200 million for more than 50% of Pilgrim, though the relationship between the two entities is described as a partnership, with Pilgrim founder and CEO Piligian retaining a significant ownership position. Pilgrim will continue to operate independently with full creative autonomy under its current management team headed by Piligian.
Pilgrim — whose programming slate encompasses 47 unscripted and scripted series spanning 27 networks, including hits Ghost Hunters (Syfy), Welcome To Sweetie Pie’s (OWN), Fast N’ Loud (Discovery), Wicked Tuna (National Geographic) and The Ultimate Fighter (Fox Sports 1) — had long been one of the most lucrative acquisition targets in the reality space. It had attracted multiple suitors over the years but no deal was made.
Unlike many other reality production companies, Piligian, an early entrant into the cable reality series space, owns the rights of many of his shows, so his company doesn’t only help a potential buyer boost their cash flow with its roster of current series but it also comes with a library of content.
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But despite the strong interest, as the consolidation in the unscripted space was ramping up over the last several years, Piligian continued to sit on the sidelines. Now that he finally jumped in, he is doing it on his own terms. He didn’t follow the popular model of selling his company to a major European TV company, like ITV or Red Arrow, Banijay or Tinopolis, instead partnering with a domestic US studio and retaining complete autonomy.
The deal gives Lionsgate and Pilgrim a combined roster of nearly 80 television series across 40 networks. Lionsgate has been seeking to boost his position in unscripted programming to complement its extensive scripted slate. The company had done that via partnerships/pod deals, including Eli Frankel’s Rogue Atlas Productions, Dave Caplan’s Trooper Entertainment, Matt Kunitz’s Pulse Creative, and Adam DiVello’s Done and Done Productions. It also recently hired Jennifer O’Connell as head of alternative TV. The Pilgrim buy helps takes these efforts to another level, making Lionsgate TV a major unscripted player.
“We’re delighted to be in business with Craig Piligian and his team, who have achieved remarkable success building Pilgrim into a global leader in unscripted content with a valuable portfolio of long-running returning series and reality brands,” said Lionsgate Chief Executive Officer Jon Feltheimer. “This transaction scales and diversifies our television business by aligning Pilgrim, the market leader in nonfiction programming, with our robust scripted production operations as well as our premier syndication business operating under the Debmar-Mercury banner.”
“We’re thrilled to become part of the Lionsgate family and align ourselves with Jon Feltheimer, Kevin Beggs and the rest of an incredible team that has built a world-class organization,” said Piligian. “This deal creates tremendous synergies between our companies, including the benefits of our respective relationships in the industry and the strength of Lionsgate’s worldwide distribution infrastructure; we’re very excited to work together to accelerate the next phase of our growth.”
“Pilgrim’s brand is synonymous with highly original, top quality content, and we’re excited to welcome Craig and his team to the Lionsgate family,” said Lionsgate Television Group Chairman Kevin Beggs. “The alliance of our television assets accelerates our growth into an unscripted content business with tremendous upside and creates a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts.”
Lionsgate’s current roster of unscripted series includes Monica The Medium, recently renewed for a second season on ABC Family, the horror-themed game show Hellevator, which debuted last month on GSN, and the Freddie Wong/RocketJump series for Hulu.
Founded by Piligian in 1997, Los Angeles-based Pilgrim Studios also has been venturing into scripted programming. Its scripted business includes the series Recovery Road for ABC Family and Lifetime movies Amanda Knox: Murder On Trial In Italy, Abducted: The Carlina White Story and Stalkers. Last month, Pilgrim launched its digital initiative, 1620 Media, which debuted with six original series across a range of styles and genres, both scripted and unscripted.
The deal was negotiated for Lionsgate by EVP Corporate Development Laura Kennedy, Lionsgate General Counsel & Chief Strategic Officer Wayne Levin and Linda Michaelson of Sheppard Mullin, Richter & Hampton. Gretchen Stockdale, COO and General Counsel for Pilgrim together with Thomas Dey from ACF and Matt Thompson from Sidley Austin advised Pilgrim on the transaction.
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