EXCLUSIVE: Independent TV studio Sonar Entertainment has secured a new production finance facility of $121 million led by MidCap Financial. The capital infusion doubles Sonar’s funds for the development, financing, production and distribution of premium content, with the programming budget now north of $250 million. The additional money is designed to support the rapid slate expansion at Sonar, which went from 3 series in 2016 — all scripted — to 17 two years later (8 scripted, 6 non-scripted, 3 kids and family). The company’s scripted shows include Mr. Mercedes at Audience, The Son at AMC, Taboo at FX/BBC One, Das Boot at Sky Deutschland and Hulu, The Hunt at Amazon, Weird City and YouTube Premium and Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy at Sony Crackle. Sonar also has drama pilot Constance starring Elisabeth Shue at TNT.
“The new financing really enables us to continue our growth plans and to reinforce what we see as a dominant position in the independent television space,”Sonar Entertainment CEO Tom Lesinski told Deadline. “When you look at the landscape in independent television, I think we’re far and away the leading player in terms of the number of series that we air and have in production and what our plans are for the future. This is an important next step to continue having enough available money to finance and get shows distributed globally.”
As part of the ramp-up, Sonar is expanding into non-scripted and kids & family programming with such series as the Amazon docu series Lorena, set for world premiere at Sundance next month, docu series Age Of AI for YouTube Premium and Trials of the Century at Netflix as well as lifestyle reality series Kickasso for Facebook Watch and Texas Metal for Discovery’s Motor Trend and kids series Go Away Unicorn! for Disney Worldwide. The idea behind the diversification is to help attract talent by being able to support their ideas with any form of programming.
As Sonar started accelerating growth of its portfolio, the company in 2016-17 signed first-looks deals with George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Smokehouse Pictures, Team Downey and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions. All have resulted in green lights. With Peele, Sonar has upcoming scripted drama series The Hunt at Amazon, comedy anthology series Weird City for YouTube Premium as well as docusseries Lorena for Amazon. Smokehouse is behind docu series Trials of the Century at Netflix, while Team Downey is producing docu series Age Of AI for YouTube Premium and drama pilot Constance at TNT.
“We’re still going to be looking at more,” Lesinski said of pursing talent deals. “We have a lot of options to do more of what we were doing before, so we’re certainly going to look at that.”
Global distribution also is a central element to the company’s strategy. Sonar has distributed Taboo in 150 countries, The Son in 60 countries, and Das Boot is going to be distributed in over 120 countries.
In addition to 17 current series (on-air and in production), 13 of which have been announced, Sonar currently has 21 projects set up for development at cable, streaming and broadcast networks — including TNT pilot Constance, Watergate at Netflix, The Fifth Beatle at Bravo with Universal Cable Prods., Birth of the Pill at NatGeo and medical drama Triage at Fox. Additionally, there are more than 40 projects in various stages of in-house development.
Sonar’s library includes 1,000 titles. Most of them are from Sonar’s predecessor, RHI Entertainment, which was major producer of TV movies and miniseries, but Sonar also has been adding about 12 shows a year in the last three years. The company is mining its library for IP, currently developing 10-12 titles into TV series. The biggest one is Lonesome Dove, based on the iconic miniseries. “We’re looking at making a version of that that’s different. It might either be an origin story or it might be the next chapter after,” Lesinski said. Sonar also is looking into reimagening the 2002 family friendly ABC series Dinotopia.
“Because we’re independent, we can make a deal with anybody, any platform on any kind of program so we’re not limited like some of the other players that have very specific ownership needs or financing requirements,” Lesinski said. “We can do a show on any platform, and that’s a big selling point for the talent and for the showrunners that we work with, that we really can setup a show based on what platform is right for it.”
Sonar’s traditional model is to sell to a domestic platform and then finance the deficits via international sales. The company also sometimes finds an international partner and then brings a project to the U.S., as was the case with Sky Deutschland’s Das Boot, which was picked up by Hulu in the U.S.
The company is primarily in the straight-to-series business but occasionally does pilots, like Constance. “If there’s a show that we really like, and we think a pilot is the best option for getting it on the right platform then we’ll do that,” Lesinski said.
Lesinski, who had been a member of Sonar’s board of directors, became interim CEO of Sonar Entertainment in September 2015 and was named permanent CEO in March 2016.
“The acceleration of growth at Sonar over the last two years has been substantial and is testament to its capacity to deliver significant investment in the development and packaging of content, without relying on third parties, which leads to more control of creative and higher frequency of series orders,” said Gabriel de Alba, Chairman, Sonar Entertainment and Managing Director and Partner, The Catalyst Capital Group Inc. “We are very excited about the future, marked by a production slate that continues to build with various series reordered, new series slated to premiere and new series greenlit and pilots ordered.”