In a business where traditional media companies are getting bigger and more vertically integrated, indie studio Sony Pictures TV has learned to be scrappy, embracing every new entrant in the original scripted programming space: from basic cable networks FX and AMC to all current streaming platforms and the upcoming Apple TV, Charter’s Spectrum as well Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s Quibi.
In an interview with Deadline, Sony Pictures Television Studios president Jeff Frost and co-presidents Chris Parnell and Jason Clodfelter speak frankly about the risks and rewards of being an early adopter of new platforms and competing with vertically integrated studios.
They also give a status update on the studio’s efforts to find a new home for acclaimed comedy series One Day at a Time, which was canceled by Netflix after three seasons. As we revealed, CBS All Access made an offer for a fourth season but Netflix’s deal does not allow for the show to air on another digital platform for several years, leaving Sony TV with only linear network options as the moratorium there is just a couple of months.
With SVOD services ending more and more series after 2-3 seasons now, Sony TV is working on a new model to make streaming series more lucrative even with shorter runs by selling a whole “suite” of related shows together, including the long-rumored Spider-verse and possibly a group of reboots of Norman Lear series.
Frost, Parnell and Clodfelter, who were named to the top studio jobs in summer 2017, also evaluate their first full broadcast development season which produced six pilots and a drama in straight-to-series consideration at Fox as well as renewal chances of Sony’s current series, and address the challenges of the broadcast business amid networks’ drive for ownership and digital rights. Additionally, they talk potential end games for the studio’s long-running series, like The Blacklist.
They also discuss the current arms race for top TV creative talent and reveal whether they are ready to pend $100 mil+ on an overall deal, and address WGA-ATA current standoff.
DEADLINE: What is the status of One Day at a Time?
FROST: We are in heavy discussions with a number of different linear networks. It’s more challenging with a linear platform, especially when you don’t have the digital rights even in the downstream, because we don’t. Those rights do come back to us in a few years, so that’s all in play. I feel reasonably confident that we will find another home for it. There are some very interested buyers; the one you wrote about (CBS All Access) was extremely interested and now can’t proceed because there is the restriction that says the show can’t go to another digital player. But there are some other buyers who are very interested.
CLODFELTER: Broadcast has voiced a lot of interest, we’ve talked to all four broadcast networks. However, they are focused on their pilots right now; we want to wait and see where those pilots land.
DEADLINE: Are you able to wait?
FROST: Given our actor options, we’re able to do that, yes. We have them through October.
CLODFELTER: I think the great thing about the show is you don’t have to have seen the previous seasons. The family, the chemistry between them all speaks for itself, so you can slightly pivot for any respective buyer, and it’s the right team in place on every level.
PARNELL: And the one thing we’re experiencing with all these networks is, there’s great passion for this content. They love it. It was 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes the last two seasons, they all know that, and a lot of the networks we’re talking to see a great opportunity here. The audience built from season two to season three, it almost doubled from season two to season three based upon the data that we have, and so networks are very excited about that possibility.
DEADLINE: Within the past month, it was announced that two of Sony TV’s streaming series, One Day at a Time at Netflix and Future Man at Hulu, will end after three seasons. As runs on SVOD platforms are getting shorter, has that been challenging for you business-wise?
FROST: I think it has shifted our strategy. Something that we’re actually exploring when we sell to a digital platform is selling a “suite” of series, meaning related series, so each series will go three seasons, but it’s related and can tip off to the next series, so at least you have long-term potential and long-term monetary exploitation.
CLODFELTER: In some ways it actually is creatively freeing, because you’re able to look at different characters or journeys or stories, and not have the onus of trying to get five, six, seven seasons out. You can really focus.
PARNELL: I think having a clear sense of what the streaming platforms actually can pull off is creatively freeing, because now we know, walking in the door, generally, how to tell a complete story, and if this particular show feels like it goes six seasons, well then, we make a decision on the places that we pitch to. Here’s where it can go six seasons, here’s where it probably can’t. I think that as long as the creatives are aware upfront and we’re aware upfront then we can make a much more informed decision on where we place shows.
CLODFELTER: That’s the beauty of being independent. We sell to 30-some-odd different domestic buyers. That doesn’t even include different international partnerships we have or different approaches for ‘paths to yes’, we like to say here, so we have 30 potential buyers, and so when we are out there we can leverage the community to what’s best for the show and what’s best for the creative.
DEADLINE: Financially, can you make it work with shorter runs?
FROST: Absolutely. Especially looking at it in terms of a suite of series. If we can go down that road there’s actually very good business, and we’ve already talked to some digital networks about that.
DEADLINE: I assume that one of these suites of series is the Spider-Verse series that had been talked about. What is the status of that?
FROST: It’s still in development, but there’s not much more we can say about it at this point.
DEADLINE: Are most of the suites of series you have in the works IP-based?
PARNELL: Absolutely, whether it be a book property or a comic property. One interesting angle is taking a look at an entire library of content from either an author or a comic author and try and look at the entire breadth of it, and figure out if it’s not just one show but multiple shows you can sell off of that at the same time to one broadcaster. I think that’s a really interesting format on how to accomplish it.
FROST: But not limited to IP, they can be original ideas. Is there an event where you could do multiple versions of that event or multiple sides of the event or multiple stories that arose out of the event? There’s definitely a business here that we think the streamers will be very interested in.
DEADLINE: You have a first-look deal with Norman Lear with an option to re-imagine a slew of his classic shows, including All In the Family and The Jeffersons. Could they be developed and sold as a suite?
FROST: That’s definitely a possibility, looking at some of our library properties and putting those together as a suite, which can include Norman Lear’s properties. We’ve talked to people about possibly a suite of series involving Norman’s library. There’s nothing in active development at this point, it’s just something that we’re exploring as part of this strategy.
DEADLINE: Speaking of reboots, you just sold a new Mad About You to Charter and have a new Party of Five coming up at Freeform. Is there any other library title that you want to revisit?
CLODFELTER: I think with reboots, it’s a fine line of title fatigue, and so when the community approaches us about some of our iconic titles, often we have to really make sure that there’s true reason for being. You only get so many chances at bat with a reboot. With Party of Five, there was a perfect reason for being on that show in terms of a why here, why now, and a unique way in. And Mad About You is a wonderful, emotional point of view as to why you’re telling the story today and through the same actors, because it’s a very different chapter of their life, and what it is to remain in love and fall in love again in later years. So we always take a look at our catalog, but we always like to make sure that A, we’re not out in the community with too much IP, and that there’s real understanding as to why we’re doing it.
FROST: We also do limited series, including The Night of the Gun. There’s actually a business there that you can put together. This studio was built on creative first, so it’s not necessarily the business that’s going to dictate it. We’re going to figure out where that creative is going to live in the best place, and then we’ll figure out the business. We’ve been pretty good about that, figuring out business models that work for us and work for these digital platforms as they evolve. We basically created the kind of Netflix model from several years ago.
CLODFELTER: We distributed House of Cards, so that gave an incredible insight to Jeff (formerly head of BA) and his team when we were entering it from a domestic perspective. We also produced Bloodline.
FROST: We were one of the first ones in there, helped create the cost-plus model. That model has evolved quite a bit, and we’ve actually been able to evolve on the business side.
DEADLINE: You mentioned being among the first studios to work with Netflix. Sony has done that historically with new entrants in original scripted programming, including FX, AMC, and more recently YouTube, Apple and Charter. It worked well with FX, AMC and others, but there have been challenges with YouTube, which recently paused new scripted development. What are the risks and the benefits of taking a chance on new places?
FROST: We built this business on doing just that. It’s really looking where the television business is going and making sure we’re out in front of it. We did it with the cable business when no other major studio was willing to work in cable, whether it was AMC or FX. We saw the opportunity for business there and we were largely responsible for building up that business with shows like Breaking Bad, Justified and Rescue Me. When the digital streamers came out, we were actually the first major studio jumping in and saying, we want to see if there’s a business here. We were able to make it a business, whether it was a deal with Netflix, I think we had some of the first projects with Amazon, Hulu.
The television business, It’s changing so rapidly; we want to make sure we’re changing with it. That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily sacrificing the more traditional businesses but we’re always looking, where is the business going, how do we get out in front of it, and we’re dedicating more and more resources in that direction and probably less resources towards the more traditional businesses.
Charter is a great example of that. When we had our pilot, LA’s Finest, which did not go forward at NBC, we took it wide, and had a lot of interest, but the one that was the most interesting to us, quite frankly, was Charter, because they were going to launch their entire service off of it, and they were going to put marketing behind it. Yes, it’s potentially risky because you don’t know ultimately what Charter is going to do and what they’re going to be, but if you’re not playing in that sandbox then you’re going to potentially be left behind.
You mentioned YouTube, that was a very conscious decision on our part to go to YouTube with Cobra Kai. We had a lot of opportunities; we could have gone to Netflix and we could have gone other places, but YouTube we felt was really going to launch that show and make more noise around that show than anywhere else. If you took it to Netflix or Amazon, it really probably would have gotten lost amongst the many shows that they do, or would have had an opening and then moved on. YouTube was very clear that they were going to launch that in a very loud, noisy way, which we thought was really important for this particular content, and regardless of what ultimately happened with YouTube, it was absolutely the right decision for Cobra Kai. That show blew up, the last I heard it was over 60 million views, 70 million views for the first episode, and I’m not sure it would have gotten that attention had we taken it somewhere else.
DEADLINE: What is the future of your series at YouTube? One of them, Champaign ILL, was just canceled.
FROST: We’re in conversations with them about the future of all of our shows there. I think Cobra Kai is going to have probably a very long future there given how successful it was on their platform. The second season starts at the end of April, so we’ll see how that performs. Their model is still evolving, so we will ultimately determine what we do with our other shows once we know the direction they’re going. If we feel that YouTube in its current incarnation is not the best home then we’ll explore other options.
CLODFELTER: We have five or six projects — both unscripted and scripted — in development at Quibi right now, which is an exciting new platform and approach to creating content. I think the way people watch content is just evolving and changing as rapidly as there are places to view it at, and so I think what Jeffrey (Katzenberg) and Meg (Whitman) are doing over there is exciting, and I think there’s a true future in that.
DEADLINE: Can you tell us more about the Quibi projects?
FROST: The deals aren’t officially closed yet there, so we can’t share more details but it’s what we were talking about — if there’s an opportunity to make money off of it, we’ll be in that business if creatively it fits with what we want to do. It’s just another example. When a new platform emerges, we’re going to be there. We’re looking now and having conversations with Warner’s new platform, with Disney+, Comcast, all the early stages. Warner’s is actually interested in buying a property from us.
CLODFELTER: That’s the exciting thing, Disney+ and Warner, they’re proactively buying projects from us, so I think that kind of speaks to now is a better time than ever before to be an independent, because if you have IP and you have the talent, and the stars are aligning, you have buyers out there.
FROST: That’s interesting to touch upon, because if you went back a year, people were wondering, well, how is Sony going to survive in this new era where people are siloing off and they’re providing their own content, and a lot of people were uncertain of our future. I have to tell you, from what we’re seeing, now that these platforms are emerging, there’s never been a better time to be at Sony because all these platforms, while they’re going to produce for their own content, there is such need for content, they’re coming to us, and we are the obvious person to talk to because we are the largest independent studio of scale.
We do not have a distribution platform that is potentially a threat to them, so it actually has worked quite a bit in our favor because we’ve never seen probably greater demand for our content then we’re experiencing right now.
PARNELL: I think what you’re seeing is, it’s harder for a studio within the Disney empire to sell to Netflix because of the competitive nature, and I don’t think they necessarily want to build up Netflix, however, we’re able to sell to all those companies because we don’t have those same issues, and it’s been a very favorable situation for us.
DEADLINE: What about broadcast? You mentioned that you had been shifting resources from the traditional business to new platforms.
FROST: Seeing where the broadcast business is going, and knowing that we really want to focus on the future of television, we dedicated less resources to broadcast this last development season, and we actually have more pilots.
CLODFELTER: We took the heavy hands off of our teams and our creators this season and said, look, what do you want to do? You don’t have to do broadcast if you don’t want to. Whatever is your heart, that’s what we’ll pursue. So we developed about 50 percent fewer scripts on the broadcast side, and we have seven broadcast contenders.
PARNELL: We really hit a very targeted approach to broadcast this year with very broadcast shows, and that’s why I think we have the pickups that we have. All of them are serious contenders.
CLODFELTER: And out of those seven, none of them were production commitments, which is kind of mind blowing, that they all got picked up on their own merit.
DEADLINE: Are you anxious going into the upfronts where a lot goes into making the series pickup decisions, especially in the vertically integrated companies. Last May was difficult for Sony.
CLODFELTER: Anxious only in the sense that we’re emotionally invested and really care about these projects, but the reality is, broadcast is such a small part of our business. It feels very heightened because it’s so exciting in terms of reading the press and what’s going and what’s not, but it’s really maybe a two-week period out of the entire year, and our entire year is focused on so many other things, whether it’s streaming or international productions, co-productions, or cable.
FROST: Regardless of what happens in this pilot season, we have a very strong broadcast business in our returning shows. When you look at The Good Doctor, which is doing incredibly well, it’s coming back, we’ve got S.W.A.T., which we’re very optimistic about, you’ve got The Goldbergs, which we’re fairly certain is going to come back, you’ve got Schooled, you’ve got our reality shows, you’ve got The Blacklist, which is coming back. So we believe we’re exploiting that particular market within the television industry in the way that we should and in a lucrative way.
DEADLINE: Is the broadcast business still lucrative for an independent studio, with the networks getting ownership and digital rights? The Blacklist‘s blockbuster off-network deal with Netflix was maybe the last of its kind. How long before the margins become too small?
FROST: We’re finding that it is still a lucrative business if you have a successful show on broadcast, and The Good Doctor is a good example of that. It is a relatively new show, that’s going to be a very good business for us assuming continued success. We think there’s a good opportunity in the SVOD market there as well. So there’s a lot of opportunity.
DEADLINE: Do you have end game plans for some of your longer-running shows,The Blacklist, The Goldbergs or Better Call Saul?
FROST: No. We’ll take Better Call Saul as long as creatively it continues to have the story that our creators want to tell.
DEADLINE: What about Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad movie for Netflix and AMC. Anything you can tell us about that?
FROST: I wish we could, Nellie. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re in a position where we can talk about that just yet.
DEADLINE: Vince Gilligan is one of biggest names on your talent roster. In the current talent bidding wars, you have been able to retain some of the top creators, including Gilligan and David Shore, while Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg just went to Lionsgate. What is your strategy? Are you ready to make a $100-million overall deal?
FROST: We’re absolutely in the talent business, that’s how we make the content that we make. In terms of compensation and guarantees, that’s one aspect of it, but we’ve also found that talent likes us because we’re not in a situation that some of the other big players are, where if you go to Netflix, for example, you’re only going to work at Netflix. When they come to Sony, they’re working at Netflix, they’re working at Disney, they’re working at Warners, they’re working everywhere. You go to any of those siloed companies, there’s a good chance you’re only going to be working within those siloed companies, and you’re working within the agenda of those siloed companies. So that is a selling point, and it’s been very helpful to us in retaining talent and attracting new talent.
Our interests are aligned with the talent’s interests, which you don’t necessarily get when you’re talking about a studio that’s affiliated with a network. You get into a situation with the self-dealing claim, we’ve heard a lot in the press about that recently. When you come to Sony, we’re fighting for you. We’re fighting for the longevity of the show, we’re fighting for the best business deal, and we’re fighting for the best creative aspects. There’s no conflict of interest.
PARNELL: When you succeed, we succeed.
FROST: Having said that, we know what the market is, and we are absolutely in the market for big name talent, and a lot of the big names that you’re hearing about, we have been involved in and we will continue to be involved in and we’re in the thick of right now, and hopefully we’ll have some good announcements in the near future. We actually do have some deals that we closed recently.
CLODFELTER: Kari Lizer, it’s a big deal for us, Atypical creator Robia Rashid. We also just secured Lincoln writers/eps VJ Boyd and Mark Bianculli and have a few others pending.
FROST: The price tags have gone up as the market has gone up, but that doesn’t intimidate us in any way, and we’re in this market for whatever it’s going to take to attract top talent. You mentioned, a $100-million, does that scare us? No. It doesn’t scare us if it’s the right talent.
CLODFELTER: It’s an exciting time because there’s so much talent out there. We have already our list, and if these two or three deals don’t make, then we have the next two or three deals that would tie up that kind of money as well, which is, I think, just really exciting. There’s a lot of talented people, there’s a lot of people who deserve not only to be working but to be making a lot of money.
DEADLINE: Do you think that the prices will eventually go down or they would keep going up as the marketplace continues to expand?
FROST: Hard to say. I think it probably is a bubble and I think it will come down to reality at some point.
PARNELL: It’s a seller’s market right now, there’s no doubt.
FROST: I think it’s going to be tied into what happens with these distribution platforms. If there’s contraction in the distribution platform market, which a lot of people think there will be, then I think you’ll see a contraction also in the market price for talent.
DEADLINE: Sony TV recently recently launched a new division run by Marie Jacobson for lower license fee (mostly drama) series in the vein of Absentia, Carter and The Oath. What are the budgets you are targeting?
FROST: It’s between one and two million probably, it shouldn’t go over a two million dollar budget on a net basis. It’s a complementary business to our other lines of business, it’s not intended to be cannibalistic or in any way competitive. It really is going to be focused on indie type of content, kind of edgy, different content that you can produce more efficiently than you can for the larger scale content. We also like this model because hopefully it will incentivize longevity. It’s not going to be that expensive to the buyer, so there’s an incentive for them to continue to renew the show.
DEADLINE: Are you keeping a close eye on the talks between WGA and ATA?
FROST: I think the entire town is. It’s very interesting to us. We obviously are not directly involved in it, and, whatever happens, I don’t think will necessarily have a significant impact on the way we do business, but obviously we’re very interested in seeing where it goes. I think it will potentially change the way we do business, but I don’t think it will have a significant impact on our business.
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