It’s been more than a year since former TNT and TBS chief Michael Wright was tapped as president of Epix, taking the reins of the premium network launched in 2009 as a co-venture of MGM, Lionsgate and Paramount and now fully owned by MGM. The multi-platform network, long a distant fourth in the premium network race, entered the original scripted series space in 2015 when it ordered three shows, one from each co-owner at the time. Since Wright came on board in November 2017, Epix has ordered a slew of high-profile drama series that are about to start rolling out, including Batman prequel Pennyworth; Perpetual Grace, LTD, starring Jimmi Simpson, Ben Kingsley and Jackie Weaver; Godfather of Harlem, headlined by Forest Whitaker; and Julian Fellowes’ just ordered Belgravia, a co-production with ITV.
Two of the inaugural Epix scripted series, MGM’s Get Shorty and Paramount TV’s Berlin Station, are still around, with Get Shorty recently picked up for a third season and Berlin Station awaiting a Season 4 renewal decision.
In an interview with Deadline, Wright addresses the future of Berlin Station, the revival of the boxing reality series The Contender from Mark Burnett and MGM TV, as well as docuseries America Divided and Unprotected Sets and a possible foray into sports.
He also discusses Epix’s programming strategy of not chasing volume, taking a targeted approach in originals with a focus on “storytelling for adults,” elevated drama projects, female-driven shows and docuseries.
It had been challenging for the network to line up several top MVPD providers, with a Comcast deal last year as a major step in that area. Wright hints that there may be more coming just as Epix launched a stand-alone streaming service, Epix Now in addition to its existing streaming agreements with Hulu and Prime Video.
DEADLINE: Epix just officially entered the streaming space with Epix Now. How important was to do that?
MICHAEL WRIGHT: It’s vitally important. It’s almost like you’re not really fully exploiting your business if you’re not in the streaming space. Epix was unique from the very, very beginning to the credit of the people that created it; from the beginning, it was conceived as a platform to be available everywhere, whether it was in the linear space, streaming space, authenticated apps, whatever. The idea was to make the network ubiquitous and now it really is.
DEADLINE: Epix has two current scripted series, one of which, Berlin Station, is awaiting word on renewal. What will it be its fate?
WRIGHT: it’s going to sound like spin, but it’s not. We’re truly on so many platforms that it takes about 3 to 4 weeks after we run the last episode to get all the data. Only half of our viewership at this point comes from the linear world. The rest of it is coming from authenticated apps, digital platforms. So, you just don’t have the clear picture until the end, and then there are other things that you’re looking at in this new, brave new digital world.
We’re developing research so that we can tell which shows actually are creating the most viewer interest separate and apart from viewership. What I want to know is which show is creating conversations, which show is compelling somebody to subscribe or to a free trial, which show is compelling somebody to renew, and it takes a long time to get all that in and study it and know what it’s telling you.
DEADLINE: Does ownership play a role in these decisions? Get Shorty, which was renewed, comes from Epix parent MGM, while Berlin Station is produced by former co-owner Paramount.
WRIGHT: When [Epix] launched original programming, they went to the three owners; they went to Lionsgate, MGM, Paramount to get us a show. Our ownership has been fantastic. They said what they should say, which is, look, these are connected companies, when you can, let’s try to work with MGM. And by the way, Steve Stark and Barry Poznick at MGM TV, these guys are really good — Fargo, Handmaid’s Tale, and Get Shorty, we should be so lucky as to have their hits — but at the same time, they haven’t made it a mandate because the primary goal for us is growth, grow distribution, grow the hours of content, and grow subs. It’s a very clearly defined objective. Here’s what we need to do to succeed.
So, if there’s a show that isn’t owned by MGM that we think will change our fortunes or help us, we have permission to go buy it. At the same time, it just makes perfect sense when we can [to work with MGM TV]; we would love to do more original television, A, because they’re good and B, because it’s good business.
DEADLINE: The Contender comes from MGM, and you did one season. What is your take on how it did, and will there be a second season?
WRIGHT: It did great. I thought it was beautifully produced. I think the question is, do we think that that format works best for our network and where we are going because I can’t stress it enough, it’s so beautifully produced and engaging. I think boxing is a really interesting sport and has a history of working on premium. We’re still talking to them about it that if we were to continue with that, what would it look like, how would it work?
DEADLINE: Are you open for more reality shows?
WRIGHT: Everybody has different descriptions or definitions of what it means. If reality is more of a competition format, probably not, but we’re very, very enthused about docuseries. I tip my hat to both HBO and Netflix. They’ve done some shows that I would kill to have had on Epix, whether it’s The Defiant Ones or Jinx or The Staircase or Wild Wild Country because what they’ve done with all those shows is use the nonfiction format to tell a story with a great narrative throughline. These are really great stories with interesting characters, heroes, villains, interesting worlds, so that, I think, is wonderful.
DEADLINE: Speaking of docuseries, what about America Divided? Will you do more installments?
WRIGHT: I think it was wonderful. I think it sort of ran its course with the network. It predated me, they did a beautiful job with it. I think that’s closer to the kind of thing that we are doing, and a lot of what we’re doing in the unscripted space, I’ve referenced the Rolling Stone brand, meaning it’s pop culture with a journalistic lens. So, we want to tell stories that have a sort of pop culture appeal but bring to it journalistic point of view. [The upcoming] Punk, it’s fantastic. You can see the people think of it but they got everybody to do it, and they got in and they are telling an incredibly exciting story of this music movement in the voices of the people who were there and some of the journalists who covered it and addressing its thematic relevance as well; not just the music, but why punk, what did it mean, what is its legacy, and that’s really emblematic.
There’s another show, a docuseries. I can’t announce yet. I love that space, narrative storytelling in the unscripted world with complex characters and beginnings, middles and ends.
DEADLINE:What about Unprotected Sets? Will you do more?
WRIGHT: We loved it. I think that we’re still talking to them. I don’t know that I would do, make it a weekly. I love the idea of comedy. I think there’s a great tradition for comedy on premium. That was from MGM Television;.they did a beautiful job with it. So, we will certainly continue doing comedy on the network, and are certainly going to be doing it again with them because they did a beautiful job.
DEADLINE: You mentioned tradition on premium. Music specials and comedy specials were among the first things Epix did a long time ago. Are they still going to be part of the mix?
WRIGHT: Yes. I think you’ll continue to see music and comedy, but you’re also going to see some sports, you’re going to see some true crime, and you’re going to see some…
DEADLINE: Did you say sports?
WRIGHT: Yes. You’ll see some sports, docs, yes, and you’ll see true crime and you’ll see politics. I love Bill Maher’s show and I love Trevor Noah’s show, but not that kind of politics, more political thrillers. We ordered a docuseries based on the Slow Burn podcast. It’s brilliant because I thought I had seen everything there was to see about Watergate, and Leon [Neyfakh]’s podcast was just genius the way he combines people today talking about it from the perspective of almost 50 years to archival footage of the time in his own editorial point of view. He found a way into that story that I had never heard before, and that one we’re very excited about and that will be later this year. And that’s a political thriller. That’s how I would describe that.
DEADLINE: Back to sports. What kind of sports do you want to do, boxing?
WRIGHT: I’m open to boxing. There’s no current plan for it at all. I think that boxing has a long tradition on premium so that’s why I’m saying to you it could happen. We loved the production value surrounding The Contender so we’ll see where that goes, but no, we’re not engaged in bringing any active sports to the network as of yet, but to be honest, there’s just so much going on. If you look at where Epix was a year ago to today, it’s been kind of a 100 miles an hour.
DEADLINE: To achieve the subscription growth you want, how many hours of original programming do you want to go to, and what kind of mix of scripted and unscripted/docuseries are you going for?
WRIGHT: In terms of growth, I can’t put a number on it, but I would just say robust and consistent growth. I think the good news for us is that Epix has been underdistributed and therefore, undersubscribed. If you’re only available in 40 million homes, you can only grow to this number. We’ve added 80 million homes in the last year, so the number of consumers now available to us is exponentially larger. Now you can use what is your greatest tool, which is a great compelling show that gets attention to encourage that.
In terms of the number of hours, I think that we’re still in the curation business and our approach is qualitative versus quantitative. I’m not going to compete with Netflix or the other people that are going for, we’re just going to have a million hours of television and dare you not to have us. We’re not in that lane, but the lane we are in is, I want every month when a subscriber is considering subscribing to us or considering whether or not to renew us, that there is always something on, something original. Whether it’s a show that in it’s third or fourth episode or a show premiering in the middle of the next month, because we’ve gone from under 30 hours in 2017 to over 100 hours this year, and I don’t know that we need a whole lot more than that.
I think there’s a point in which you lose the ability to treat every show as important. If you’re throwing everything on, you’re not going to be able to promote or market all of it. So, I don’t know what the Goldilocks zone is, but there’s a space in there where you have enough to compel subscription and renewal and to keep people writing about us and talking about us, but you’re not getting into the game of just throwing so much on that you can’t properly position them all.
DEADLINE: You mentioned you’re not going to compete with Netflix. Where do see Epix in the ecosystem of streamers?
WRIGHT: It’s becoming a converged world of streamers and premiums as everybody moves to ubiquitous distribution. We call these guys streamers and we call them premiums, but they’re being consumed, all of them, the exact same way — some people prefer to consume via the MVPDs, other people prefer to consume via a streaming app. We are competing with HBO and Showtime and Starz and Netflix and Hulu and Amazon creatively, qualitatively. Because we’re premium, we have an R rating. We have enough money to be able to tell a story the way it’s right, we give our creators a lot of creative freedom, we’re not asking them to conform to a storytelling formula and formats. We will encourage them and give them thoughts, but we let them make their show.
DEADLINE: What are your main programming goals?
WRIGHT: There’s a couple areas that we’re focused on. In premium, you’re always looking for the prestige drama because that’s part of the premium brand. If people are paying a monthly fee for your network, they want to know that you’re aiming high, that your aspirations are up here.
The next area that we love is elevated genre and I love the broader definition of genre. Crime, science fiction, adventure, thrillers, mysteries, there needs to be something about it that’s going to bring very special talents to it. I think that [Perpetual Grace, LTD co-creator] Steve [Conrad] addressed this so beautifully (at TCA); he said that they are doing noir, but they’re trying to take the noir genre and do something with it you haven’t seen.
One of my favorite phrases as it relates to programming and what you’re looking for, it’s not my phrase, but I believe in the familiar surprise. There’s a great book called The Hit Makers by a guy named Derek Thompson, who writes for The Atlantic. In his analysis of why certain things, songs, movies, TV shows break out, he talks about the familiar surprise. It’s something where there’s enough about it that you recognize that it invites you in, but once you get to it, they’ve done something with it that’s different and distinct and you go oh, great for them. So, everything we do, I’m looking for that familiar surprise.
Additionally, we feel like we need more female presence on the network, so that’s a big goal for us too.
DEADLINE: What kind of audience you are targeting?
WRIGHT: Our brand is cinematic television, meaning we want to play to that audience that maybe doesn’t go to the movies as much as they used to as that business has evolved into a much more of a big tentpole or micro-budgeted indie space. There’s a kind of storytelling for adults, for grownups, sophisticated narrative, complex character, thematic relevance, and a cinematic quality, and you’re bringing people to it and not just in front of the cameras, but behind, the writers and directors of photography and people that can give it that cinematic quality. It’s beautiful. It’s elegant.
DEADLINE: What is your development model? Will you do pilots or mostly straight to series?
WRIGHT: I prefer straight to series, but what we put to everybody is a couple of logical and I think mutually beneficial conditions around it. Script, talent — not necessarily an actor, but is the team in place to successfully execute this — beautiful script as always and of course, does their production planning make sense. I am one of those that believes the pilot model makes sense for some, but it’s a lot of money spent on shows that maybe don’t need to be piloted. Make a bet.
DEADLINE:And are you still working on a French Connection series?
WRIGHT: I love that project. Yeah. I do. Again, the joy here is you can curate and take your time to get it right, but yeah, I love that script. I love JC [Chandor], I love Matt Charman. That’s a really cool project. There’s nothing to announce. It’s in development, but I love it. It’s a really special project.
DEADLINE: Even with the streaming app live, Is the MVPD distribution still important for Epix?
DEADLINE: It has been challenging. You had a couple of big carriers who did not carry Epix. You made a deal with Comcast; are there others coming?
WRIGHT: I can’t give you details on this, Nellie, but I will tell you this. We’ve closed our Comcast deal. We’ll be everywhere very shortly. We’ve reengaged with the people for which Epix was not able to get carriage before, we are making enormous progress, we have the streaming service, Roku, Amazon. There are other announcements that will be forthcoming, but the goal was and is to make Epix available everywhere and it will be very shortly.