EXCLUSIVE: Motion Content Group, the WPP-backed business that has co-produced and financed international hits including reality format Love Island and Syfy’s Western horror thriller Wynonna Earp, is one of the most recondite TV producers and financiers in the industry. The company, which is in 26 international markets and has funded over 500 series, is now making a major play in the United States following CEO Richard Foster’s relocation from London to LA.
In an exclusive interview with Deadline, Foster discusses the company’s Stateside battle plan, how he hopes British formats such as Shipwrecked and The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes can follow the likes of ITV Studios’ Love Island and Studio Lambert’s The Circle, which have landed at CBS and Netflix respectively, to the U.S. as well as a major scripted push with titles including Intergalactic from the team behind Peaky Blinders.
Motion Content Group is a complex business; it works with production companies and broadcasters to fund programming and it does this in a multitude of ways. Beginning in 2009 as GroupM Entertainment, it initially worked with broadcasters such as Viacom’s Channel 5, then owned by controversial British media baron Richard Desmond, to pay for a range of factual and entertainment titles by structuring multi-faceted deals that covered advertising and international ancillary arrangements. It moved into drama with early projects such as ITV dramas The Poison Tree, starring Matthew Goode, MyAnna Buring and Ophelia Lovibond, and Lucan, struck overall development deals with a range of producers and also helped third party formats such as Lip Sync Battle, Masterchef and Got Talent move into certain international markets.
Former Fox TV Studios exec Foster says, “People tend to ask ‘what is the Motion model?’ or suggest we have a fixed model. We don’t. I hate that term. But the approach is the same – we understand the market dynamics, understand the needs of networks, broadcasters, platforms and creatives; look at the commercial structures, take a view of the future and see how we can create and add value to the market.” While Foster has been leading the charge in LA for the past twelve months, the company has already helped sell around 60 series into the U.S. over the past few years and has established relationships with a number of U.S. producers. But it now wants to super-charge this drive with a multi-million-dollar injection of cash.
“There is a lot happening,” he says. “We have a number of projects in development ranging on everything from tent pole reality shows to prestige dramas with Oscar-nominated writers. We have around 20 series that have been greenlit by broadcasters but not yet announced, with a further 25-30 expected to be greenlit within the coming months.”
Some of the tent-pole reality titles include E4’s recently rebooted jungle island reality show Shipwrecked, which it is currently taking out to market with Keeping Up With The Kardashians producer Bunim Murray, Sky cosplay comedy format Wild Things, Dutch format A Village In The Sun, Canadian wedding format Where To I Do and The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes, which looks to change how dementia is viewed by opening a pop-up staffed entirely by people with the condition.
On the scripted side, Intergalactic is one of its biggest bets. The action sci-fi drama, written by Secret Diary of a Call Girl writer Julie Gearey follows a crew of fierce female convicts who break free and go on the run. The ten-part drama, which is directed by Power director Kieron Hawkes, will air on Sky One in the UK and Motion is working with producers Moonage Pictures and Sky Vision to find a U.S. home, most likely one of the streaming services or cable networks.
“We don’t look at the US market in isolation,” Foster says. “The U.S. is the world’s leading content export market and given the global infrastructure and relationships of Motion and GroupM we can bring significant advantages to our U.S. partners.”
Motion Content Group’s next big U.S. series is set to be the local version of Love Island. The British reality format, which sees sexy singletons living together in a villa and competing for affection and hard cash, has been a breakout hit for ITV2. ITV America’s ITV Entertainment is now adapting for CBS and it is expected to air later this year. “It’s really important for us because CBS have invested into it and we want it do well for them. It has the potential to work for CBS like it has for ITV in the UK and in success it provides a fantastic audience and a fantastic environment for advertisers to sell their products and services. So that from perspective it is really important, and we really hope it delivers and becomes a long-term staple on the CBS schedule,” says Foster.
It has also had a hand in Channel 4’s Catfish-meets-Big Brother format The Circle (right), which was snapped up by Netflix for markets including the U.S., France and Brazil. The social media-infused reality series is produced by Undercover Boss producer Studio Lambert and the SVOD service beat out a number of rivals with an early bid last year. “It’s important to us because Netflix have invested a lot of money into it,” adds Foster.
How a company like Motion Content Group works with platforms that do not offer advertising is interesting. While it was built with backing from WPP, the largest advertising agency group in the world, it has taken a more flexible approach to TV content. Foster believes that it will increasingly work with the SVOD platforms over the next few years.
“It’s now a mixed economy of ad-supported and subscription content, and I think that’s a good thing so long as the balance is right. Our approach to working with the SVOD platforms is the same as everybody else – sometimes the deal works, sometimes it may not. How Netflix and the other streamers develop their business is another thing all together but, as they do, I’m sure we will find ever more ways of working together.”
He also believes that these services will eventually launch an advertising-supported tier ala Spotify. “Will Netflix ever take ads? I think consumers like the choice of pay or free. So, in my opinion yes, eventually they will take advertising and give consumers the option of an SVOD or AVOD service, but they should do it carefully and be creative in how they do it, maybe start with brand marketing partnerships,” he adds.
The majority of the 500 series that it has funded and co-produced to date have been non-scripted including C4’s winter sports format The Jump and BBC primetime entertainment format And They’re Off, which it developed with STV and is currently plotting a U.S. adaptation. Foster says that patience is key to the success of entertainment formats and points to the fact that Love Island’s “overnight success” took three seasons. “To attract and keep the attention of younger audiences, which is crucial to the future health of a network, it’s important to take risks, be patient and be bold in backing your judgement and not to take knee jerk decisions or make rash judgements,” he adds.
Foster, however, would like to see less singing formats emerge from the genre. “Seriously, the world is a wonderful and diverse place. I don’t think anybody needs another talent singing competition.”
The company is also doubling down on drama. Foster says that it is important to nurture new voices to ensure that the bubble doesn’t burst. “I think the consensus was that drama reached its peak a while ago, yet it still seems to be growing. How much is too much? I’d need access to some streamers’ data to know more about that, but I think the emphasis has to be on quality as well as quantity and that’s going to require a constant feed and development of young talent – on and off screen. If the talent coming through isn’t nurtured and developed, we’ll see a drop in quality and that should be a concern for all given the rise of alternative options for consumers attention such as Fortnite. Hopefully, this means the industry will also attract and develop talent from a more diverse background which can bring a fresh approach to storytelling.”
Elsewhere, Motion Content Group owner WPP has taken stakes in a slew of Hollywood businesses including Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment and Ozark and Baby Driver producer MRC. Foster says that it is in talks with these companies to see how they can work closer together. “WPP has been a long-time supporter and investor into the content industry and, as we continue, we will see much closer collaboration between the corporate content investments we make and the operational side of our content business but if we can’t add value to the investment or create exclusive or ‘first’ opportunities for the mutual benefit of our partners and GroupM clients, then you have to question why we would do it.”
While the U.S. is one of its priorities and its business in the UK remains fruitful, it has also taken a global approach to the business. It is developing and producing digital content in partnership with YouTube in India and is supporting local feature films for theatrical release in markets like Poland and Turkey as well as working with around 25 international distributors on the TV series that it finances.
WPP operates in 112 countries and Foster says, “Thailand’s Got Talent is as important in Thailand as America’s Got Talent is to NBC in the U.S., so every market is equally important for the local Motion teams and our wider group companies.”
He also believes that formats from other parts of the world will start to travel wider than they have done before – a move highlighted by the likes of The Masked Singer on Fox. “The interesting thing about the so-called international side of the business is that global networks have strategies equally ambitious as some of their U.S. counterparts. I believe we will therefore see even more formats travelling the world from ever more markets and with the Motion and GroupM infrastructure we are well positioned to help find and develop those ideas and bring them to potential buyers, including U.S. buyers,” he adds.
Foster expects to fund and co-produce around 100 series in 2019 and hopes to be working at an even greater scale over the next five years. He adds, “I feel we are just getting started.”