EXCLUSIVE: Coming off of its highest-rated run so far, the Steven Knight-created period gangster saga Peaky Blinders will begin shooting its 6th season in March. That’s after a move to BBC One last year and a first BAFTA for Outstanding Drama in 2018. Executive Producer Caryn Mandabach is the proud owner of the series that stars Cillian Murphy, and her Caryn Mandabach Productions has managed to remain independent amid a shifting television landscape and flurry of consolidation.
When we spoke recently, Mandabach felt it was important to talk about rights. In discussions with her fellow producers who have seen success, ownership is a main topic. “Everyone is feeling the heat,” she says. “No one who has already achieved success wants to go work as a producer for hire… The meaning of rights over time is if you’re careful and you own it, you are going to do right by it.”
The veteran’s credits include hit U.S. series from The Cosby Show to Roseanne, 3rd Rock From The Sun and That ’70s Show. Those comedies continue to pay dividends as, along with her former partners Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, they held onto rights — a prescient move given the hunger for content in today’s world. Carsey-Werner is now seeking new streaming deals in a boom time. Mandabach remains a stakeholder and shares in the benefits.
Ownership is close to the Chicago native’s heart. She moved to the UK in 2006, seeking more freedom just as vertical integration was taking over domestically. But staying independent and retaining rights has become a tenuous affair in Britain and elsewhere these days, as we discuss in the Q&A below.
DEADLINE: When we last sat down for a long chat, you noted that the vertical integration that had happened in the U.S. was “happily” not the case in the UK. That was just two years ago, and things have changed rapidly. What do you think the impact of that is?
CARYN MANDABACH: Transitioning from being strictly a distributor to an original content producer takes a bit of time, but they will get there. Things evolve and reform over time. It’s not just a fact related to our business. Globalized corporations are in the driver’s seat in many sectors, not just the media. Whether or not that’s a net gain for humanity is above my pay grade, but, as a dyed-in-the-wool producer, I’m an optimist.
DEADLINE: How does the business environment in Europe currently compare with the U.S.?
MANDABACH: CMP is lucky enough to own, produce and brand Peaky Blinders, which is a “glocal” hit, thanks to terrific support from BBC and Netflix. This is only possible because, at least for now, in Europe one can still hang on to some rights. That’s the good news. The bad news is that on a relative basis the content spend by the public service broadcasters in Europe is quickly diminishing, compared with the giant spend in the U.S. Also, smaller independent production companies like mine must be creative and flexible enough to generate our own IP. The cost of acquiring IP, such as book options, or movie rights, is prohibitively expensive.
DEADLINE: What is the sense amongst your peers in the independent production community? Will everyone end up being owned by a big corporation?
MANDABACH: Yes. My sense is that the concept of being a fully self-financed indie is going away. I might be the last one.
People have been taken seriously for a really long time because of what they could do by themselves. But now, giant corporations are demanding you do it for them. They want to buy rights, so for people like me who develop ideas, selling original IP is getting harder. You’re competing in a universe where Amazon spent $250M to buy Lord Of The Rings. People like me have to be scrappy. The conversation in the ether is “What is going to happen?” Everyone is talking about it, they don’t want to sell out if they can help it. But we all also recognize it’s not a forever condition.
DEADLINE: CMP owns and produces Peaky, but you have no corporate investment, which is highly unusual. How does that work?
MANDABACH: Everyone involved with Peaky makes a doubly meaningful contribution. Steve writes every single episode, which is extraordinary to say the least; Cillian is an exemplary on-set executive producer; Anthony Byrne directs the whole thing, despite the fact that the entire production is shot out of sequence with very little money. Our broadcast partners have been fantastic. BBC One is great of course, and Netflix, who distributes us in the U.S. as well as in hundreds of other territories, have been incredibly supportive. Endemol Shine handles international distribution as well. Because we control the brand, we are extremely aware of the themes which seem to resonate locally and globally. The long term care and feeding of gems like Peaky has been a privilege I will always treasure.
DEADLINE: Would you ever seek outside investment?
MANDABACH: Of course I would, especially if they had like minded goals.
DEADLINE: What have been your greatest challenges as an independent producer?
MANDABACH: Back in the late 90s/early 00s when my then partners and I owned and produced 3rd Rock From The Sun and That 70s Show, we heard about the Fin/Syn rules being abolished. Initially we were told there’d be a “fire wall” between the studios and their sister networks, but that model quickly disappeared in a haze of vertical integration, essentially putting all the indie production companies out of business. As a result, I moved to the UK, where independents thrived. There still are terrific indie companies here, but they are beginning to disappear as well. The biggest challenge is holding onto rights, and to resist being a producer for hire.
DEADLINE: Carsey-Werner Distribution is currently shopping That 70s Show, for example, so ownership over time, particularly as the platforms are so hungry for content, seems the best argument for holding onto rights.
MANDABACH: Yes. It’s especially true with long-running series like 3rd Rock and That 70s Show, because they were initially designed to be global, timeless and perennial. There will always be aliens and there will always be teenagers.
DEADLINE: You work with Netflix which airs Peaky in many markets. What do you see as the overall impact of worldwide SVOD dominance?
MANDABACH: It’s a terrific challenge for them to produce internationally appealing fare. Used to be the rule of thumb in the U.S. that 80% of the money came from domestic repeats, and the rest came from the rest of the world. Now of course the goal is to reach everyone in the world who owns a phone. We are working with writers from Germany, Spain, Italy, Ireland, the U.S. and the UK on a variety of subject matters which we intend for global consumption.
DEADLINE: With so much shifting in the landscape, how do you see the future?
MANDABACH: Well, in the short term there are challenges, but I believe we can still develop, and be well paid for, impactful product. Experienced people who know their way around the creation and curation of original IP, will become more and more vital to the ecosystem, especially as there is a limit to existing, globally impactful, IP rights.
Despite this, we are still free to associate ourselves with the most talented people in the world, and those relationships, like the one I enjoy with Steve Knight, are authentic, and not mediated by corporate diktats. Writers are still at the core of the business, and not a day goes by when I don’t either read or speak with one.
DEADLINE: Speaking of writers, what do you think about the issue going on now in the U.S. with writers and agencies?
MANDABACH: If agencies work for their package, God bless ‘em. If it’s not a package, and it’s just a version of some sort of leveraged position they enjoy, then they shouldn’t take money out of an already teetering ecosystem.
DEADLINE: You’ve got a book project you’re working on called What Does A Producer Do? Has there been a shift over time in how one might define a producer’s responsibilities?
MANDABACH: The role of producer has definitely altered for various reasons having to do with ownership models, and shifting interpretations of who does what at the corporate level. In the case of Peaky for example, Steve, writes the entire series masterfully, and we do the rest of it.
DEADLINE: After the BAFTA win for Season 4, Peaky seemed to explode with Season 5. There’s always been a rabid core fan base, but it appears to have blown up exponentially. What have you done to grow the brand?
MANDABACH: Being the owner and steward of Peaky Blinders is a wide-ranging remit, as it’s a worldwide brand, not a parochial UK one. Steve is extremely insightful about how to engage an ever wider audience. We enjoy a loyal fan base who have themselves created fan art, memes and spoken word pieces. Our first tie-in book is on the shelves, we have clothing lines, and a collaboration with Beckham’s Kent & Curwen. The album released by Universal Music is now No. 2 on the charts, and there is a video game in the works. There are also ongoing discussions about a movie, as well as with the English National Opera and Ballet Rambert. It’s so satisfying to see the level of engagement deepen with every season.
DEADLINE: You told me a couple of years ago, “You have to be able to take a lot of risks — and I think now the risk appetite is low.” How do you see risk appetite today amongst new and veteran talent?
MANDABACH: Until things change again, which I believe they will, the financial barrier to entry is too great for new people to enter and reap the kind of “Okay, Boomer” rewards I’ve enjoyed. The veterans like myself are just thrilled to continue to work and make meaningful cultural contributions.
DEADLINE: What’s an example of a time you took a big risk and it paid off? And where it didn’t?
MANDABACH: The biggest risk I’ve ever taken was to move to England. You don’t move here from LA for the weather. I was rewarded with Steve Knight’s master work, and the opportunity to develop more hits. I think if you ask any producer to cite examples where taking a risk didn’t pay off, you’d get a litany, but probably couldn’t print it!