In TV Land, an Exodus of Producers Unafraid to Ditch Studios

  • TV industry sees smaller investments after big consolidation
  • Producers, writers selling stakes, partnering with studios

Television executive Simon Andreae. Photographer: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Simon Andreae made his name at media giants like Discovery Communications Inc. and Fox Broadcasting, developing shows like “Naked and Afraid,” in which contestants prove their survival skills after being dropped in the jungle with no food, shelter, or even clothing. Now he’s testing his own ability to survive as an independent producer.

As the television industry gathers at its annual marketplace in Cannes, France this week, conversations inevitably turn to people like Andreae: TV hitmakers who are leaving the big studios and setting up their own companies. Over the last two years, dozens of successful producers have sought the freedom, and potential rewards, of running their own shop.

Simon Andreae

Photographer: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

“The independent spirit thrives best when the company is independent,” Andreae said. “When there’s not a big beast looking over your shoulder asking why you’re not following the GPS at every turn.”

Even as these mavericks start their own companies, though, they’re crafting deals with the likes of FremantleMedia, ITV Studios and Sky Plc to give them the cash they need to develop their ideas and the muscle to distribute programs worldwide. While that means continued ties to studio bosses, such arrangements give the independent producers a bigger cut of revenue and ongoing rights to their creations.

Last month, Andreae sold a 25 percent stake in his Naked Entertainment to RTL Group’s FremantleMedia, creating a safety net as he works on three new secret concepts.In April, Imaginarium Studios, which specializes in creating digital avatars and whose co-founder Andy Serkis helped bring Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” to screen, joined ProSiebenSat.1 Media’s Red Arrow Entertainment to develop international dramas. AndSky last year signed a distribution partnership and took a stake in an L.A. startup backed by Natalka Znak and Simon Jones, producers who worked on “Hell’s Kitchen” and “American Idol.”

“You get to the stage where we’ve had a lot of hits for others, but we thought let’s do it for ourselves,” said Znak. “We talked to a lot of big companies, but having worked for the big companies we knew what that would entail and we didn’t fancy just being another production company on somebody’s big fat slate of production companies.”

Deal Glut

After the glut of big production deals, companies are looking to make smaller, more strategic investments as TV production budgets increase along with competition to make the next “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards.”

“We are seeing more smaller, boutique talent and IP-focused plays that involve partnering with a creator or writer and plugging that into a bigger machine of development to get shows to bigger territories and have titles that fill a distribution catalog,” said Jan Frouman, CEO of Red Arrow.

Andreae left as head of alternative programming at Fox earlier this year and moved back to his native U.K., in part because of a rule in the country that means producers keep the intellectual rights to their work. This makes their companies generally more valuable than U.S. counterparts, where rights are usually signed away to studios and networks, he said.

A former schoolmate of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, he’s overseen some of TV’s most eyebrow-raising programs: Naked & Afraid’s cringe-inducing drops of nude people in the wilderness, the first televised autopsy, and "Plane Crash,” in which the producers deliberately smash a remote-controlled jetliner into the desert (with only crash-test dummies as passengers).

“I wanted an investor to help fund the overhead to build something bigger and faster,” Andreae said. “I really wanted to be an independent producer, and I wanted FremantleMedia to help because they get that.”

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