Hollywood Superagency WME’s New Pitch Is Selling Shows Globally

  • IMG takeover success hinges on projects like Le Carre thriller
  • Selling television dramas alongside bull-riding, fashion shows

When the producers of the John Le Carre TV thriller “The Night Manager” wanted to market their series outside the U.K., they chose an odd partner to sell the series: an arm of the William Morris talent agency that owns tennis tournaments and runs fashion shows.

Executives at William Morris Endeavor told the Ink Factory, their client and the show’s producer, that IMG Media, with salesmen in more than 30 countries, could get the best deal for the six-part drama. It didn’t hurt that WME, led by superagent Ari Emanuel and co-Chief Executive Officer Patrick Whitesell, already represented the two main stars, Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.

IMG Media, which sells broadcast rights to more than 400 sporting events, is at the heart of efforts by the talent agency to develop, finance and sell entertainment worldwide, ideally with the company and clients making more on each project. That’s a big part of what drove WME to buy IMG Global two years ago in a $2.4 billion deal backed by the Silver Lake Management LLC, and has helped attract more than $300 million in capital this year from SoftBank Group Corp. and Fidelity Management & Research Co.

“WME is an agency representing the best scripted and non-scripted talent, producers and intellectual property owners in the world,’’ said Chris Rice, a partner who coordinates activities between the companies. “IMG is a global sales force driving rights into every country around the world. The ability to help those clients navigate what has become a much more global TV business is unique.’’

Using IMG to take its clients’ TV shows around the world is one example of how WME hopes to leverage the IMG assets and turn a U.S.-centric talent agency into a global player in sports, fashion and entertainment. That’s the kind of company that can appeal to investors should WME-IMG go public, as has long been speculated.

Packaging Agents

Hollywood talent agencies generate a large chunk of their revenue by helping to develop TV shows, arrange financing, book talent and hire writers in exchange for an ownership stake in the programs. Rice said the rechristened WME-IMG had a role in some 40 percent of all scripted TV shows in the U.S.

A successful show can throw off cash for years from the sale of reruns domestically and abroad. Until recently, TV packaging agents were primarily focused on the U.S.

Yet as the TV market has matured overseas, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon expand worldwide, the international marketplace has become more important.

That plays to IMG’s strength. Executives in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa already market events the company owns, like the Miami Open tennis tournament or New York Fashion Week, and also sell rights to other companies’ soccer and basketball tourneys.

‘Night Manager’

With “The Night Manager,’’ its first big effort in scripted TV, IMG Media sold the show everywhere outside the U.K., including to AMC Networks Inc. in the U.S., and two weeks ago brokered a deal with Amazon.com Inc. for streaming rights in the U.S., U.K. and Japan. It’s also selling “Dirk Gently,’’ a detective series with another WME client, Elijah Wood.

“The Night Manager’’ “demonstrated that the legacy we have, the relationships we have, can be a real asset to other projects,’’ Francini said.

IMG Media accounted for more than 25 percent of its parent company’s revenue when WME bought IMG, with the bulk of those sales, $273 million, coming from the rights operation, according to a 2014 report in SportsBusiness Journal. Sales tied to media rights have surpassed $320 million since then, said Ioris Francini, who runs the division, and have the potential to grow faster with the push into entertainment.

‘Dirk Gently’

In addition to “Dirk Gently,’’ which is based on a book series with a cult following, IMG is selling a handful of scripted and unscripted shows that the company isn’t ready to identify. That includes projects IMG is producing and the broadcast rights for ELeague, a new e-sports league IMG created with Time Warner Inc.’s Turner Broadcasting.

WME has asked many of its clients and partners to use IMG as a sales organization whenever possible. Rice speaks to agents in WME’s scripted and unscripted divisions, all of which runs through partner and TV head Rick Rosen, to ascertain which projects are being packaged, what talent is involved, and which projects are primed for IMG’s sales apparatus.

It isn’t an obvious sell. Most shows are set up at major U.S. TV studios with their own international sales organizations, and some independent producers would rather hold onto rights for themselves.

“There are a lot of distributors of TV programming who are already selling internationally,’’ said Marc Ganis, president of sports and media consulting firm SportsCorp. “That doesn’t mean IMG Media can’t carve out a piece, but it’s a challenge.’’

While Rice and Francini acknowledge that the majority of projects will still be done in conjunction with traditional distributors, IMG Media gives their clients another option -- and the allure of more control.

Since the merger two years ago, WME-IMG has acquired 15 companies, including Professional Bull Riders Inc., the stylist and make-up artist agency The Wall Group, and the organization that puts on the Miss Universe Pageant. WME-IMG has also continued to raise money, including $55 million from Fidelity in April and $250 million from SoftBank in March.

While some of the deals, particularly the bull-riding purchase, invited snickering from competitors in Hollywood, others, like a refurbished New York Fashion Week and ELeague, have been lauded. All of those events provide the company’s global sales team with more to market to advertisers, TV networks and customers.

“The base businesses are very substantial,” Ganis said, and the upside is in newer areas. If IMG Media’s foray into Hollywood is wildly successful, “it would increase the company’s value dramatically.”

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