TV’s top producers are drafting their own declarations of independence. Jerry Bruckheimer recently joined Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV and “Criminal Minds” producer Mark Gordon in opting to skip rich overall deals and go it alone.
Independence means losing the overhead dollars that come with being aligned to a major studio. But for Amblin, Bruckheimer, Gordon and others, the freedom to produce anywhere and with anyone is worth having to cover those costs.
“The environment is excellent for it,” Bruckheimer told IndieWire. “With all the enormous amount of new buyers, people need content. There are so many different venues to broadcast television shows. Since we have had a lot of success with network in premium content, we thought we could expand and do more.”
Bruckheimer had most recently been set up at Warner Bros. Television. But that deal was set to expire this year, and his TV chief, Jonathan Littman, convinced him that it might be more fruitful to not be tethered to just one studio.
“The more we started looking into it and talking to potential investors, the more it just started making sense to us,” Littman said. “It’s a big gamble, but why not. The landscape had changed so much since we went into an overall deal. This is the time to do something really entrepreneurial and different.”
Bruckheimer and Littman were also inspired by the previous success of Amblin and the Mark Gordon Co., both of which have thrived since going indie.
It’s especially been a tremendous few weeks for Amblin TV co-presidents Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank. They enjoyed overwhelmingly positive reviews for their HBO movie “All the Way,” starring Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson, while their FX series “The Americans” wound down its fourth season with more critical acclaim and the marketing campaign for their new CBS summer series “American Gothic” took off.
Adding to that, the Eye network also ordered Amblin’s new legal drama “Bull,” starring Michael Weatherly in a role loosely based on Dr. Phil McGraw, for fall. It’s all a part of the strategy that has made Amblin arguably the most successful independent producer in TV: Having the ability to work with any writer or any actor, regardless of where they’re based, while partnering with any network or studio that the show fits.
“Now in this 400 series universe, where there’s over 70 buyers doing scripted programming, it allows us the most amount of flexibility in the deal-making process,” Frank said. “If we want to go in and just be producers for hire we can do that. If we want to go in and co-produce with somebody and allow the network’s in-house unit to own part of it, we can. Because we’re not beholden to anyone.”
A lot was written after the upfronts about the networks continuing to own more of their own programming, as vertical integration remains the norm. But at least a growing crop of indie producers have returned some of the power back to the creatives — who can shop their wares to whomever they want.
The rise of “Too Much TV” has widened the door for such producers, who eschew first-look and overall deals (and the money that could be used to fund overheads) in order to shop shows to whomever, and wherever, they want. In the process, they’re also providing a bit of check-and-balance to the network/studio dominance.
And investors are taking notice: Last year, Entertainment One acquired a 51% stake in Gordon’s company, allowing the producer (who didn’t renew a first-look deal with ABC Studios) to create a studio on his own. In its first year, Gordon’s now-indie company landed two high-profile projects on the fall lineups: Dramas “Designated Survivor” (starring Kiefer Sutherland) and “Conviction,” both at ABC.
“The larger studios have a harder time being nimble or flexible,” Gordon said. “We live in a world now where are many, many opportunities.”
DreamWorks TV (as Amblin TV was then known) launched as an independent studio in the mid-1990s just as the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (“fin-syn”), which limited how much primetime programming the networks could own, were repealed.
Before those rules went away, several major independent studios thrived, such as MTM, Lorimar (eventually purchased by Warner Bros. TV) and Carsey-Werner, which was pretty much the last traditional indie (deficit-financing programming) standing when it got out of the first-run business in the mid-2000s.
Despite an early success in ABC’s “Spin City,” the company soon battled with networks, which wanted an ownership stake in their shows. The company eventually opted to downsize and get out of the deficit-finance business, becoming producers and aligning at NBC with a first-look deal.
Ultimately such a pact “hindered our ability to produce elsewhere,” Frank said. When Jeffrey Katzenberg spun off Dreamworks Animation in 2004 and Steven Spielberg took over TV oversight, he, Falvey and Frank decided to end the Peacock deal and go it alone.
“That was a time when people were making exclusive deals that were really handcuffing them,” Falvey said. “We had many friends who would throw their arms up in the air because they weren’t allowed to go out into the marketplace and sell outside. There was really no one at that time out there [producing without an overall or first-look deal].” Added Frank: “In many ways it was the only way as a tiny production entity that we could maintain any kind of control or leverage in the way we were conducting our business.”
Gordon noted that while he was aligned with ABC Studios, he could shop his shows to other networks – but they were often seen as “tainted goods” because others assumed ABC passed on them.
Of course, “indie” means something very different in TV than film. While indie film evokes a certain creative element, going indie in TV is mostly a business proposition. “We’re still going to look to develop broad programming,” Littman said of what Bruckheimer TV plans to do next. “We want to play in all of the sandboxes.”
There are also different levels of independence. Davis Entertainment (“The Blacklist”) has a first-look deal at Sony, but can still shop shows elsewhere if Sony passes on participating on a project. “We’ve made movies for all the studios in town,” said principal John Davis. “We actively talk to all of the networks. Having an opportunity to sell to a broad range of tastes allows us to find someone who feels the same way we do about a property.”
For Amblin TV, being a part of Amblin Partners — the new partnership between Spielberg, Participant Media, Reliance Entertainment and Entertainment One — has given it even more resources to keep things independent. “We’re able to do what we’ve been doing, but it has also given us access to money to develop and finance shows and buy intellectual properties,” Frank said. “It’s given us a whole new playground.” And that’s good news for creatives who want to find the best home for their projects.
Here is IndieWire’s first ever list of the most powerful independent scripted (or at least, with a scripted component) production companies in TV. The main requirement is that your company isn’t aligned with a major studio under an overall deal, or if your company is only producing unscripted fare. (The question of who’s an indie in the unscripted world has been complicated by recent mass consolidation under mega indies like FremantleMedia.)
Broderick Johnson, co-founder/co-CEO; Andrew A. Kosove, co-founder/co-CEO; Laura Lancaster, president
Current shows: “The Expanse” (Syfy)
Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, co-presidents
Current shows: “American Gothic” (CBS), “The Americans” (FX), “Bull” (CBS), “All the Way” (movie) (HBO)
Ravi Nandan and John Hodges, principals
Current shows: “The Carmichael Show” (NBC)
Richard Allen-Turner and Jon Thoday, joint managing directors; David Martin, president, Avalon USA
Current shows: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO), “Catastrophe” (Amazon), “Workaholics” (Comedy Central), “Adam Devine’s House Party” (Comedy Central), “Night Train with Wyatt Cenac” (SeeSo), “Kurt Braunohler Special” (special) (Comedy Central), “The Problem with Apu” (special) (TruTV)