The TV arms race continued Tuesday with Warner Bros. TV Group announcing a multi-year deal, reportedly worth at least $100 million, with Ava DuVernay and her Forward Movement shingle. They will produce TV projects for every platform — including broadcast, cable, and streaming services — and it’s the latest in the ongoing battle for media supremacy in the OTT age.
Netflix is viewed as the master of this realm, snapping up superstar producers Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, but traditional studios aren’t taking it lying down; there’s too much at stake. Locking up talent, especially writer/producers known for their volume, becomes increasingly critical as the marketplace braces for a flood of new outlets. Streaming outfits Apple, Disney+, and WarnerMedia’s as-yet-unnamed service are all set to go online next year. Meanwhile, networks like HBO and FX have also announced plans to ramp up series orders.
“I think what it means for prolific creators like Shonda and Ryan, that those voices, with the amount of outlets that exist, are going to be able to get a huge premium,” Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn told IndieWire earlier this year. “For the studios that want to make overall deals as part of their business it’s going to be really competitive. I think obviously the biggest creators are going to be able to command huge, huge deals whether they are at [a studio] or a streaming company.”
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Now under AT&T ownership, Warner Bros. TV has shown a willingness to open its pocketbook. In June, it signed a new contract with Greg Berlanti — who currently produces more than a dozen scripted series for the studio — worth around $400 million. It also lured “Jessica Jones” executive producer Melissa Rosenberg away from the Netflix Marvel drama for an eight-figure pact to create and develop new projects.
Other titans rumored to be on Netflix’s wishlist include “Modern Family” showrunner Steve Levitan, “The Big Bang Theory’s” Chuck Lorre, and “Family Guy’s” Seth MacFarlane. But Lorre and MacFarlane are pretty ensconced at their studios (Warner Bros. TV and 20th, respectively). Plus, Lorre has been able to produce two shows for Netflix while remaining comfortably at home at Warner Bros. Universal TV’s Dick Wolf and Mike Schur would also be desirable “gets,” but are currently locked up at that studio — which will also probably do everything possible to keep them to stay.
Others who have recently sealed rich deals include Warren Littlefield (20th Century Fox TV/Fox 21 TV Studios), Anthony Hemingway (Sony Pictures TV), and Courtney A. Kemp (Lionsgate), as well as Netflix deals with Kenya Barris and Marti Noxon. And then there’s the case of J.J. Abrams, who is by several accounts being courted by several major studios to consolidate his film and TV interests.
“It’s as competitive as it has ever been in terms of making deals,” ABC Studios president Patrick Moran told IndieWire earlier this year. “There are more people now in the overall deal business than there have been in the past so you definitely have to be quick and aggressive about it. If you’re in a deal at Netflix, presumably you’re only developing and producing for Netflix. I do think we afford a lot of options when you’re at a studio that can take its talent around vs. a place like Netflix where if you’re in a deal there you’re making shows for Netflix and Netflix only.”
Sarandos has stressed that he doesn’t plan to do many megadeals — “They’re in a very rare breed,” he said of Murphy and Rhimes — and not all talent necessarily wants to only produce for Netflix. DuVernay, for example, is producing, writing and directing the Netflix miniseries “Central Park Five,” while also executive producing (with Berlanti and Sarah Schechter) the Warner Bros. TV event series “The Red Line” for CBS. And she’s behind the cable series “Queen Sugar,” which Warner Bros. TV produces for OWN.
It’s that kind of freedom that has convinced some producers to stick with the traditional studios and networks. As the volume increases at outlets like Netflix and Amazon, creators fear being lost in the shuffle, or not getting enough marketing attention. There’s also the question of ratings transparency — not knowing how many people are watching, until your show is suddenly canceled — and the question of how to enjoy back end riches in success.
Producer Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”), now based at Sony Pictures TV, said he enjoys the freedom of being able to “go to any place on the dial or on the Internet and I’m able to develop the stuff I want to and then decide where I want to go with it. I like having the ability to have network shows on. I’m always going to be going back and forth between network and cable. I wouldn’t want to be at just one outlet.”