Tag Archives: Virgin Produced

Flying high: Virgin Produced’s Jason Felts

Virgin Produced CEO Jason Felts tells Michael Pickard about the company’s first small-screen series and reveals how airline passengers could become the next test pilots for television.

When Amazon moved into original television production, it came up with an innovative way to decide which shows to make, releasing multiple pilots online for viewers to watch and rate before the most popular were commissioned to series.

Now Virgin Produced, the television and film production arm of Richard Branson’s firm, might be about to take that strategy to another level.

Jason Felts, CEO of Virgin Produced
Jason Felts, CEO of Virgin Produced

After focusing on film for the past five years, the company has turned its attention towards television – and CEO Jason Felts says he’s excited by how audiences are now consuming series in different ways.

“We’ve watched how consumption has shifted and how players like Netflix and Amazon are competing with the broadcast networks,” he says. “We love the ability to be able to create weekly episodes and have them streamed or air on the traditional networks. Our sensibility leans more towards cable networks and streaming versus the broadcast networks. We’re not huge fans of standards and practices so we definitely lean towards cable networks and streaming.”

Virgin customers can also tune into a Virgin Produced channel inside planes and hotels, which Felts hopes will one day become Virgin’s own platform for testing new series.

“My ultimate plan is to incubate concepts on that channel using my test audience and growing them into full-blown shows I sell to the networks. It’s my own market-research test audience.

“Our customers trust us to deliver content that’s engaging, exciting and on-brand. As much as I would love the commerce from a medical drama, that’s just not our brand. The Virgin Produced channel allows me to test stuff out and when I go to the networks or Amazon or Netflix, and I can add a layer by saying, ‘I’ve already tested this out and this was the viewership and feedback; I’ve done all the work.’ That’s my strategy.”

Felts co-founded Virgin Produced with Branson and Justin Berfield (who played Reese in Malcolm in the Middle) in 2010. The company is based in Santa Monica inside what Felts describes as a “giant warehouse” that places equal emphasis on work and play, with room for gaming, pool, ping-pong and a cocktail bar.

The Bradley Cooper-starring Limitless movie was made by Virgin Produced
The Bradley Cooper-starring Limitless movie was made by Virgin Produced

“At its core, Virgin is an entertainment brand, a lifestyle brand that really at its start was known as a place for artists to create, write and produce their music in a place where they didn’t have the corporate thumb over them. Ultimately, It was a great experience and that’s what the Virgin brand is. Richard didn’t invent the airline business, the train business, the health club business or the hotel business, and certainly not the music or TV business, but he just changed the experience.

“We envisioned this place much like what Richard had with the Virgin Records manor, where he had The Rolling Stones and The Sex Pistols perform, write and record their music. We envisioned this place to create a great experience for the artist because we feel if a writer or director can come in and have a nice space and it feels fun and they enjoy the experience, the experience for the viewer will ultimately be emblematic of our brand and hopefully they’ll have a great experience.

Since its launch, Virgin Produced has focused its attention on film, with credits including Jobs, Movie 43, The Impossible and Limitless. And the movie business has already seen how it can use the Virgin empire to promote the latest releases.

“What makes us different, which is what the talent, studios and networks see, is that once we create a great story, we’re able to aggressively and organically market it on Virgin planes with a trailer or promo,” Felts explains. “Virgin Mobile subscribers can get text messages and Virgin Trains passengers can have branded napkins telling them to watch a movie, so we can hit that captive audience of Virgin fans.”

The company is now preparing its first foray into television with Muscle Shoals (pictured top), a new drama series inspired by the award-winning documentary of the same name that explores the eponymous southern US town that became home to an iconic era of music.

Felts started Virgin Produced alongside Virgin founder Richard Branson (pictured) and Malcolm in the Middle star Justin Berfield
Felts started Virgin Produced alongside Virgin founder Richard Branson (pictured) and Malcolm in the Middle star Justin Berfield

Virgin Produced has partnered on the project with Johnny Depp and Christi Dembrowski’s Infinitum Nihil and Joshua D Maurer and Alixandre Witlin’s City Entertainment.

Felts says: “As a 30-something guy who grew up with his parents playing music from the Stones and Aretha Franklin, to realise it all came out of this shack down in the middle of Alabama, I just thought this was an episodic show. It’s a great documentary but it’s so right for an episodic show.

“Our genre focus across our slate is very specific to our brand. We’ve got a focus on music, adventure, heightened reality, sci-fi and comedy. It’s going to be hard R – very subversive and irreverent. It’s going to be cheeky.”

Also in development is Whisky Go Go, a drama about the famous Sunset Boulevard nightclub, along with some comedies. Felts hopes to be in active production in early 2016.

With its move into television, Virgin Produced is also the latest player in an increasingly crowded marketplace looking to get a show on air, albeit with many more outlets to pitch to. Felts says he isn’t intimidated by the competition and believes Virgin stands out from the rest.

“I have a brand with a real identity and I’m not having to create a brand from scratch,” he says. “We know who we are, we know what we have to make and we know what we have to deliver. We can break through the clutter.

“We have 60 million fans worldwide and we’re able to talk to those people and get feedback, and there’s natural evolution and growth from there. We’re also big on social media marketing so we’re active and engaged and talking to our fans and followers. They expect entertainment from Virgin and we’re here to deliver it.”

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Overmyer and Fisher board the Mayflower

Seth Fisher has teamed with Eric Overmyer on Saints and Strangers
Seth Fisher has teamed with Eric Overmyer on Saints and Strangers

National Geographic Channel announced a star-studded cast for its upcoming four-hour miniseries Saints and Strangers this week. The story of the Mayflower pilgrims’ arrival in the New World, it will feature the likes of Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect), Michael Jibson (Hatfields & McCoys), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Natascha McElhone (Californication) and Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers).

The original script for the miniseries was written by Chip Johannessen (Homeland), with revisions by Walon Green (Killing Jesus). But the final version is in the hands of Eric Overmyer and Seth Fisher, a combination that promises a mix of experience and innovation.

Overmyer, the senior partner, has a lengthy list of credits that includes Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order and The Wire. In all of these productions, he came on board when the projects were up and running as a writer/consulting producer. However, he has also proved his ability to set up high-profile series from scratch. He was, for example, co-creator of HBO’s Treme, which explored post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. More recently, he developed the Amazon original series Bosch, pulling together talent he had worked with on The Wire, Law & Order, Treme and Boardwalk Empire (another credit).

Fisher is a different proposition. 30 years Overmyer’s junior, he is best known as the writer, director, star and editor of Blumenthal, a movie that explores a New York City family’s reactions to the sudden death of famous playwright Harold Blumenthal. Part of a new generation of can-do creative entrepreneurs, Fisher accompanied the production of Blumenthal with a blog called watchmemakeamovie.com. As the blog’s fanbase increased, Fisher launched a crowdfunding campaign that helped make Blumenthal a reality. The novelty of his approach will bring an interesting energy to the NGC project.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 (C4) in the UK has announced plans for a 12-month project aimed at developing black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writing talent. C4 is working on the project with Acme Films, which will oversee a competitive development process. At the start, Acme will review a number of ideas submitted by writers for series aimed at C4 or its digital sister channel E4. Acme will choose eight for a pitch-development process. Of these, four will progress to a second phase, which will require them to write draft scripts and a series outline. This process will lead to two finalists, which will go through a further development phase with a view to creating an original series.

Channel 4 deputy head of drama Beth Willis
Channel 4 deputy head of drama Beth Willis

The initiative is called Studio4 and is part of Channel 4’s 360° Diversity Charter, which it launched in January. The aim of the scheme is to launch the careers of five new writers from diverse backgrounds. Commenting on the scheme, C4 deputy head of drama Beth Willis said Studio4 would be an opportunity for BAME writers to “fast-track their ideas with script commissions with regular support from experienced writers, script editors and producers as well as the commissioners at Channel 4.”

In a related move, Channel 4 has also hooked up two writers from ethnic backgrounds with leading prodcos Lime Pictures and Red Production Company. Nuzhat Ali and Sharma Walfall picked up the C4 and Northumbria University Writing for Television gong at the recent Northern Writers’ Awards. As a prize, they will take up 10-month placements with Lime and Red, which will school them in script commissioning.

As part of its efforts to instil a diverse culture at the broadcaster, C4 has also appointed Nina Bhagwat as its off-screen diversity executive, while Ramy El-Bergamy has been brought in to address the issue of diversity on-screen.

Back in the US, Deadline reported this week that Criminal Minds executive producer/writer Janine Sherman Barrois has signed an overall deal at Warner Bros Television to create and develop new drama and comedy series. Barrois, whose previous credits include Third Watch and ER, is also a judge on the Writers Guild of America’s Writers Access Project, which was set up to identify diversity writers.

A more expansive version of the C4 scheme outlined above, the WGA Access project is designed to open up opportunities for writers from five categories: minorities, the disabled, women, people aged 55 and over, and gay and lesbian writers. WGA members are invited to enter a piece of material and, if they get through the judging process, their work will be presented to showrunners and other hiring executives for their consideration in the upcoming television staffing season.

Among the week’s most interesting project announcements, Virgin Produced and City Entertainment have teamed up with Johnny Depp and Christi Dembrowski’s Infinitum Nihil to produce a new drama series based on the acclaimed documentary Muscle Shoals. Greg Camalier, who directed and produced the doc, will produce the television adaption, while Virgin Produced exec VP of production Rene Rigal will oversee the project alongside Infinitum Nihil’s Bobby DeLeon. Like the documentary, the series will explore the south through its “colourful characters, cultural and political history and southern gothic settings, which became a melting pot of diverse musical and cultural traditions.”

Jason Felts, CEO of Virgin Produced, said: “Greg’s film unearthed the poetic mysticism and inspired us to produce a series that utilises music and narrative in a unique and ground-breaking way. This provocative story about the rich region and pioneering artists that birthed the iconic Muscle Shoals sound fits in with Virgin’s music roots and provides an ideal opportunity to partner with Depp, Infinitum and City Entertainment.”

As yet, no writer, cast or broadcaster has been named for the project, which is part of Virgin Produced’s expansion out of film production into TV.

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