Bob the builder
A+E Studios’ Bob DeBitetto outlines the new company’s mission statement as DQ takes a look at some of the shows emerging from the fledging production entity.
In June 2013 US broadcaster A+E Networks announced it was going to launch an in-house production studio under the leadership of Bob DeBitetto (pictured above), the president of brand strategy and business development at the parent company.
Two years down the line and the company has started making its mark with a string of scripted productions, including Houdini, Texas Rising, Sons of Liberty, UnREAL and a US adaptation of French supernatural hit The Returned. According to DeBitetto, there’s also a substantial development slate that will enable the studio to step up a gear in the next year or two. Among titles close to getting the green light is The Liberator, a wartime drama shaping up as A+E’s answer to HBO’s Band of Brothers.
Sons of Liberty
A six-part miniseries for History from A+E Studios and Stephen David Entertainment, Sons of Liberty follows historical figures Sam Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Joseph Warren as they secretly join forces to make America a nation. Written by Stephen David and David C. White, the show was helmed by Kari Skogland and features a title theme by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. The production is distributed internationally by A+E Networks.
DeBitetto has long been an advocate of an A+E-owned production entity because “it makes good economic sense. Under the traditional model, our US networks (which include A+E, History and Lifetime) pay around 70% of the cost of production for a licence fee. The producer of the show – let’s say MGM or Warner Bros – then deficits the remainder and takes the worldwide rights. For me, this has always been problematic, because we are building programme brands but not participating fully in their success.”
This issue has become increasingly acute in the last three to five years, says DeBitetto, “because there are more platforms around the world consuming drama content, including SVoD players like Netflix and Amazon. So before the launch of A+E Studios we were in a position where we had a strong global distribution business (the international division of A+E Networks, headed by Sean Cohan), but didn’t own shows like Vikings (property of MGM). That meant we were losing out on potential revenue but also faced the prospect that shows we helped build in the US would appear on rivals elsewhere.”
Against this backdrop, the purpose of A+E Studios is to rebalance that relationship. “The studio is the vessel for us to own the content supply and exercise greater control over the programming,” DeBitetto says. “We will develop shows, deficit-finance them and put them through distribution ourselves.”
Texas Rising is an eight-part miniseries that airs on History in the US and is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It tells the story of the Texan revolution against Mexico and the rise of the Texas Rangers, the oldest law-enforcement group in North America. Exec producer is Leslie Greif, who has already had a hit Western in the shape of Hatfields & McCoys. The cast includes Bill Paxton, Olivier Martinez, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Kris Kristofferson. The show was produced by A+E Studios and ITV Studios America, in association with Thinkfactory Media.
It all makes sense. But if there is a countervailing argument, it’s that studios cost a lot to build and support. As DeBitetto acknowledges, A+E Studios is “not just a name on a letterhead, it is a proper studio with 25 to 30 executives in LA and another team based with me in New York, covering all the functions you’d expect across production, development and business affairs. So, yes, it involves a sizeable capital investment.”
But, for DeBitetto, “the real risk is the old model, where we had our hands wrapped around the worst part of the business. Our view is that even if a show doesn’t get renewed, it’s still possible to recoup the deficit internationally. Besides, the real risk is that we create shows that make $100m for someone else. A critical part of building an international business is being able to sync it up as much as possible around content. Just imagine if we make the next Walking Dead but don’t control it outside of a US licence.”
In a perfect, friction-free world, A+E Studios would make great scripted shows for A+E, History and Lifetime in the US and then pass them over to the distribution division to sell around the globe (ideally to the international arms of A+E’s own channels). But in reality the market is much more complex.
UnREAL is the first show that sees A+E Studios in complete control. Inspired by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, the series is set against the backdrop of a hit dating competition show, whose young producer manipulates contestants to get dramatic and outrageous footage. The programme is produced by A+E Studios and Frank & Bob Films II, with Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Grey’s Anatomy) as co-creator and executive producer. Distributed by A+E Networks, the show is airing on Lifetime US and has already been picked up by a number of networks including TF1 in France and Antena 3 in Spain.
The first tier of complexity involves A+E’s US networks, which need to be able to buy drama from multiple sources: “Our CEO is clear that content ownership must be a key tentpole of this business. But the people running our networks need to be free to do business with other suppliers. For us, a quid pro quo of this is that A+E Studios should be able to sell content to third parties. If content ownership is a good and profitable business, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be selling our shows to other networks and the SVoD platforms. I could see us partnering on a show with Netflix.”
Another issue is what A+E Studios should do when another company already has its hands on a property that it wants to participate in. A case in point is The Returned, whose first season concluded last month on A+E in the US. “FremantleMedia were very smart and managed to get hold of the format rights to the show,” says DeBitetto. “We were interested in the show and took the creative lead, but that had to be set up as a coproduction where we shared the risk and the rights with them.”
DeBitetto has actually been doing quite a lot of sharing since launching his studio: “The first project we got involved with was Houdini, which was pretty much fully developed when we stepped in. So in that case we were involved as a co-financer. Then there was Texas Rising. In that case, ITV got involved when they acquired the show’s producer (Thinkfactory).
“Clearly, I’d like to move towards a model where we fully own shows. But sometimes it doesn’t work out like that, particularly when you are starting up a studio. I see our future slate as being a mix of partnerships and wholly owned shows, but with the wholly owned shows taking a bigger percentage.”
This four-hour miniseries from Gerald W. Abrams aired on A+E’s History in 2014. Written by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek), Houdini starred Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as the famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini. A Lionsgate/A+E Studios coproduction, the show debuted on History to 3.7 million viewers, making it one of the network’s strongest scripted shows ever. Houdini was distributed internationally by Lionsgate and sold to networks including Seven in Australia.
Probably the biggest deciding factor in whether A+E Studios thrives will be the quality of talent it attracts. DeBitetto is aware of this and has started signing up showrunners on development deals. “We’ve done deals with Michael Hirst and Carlton Cuse. What we like about these two is that they are both phenomenal talents who have produced great shows for A+E’s networks (Vikings and Bates Motel). We’d rather be in business with creatives where we know the chemistry works.”
Again, flexibility is the watchword when putting together deals like these: “We aren’t like the big studios, which can put people on huge exclusive deals. We need to be smart and not try to keep these guys in a walled-up dungeon. They need to be able to work with others too. That’s another reason why it’s important for us to sell to third-party networks. We can’t be in a position where shows developed here are never used because they are not picked up by our channels.”
DeBitetto is cautious about discussing future projects by name – with the exception of The Liberator, an eight-hour production that will follow the progress of US WW2 soldiers as they battle up through Italy and into Germany before getting involved in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. “The project has been written by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), which is really exciting,” says DeBitetto. “If you think about how much CGI and SFX have come on since Band of Brothers, this will be a really spectacular piece of TV.”
As for the rest of the development slate, he says: “We have eight fully developed screenplays in front of A+E and six in early development with History. I don’t want to say too much yet but there is one time-travel project and another set around the time of the Crusades. Overall it’s an eclectic mix.”
In terms of the studio’s capacity, DeBitetto adds: “Put it this way, if A+E, Lifetime and History sent everything our way over the next three years, we could handle it. More realistically, if we get half to two-thirds of their scripted orders then we could handle those and have room to work on third-party orders. I don’t think you’re going to see us turning work down.”
A coproduction between A+E Studios and FremantleMedia North America, The Returned is based on the successful French drama Les Revenants. It focuses on a small town that is turned upside down when several local people come back from the dead. FremantleMedia is distributing the series internationally, excluding the US and Canada, which are being handled by A+E Studios. Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel) wrote the first episode, and alongisde Raelle Tucker wrote and executive produced the series. The show debuted on A+E in the US on March 9. Just prior to that, FremantleMedia agreed a deal that will see The Returned debut on Netflix outside of the US and Canada. Netflix will add the show to its US service next year.
While A+E Studios is centred on LA and New York, DeBitetto says international plays a key role in the studio’s thinking. “Firstly, there are the ideas out in the market, like The Returned, which started in France. It doesn’t always work out, as we found the previous year when A+E in the US adapted Danish crime drama Those Who Kill. There are a lot of good titles out there and an appetite to adapt them in the US.”
Then there is the financing, continues DeBitetto: “When you think about that deficit I referred to earlier, it’s the financial projections coming back from Sean Cohan’s international team that underpin our productions. They are the ones with the market-by-market expertise, so their judgments are critical when assessing affordability and likely returns.”
So where does that leave the ambition to build A+E’s channel brands with wholly owned programming assets? What’s the correct play if a third-party network in the international market is willing to pay more to licence a show than an A+E network? “It’s case by case,” says DeBitetto. “If the option of selling to a big commercial network comes along then that’s clearly more attractive than selling to a smaller A+E network, particularly if our channel’s emphasis is more on factual. But here’s the thing – all we are selling is a window. Ownership means we can have our cake and eat it too. That’s where we are heading.”
In terms of how he wants the A+E Studios brand to be perceived, DeBitetto stresses that it is not a consumer-facing brand like the channels for which it produces. “But as a B2B brand I want people to think of us as small, smart, nimble, creative, eclectic, culturally relevant with an independent spirit,” he adds.
“The truth is your brand is defined by what you do. But we’re definitely material driven. For us, it’s what’s on the page, and then the screen, that matters.”