With streamers under pressure from investors to slash costs and turn a profit the decade of rampant content spend is over. Appetite for new shows remains high however if producers can find the right project to sell them, reports Adrian Pennington.
“The word is out that streamers want comedies and police procedurals – formats that work with new ad supported models,” said Sam Sokolow, Executive Producer at Stage 32, a US-based social network for film and TV professionals. “Programming that fits with patterns we might have seen on TV 10 years ago.”
Sokolow was speaking at the Focus conference in London in December.
“The industry is in a significant period of change,” said Tom Sherry, MD, Headline Pictures (co-producer of Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle), also on the panel. “This is a time when we cannot predict what a production will cost. Crew rates have changed [under new Bectu and Pact rules introduced at the beginning of the year]. Travel, accommodation and the basic cost of fuel have gone up. We’ve seen a spike in the cost of production and those spikes are increasingly difficult to sustain.”
The biggest reason for cutbacks in spending is due to the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes, which have caused some productions to be delayed or cancelled.
At the same time, the likes of Disney and Warner Bros are aggregating different DTC streamers and content divisions into one super-app in a move which is also intended to streamline production spend.
Disney will spend $25bn on content (including sports) next year which is $2bn less than 2023 and considerably less than the $33bn it spent in 2022. This reduction also fits with Disney CEO Bob Iger’s plan to create less content and focus on a more curated original programming lineup.
Warner Bros. has spent the year cancelling seasons or axing features it has already completed in a bid to slash the overhead of marketing and distribution.
However, it is not as if all the taps have been turned off. Paramount is still on track to spend the $6bn in 2024 it previously budgeted for content while Netflix will actually increase its pot from $13bn to $17bn at the same as cutting back on the number of original features it produces.
Local language content
Instead, Netflix’ focus going forward will be unscripted, local language television and animated films. Squid Game: The Challenge and reality series Physical 100 (like Squid Game, from South Korea) are examples. Another example of this trend is a new dating series in the works from Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell.
“You will always see leveraging of high prized IP and chasing of big-name talent but I do think there’s a seat at the table for any kind of creative,” said Sokolow. “Netflix and Disney will continue to spend many millions of dollars on single projects but they also want character driven ensemble pieces that are well acted and don’t cost an arm and a leg.”
The move toward AVOD, FAST channels and ad-supported premium subscription tiers is fuelling demand for content more familiar to broadcast TV.
“The move into advertising models means that news of the demise of the traditional programme format is premature,” Sokolow said. “There’s a need for commercials to be placed within the content. Procedural or case of the week type shows lend themselves to four to five acts for neat ad insertion.”
Sherry agreed that there is a “move towards populism within drama,” but added that trying to predict what streamers will want “is the wrong way of looking through the telescope.”
“It is about what you give to them,” he said. “You’ve got to find authenticity that connects with audiences and make the argument to the streamer or traditional terrestrial broadcaster why you are most qualified to tell that story.”
Sherry advised producers to focus on packaging a product “to make it feel more valuable beyond its initial premise. Package it with known onscreen talent. See if you can spin it in a way that allows you to make a documentary version alongside the drama. This creates more noise and more bites of the cherry around the same idea and helps create a brand identity around a title.
“Ultimately what any commissioner at a platform or broadcaster is looking for is how to make this content stand out from the rest.”
Streamers are also on the hunt for a global hit that resonates with its local market. “A way of telling story that feels special to its home territory but has a way of communicating to a global audience in its themes,” said Sokolow.
Squid Game is the classic example. A global phenomenon produced in a local language which has at its heart “themes of greed, survival and fame that we can all emotionally tap into,” he said.
“If you’re telling story from an emotional standpoint that everyone can understand then it has a great chance of breaking through and being carried around world by these massive distribution platforms.”
The proliferation of platforms has also created a new complexity for funding content. Where once a producer would primarily talk to the handful of broadcasters in their market “you can now talk to the whole world,” said Sherry. “There are any number of funding models available for you to build a project in a way that financially suits your belief in its future value.”
As well as Ten Percent, Amazon Prime’s remake of French comedy Call My Agent!, London and Paris-based Headline Pictures’s output includes two series of Dublin-based drama Kin (RTE, AMC, Viaplay).
“The cost of money has increased which has changed the funding models,” Sherry said. “A year ago, models were based on post broadcaster licensing to pay back of a three-year period which is fine when the cost of money is small. It doesn’t stack up when the inflation rate is 6% over three years.
He said it was increasingly common to have to find multiple sources to finance a TV show in a model that replicates indie film funding. “You don’t go to one broadcaster and one streamer and get handed a whole series to make. You approach the broadcaster where your idea has its most natural home and then go to a streamer to build the funding in stages.”
He predicts some streaming platforms won’t survive while producers will struggle too unless they can find ways of making programming more cost efficiently.
“Making good programmes cost effectively is the core skill of a producer,” said Sokolow. “It’s great to be Steven Spielberg but it’s not so bad to be Roger Corman either if you can make content at a low budget that reaches an audience. If you know how to keep costs down and you have everything in a package so you can sell it forward for acquisition, then this is still a good business.”
As for whether the current streaming landscape makes it easier or harder for start-up or newer producers to get their ideas made the answer was unequivocal.
“Streamers receive hundreds of unsolicited proposals,” Sherry said. “You need to find a way of getting on top of that pile to be the next thing they look at. Perhaps that’s by great packaging or somehow landing rights to a bestseller with a built-in audience but the reality is you do need to be repped [by an agent] and in association with a credible experienced production entity before you get in front of any commissioner.”