Atrium TV’s Howard Stringer & Jeremy Fox

Howard-Stringer-Jeremy-FoxAtrium TV, a “commissioning club” set up to create premium drama content for regional OTT services and telcos, was conceived by Jeremy Fox, the CEO of DRG; Sir Howard Stringer, former chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation and former president of CBS; and Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, the executive VP and head of programming and content development at MTG. Atrium TV’s goal is to help platforms access high-end content with budgets in the $5-million-per-hour range that will drive subscriptions. Drawing on their unique experiences and perspectives of the media business, Stringer and Fox, who have known each other for years, discuss how Atrium TV is set up and the first three projects it will roll out.

WS: Tell us about Atrium TV. How did it come about?
FOX: It started life in an office in the mid-winter in Stockholm, when we were talking to the regional OTT player Viaplay about its issue of how to get hold of good content. You can buy from the studios, you can create local stuff, but how do you get those big-ticket items? And I basically drew a map of the world and said, Well, what about if we find all the little regional Viaplays around the world, put them together, call it a commissioning club, and then we’ll all commission stuff together? And that was how it began.

WS: Sir Howard, your involvement came at what point?
STRINGER: We’ve known each other a long time, and he came to me and said, Look, I’ve got this club, I’ve got this different way of delivering content and a different way of accessing it for regional players—would you like to be involved? And I said, Well, I’m going to go backward in time because I’m more interested in being involved in content. I’ve done enough management for one lifetime! So he hit me at exactly the right time. I said yes even though I didn’t really know what he was talking about, because he does exude confidence as the ultimate salesman! [Laughs] And I thought, Well, why not? I’ll go back to the future. And that’s what we’re doing.

WS: Are these regional OTT services feeling the pressure from Netflix and Amazon or just because of the generally crowded environment?
FOX: Well, they’re new to the business. They have the pipe to deliver [content], they’ve learned their lessons from other people, but they’ve never been in the drama business before. The first thing they would normally do is be overwhelmed by a Hollywood studio coming in—not Sony, of course, but other Hollywood studios—saying, Take all our stuff, take all our stuff! And the OTTs are saying, Well, we want just the big-ticket items. So we can tailor [content] for them. Some of these organizations, for example, are just doing sport now, and sport is easy to market; you take a soccer match, and you put it on and you know the audience you’re going to get and you know people will pay for it. Marketing drama is different, so we think we can help them in that way, too.

WS: How will the club work—someone brings you a project and then how do you approach the club members?
FOX: We noodle amongst ourselves about what’s a good project. He sends me a book, I send him a book; I send him a script, he sends me a script. Atrium is a very lean and mean operation. It’s the two of us, and we’ve just hired Quinn Taylor in L.A., who’s come from NBC [where he headed up long-form programming]. That’s the team. So we can very quickly make decisions on properties; there’s no greenlight committee. Should we do this one? Yes. Who should we get to write it? So I rely on Howard for two things: one, the creative ideas, and two, who we should partner with. Because he knows that Hollywood community much better than I do.

WS: Club members will broadcast the dramas in their countries, and then DRG retains the rights to sell the projects into other markets?
FOX: Let’s go right from the beginning: we will buy the book, we will fund the script, we will put the package together. So by the time we get to the OTT or telco, they’re not doing development work. We’re saying, This is what [the project] looks like, so they know exactly what they’re buying. We negotiate a price and they can do one of two things: they can buy it for their service in their region for a period of time, or they can buy all the rights in the region and either keep it exclusively if they want to, or sell it on to their own pay- or free-TV services, which is what Viaplay will do. And the second thing they can do is they can invest in the property as well. Because we’re not selling the entire world, like Netflix and Amazon, there are all these other territories left to sell, which is where we think we’ll make a profit, and that’s the business that DRG will do.

WS: Do you already have projects you can announce?
FOX: Yes, we’ve got three fully developed. The first one is Saigon, [based on] a book by a British author, Anthony Grey. Anthony is famous for being a prisoner of the Chinese in what was then Peking. He was a Reuters correspondent and wrote this fantastic book that tells the story of 50 years of Vietnam. It’s not a story about the war; it’s a story about how we got from French colonial Vietnam to the last helicopter off the roof [in Saigon]. The second project is The Eagle Has Landed. In 2019 it’ll be 50 years from when men landed on the moon. We’ve hired Stephen Kronish, who wrote 24 and The Kennedys, and he’s [working on] a great plot line because there are some very interesting characters behind the scenes. The third project we’ve got is Fandorin, and it’s based on a series of books by a Russian author called Boris Akunin.

WS: Has the proliferation of channels changed the nature of the content you want to produce and that viewers want to see?
STRINGER: The amazing thing about content is that trends change, and you’ve got to move fast and anticipate a trend. At some point, superhero movies will run out of gas—they’re starting to—and you’ll have to find something else. The biggest success I had when I became president of CBS was a movie [based on] a book. It came to us—and it was a Western—as a miniseries at exactly the time when miniseries had gone out of fashion. Everybody said, No more miniseries, certainly no Westerns, and so up comes Lonesome Dove, and it was probably the single biggest success we had that year. It drove the network forward and got us out of third place, which is where we had been for quite a long time. The business is full of that; just when you think you’ve got it all worked out, you’ve got to turn around and swiftly change tactics and trends. And that’s what we hopefully will do. Can we do it better than somebody else? Who knows, but we’re sure going to give it a shot. And [Jeremy Fox] has another advantage; he has a financial advantage.
FOX: The financial advantage is the fact that we can do everything ourselves until the point that we bring everyone else in. So there’s no slowing down of the process. We’ve been funded for three years to get this thing off the ground in the development sense, and then when we take it out to our partners, the partners just have to say yes or no. If they say no, we don’t make it. So people will cherry-pick the things that work for them. And the other great thing we can do as a club is share the data because no one knows who is watching stuff on these streaming services; they do know internally, but they’re not sharing that data. We’re going to share [ours]. We’re going to find out which type of program seems to work. Are we in the right demo? What is working? Is it returning series? Is it specials? Is it big events? We’ll find out that information, and we’ll learn from being in partnership with other people.
STRINGER: We’re going to have a different relationship with the producers; this is a club for the right reasons—it’s a collaboration in which we are more open to sharing the process with others, as opposed to being dictatorial.
FOX: Because we’re selling to multiple territories, there actually will be an end game, and there will be something to share with the producer. And ultimately, the producer will end up owning his copyright, and that’s important; he’s got something to put on his shelf, where he says, That’s my library for the future. I’m not work-for-hire.