Entertainment One’s Stuart Baxter

Entertainment One (eOne) has established itself as a leading independent producer of television drama, comedy, factual and unscripted programming. It has also formed partnerships, set up first-look deals with producers and invested in production companies, all to boost its catalog, which ranges from the worldwide hit The Walking Dead to Designated Survivor to David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef. As the president of eOne Television International, Stuart Baxter oversees distribution to free-TV broadcasters, pay-TV channels and SVOD platforms. He recently combined the company’s film and television units into one global sales team. Baxter talks to World Screen about the reorganization, best-selling shows and investing in talent.

WS: In May, eOne announced it was combining its film and television units into one global sales team. What motivated that decision, and what are the benefits of this new global sales team?
BAXTER: With the scale we’ve achieved through strategic acquisitions, equity investments and strong organic growth, we decided it was important to take a more holistic approach to our content business that aligns with our customers’ needs, the way that they work and the content they want so we can then implement best practices and efficiencies.

Customers get real benefits from this reorganization in that they get someone who really understands them, as well as a single point of contact. We get more efficiency, much more transparency and better practices. We want to be able to use all of our products and all of our strengths in one relationship and as one team be focused on bringing that content to the client.

WS: Would you give some examples of what considerations go into giving a show the best exposure it can get?
BAXTER: There are three prime considerations in developing a take-to-market strategy for each show. First, how do we achieve the best audience? Sometimes that might not mean the biggest audience; it might mean a very defined audience. Although when we determine the best audience, size is an important consideration. Second, who do we think is the best marketer? Who is really going to drive awareness for that show and target their particular market the best? Lastly, which strategy is going to yield the best overall economics for the show?

For example, we have a show called Private Eyes, a charming, nostalgic procedural with Jason Priestley. It’s a very accessible procedural that could be scheduled in any daypart. We decided to go with the basic pay universe, so Turner has it in some markets, NBCUniversal has it in some markets and Fox channels have it in some markets where it’s become very successful and has proven that there is a big audience for Private Eyes. This show seriously over-delivered for their channels. Those channels typically expect 100,000 viewers. Private Eyes was sometimes delivering 250,000 and in some cases five times the channels’ prime-time audience. They were delighted. Some of the big free-to-air broadcasters like RAI in Italy and Antena 3 in Spain took notice of this success and decided to take the next window for their viewers. It worked perfectly—right strategy, right way of maximizing your dollars and really good marketing by the relevant channels to their core audience. Because it’s nostalgic and slightly Moonlight-meets-Castle and female-driven, Private Eyes is very advertising friendly. [Advertisers like] P&G and Unilever love shows like that.

With Designated Survivor, on the other hand, we had a huge internal debate about the best way to sell it. Internationally, we had seen what happened with The West Wing. Designated Survivor is not the same as The West Wing, but the two do have elements in common. Internationally, The West Wing had sold to big free-to-air broadcasters; the first season did OK, then it started to struggle. It was considered too political, too highbrow, too American politics. So, for Designated Survivor, we needed somebody who really understands this show and knows how to drive niches within their market. Internationally, we took Designated Survivor to Netflix first and now we’re taking it to linear and free-to-air second.

WS: How are you working with services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime?
BAXTER: The interesting thing is that the relationships we have with them are wonderfully complex and include film, TV and family content. They are also partners with us on a number of co-production initiatives. Netflix is keen to partner on shows at the earliest possible stage. They are co-producing partners, distribution clients buying what’s already produced, and very occasionally they are competitors as well because they are developing relationships directly with some of the talent that we are working with. The world isn’t as simple as it used to be. Not that long ago everybody thought Netflix was just a film business when it was a DVD service. Nowadays, we deal with Netflix for film, for TV and for Peppa Pig in America. We deal with Amazon for film, TV and music. We’re dealing with Hulu both as a licensing client and a distribution partner. I’m confident that the list of global players is going to expand; you will see Google and YouTube in the content business. Apple’s recent hiring of Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht from Sony Pictures Television shows they are going to be in the premium content business. You look at the ambitions of what is referred to as BAT in China—Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent—and between those three, I think you’re going to see a local player becoming a regional player and then a global player in due course.

WS: How do eOne’s partnerships and first-look deals with producers help feed the pipeline that is available for international distribution?
BAXTER: Our business five-plus years ago was very much dependent on distributing third-party product. What we are doing now is investing in companies like Mark Gordon’s, where we’re the majority shareholder, and Brad Weston’s MAKEREADY studio. We have also taken a stake in Amblin Partners and several other businesses. We’re investing in these companies so we can bring their product to market. We’re not just a distributor for hire, if you like; because we own parts of those businesses, we actually have a share in their upside. It transforms you from being just a P&L player, dependent on the success of the movie, to having a bigger balance sheet in owning part of the success of those shows and movies.

WS: What appetite do you see for factual and entertainment programming and how are you meeting that demand?
BAXTER: Our perspective is that this industry is incredibly cyclical. While it’s true that today there is less demand than historically for factual and light entertainment, it will come back at some stage. Will it be in the exact same shape and form? Probably not. But there is a market, and we really believe in it, so we’ve been investing quite a lot. We’ve built our own U.S. light-entertainment business; we have over five new factual shows on the air. We invested in Paperny and Force Four in Canada. Last year we bought Renegade 83, and we’ve been doing first-look deals in that space as well. In Europe, we are actively looking for partnerships and content relationships with the same sort of models, whether equity investments or first-look deals because we think that space is a good market. 

WS: eOne has been increasing its productions in the U.K. and Australia. Is the strategy to own the content that is produced in those countries when possible?
BAXTER: Very much so. It’s really about owning the underlying IP and some of the upside of those shows and not just renting third-party content. We’ve got development operations in the U.K. and Australia. The U.K. is looking after Europe, not just the U.K. We did a show last year in France called Ransom. We have a show in development in Italy called Gaddafi. In each of these eOne may not own all of the show, but we will co-fund and co-produce and co-own these titles.

WS: What have been some of the top-selling shows in the last year?
BAXTER: The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead are doing extremely well for us. With Designated Survivor, not only did we do the ABC deal in the U.S., but we’re also working with ABC on a second window. We’ve sold it very successfully in Canada to Bell Media. We did a Netflix deal internationally, and now we have free-to-air and linear broadcasters looking for second windows. Private Eyes has been sold to over 110 territories. We did another show with AMC called Into the Badlands. It’s very high-end, martial arts meets Western, and that has sold incredibly well. Our other recent show Cardinal, which is very stylistic with high-end production values, has had some great sales—BBC and Canal+—to premium broadcasters all around the world. This series had such an incredible breakthrough premiere that it was immediately recommissioned for seasons two and three. Ransom, which we launched last year, started life as a relatively provincial French-Canadian procedural but eOne did such a good job improving its quality that we ended up making it as a co-production with France (TF1), Germany (RTL), the U.S. (CBS) and Canada (Corus). That sold really well, again, for the same reason Private Eyes did. A lot of channels don’t just want very serialized lean-forward fare; they need to mix it up with more accessible programming.

WS: What new shows will you have at MIPCOM?
BAXTER: We have three shows that are in production at the moment. The first is Burden of Truth, a legal drama that’s quite serialized, starring Kristin Kreuk from Smallville. We’ve got a show called The Detail, a crime procedural with two female leads. Caught is a limited-episode, high-end crime caper, quite serialized. In addition, we’ve got a show we just co-produced in Australia called The Other Guy, which is a quirky comedy. I see it being a late-night niche piece that will have a lot of people coming home from the pub to watch it!