Exclusive Interview: A+E Networks’ Patrick Vien


PREMIUM: Patrick Vien, executive managing director of international at A+E Networks, talks to World Screen about the company’s co-production strategy and more.

WS: Tell us about A+E Networks’ recently announced co-production strategy.
VIEN: What is hardly new is the fact that fantastic programming is being produced all over the world. What’s become an explosive new reality is the collaboration that is taking place between big markets and medium-sized markets, and even smaller markets, for the co-production of factual and scripted television. In part, this is an evolution of the international media marketplace where people are more comfortable than ever working with producing partners from diverse cultures and different languages. It’s a broad recognition that there are extraordinary writers [and creators] all over the world.

What is particularly exciting is that producers are coming together to develop globally appealing programming. A tipping point has been big markets, for example, Italy and major broadcasters like Rai, wanting to co-produce English-language television. This is a new global reality; for example, we are in discussions with co-producers in Spain, Italy, Scandinavia, Brazil, France and Korea, to name a few.

Culturally two elements are expanding the co-production marketplace. The first is that more companies are wanting to produce English-language content, so there are more ideas and more available capital. Secondly, audiences are embracing non-English language programming all over the world, which means a show that might have just had regional scope can now have broader global scope. Think of Fauda, for example.

Creatively, the bar keeps rising. Scripted television has become the new motion picture. And the feature documentary is increasingly becoming the premium factual series. The standard of production values continues to be elevated. Never has there been more ambition to tell stories cinematically in both factual and scripted. A vibrant co-production market provides opportunities for partners all over the world to produce at an even higher level and share in the risk.

Where there is room for partnership and creative collaboration, we at A+E very much want to participate inside that incredibly vibrant ecosystem. Like a lot of U.S.-based media companies, we have amassed a very big library, well above 17,000 hours over 30-plus years. We have produced countless factual hits, event series like Roots and scripted series like Project Blue Book. Co-production also allows us to start producing outside the U.S. and discover extraordinary opportunities that could be global or, in some cases, regional in scope. It’s a big opening for us.

WS: What scripted shows do you have in the pipeline?
VIEN: The most recently announced, which is our first A+E International co-production, is Miss Scarlet and The Duke. We are extremely proud of this production. It’s set in the late 1800s in a Jack-the-Ripper London context, where a young woman inherits a private investigation business after the untimely death of her father. A smart young woman becomes an unexpected first-rate private investigator in what is a chauvinist boys-club culture.

We love this story for several reasons. First, we have a strong female protagonist as the central character. Second, even though we are starting with six episodes, it has the makings of a crime procedural for mainstream television. This is an interesting space for us. In a world of incredibly high-end scripted, much of which is dark in subject, we see an opportunity for more accessible mainstream scripted television. This series takes place in a rich time period, the late 1800s. That gives us the opportunity to be cinematic, which is the expectation of the viewer today. Lastly, we think it has universal appeal. One of our key development filters is, could the show be interesting on a global scale? You need global economics to make scripted work, so when we are developing co-productions, we always ask, what are its themes and how universally appealing are they?

WS: What does A+E Studios have in production?
VIEN: A+E Studios, our scripted studio in L.A. run by Barry Jossen, continues to be vibrant. Project Blue Book, executive produced by Robert Zemeckis, has been greenlit for season two. It was the number one new series on cable in total viewers this season, averaging 3.6 million viewers in live-plus-seven in the U.S. We also have Knightfall, executive produced by Jeremy Renner. Season two stars Mark Hamill from Star Wars. It premiered in March in the U.S. and is available all around the world.

WS: Would you give some examples of how you find the best placement for your shows?
VIEN: Richard Tulk-Hart is leading a remarkable team; they are true 360 programming-minded media execs. We try to think first as producers, programmers and schedulers and use that mindset as a selling tool. When we sit with any number of our clients, across all 200 markets in which we operate, we have a creative and scheduling partnership approach to understand what they are looking for. They all buy scripted, factual, TV movies and our formats for different reasons. They don’t have the exact same constellation of competitors from one market to another. More than anything, it’s the breadth of our understanding of our clients in the marketplace and how our teams aim to solve their scheduling opportunities and challenges. That’s what makes us successful in finding the sweet spot for any one of our shows.

WS: Will premium factual programming be a focus for you at MIPTV?
VIEN: It’s a very big focus for our company, and we think it’s a natural evolution of the overall marketplace. We have Jesus: His Life, which we made with our friend Jane Root at Nutopia, who is hardly new to premium factual. You will remember her for our Emmy Award-winning America the Story of Us and Mankind The Story of All of Us.  It’s hard to imagine a more globally recognized individual than Jesus. Although it’s a story that has been told many times, this is the first time, in the premium factual space, that the story of Jesus has been told through the lens of who he was as a man rather than as a God figure. It’s meant to open up the world of Jesus the individual and the politics of his time. A+E Networks was behind The Bible and we had extraordinary success with it. Jesus: His Life is a factual version of that space. This is indisputably one of our MIPTV priorities.

The other is Damian Lewis: Spy Wars (working title). It’s a co-production between A+E Networks International and A+E Networks in the U.K. The world of espionage is dominant in feature films, and we want to bring that cinematic storytelling to factual programming. We have an extraordinary partnership with Damian Lewis. Alaska Productions is making this series for us. It’s ambitious. We’re examining eight clandestine operations that have either gone well or not and showcase the entire geopolitical and personal backdrops to each of these stories. It’s filming in London, Russia, Israel and the U.S.

There is a rich development slate of premium factual at A+E. Obviously, we will unveil it as shows come to market.

WS: Is there still international demand for Lifetime movies?
VIEN: We see ourselves as the leading TV-movie company in the world with 350 titles in our library. Lifetime could not be more dedicated to that space. It continues to elevate its game, creatively and from a casting standpoint. And the client base continues to respond and grow. We had one of our biggest hits ever last year with Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance. It sold extremely fast and well, and there continues to be a lot of excitement about Harry and Meghan. We have announced a follow-up movie, Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal. In addition to that, we will bring more than 40 new movies to the market in 2019.