Chris Coelen, CEO of Kinetic Content, talks to World Screen about trends in reality programming and meeting the needs of commissioners.
With Netflix’s buzzy Love Is Blind, Kinetic Content has continued its track record of delivering boundary-pushing, headline-generating non-scripted content to the U.S. and international marketplaces. Founded by former RDF USA CEO Chris Coelen, the business, perhaps best known for producing the U.S. version of Married at First Sight.
This interview was conducted prior to the coronavirus global pandemic, but we did check in with Coelen about how Kinetic Content’s productions are coping with the COVID-19 shutdown.
WS: How are you preparing for productions to restart after shutdown measures have eased?
COELEN: To some extent, we haven’t completely stopped. Some shows are in prep or casting, some are in post with material filmed before the shutdown; and we’ve also developed remotely-produced programs such as Married at First Sight: Couples’ Cam for Lifetime, a self-shot series following nine fan-favorite MAFS couples, which premieres this week [on May 20]. We’ve also put a series of precautionary measures in place which will take effect when we’re back in the field; we not only want our crew to feel comfortable and safe, we want to create an environment where they want to be there.
WS: What was your mission when you founded Kinetic Content?
COELEN: I founded and ran the alternative and international packaging department at UTA, and going to MIPTV and MIPCOM for the first time was a completely eye-opening experience in terms of realizing the breadth of creativity across the world. I was working with a lot of international production companies, and while the global format business hadn’t taken off to the extent it has today, it felt like the future. We represented 16 of the top 20 British indies at the time, and one of those indies was RDF, which [at the time] was run by Stephen Lambert and David Frank. They approached me to run their North American operation; I took the leap and never looked back. When RDF was sold ten years ago, I had the opportunity to start Kinetic, and wanted to build something that was all about creativity, to really dig in and be in the weeds, be creatively driven and be the best possible producers and creators and partners that we could be, without comparing ourselves to anyone else.
WS: What was it that you saw in Red Arrow that said they could be a good partner for you to build on Kinetic’s success?
COELEN: At the time that I began talking to them, I was actually just looking for a distribution partner. I had learned at RDF how important distribution was to the entire operation, so I was looking for someone very strong in that space. Based on my international experience, I was also looking for creative partners. I wasn’t actually looking to sell any piece of the company to anybody. Red Arrow was at the very beginning of building a global presence. They wanted to expand in the U.S. and we had a terrific meeting of the minds and I felt like I shared their vision for what they wanted to do. They had a group of networks, a distribution company, and creative capabilities across Europe in several different countries. We were, on the unscripted side, their first acquisition in the U.S., and it felt like a very happy marriage!
WS: When you reupped as CEO of Kinetic Content, you also announced plans for a scripted venture. Where are you on that initiative?
COELEN: We’ve been fortunate enough at Kinetic to work in all unscripted genres, whether it’s prank shows or social experiments or docuseries or food or real estate or competition elimination or game shows, whatever. If you can tell a good story, you should be able to navigate lots of different arenas, regardless of genre. I have experience on the scripted side, both from when I was an agent and at RDF, but of course, you need the right team of experts to facilitate what we want to do. So that’s our mission right now: making sure we build a team of experts on the scripted side in the way we have on the unscripted side to facilitate the stories we want to tell. That is priority number one. There’s a huge opportunity in the market for scripted, and even if it levels off, it’s not going away.
WS: How are you making sure you’re meeting the needs of networks and platforms, in the U.S. and internationally?
COELEN: You have your ear to the ground to get as much information as you can. You try to be aware of what’s in the market, whether that’s across the globe or in the U.S. As an agent I used to try to watch one episode of every series, regardless of genre, that premiered in the U.S. And for a while I could do it. Then I said I’d focus on unscripted and watch one episode of every unscripted series. People are talking about how there are 500-plus scripted shows—there’s probably quadruple the amount of unscripted series. To try to watch even a single episode of each one is near impossible. Of course, you try to be aware of the things that feel like they are garnering some buzz, but with that breadth of content, even we in the industry are struggling to watch that many things. There are so many platforms you can take a show to—Quibi, Amazon, the more traditional outlets—and we’re in regular communication with more buyers than we’ve ever been. The number of places you can go to can be overwhelming. So we start with the idea, figure out whether we believe in it, can execute it well, and think it has the potential to cut through the clutter. If we feel like those things are true, then we invest ourselves fairly significantly in the development of properties, more than we’ve ever done before in terms of interrogating the ideas. Then we bring them out to the buyers we think are right.
The challenge is to build a development slate that is not only buzz-worthy, but which we can execute very well, like any of the shows on our slate—Married at First Sight; or Man vs Bear on Discovery Channel, which has attracted a ton of attention; or Love Is Blind, which is Netflix’s first-ever serialized unscripted dating series. We have not been typecast, fortunately, as a production company. We’ve been able to get into business with pretty much everybody and we’re fortunate to have good relationships across the board.
We talk to Red Arrow a lot, and we talk to partners outside of Red Arrow as well. We try to be in touch with people who are great collaborators, and everybody is sort of in the same boat. The buyers feel under pressure; there is a lot of competition. If you can figure out how to work with them in a way that protects their interests and aligns with yours, then you’ve hit the bullseye. It’s just a lot of conversations, and trying to keep apprised of everything.
WS: Married at First Sight has been a huge success in the U.S. What did you see in that concept that made you feel it would work with American audiences?
COELEN: Kudos to Michael von Würden and his team at Red Arrow’s Snowman Productions, who created a loud, absolutely compelling Danish series. I watched every episode. We loved it and felt like there was something in it that we could make resonate in the United States. Arranged marriage is certainly something that people had talked about, but the approach [Snowman] had to it was unique, and they were able to actually pull it off. There was a lot of interest when we took it out to the market, with offers for casting or development deals, some people even wanted to pilot it, which would be really difficult considering the format! There was only one network that wanted to jump in and take the risk of commissioning it, which was at the time the Bio network, which turned into FYI. It was an odd home on the face of it, but they were going through a transition in terms of their branding and Gena McCarthy, head of programming at FYI (and now executive VP and head of unscripted programming at Lifetime), really believed in it, and they felt like the right partner, creatively. While the show has evolved and is now on Lifetime, Gena has continued to be involved and having a really passionate collaborator on the network side has been crucial to the show’s success. With all of the excitement about the quantity of buyers in the world today, it’s really about finding a piece of material that you love and making sure it gets in the right hands—in the hands of somebody who is going to be as passionate and supportive of it as you are.
WS: What have been some of the lessons learned in making the U.S. version that you’ve been able to share with those adapting the format in other markets? And what have you learned from the other versions internationally?
COELEN: The show has evolved from a ten-episode series to today, where we’re making two seasons and 90 hours per year. I think the show has gotten better with every season, on multiple levels. We are genuinely trying to create good matches and help them form relationships that will last a lifetime. We’re learning about what people respond to, what they shy away from, how the process affects them, the way that production and scheduling may affect them. I think we’ve done a really good job at trying to balance the needs of the production with the needs of the participants. Commercially it’s been really successful and the audience has grown every single year. This season’s premiere on New Year’s Day was the highest-rated network premiere in the show’s history, measured by L+3. That the show continues to grow in this manner is amazing, especially in this climate, but we are lucky in that we have been able to continue to grow awareness of the show, and when the viewers find it, they generally love it.
It’s a very noisy, entertaining concept as well as an intriguing scientific look at this whole process, with, of course, huge stakes given that these are real, legally binding marriages. In Australia they’ve taken the format in a house-reality direction, which has really worked for them—it’s very commercial and very popular. In Scandinavia, it’s still more of a doc type of experiment. We’re in the middle. We are a doc, but we embrace the natural juiciness of the conceit. We do look at what works in the other territories, and it’s a real privilege to be a part of. It’s the most successful relationship format in the world today in terms of the number of territories it’s in and the success it has in each of those territories.
WS: As you’re developing shows that could be formatted, are there certain elements you look to implement to make them replicable in any territory globally?
COELEN: I think primarily it’s a budgetary issue. There are some territories that can spend a lot more money than others, so if you really want something that can be remade in any territory, it has to be flexible in terms of budget requirements. There was a time when it felt like format holders really had stringent parameters around what someone in a certain territory was allowed to do with the IP. I understand that instinct, because there are certain things that make the show work and if somebody comes in and tinkers with it too much, you’ve lost your core and it doesn’t work anymore. But I think today, if there are certain additions or enhancements that the producer would like to make in a format, you have to trust that. That’s where it comes down to finding the right collaborative partners. We’ve been fortunate to do that at Red Arrow and in other relationships. There are very few things that work in every territory. Even the massive successes are not quite as widely distributed as some of the earlier formats were. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create one that does have that breadth of distribution. It’s tricky, but that’s the challenge and excitement of being in this business.
WS: What else do you have on your slate?
COELEN: We have Spy Games for Bravo, it’s their first big competition show after Top Chef. It’s a big swing for them. Little Women: LA and Little Women: Atlanta have been huge hits for Lifetime. Seven Year Switch, Bride & Prejudice, Love Is Blind, Man vs Bear and Spy Games are all big, unique swings, and first-of-a-kind shows for those platforms. We like to think we connect more often than not, but whether or not these swings produce hits, the fact is that we’re swinging and making stuff that everyone feels really proud of and can stand behind, and that the network promotes and hopefully finds its audience. That’s where you’re going to succeed. You’re not going to succeed with doing the same thing everyone else is doing. The Masked Singer is successful because it’s different. With shows like Love Is Blind, Married at First Sight, Man vs Bear and Spy Games, we’re first-movers, and that’s our goal.