Nicely Entertainment’s Scott Kirkpatrick

In the four years since its launch amid a global pandemic, Vanessa Shapiro’s Nicely Entertainment has been steadily expanding its slate, rolling out a raft of feel-good movies and thrillers and a growing assortment of series to broadcasters and platforms worldwide. While not immune to the challenges faced by the global content sector, the market for TV movies is proving to be robust, especially as consumers increasingly turn to free services for their entertainment needs. Scott Kirkpatrick, executive VP of distribution and co-productions, talks to World Screen about why he’s bullish on connected TV and AVOD and the niche Nicely has carved for itself as an indie supplier.

WS: How do you assess the state of the content distribution business at present?
KIRKPATRICK: The current distribution market is a bit strange. For some distributors, business has never been better, yet for others, the market has been relentlessly cruel. The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes caused a standstill for major U.S. broadcasters and studios, delaying their 2024 strategies. This has had ripple effects not only across the U.S. market but internationally as well. Interest rates remain high, which has disrupted cash flow patterns. Major mergers and acquisitions are taking place among industry giants (and mid-tier companies) and the cord-cutting trend has now officially taken hold in Europe. However, streaming numbers are going through the roof—and the demand for content is there—but the dollars required to produce fresh content remain scarce (or at below-market levels). These are all symptoms of a market in transition, which is probably the best word to describe 2024 as a whole. That said, I’m very bullish on AVOD and connected TV; although I expect 2024 to continue its rocky path, things will pan out for a very lucrative future for the companies that get their streaming strategies into shape.

WS: What new approaches are you taking to finance new content?
KIRKPATRICK: As an independent, Nicely’s always been a bit out of the box in terms of financial models—you have to be at the indie level. During periods of transition—as we’re experiencing now—being open to alternative financial models is the only way to continue our growth curve. Partnerships, co-productions and elevated acquisitions are what’s on our radar. Our recent Lifetime original Hunting Housewives, starring Denise Richards, was a product of a co-pro relationship that we shared with co-producer Brain Power Studio. Those who know how to operate in a nimble way can keep delivering original content regardless of economic shifts. The other major benefit is that Nicely Entertainment—which was founded by our CEO, Vanessa Shapiro—is 100 percent independently owned; we have no investors to appease, and, as a result, we have the freedom to finance projects in a way that we feel makes the most sense on a project-by-project basis.

WS: Is AVOD playing a greater role in your overall monetization strategies?
KIRKPATRICK: AVOD plays a great role in Nicely’s monetization strategies, but we’ve been bullish on AVOD for years. Nicely has been progressively evolving its overall AVOD strategy, and it’s been a priority for the company since it was founded. When I joined the company, one of my priorities was to level up our streaming initiatives. We’ve seen major revenue coming in from AVOD, and I only see those numbers growing over the next decade. As a U.S.-based company, we’re well-positioned to enjoy North America’s high-CPMs and its connected audience base. We see that trend growing in Europe, LatAm and Asia (especially as the cord-cutting trends have already started to noticeably impact Westernized foreign markets). We had an amazing Q4 with our Christmas romance films, but added to this, we released our first disaster action film, Super Icyclone, as a U.S. digital premiere, and the numbers have been steadily climbing. AVOD outlets are where eyeballs are looking; this is especially telling when every major SVOD outlet has added an ad component to their platforms.

WS: What’s your sense of what broadcasters and platforms are looking for in both new commissions and acquisitions?
KIRKPATRICK: This is the age-old question that always gets asked, but in my 20-plus years of experience, the answer never changes: broadcasters and platforms simply want good content. And they want it from the same basic genre conventions: thrillers (female-driven), romance (especially ones set in a beautiful destination), action (with a recognizable male lead), Christmas content (there’s always a home in several key territories), YA content (either tween-girl romance or young-boy adventures) and “creature feature” type movies. Broadcasters and platforms have built their entire business models on these genres, and advertisers love them. Add in a strong cast, and you’ll have a great project to pitch. At Nicely, we focus on Christmas romances, destination romances and female-driven thrillers. We have also dabbled in the YA tween girl space with our Netflix YA original series Dive Club and Gymnastics Academy: A Second Chance. What’s exciting is that Nicely can dabble in some off-brand genres via its brand-new sub-label, Darkly Entertainment.

WS: What trends are you seeing in licensing fees?
KIRKPATRICK: License fees have stagnated if you’re lucky, but many are dealing with downgraded license fees. This is even more problematic as the costs associated with production have increased (and companies pay over longer and longer periods, which only compounds interest in a negative direction). All of this erodes profit margins. Nicely’s growth in the digital realm has been an illuminating experience; we’ve seen AVOD numbers exceed traditional license fees (all while allowing our rights to remain non-exclusive to us without holdbacks). This has given us the incredible freedom to explore new opportunities in the digital space, allowing us to finance our new productions without necessarily needing a prebuy.

WS: Amid the sea of content, do you, as an IP owner, have to play a greater role in ensuring your content is discovered on your broadcast or streaming partner?
KIRKPATRICK: Most distributors have had to pivot slightly, taking on D2C marketing efforts in addition to B2B. The reason is that there is simply so much content in the marketplace—and so much competition for slots/streaming real estate—that we’ve had to make our titles truly pop to gain secured placement. Some see this as a burden, but at Nicely, we see so much opportunity in taking on this D2C marketing role. As streaming continues to become the dominant mode of content viewership, we get to directly increase watch hours and improve our impression ratios. It’s incredible. I think a solid D2C strategy will be a filter between those companies that flourish over the next five to seven years compared to those that flounder. At Nicely, we’ve been diving head-first into growing our D2C initiatives and have seen some incredible results thus far.

WS: FAST was one of the buzzwords of 2023. What’s your sense of that market at present?
KIRKPATRICK: FAST channels are fantastic verticals for super-fans and can generate very strong revenue if managed well—but that doesn’t mean they’re for every distributor to get behind. Here’s the problem: so many FAST channels are littered across the streaming landscape that platforms must prune their offerings (or enormous amounts of cash must be spent to make the channel rise to the surface). At Nicely, we’ve successfully focused on one title at a time, taking the effort to grow each title directly across each platform and not getting into the cycle of acquiring titles just to keep a FAST channel’s cycle rate high. We’re much more focused on finding the right titles for our company as a whole. Our library is growing, but it’s growing with films we know are completely on point for us. Our most recent acquisitions have performed extremely well on AVOD and FAST, including the Christmas romance film The Christmas Venue and our IMAX documentary Beyond the Reef.