Q&A with MarVista’s Fernando Szew


NEW YORK: Ahead of the AFM, Fernando Szew, founding partner and CEO of MarVista Entertainment, discusses expanding the company’s production of TV series and launching a division dedicated to providing content to digital platforms.

WS: What has fueled the growth of your TV-movie slate?
SZEW: It’s an area MarVista has been focused on for a long time. Furthermore, as we raised capital in 2011, it was with a plan in place that allowed us to hire more people, in particular on the creative side. We also reached out to the creative community at large to make sure that everybody understood that we were going to be very focused on long-form content. In macro terms, there has also been growth in that area and we caught the wave at the right time. There was a moment in time, especially during the crisis of 2008 and 2009, when it seemed like the bottom was falling out of many parts of the TV industry, including movies, and we managed to stay in the game. As things turned around internationally and [in the U.S.], we wanted to be more active. We are now either acquiring or producing approximately 40 movies per year for distribution to the international marketplace. Also, the proliferation of the digital business has contributed significantly to our growth. As such, and in order to further capture that growth, we are very excited to have recently launched MarVista Digital Entertainment to digitally distribute movies to the growing digital footprint.

WS: What channels are you working with in the U.S.?
SZEW: In no particular order, we are very active with Lifetime, Hallmark, the Disney channels, Syfy, Nickelodeon and other new partners such as ION and UP. Lifetime [recently] successfully premiered two MarVista-produced movies: The Brittany Murphy Story and The Assault. Hallmark has recently announced the development of two movies with us and our partners at Two 4 The Money Media and EveryWhere Studios based on best-selling books by Karen Kingsbury, and we just released internationally several Hallmark original movies, including When Sparks Fly, Nine Lives of Christmas and Northpole. We have a teen comedy movie with Disney XD called Pants on Fire.

WS: Internationally, you’ve had long-term relationships with broadcasters. Do you get feedback from them that helps inform the movies you produce and acquire?
SZEW: Absolutely, more than ever. We are very, very active internationally with our distribution footprint, and what continues to differentiate us is that we work with international buyers to understand their needs and how their audiences respond. We try as much as possible to work with U.S. partners on some of the creative elements of the movies we produce and acquire to make sure they will also appeal to international broadcasters. International distribution is at the core of our business, and we even solicit information and ideas from international partners for development purposes.

WS: What movie genres are in demand nowadays?
SZEW: Thrillers and action movies are still in demand. There is no longer direct-to-video. Now there is digital or a more limited theatrical release within the thriller and action genres. Romantic comedies in some slots around the world do really well. Separately, we are now launching in the international market The Brittany Murphy Story. The movie is more of a behind-the-scenes biopic, and that genre tends to also appeal to broadcasters. There is a consistent demand for Christmas and holiday fare in some markets, and we have been a solid supplier of this genre.

WS: Are you starting to see digital revenues supplement any losses in DVD business?
SZEW: There is certainly growth within the broad area of digital platforms. With MarVista Digital Entertainment, we have a slate of content on a monthly basis going directly to all the platforms. We’re seeing good success in certain genres when it comes to digital, which in a sense is not vastly different from what happened in the DVD era as well. From a macro perspective, everybody talks about how DVD was huge, and it was for some, but not every genre worked on DVD and not every movie was generating a lot of revenue. Now, digital offers opportunities to get closer to the consumer and to have much more targeted strategies. It requires more work and thoughtfulness, but we feel that we are closer to the consumer and thus can influence getting a movie to an audience that can rent or acquire it, and enable them to view it from the comfort of their home or on a mobile device. The dynamics are great.

WS: What kinds of content are you offering to digital platforms?
SZEW: Our first slate went out in August, and our promise to the platforms is one of variety of content; we have included teen movies, romantic comedies, thrillers, action and even some documentaries and music specials. We have great partnerships with all the main platforms and have a dedicated team for acquisitions for our digital division. We are also doing some projects on the production side with digital distribution very much in mind.

WS: What are the other areas of growth at MarVista?
SZEW: We are making a large investment in the scripted-series business, not just by adding to the development and creative team here, but also in the content and IP that we are optioning and creating in-house. Like we did when we focused on the long-form business, MarVista is making a statement to the creative community at large that we are serious players for the long term when it comes to scripted series. As such, we already have some very interesting creative partnerships in place that we will be announcing soon. This is a good area of growth and a heavy investment by us. And the other area of growth, as I mentioned, is digital. It is very robust; we are very happy with our early results.

And, last but not least, we are very excited to have partnered with Circle of Confusion, which produces The Walking Dead, on a new movie, Satanic. For the first time, MarVista is going to produce a horror movie, and we are fortunate enough to be working with Magnet Releasing, Magnolia Pictures’ label, for the distribution. This is another area of growth for us—not just the horror genre, but the theatrical-production business overall. We are taking advantage of a bottom-up approach among the creative talent that we are working with and giving them the freedom to push the envelope with us. As such, we are collectively pushing the company in many different directions, and I am very supportive of that approach. I love the journey, and I’m supportive of the people that we have relationships with and of the key talent we have both in-house and at our trusted partners out of house. Satanic has been announced, and we have other theatrical movies on the horizon. As I said, lines are blurring and distribution is shifting; it’s an exciting time for the business.