Starz’s Gene George Talks TV Movies, Original Series


NEW YORK: Ahead of the AFM, Gene George, the executive VP of Starz Worldwide Distribution, talks to World Screen about distributing the premium channel's series worldwide and the state of the TV movie market.

When Chris Albrecht became CEO of Starz in 2010, he quickly decided that what the pay-TV service needed were edgy, high-quality original productions that dealt with topics not commonly seen on television. He had had a long and successful track record of spotting and nurturing talent at HBO. As a result of his vision and his team’s efforts, several series, including Spartacus, Boss, Magic City and The White Queen got the attention of the press, critics and international co-production partners. These series have also contributed to the increase in subscribers at Starz.

Another benefit of original productions is that George now has high-end series to offer buyers in addition to the television movies he has been selling successfully in the international market for years. In fact, until now, TV movies have been what George calls the “bread and butter” of Starz Worldwide Distribution’s international sales, with female-driven thrillers, action-adventure and heartfelt holiday movies the genres that resonate most with buyers.

WS: How has the slate of Starz original series been received by international buyers?
GEORGE: The original programming that Starz as a channel in the U.S. is focused on works very well on a global basis. Black Sails is a really good example of that. It fits the ongoing strategy that we have: [creating] shows that are ultra-premium and very cinematic in quality, shows that are broader in global appeal, general-entertainment types of series. It’s great for us because these series are not very easy to find in the international marketplace, so broadcasters are very keen and excited to see that content. They know they can rely on us for quality product. They know it’s going to be a steady flow. More and more, broadcasters are very anxious to talk to us about longer-term relationships and output and volume deals. So it’s a really exciting time for us on the worldwide distribution side, and we’re happy. We had The White Queen at MIPTV in April, and we had another series, Black Sails, to show at MIPCOM.

WS: With more original productions, you have more rights to sell.
GEORGE: As we ramp up original programming for the channel in the U.S., there are definitely some shows for which we are able to retain broader rights, and in many cases we are able to keep worldwide rights. That means that those shows come through this group, Worldwide Distribution; through Anchor Bay, which is our home-video-distribution company in the English-speaking territories; and also through our digital group, which is based in New York.

WS: Besides the original content from Starz, are you also acquiring product to increase your catalogue?
GEORGE: We are. We are looking to acquire non-Starz series. We recently announced a deal with Viacom to pick up a one-hour drama series for VH1 in the U.S. called Hit the Floor. We will look for those shows to complement what we are doing at Starz. There are not a lot of series out there that we can acquire that are at the same cinematic level as our series because ours are premium shows. Series produced for basic cable have different content requirements compared to what we are doing on premium, but what we like about some of the cable series is that they give us the opportunity to offer programming that can be premier content for some of the free-TV and terrestrial channels. Pay premium channels internationally are aggressively pursuing Starz content because that’s a logical home for it. We do sell Starz original content to free TV, but having non-Starz series that are more geared for cable does give us the opportunity to sell premier product to the free-TV market, which is a great thing.

WS: Have free-TV broadcasters acquired some of your premium product?
GEORGE: We had quite a few free-TV broadcasters acquire Starz original product. Spartacus is a really interesting case because it is such an edgy show with a lot of violence, sex and nudity. In some countries where there hasn’t been a competitive pay premium market, we have sold the first window to free TV. We were very thoughtful when we went into that production process. We planned an edited version of that series and, surprisingly, it worked amazingly well. Some of the violence, sex and nudity have been stripped out of it. It was a show that had powerful writing and some great, strong characters; even if that edginess was pulled out, it still played extremely well and was a big success on free TV.

The same goes for Magic City, which was a very premium show and had some topics and story lines that were more suited for pay TV. With some edits, it played very well on free TV.

WS: Do TV movies continue to be an important part of what you offer broadcasters?
GEORGE: We are very focused on TV movies. It’s bread and butter for us. We typically have two to three new ones at every market. We have broadcasters that are looking to Starz to supply certain types of TV movies. Because of the relationships that we have built and the fact that internationally we are known to be a supplier of TV movies, it’s a great business for us.

We are very focused on certain types of TV movies, and when we go through the process of deciding which TV movies to distribute and become involved in, we’re looking for movies that we know can play in late afternoon slots or even post-prime time and still be successful—still recoup their investment. If we are fortunate enough that the movie is sold and it is placed in a prime-time slot—and it does happen in many cases—that is an upside. But we really protect ourselves and mitigate the risk by making sure that when we look at TV movies, they have to be financially successful by playing outside of prime time. It’s really hard to penetrate prime time in a lot of the key European territories with TV movies, because there is a lot of local product that takes up those slots. Reality TV is still in many prime-time slots globally. There are still movie slots on international broadcasters, especially in Europe, but they are usually [filled with] the big theatrical films. When we do find something that can work in prime time, it’s really an upside.

WS: What genres of movies are selling best internationally?
GEORGE: We continue to focus on the holiday movies, female-driven thrillers and action disaster films. We are looking at TV movies that typically have homes on U.S. cable networks such as Lifetime, Hallmark, Syfy, ABC Family—those types of movies work very well for us.

WS: You have good relationships with independent producers and with channels.
GEORGE: We’re very relevant for independent producers because if they are not generating as much as they used to generate from U.S. cable networks, they need to offset that somehow. So having a strong partner like us that has international relationships and alliances is really important for them.

From a cable-network standpoint, we are also a great partner. We actually get a lot of referrals from cable networks that get pitches from independent producers. They say, go to Starz and they will help you put the pieces together to make your movie happen. We are very involved not only with the producers but also with the networks to make a lot of those movies happen. There are definitely not as many TV movies being made as there used to be. That market is tough. It has put a little bit more pressure on international broadcasters, especially the European ones, because they still want movies but there aren’t as many in the marketplace. If you have the right kind of TV movies and you have a reputation for supplying good content [the marketplace can be] competitive and it’s still quite healthy.

WS: What other issues are affecting indie filmmakers?
GEORGE: We had always done pretty well in the DVD market, and we all know that the DVD market is getting harder and harder. We are definitely more reliant on TV product to attract the lion’s share of the revenue for these producers, and if they are not aligned with a strong television distribution company it can be pretty dismal for them. Yes, digital is making up a little of what used to be a good portion of the DVD revenue, but I think it’s still going to be some time before that completely switches over. [Indie filmmakers] have to rely a lot on television revenue today. That’s quite a challenge for them.