In this series of articles leading up to MIPCOM 2019 we hear views from executives around the world to tell us who neeeds distributors at a time when SVOD platforms increase their imprint on the international TV industry. In our latest post, Andy Fry talks to Sean Cohan, president of independent studio Wheelhouse Entertainment. Cohan, who joined a year ago, was formerly President International and Digital Media at A+E Networks, a role that covered all brands, services, channels, sites, apps, production hubs, and teams globally.
MIPBlog: As it reaches one year old, tell us about Wheelhouse
Wheelhouse is an ambitious, multi-faceted media and entertainment venture founded in 2018 by entrepreneur and producer Brent Montgomery – previously the owner of Leftfield and CEO of ITV America. It is focused on creating a flywheel of highly complementary assets including best-in-class content, marketing, creative services, A-list talent partnerships and venture investing in consumer-oriented businesses. Wheelhouse partnered with Jimmy Kimmel in Q4 2018, and launched a joint venture called Kimmelot, which is off to a great start with four series and four specials already commissioned.
> Why did you leave A&E to join Wheelhouse?
Vision: Brent Montgomery and the Wheelhouse team have a series of priorities and market reads that are extraordinarily well-timed. These include the importance of great creative and celebrity talent during a crowded content moment; the opportunity to bring consumer brands far closer/inside of content as traditional ads become less impactful and many partners are moving away from ad-supported models; and the explosive power of content and influencers to grow new ventures.
Incomparable Exposure and Change: After 15 years at A+E, Wheelhouse offers me a different experience. The ability to learn from successful entrepreneurs, to get closer to content creation – while also leveraging my experience inside a content buyer and distributor – and to build disruptive businesses during this moment of industry inflection, they were impossible to pass up.
Continuity: Brent and his team at Leftfield and ITV have been among the most prolific producers of content to A+E Networks. From Pawn Stars to Counting Cars to Duck Dynasty, they turned out hit after hit. A+E’s and Brent’s teams have always been close and share a lot of cultural similarity. Plus, I have known Brent and chief strategy officer Ed Simpson for over a decade, traveling the world selling shows and formats together. Bottom-line, there’s shared experience.
> What are the biggest challenges facing indie content creators?
Development costs are one big challenge. Never before have companies been asked to go as far out-of-pocket pre-sale as they are now. In fact, production economics are tough generally – the pressure on buyer revenues and rising production costs are making profitable production trickier.
I’d also note the massive, dizzying scale of the buyers. As creators, we are selling to the largest businesses we have historically and even the mid-sized cable companies are merging to create giants. It creates a situation where we are looking to: 1, help independents; 2, avoid getting run over or becoming collateral damage; and, 3, build our own big platform, complete with the best, most creative producers, particularly those with commercial and creative agility.
> Are you investing in particular genres?
We’re investing in content and best-in-class producers across virtually all genres, platforms, and formats – from unscripted to scripted, feature doc to TV movies and from short-form to long-form. In short, finding and telling great stories wherever lots of people watch. We’re mainly English-language but have just invested in our first Spanish-language series with a streamer and down the road we see lots more across languages and territories.
> Can you give an example of an innovative deal you have done?
We have a series with Shopify Studios and a streamer where we were able jointly to retain IP and bring the budgetary cost for our client down, while retaining the showrunner’s creative vision. The cost of content will inevitably become an issue for streamers and social platforms as it is for our ad-supported clients today. We are proactively leading the charge and prepared to meet the need, with new business models including brand and investment funding, without the quality concerns typically associated with brands and content.
> What is your approach to distribution?
As a newer entrant producing via creative financing structures, we are aggregating rights and have partnered with a market leader to distribute. Down the road, given the skills we have in-house, we will do more distribution.
> Have you accessed any non-traditional sources of revenue?
We are self-capitalised so far – Brent has gone all-in, just as he did the first time with Leftfield. However, since our CMO Dan Sanborn came on board, we are working with brands as clients, with Diageo the first we can talk about. We are looking to work with progressive brands that don’t want to hijack content, but rather be a part of the narrative in unique ways that turn into more ROI.
> What is the next big thing likely to impact on your business?
For us, success will be all about finding companies and people who truly want to collaborate and be better together than we would be individually. We’re building a unique platform for storytellers and working in trailblazing ways with brands, talent and platforms to develop, deliver and market their stories.