Hollywood Contraction Hits Star TV Packages: “It’s A Head-Scratcher”

TV

After the end of strikes, agents, managers and producers quickly moved in to assemble high-profile packages to take out in what was expected to be a frothy marketplace following six months of inactivity. But, while there have been a few bidding wars and big sales with a couple of others pending, the level of demand has not been what many anticipated. The biggest casualty of the tight market — packages with A-list stars attached.

“This has been such a head-scratcher,” one agent said about the situation. Agencies are keeping record of all the star packages that went out and failed to draw interest over the past few months despite the level of talent that has included Oscar and Emmy winners and nominees in front or behind the camera, stars of blockbuster movies and iconic TV series and, in a couple of instances, famous IP. The total now exceeds 20.

“We call it the whiff list,” one manager said of the roster of casualties.

The dry spell may be rooted — at least partially — in the current state of the streaming TV evolution.

It was the rise of streamers that brought along the proliferation of star-driven packages. Netflix announced itself in the original series arena in 2011 by outbidding HBO for House of Cards, headlined by then-top draw Kevin Spacey, with a two-season order. Other streamers similarly went after splashy, star-driven packages as they were establishing themselves, including Apple TV+ with The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, Amazon with Homecoming, headlined by Julia Roberts, both of which also commanded two-season orders.

The streaming arms race has largely subsided as media and tech companies have shifted their priority from building scale to profitability, not willing to overspend on talent and projects.

“Money is so tight everywhere. These are huge investments, massive packages, and a lot of them are not necessarily the best return on investment,” one agent said, noting that streamers have not seen upticks in subscribers based on those expensive originals. Most game-changing series, which have driven up subscribers for platforms, like Stranger Things, Game of Thrones/House of the Dragon and Reacher, have not been star vehicles but star-makers.

With budgets cut across the board amid economic headwinds, “there is fear, executives are scared to spend that kind of money,” another rep said. “They don’t want to be the first one to jump in and spend if they don’t need to.”

According to the rep, probably factoring in that newfound resistance is the massive success of a lower cost acquisition like Suits, which thoroughly outperformed star-driven series that cost $100M+ per season, which has made streamers even more reluctant to spend big on packages.

“There’s a little bit more rationality in the market,” one buyer said. “Packages used to come through, and it used to be Netflix will buy it or now it’s Apple will buy it. But we’re seeing things go out that don’t get any buyers, which is unusual. That hasn’t happened in a while.”

As to why, “I think that it’s capacity and willingness to pay expectations. What would have been straight-to -series is now maybe development,” the person said.

Indeed, while Tina Fey’s Four Seasons; Margo’s Got Money Troubles, starring Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman, with David E. Kelley as showrunner; The Good Daughter, headlined by Jessica Biel recenly landed series orders at Netflix, Apple and Peacock, respectively, most of the high-profile packages which sparked interest and bidding situations post-strike ended up with development deals.

That may not be a bad thing as most of the biggest hits on streaming and premium cable have come out of internal development. With a big package and a big commitment, that could be harder.

For the studios that take out packages, there is a level of expectation, especially if auspices are big,” one agent said. “In the development cycle, there are a lot of layers and cooks in the kitchen but the [auspices] don’t want to take notes.”

With the marketplace not flush with money, network executives are more inclined to take in a cheaper project they can develop and take ownership of, the person added.

Additionally, in the past, the only way to land a big star was if they were attached to a package. Now an actor of pretty much any caliber can be brought in during the casting process.

For instance, Steve Carell was just cast opposite Fey in the Netflix series Four Seasons. His two most recent series, Space Force and The Patient, were both picked up with him on board, and he has been attached to at least another package taken out since then.

Meanwhile, a series like HBO’s The White Lotus has proven that a show can be very successful without spending a fortune on top talent. Even after the huge success of the first two seasons, the drama has stuck to its modest acting fees, resulting in offer turndowns.

But the strategy has worked well for the Mike White series, whose cast members consistently sweep the Emmy nominations in the acting categories.

There is another potential reason behind the recent wave of package rejections, the glut of limited series.

In 2012, HBO stepped up for a limited series package, True Detective, which had Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson attached to star. Its success ushered in a string of limited series with A-list talent that sparked bidding wars, including Big Little Lies with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, which also went to HBO.

That became movie stars’ preferred way of doing “prestige TV” with a limited time commitment. It is evident from the list of Emmy winners in the longform lead actor/actress categories over the past seven years, which includes Nicole Kidman, Regina King (twice), Michelle Williams, Kate Winslet, Amanda Seyfried, Ewan McGregor, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo — all for limited series.

With the strikes delaying new seasons of drama series, premium networks and streamers have relied heavily on limited series in the last six months, creating a logjam in the genre and one of the most competitive Emmy fields ever assembled with hits like True Detective: Night Country, Griselda, Shōgun, Lessons In Chemistry, Fargo, Expats, Baby Reindeer, The Regime, Masters of the Air, Ripley, Under the Bridge, The Sympathizer and Apples Never Fall.

“Everyone is backed up from the strike, limited series have no shelf value — and that’s what all stars want to do,” one buyer said, calling most limited series “a terrible business model for all involved.”

“We want big, returnable hits,” the person said.

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