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MGM: A lion in the TV jungle

Of all of the Hollywood studios, none has been bought and sold as many times as MGM. Having turned 90 this year, the studio has secured new cash that it will invest in content, and as the zeitgeist moves from big to small screen, will look to build its roster of TV shows. Roma Khanna speaks to TBI

Roma-Khanna-Head-Shot-MGM-AltMGM is the studio best-known for the James Bond franchise, but which also has a film library stretching to 4,000 titles. With MTV’s Teen Wolf and FX’s Fargo working well, capitalising upon that movie heritage is part of TV president Roma Khanna’s plans.

The film-to-TV offerings have helped open doors and build relationships in the TV content community since MGM emerged from bankruptcy three years ago, and the company now has about 50 small-screen projects in development. About half are in some way based on its big-screen offerings, but the criteria for a big-screen-to-small-screen project is stringent.

“To just make something again doesn’t make sense,” Khanna says. “Teen Wolf and Fargo look great because they have been reinvented for current times, but we’re not interested in rehashes. These shows have a unique voice for the current world.

Fargo_CL_2720_1Teen Wolf went in a different direction to the movies, and with Fargo, [writer] Noah [Hawley] came up with a story that was nothing to with the movie but was still connected.”

A TV series based on MGM’s 1967 movie In the Heat of the Night is understood to be one of the new shows in development – “there’s been a lot of discussion but it’s not formally announced” – while a mooted Legally Blonde series has been put on ice.

As the studio moves more heavily into TV, Khanna is, however, keen that its television output is not just reliant on its movie library.

“We look at the library as a source of inspiration but don’t only want to do remakes,” she says. “It’s not our goal to always do that and we set a very high bar when we do. It’s about what’s contemporary and relevant and today and whether it can stand on its own two feet.”

The best example of an MGM series project that is not movie-based since Khanna joined in 2011 is Vikings. The Norse warrior drama has been commissioned for a third, ten-episode, run on History. With The Bible as a lead-in for its initial transmission, the series generated huge ratings, regularly pulling in over six million viewers for the cable net. Season two levelled out, but regularly attracted over three million viewers, which without the tough season-on-season comparisons would have registered as an excellent viewing number for cable.

That a previously factual-based network such as History is commissioning drama underlines the increasing array of buyers that want drama projects and the opportunities for content creators. Recapitalised and with stable management, MGM wants in on the drama gold rush.

“In a TV world of multichannel and multiplatform, it is important for channel brands to have a clear and unique proposition – they want brand-defining content,” Khanna says. “The SVOD players – Amazon, Netflix and Hulu – are other platforms for high-quality creative storytelling. There is an increasing desire to use original content to define channels and platform brands.”

The MGM TV boss is well-placed to comment on the evolution of the cable channels sector, serving as president of NBCUniversal’s international channels business prior to joining MGM. She also has a window on the broadcast world, having been co-head of television for Canadian broadcaster Chum prior to that.

MGM is unlikely to become involved in the risky pilots process under Khanna’s leadership. “The broadcast networks speak to a wider group of viewers, whereas cable and SVOD can be more specific,” she says. “The networks do wonderful content and the pilot process has its pros and cons. We’re also seeing they want serialised and straight-to-series shows.”

vikingsThe international success of MGM’s drama output is, meanwhile, a crucial part of the business plan. Vikings has sold well internationally as has Fargo. Amazon recently hailed Vikings as the most-watched show on its UK Prime Instant Video service. Also on the SVOD front, the show is part of the fledgling Shomi service in Canada. Furthermore, the series opener was also the most-watched programme ever on History in the UK.

The costs associated with the new filmic,high-end drama requires an international component. “Success comes globally for the shows we work with – the US market alone doesn’t bring the upside we need in terms of the business investment,” Khanna says. “It’s also important from a creative perspective.”

With some scripted hits under its belt and a deep development slate, the challenge for MGM is upping the volume and delivering a greater number of small-screen offerings.

Given its long history of ownership changes, the recapitalised studio is freer than for many years to focus on its creative output as opposed to getting its finances and shareholdings in order. “Three years ago we talked about consistent growth and investment in content, and three years later we have shown that to be true,” Khanna says. “There’s been steady growth and a great response from the market. With [chairman and CEO] Gary Barber at the helm, we have just started.”