Howard Stringer is known, among other things, for running Sony, producing for CBS, and until recently, being a non-exec director of UK pubcaster the BBC. His new venture is a first-of-its-kind members club for a select group of international buyers who will finance and transmit high-end drama.
The idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts is key to the initiative, which is titled Atrium, and this principle could and should see it deliver several top tier dramas. Stringer will be chairman, with Jeremy Fox of UK-based distributor DRG also behind the ambitious plan.
For Stringer, the appeal is getting back to what he enjoys in TV land. “Jeremy has lured me back to this business – it is ‘back to the future’,” he says. “That’s a good thing because I have spent a long time in management, where you drift further and further away from the things that you love. I’m not going to be writing these shows, but at least I’m back in the creative element.”
Fox, who today became DRG’s executive chairman (with Richard Halliwell replacing him as CEO) says the idea for Atrium came about after speaking to execs such as Jakob Mejlhede Andersen at Viaplay, the streaming service run by DRG-owner MTG, about the challenge of getting the best high-end drama.
“I drew a map of the world on a napkin and noticed that all of these regional OTT services don’t conflict with each other,” he says. “They are regionally bound, and they all have the same problem.
“[MTG boss] Jorgen Madsen Lindemann told me to prove it, so I went around the world and met all of these telcos – some were well established, others hadn’t started [TV] yet, and others were going bust – and they all wanted to know how to get the best content. They talked a lot about what the studios were offering, which was bulk deals, but they wanted go know how they could get that one breakout hit.”
What the world tour yielded in practice is Atrium, which will be a limited membership group that will jointly fund big-ticket drama that can play on each of the partners’ services in their own territories.
DRG will take international rights and sell content into any countries not covered by the partners, and across any secondary windows.
There will be one member per region and admission will be “very, very selective”, Fox says. Partners will be announced before MIPCOM and membership comes with a commitment to get involved in projects.
The level of that involvement depends on the level of membership. At the entry level, members license the shows coming from Atrium and take them in their territory for three years. Longer, wider windows and/or regional exclusivity can be bought for an enhanced license fee, which will prove useful if they have, for example, free and pay TV operations, as in the case of MTG.
The next level up guarantees some back end in return for greater investment, typically three times more than for a straight license fee. The very top-end membership, meanwhile, guarantees all of those privileges and a possible option to buy into Atrium in the future.
Stringer, who was behind The Da Vinci Code’s adaptation from book to big screen, clearly relishes taking a creative role at Atrium.
“Producing the CBS evening news and all of its documentaries was the most fun I ever had,” he says. “Then I suddenly woke up as the man in charge. When you are a senior executive at a company you can’t crush the ideas of everyone beneath without messing up relationships.”
And the next big thing in TV drama? Atrium hopes to find it. “Superheroes will run out of gas and we’ll go in another direction,” Stringer says. “There’s a lot of competition but there’s no reason we can’t find the next trend.”
Fandorin is the project furthest along and will be produced by BBC Studios, the newly commercial production arm of the BBC. It is an adaptation of Boris Akunin’s 25-million-selling book series, set in 19th-century Russia and following the eponymous sleuth, who is often described as the ‘Russian Sherlock Holmes’. Simon Ashford (The Musketeers) is penning the script.
The Eagle Has Landed is slated for a 2019 launch to coincide with the 50th anniversary of man’s landing on the moon. Stephen Kronish (24) will write the series, while Saigon is an adaptation of the Anthony Grey novel. Over 50 years, it will recount Vietnam’s history; from French colonial rule to the last helicopter escaping from the roof of the American embassy in 1975.
Stringer says each of the projects resonated with his own experiences and interests, noting he has been “intimately involved with” each.
“My very first job was to prep the questions for Walter Kronkite when he interviewed Lyndon B. Johnson following his resignation, so I knew quite a lot about Vietnam both historically, and practically from being there”. (He served as a military policeman in Saigon during the war.)
Stringer also owns the first editions of the Fandorin stories, and has a personal connection to the moon landings. “I spent 36 hours in the NASA control room as a researcher and had been down to Cape Kennedy, where they interviewed the astronauts, so that was dear to my heart,” he explains.
Added together, the elements convinced him to join the Atrium project. He recalls: “There’s no such thing as a coincidence, so I said sign me up.”