As Epix morphs into MGM+ today, its leader is preparing to deliver an expanded slate of originals under Amazon’s ownership.
The top-to-bottom rebrand of the service that debuted in October 2009 (as a joint venture among MGM, Paramount Pictures and Lionsgate) coincides with the Season 3 premiere of “Godfather of Harlem,” which has become one of MGM+’s signature shows. Beyond that, MGM+ Head Michael Wright tells Variety the plan is to increase the streamer’s volume to at least eight original series a year.
Last week during MGM+’s session at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, Wright revealed a development slate that includes an adaptation of the MGM film “Hoodlum” from Chris Brancato (who’s also behind “Godfather of Harlem”); a take on the novel “The Emperor of Ocean Park” from John Wells Prods.; post-apocalyptic thrillers “Earth Abides” and “Ark,” also both based on books of the same name; and the comedy “American Classic,” starring Kevin Kline and Jon Tenney.
Other upcoming programming include the true-crime docuseries “Murf the Surf,” the second season of “From” and the six-episode limited series “A Spy Among Friends.” MGM+ has picked up the series “Hotel Cocaine” (also from Brancato) and has the sophomore seasons of “Rogue Heroes” and “Billy the Kid” in the pipeline. Also in the works is “Silk: Spider Society,” from showrunner Angela Kang (“The Walking Dead”) and set in the “Spider-Man” universe.
“For most consumers, the decision to subscribe or not, or drop or not, is based on quantity, quality and value,” says Wright, who previously worked as a programming executive at CBS and Turner and served as CEO of head of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners. “We’ve got more Pay One movies than a lot of other premiums. People don’t realize how many original series have now populated the service. And it’s a new and even more robust library featuring a lot of the MGM classics, but other studio films as well… You know MGM, you love MGM. What a gift that we have that name, but we still have an obligation to surprise you with our storytelling, even in the context of this brand that we’re trying to deliver on.”
Wright has been president of Epix since 2017; in 2021, he also took on oversight of MGM Scripted Television. Under the new structure, Wright juggles multiple bosses. MGM’s scripted TV now falls under Vernon Sanders, Amazon Studios’ head of television, with Lindsay Sloane leading the division that reports up to Amazon Studios chief Jen Salke. With the Amazon-MGM television integration plan unveiled in November, Wright also reports to Chris Brearton, who has a dual role overseeing MGM+ and MGM Alternative Television and serving as VP of corporate strategy for Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Studios.
Variety, which broke the news of the Epix rebrand to MGM+ in September, recently sat down with Wright for an update on the company’s evolution under Amazon, which acquired Epix along with its $8.5 billion purchase of MGM that was finalized last March.
The idea of relaunching this year, right when we seem to be in the middle of this kind of industry course-correction, seems daunting.
I think everybody’s facing the same challenges in the industry so that in that sense, it’s always a level playing field. But I do think that we have two distinct advantages. There is the excitement of new, and nobody ever heard of Epix. It was the best entertainment service that nobody ever heard of. We just never had the resources to introduce it. So, it’s not like we’re introducing a new product with fairly empty shelves. We’re introducing something that we’ve spent the last 10 years, and my group the last five years, really stocking the shelves. You have the power of the MGM brand. But I do believe that with the amount of marketing that we’re actually putting out there in the next three months, people are going to be introduced something that they’ve never seen before… I look at MGM+, the sheer breadth of the offering. There are a couple thousand movies on this thing, original series, everything else. These are quality studio movies for $5.99. In a recessionary period, we’re the value play.
How is Amazon supporting the relaunch?
I’ve never been part of a campaign like this. And I mean that going back to my days at Turner. We had a couple rebrand campaigns that were really well done. But the Amazon team, day one said, ‘Hey, we like this. Let’s grow it.’ So, it’s been this many, many months-long process of building this thing, which means adding more content, adding more original series, building a marketing campaign. The marketing campaign by design leans hard into what we think is the distinguishing brand identity of the service. This is MGM’s extension. I would argue that there’s the Disney brand and then there’s the MGM brand, in terms of consumers. Not Hollywood’s point of view, which is skewed by Hollywood history. But to consumers, MGM stands for something for them.
Do you have access to more data now under Amazon?
Yes and no. We have more access than we did. But we don’t have total access only because, we’re a first- party channel. The way they’ve constructed this is there’s Prime and there’s Freevee and they also have the channel store. So, we are a channel that they own that exists on Amazon, primarily within the channel store, which is a big part of their business. We get more data than we used to, but we don’t get everything because they’re very focused on being fair. Like, we can’t show you this. But we can show you this.
How does the new structure work, given that you fall under Chris Brearton, separate from Jen Salke’s team?
We’re in the channel store business. I mean, I talk to Jen and Vernon all the time, because it is a big sort of collective of people that are all doing similar things. And you’re talking about talent, and there’s a natural organic collaboration. But we operate as a first-party channel in our lane.
Does that give you a little more independence?
My observation about the way Amazon Studios runs is they give a lot of people independence. They’re very focused on people having a point of view about content and owning it. We’re doing our thing. Jen, Vernon, they’re all aware of what we’re doing. And they’re extraordinarily supportive of it.
Will we see first-run Amazon originals on MGM+?
If they’re making originals, they’re making them to premiere on Prime. We have MGM Studios, which produces ‘From’ and produces ‘Billy the Kid.’ And that is now part of the Amazon Studios family. So, there’s already a natural sort of organic symmetry there.
There have been a number of shows orphaned in the past few weeks at other outlets. Are you looking at any of them?
You look at everything. I remember we picked up “Southland” when I was at Turner, and NBC orphaned it, because I had wanted to buy that show before they sold it to NBC. And I picked up “Cougartown” at TBS when it was abandoned by ABC. I don’t have any sort of pride of having to grow and develop it here. I haven’t seen anything in the last week or two that would displace shows that we’re already ordering or have teed up for the next.
Are you surprised by the cost of series these days?
I’ll answer that this way. We’ve never had that problem at Epix or at MGM+. We’ve had enough money to make what I think are pretty spectacular shows. You don’t watch “Godfather of Harlem” or “Billy the Kid” or “From” or “Belgravia” or “War of the Worlds” and say, “They made that on the cheap.” They’re all beautifully produced. I think that we’ve learned how to make really great looking television smartly. Co-productions, co-financiers. Various ways you do it, because I just haven’t had that luxury. Who wouldn’t want to have that kind of money to make a TV show? But I haven’t lived that. I have budget envy sometimes. But I don’t live in that space.
How are you preparing for the potential for a writers strike or other labor problems this year?
Planning ahead. The good news for us is, we used to make six scripted series a year, and now thanks to Amazon, we get to move that to eight. But if you’re only making eight scripted series a year, even with our very thoughtful development, we don’t develop 100 scripts. We’re able to develop a couple of options for every slot and get ahead of it. And in the past, we’ve had writers’ rooms for things that we’re thinking of making. We’re always trying to stay a step ahead. Also, when you’re working within very specific budget parameters, you need scripts ahead of time anyway. You need to get a production plan. I don’t have the luxury of just greenlighting a show and hoping for the best. So if there’s a strike looming, over-preparedness helps us.
What do you think is the big TV industry story brewing for 2023?
I think it’s a transitional year. I think creating strong identities for your service — What is this service? What makes us different or distinguishes us from others? — is an ongoing story. And I think we’re in a transitional year about how success is measured.