Having been agents and then together at Reveille, Ben Silverman and Howard T. Owens went on to run major US networks. Now they are back in the indie game, with broadcast, cable, SVOD and Apple projects underway at Propagate.
Ben Silverman (right) is aiming high. Asked about his ambitions for the next 12 months, the Propagate Content chairman and co-CEO says: “I really would like Propagate to be the most creative company in the world vis-à-vis what we bring to market, what we have on air or on stream, and how we develop, produce, package and finance
“We are already on our way with [Planet of the Apps] for Apple, our first big public commission. My goal is to have a scripted drama, a comedy, an app-driven content initiative, alternative series across cable and broadcast networks, and big international and brand partnerships.”
Propagate was set up by Howard T. Owens (left) and former A&E Network chief Dave McKillop in early 2015, with backing from A+E. The latter then exited, and Silverman came on as chairman and CEO this April. That reunited him with Owens, the pair having been partners in prodco Reveille, and at the William Morris Agency before that.
“We’re at a stage where we’re not the newbie producers taking on the town,” Owens, Propagate’s founder and co-CEO, says. “We are looking for ideas that mean something. Sometimes that will be because they are different, but the other thing we really like – and Planet of the Apps is borne out of this – is ideas that are about changing and defining cultures. We think there are cool ways to shape culture by creating and cultivating ideas that make people think in a different way, celebrate something or look at a trend a little differently.”
The prodco secured a round of backing from Disney and Hearst-owned A+E upon Silverman’s arrival. “They know in shorthand what we’re doing without us ever having to explain it,” Silverman says of Propagate’s backers. “They understand content and programming, while also having a big look to the future with partnerships like ours, and the one they have with Vice.”
There is no obligation to take ideas to A+E first, but there are several projects in play with its channels. “They can help us because they have relationships and partnerships that are of tremendous value to the business,” Silverman says. “That is very different to being with an outlier who’s not able to necessarily support the business with any relationship, or platforms or content.”
The A+E connection can be seen with Evil Genius, about the ingenious inventions and plans behind successful crimes, which is set up at History, and My So-Called Simple Life, a reality show about off-the-grid families, which is at FYI. There is also My Partner Knows, which quizzes couples about how well they know each other, and has proved popular in Turkey. Propagate picked it up from Kanal D and has set it up at one of the A+E channels.
Linking Owens to his previous employer, National Geographic Channels, is Animal ER, a reality show set in a Texas veterinary surgery, for the Nat Geo Wild net.
Propagate has two shows in development at CBS. There is an adaptation of In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, the book written by Jane the Virgin star Diane Guerrero. Based on her experiences, it follows a young woman struggling to make it in New York after her parents are deported to Colombia.
Jennie Snyder Urman is on board. She is the writer and showrunner on Jane the Virgin, the US version of the Colombian RCTV telenovela that Silverman placed at The CW while at Electus.
The second CBS project is an adaptation of My Lawyer, Mr. Jo, a legal comedy drama that has been a hit for KBS in South Korea. Castle showrunner Alexi Hawley will be the showrunner, with the series following a lawyer wrongfully accused of corruption, who seeks to rebuild his reputation by defending others in the same predicament.
Planet of the Apps is Propagate’s noisiest project, being Apple’s first foray into original programming. Venture capital business Lightspeed has committed US$10 million to fund development of the apps that come out of the series, which will search for hot new apps and developers. An A-list panel of judges/mentors comprises Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, will.i.am and Gary Vaynerchuk.
The project is in pre-production and Silverman says the stakes are high, given Apple’s track record. “They are so good and successful,” he says. “They are used to everything working, so I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to deliver on that. There is a lot of learning on both sides, us learning their culture and how they want to work, and them learning our culture and how we want to work. One thing they are is a culture company, and this is going to be built as ‘culture’. It will make noise and be highly entertaining.”
Another digital project is Lore, for Amazon. Propagate has teamed with The Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd and her Valhalla Entertainment prodco. It is based on the hit Aaron Mahnke podcast about the real-life origins of legendary horror characters. The series will be part-factual, part-dramatised, and presented anthology style as an original for Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service.
The international connections can be seen in several shows on Propagate’s slate, but the world has changed since Silverman plucked Yo Soy Betty, la Fea from Colombian TV and The Office from the UK, and took them to US broadcast. At Electus he set up Jane the Virgin as well as No Tomorrow, a new season US version of the TV Globo Brazilian drama, also for The CW.
The Propagate chief says there are still gems out there if you know where to look and how to approach the job of repurposing them.
“There’s so much great material that gets overlooked,” Silverman says. “The other thing is the perspective you have on it. Jane the Virgin and No Tomorrow were around for a while; it was my creative view of how they could get translated that made them work, and knowing the people directly who could make that happen.”
Silverman has driven the US-Latin American connection with Jane the Virgin and No Tomorrow, but Owens says the next step will see Propagate mine unscripted from the region. “We’re looking at a couple of unscripted partnerships there,” he says. “There’s an opportunity to further mine, shepherd and work with unscripted [creatives] in Latin America.”
In keeping with the international outlook, Propagate is also scouting the Middle East and looking at opportunities to reach the huge number of young people in the region.
In conversation, Silverman often returns to the theme of being a good partner, in terms of deal making, and having a creative view. These are skills he claims are more important than ever as television and media become increasingly consolidated and corporate.
“You can ask RCN, RCTV or Globo what kind of partner I was, or Ricky Gervais,” he says. “I also found Gina Rodriguez [Jane the Virgin] and Steve Carrell [The Office], the stars of our shows. No company alone can do that, only a really strong executive producer can. I have always been the executive producer and creative visionary, as well as the executor of the corporate strategy. That’s a great hybrid because of the corporatisation [of media].”
Networks and networking
Owens was president of National Geographic Channel for three years, starting in 2011. Silverman was co-chairman of NBC Entertainment between 2007 and 2009, setting up IAC-backed producer and distributor Electus after leaving the broadcast net.
The channels experience means a different take on working with nets, according to Owens. “The fact that we ran networks and network groups gives us a different perspective,” he says. “We have an understanding that some of the traditional [channels] are in a sensitive area, while still trying to grow audiences. Oftentimes [producers] think they know what is best for a network, and I realise now that can be pretty insulting. There are people working there thinking 24 hours a day, seven days a week about what’s on, and what’s best for them.”
If Silverman often talks about partnership, Owens repeatedly returns to the notion of ‘the idea’, which he says is what underpins Propagate. “After I left National Geographic, and Ben was unwinding his participation in Electus, we spoke and he said, ‘The idea is where you shape culture; at the beginning stage of being part of an idea is where the fun is, and where we thrive’.
“We’re building a modern, independent, alternative studio and looking at ideas, and what an idea needs in today’s world. In a world of apps, a great show also means unleashing and distributing apps in real time along with the show. That means finding people who are creatives, and not just scriptwriters, we’re finding people who are code writers who also have a creative vision.”
Jay Weisleder and Jimmy McNider have joined the company and will be part of the international division as it takes shape at Propagate. Distribution is a “huge part of the plan”, the Propagate execs say. “It’s a key cornerstone of how I have built my businesses,” Silverman adds. “But we are not just a buyer, and not just a seller, we are a partner. My relationship with Globo, for example, started when they licensed The Biggest Loser, and now in turn I am licensing their content for America.”
In June, Propagate brought in Kevin Healey from Entertainment One, and former Relativity exec Brett-Patrick Jenkins. In terms of future hires and expansion, it has a deep-pocketed backer in A+E, and an international chief will join in early 2017.
The emphasis, however, is on growing what’s in place. “There are a lot of things on our wish list as an upstart indie studio, but we have decided to do this for a period of time, and organically feel out what our true needs and strengths are, where we need help, and what the seams and creases are that provide opportunities that no-one else is in,” Owens says. “We are building a business based on where the next opportunities are coming from, as opposed to building it on suppositions about how business has been run for the last 30 years.”
The Propagate chiefs are clearly putting in the hours. “I really want to take what I accomplished at Reveille, furthered at Electus, what Howard and I did at National Geographic and NBC – take all of that learning – and demonstrate by example that we are the best partnership company in the world,” Silverman says. “This is not business for us, this is our lives.”