The Story Lab’s next chapter

Ninja-WarriorThe Story Lab, which is set to become a key player in production financing, wants 20 primetime projects on its books by the end of the year. To get to that point the firm has brought in a number of well-known execs. Michael Iskas, global president of the the Dentsu Aegis-owned content outfit, talks formats, films and drama with Stewart Clarke.

Michael Iskas has set an ambitious target for 2017. “We want a slate of 20 primetime properties by end of the year,” he says. “We have been getting the infrastructure in place and identifying opportunities to invest in and distribute content, and now are finding and developing shows, and can offer distribution across a global footprint.”

Michael iskas

Michael iskas

The Story Lab initiative originates from the advertising space, with GroupM Entertainment arguably the pioneers in the space, but Iskas is adamant that although his business is part of Dentsu Aegis, there doesn’t have to be a brand involved to get a project off the ground.

“We want content that broadcasters and media owners want, and not because it has a sponsor, or is from Dentsu,’ he says. “We will talk to clients about what we are doing, and if they want in great. If not, no problem.”

As part of Dentsu Aegis, the Story Lab has had to convince the massed ranks of the TV industry that it is a serious player in formats, and soon films and drama. “Initially the challenge is to stop people thinking of us an ad agency and to see us more as a credible partner,” Iskas says.

The Story Lab addressed that challenge head-on with acquisitions – most notably the Ninja Warrior format – and by bringing in a raft of seasoned TV execs to run the business.

Iskas himself straddles both the TV and ad worlds, having come up through agencies Carat and ZenithOptimedia to head up the new venture. Elsewehere, the roster of recent recruits is very TV-flavoured.

Luci Burnley has been hired as global formats director. The former Banijay formats expert was consulting after exiting Content Media-backed Small World IFT, but has now joined the team on a permanent basis and will run the group’s unscripted business.

Luci Burnley

Luci Burnley

Nuno Santos – the well-known Portuguese TV exec – has joined to run a newly-created Iberia and Sub-Saharan Africa operation. He is a 25-year industry veteran, having worked in numerous roles at Portuguese pubcaster RTP, including director of programming. He was also head of content at SIC in Portugal, and then moved to the African pay TV operator Multichoice, where he was content manager.

Meanwhile, industry veteran Sinead O’Connor is heading up a new office in Ireland. She has worked at TV3 and RTÉ, as well as setting up her own consultancy. A UK operation, run by Michael McCoy, is also expanding, with Nik Wheatley joining from ITV to open a new Manchester office.

A Dutch office is being led by former Endemol Shine Group head of format acquisitions Erik de Winter, as TBI first reported back in March.

“Bringing [this calibre of TV executive] in gave us credibility in this space,” says Iskas. “It signifies we are serious about being in TV content business and they are a good sign in that respect.”

He adds that Ninja Warrior put The Story Lab on the map, and describes heading to Cannes in the formative days of The Story Lab to sell the show from the bunker of the Palais at MIPTV, before the wider distribution team was in place. That effort worked, with sales to RTL in Germany, TF1 in France and Discovery in Italy.

Out of India The Story Lab has picked up the Street Stars talent format from Grey Matter Entertainment, the local prodco behind Global Agency-distributed DJ format The Remix. The show follows street artists that the audience can rate and reward, with options inked in Asia and Europe.

Nuno Santos

Nuno Santos

The group has 20 shows coming to market in in 2017, but the team is in acquisition mode.

What do prospective partners need to know? “We are strict and rigorous in how we evaluate a project,” Iskas says. “The slate will consist of new formats we produce and develop with independent production companies all over the world. We want premium primetime properties with mass appeal.”

Aside from seasoned team, what The Story Lab has that makes it an attractive partner is the ability to fund development and production. Iskas will not disclose the size of its fund – “no fund is ever large enough in premium entertainment content,” he says – but it is clearly large enough to acquire and develop formats, and the company will soon move into TV drama and film.

“We will start to focus on drama with scripted, and the third pillar of the strategy will be feature films,” Iskas says. The firm has started moving into movie distribution through a deal with Freeman Entertainment Distribution to bring the sequel to action movie The Mechanic, starring Jason Statham, Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Alba, to central and eastern European territories.

As such, the hunt is on for a scripted chief as the venture moves on from entertainment and formats, to TV drama and then film. “It would be naive not to be involved in scripted, and we can add value there, we can finance development, pilot and deficit-fund,” Iskas says.

While keen to send out a TV-centric message, Iskas will also harness what Dentsu has been doing in entertainment in the US and Japan. “We will get a lot of existing know-how from Dentsu in the content space in Japan and Hollywood,” says The Story Lab chief. “Dentsu has been a big investor over the past 10 to 15 years, and that opens the door to a lot of clients.”

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