Universal Studios Group (USG) chairman Pearlena Igbokwe has admitted scripted budget inflation is a “great concern” for the industry but added “cost-efficient” shows can still be as successful.
Igbokwe told delegates at a keynote session here at the BANFF World Media Festival admitted that there is increasing pressure on commissioners that could impact the amount shows could bring in, particularly for those on the broadcast side.
The USG chairman, who was upped to become chairman of USG in 2020, oversees almost 130 projects on 20 platforms, ranging from Hacks and Never Have I Ever to Hollywood Game Night.
Cost vs returns scenario
She said that the four pillars that make up USG – Universal TV, Universal Content Productions (UCP), Universal Alternative Studios and Universal International Studios – were all looking “to be as smart and cost efficient as possible” but added that decision “can’t be made based on dollars.”
She added: “We are a creative business in the end and you have to take creative decisions to win, but it is now with an eye towards taking these risks while minimising our downside as much as we can.”
Up against shows such as Amazon’s forthcoming Lord Of The Rings series and the fourth outing of Netflix’s Stranger Things, Igbokwe said she was exploring more cost-efficient ways to spend money.
“Creativity isn’t necessarily about spending the most money. Game of Thrones was fantastic and worth every penny but you can also make a Russian Doll for less. The same goes for Killing It or Hacks.”
Competition & language leaps
Igbokwe said that TV is facing growing competition from other media, name checking podcasts and gaming, with the competition forcing creatives to come up with shows that are fresh.
Part of UCG’s approach, Igbokwe said, is to “bring in storytellers who haven’t had the opportunity before and to talk about people who haven’t been put forward before.”
She cited shows such as We Are Lady Parts, which debuted on Channel 4 in the UK and was produced by Working Title Television, which falls under UCI’s international arm.
“We all come to TV for entertainment but we have the power to showcase people who haven’t normally been in the limelight and showcase those stories.”
Igbokwe added that non-English language shows are also gaining increasing traction globally, pointing to the success of Pachinko on Apple TV+. Universal struck an overall deal with creator Soo Hugh – who spoke to TBI last year.
“We are leaning into local language, it doesn’t have to be an English show to have global appeal now. We have just coproduced our local language version of Superstore with Dopamine in Mexico,” she added.
“We’re leaning into being into more universal and global in our thinking, it’s not that one country is centre of everything. The barriers of non-English language shows are falling away.”
Anderson Cooper novel
The Universal exec added that her company has also snagged rights to CNN news reader Anderson Cooper’s book Vanderbilts, with a drama in the works to track the legacy of his family dynasty.
“Patrick McManus will be writing that and it’s an example of the types of big pieces of IP and books we can land because we are in business with the big people in the industry.”
She added that Vanderbilts will be “the opposite” of fellow Universal period drama The Gilded Age. “This will be a very different approach,” she added.