Exclusive: Propagate launches $50m documentary fund as new PropDocs unit staffs up

Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me

US producer-distributor Propagate has launched a $50m fund to invest in documentaries, as the LA-based firm looks to ramp up its output in the genre.

Propagate, which was founded by Ben Silverman and Howard T Owens in 2015, has been expanding into docs over recent years with the company’s latest show, Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me, set to debut on Netflix on 16 May.

It is now looking to supercharge that growth with PropDocs, which Propagate is staffing up and which will have $50m to spend on new doc content.

“We want the best shows in the world and we’ll find the best storytellers, as well as the best IP,” said Silverman, talking to TBI at SeriesFest in Denver.

“We’re really looking for the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ type of show. We’re making hires, really investing and expanding against the doc space, which I just love as a creative person.

“And as a business person, we really believe in it – it’s lower risk with high upside.”

Hillary

It’s the latest expansion into docs for Propagate, which counts Hulu’s four-part series Hillary – about the former US presidential hopeful – among its existing slate.

Propagate has also been ramping up its global operations, opening a UK office and a Spanish-language unit last year.

Big budget scripted shift

The deeper investment in factual, meanwhile, comes as scripted budgets face an ongoing squeeze in the US as some streamers pull back spending following moves into high volume, high budget fare, a shift that Silverman describes as a “big mistake”.

He added: “Premium doesn’t have to be expensive, when I made [the US version of] The Office it was the cheapest comedy in television because no one wanted it.

“I made it for less than any other comedy on any other channel for probably two or three years. I knew that the way I might be able to keep it on air was if it was at the lowest price, so they could run their model on the hour and they’d still be making the profit that they were making on their other shows.

“To produce a line-up of shows with $10m per hour budgets and $100m movies is never going to be sustainable. The audience doesn’t really care that Dancing With The Stars cost one tenth of the price of Game Of Thrones, but it delivers a similar audience.”

Ben Silverman

Silverman said the “cost mix” of programming needed to be “reintroduced”, adding: “Financial discipline isn’t about doing less, it’s about doing more with less.

“There will be great opportunities for international producers and for efficient producers, for players who know how to make content at $1m or $2m.”

‘Hollywood shit show’

Silverman, whose firm’s output ranges from the Chopped franchise to upcoming Spanish-language drama Pinches Momias for Vix, also warned buyers heading to LA Screenings later this month to be prepared for a city in turmoil as the writers strike upturns the industry.

“They are going to find fucking chaos,” he said.

“Buyers heading to LA better have an expanded expense account, because they’re going to find the $400 lunch is over, none of the writers are going to show up to talk about the shows they’re going to be sold and they also might find that those shows might not even be delivered to international schedules. It’s going to be an absolute shit show of explaining and finger pointing.”

The former NBCUniversal exec, whose firm has a drama project in the works at Apple and a series at Paramount, added that he expects to see more international acquisitions from US buyers if the strike extends.

“There will be opportunities to buy non-WGA content and that is one of the reasons why the Brits have done so well recently.

“It’s the same language, exports easily and delivers audience. There’s a real comfort level and you’re only giving up [English rights] – no offence England – but it’s not like giving up all of Asia or the Spanish-speaking world by taking it on.”

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