Fifth Season Inks Deal With Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films, Studio Toppers Talk TV Contraction, Streaming’s Distribution Opportunities & More

EXCLUSIVE: Once the Hollywood strikes were over, Fifth Season, run by co-CEOs Chris Rice and Graham Taylor, moved in to get production on six series up and running by January, including The Savant, starring and executive produced by Jessica Chastain.

The new limited series for Apple TV+ is the first production under a first-look deal Fifth Season Television has made with Chastain’s Freckle Films (George & Tammy), run by President Kelly Carmichael, to develop and produce projects.

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In addition to The Savant, which marks Fifth Season’s seventh series at Apple TV+, other series that ramped up quickly after the strikes include Season 2 of Apple TV+’s Severance and the upcoming The Chief Of War starring Jason Momoa and Lady In the Lake (in post-production) with Natalie Portman — all on Apple TV+ — Season 2 of Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers starring Nicole Kidman and Australian series The Last Anniversary, which Kidman produces. At the same time, Fifth Season was gearing up for the releases of Season 2 of Tokyo Vice on Max and Life & Beth on Hulu.

“We will do around a billion dollars in production this year across 12 series that are either in delivery, production or some form of prep,” Rice said. “And that’s all stuff that we are running production on as lead studio. So it’s a volume business, but it’s still very curated, high quality and premium.”

Chastain and Freckle Films join a roster of first-look deals that includes fellow actor Amy Adams’ Bond Group Entertainment as well as what Joe Hipps President, TV Development and Production, calls “the new generation producers,” Drew Comins’s Creative Engine, Layne Eskridge’s POV and Kristen Campo’s Campout Productions.

“It definitely is tough, that marketplace right now, the majors are not doing overall deals,” Rice said about the industry climate, noting that he is happy with Fifth Season’s talent lineup, which also includes partnerships with Bruna Papandrea’s Made Up Stories and Anonymous Content and overall deals with The Savant writer/executive producer Melissa James Gibson and fellow writers Bill Dubuque and the team of Enzo Mileti & Scott Wilson.

Leaning into its deals, the indie studio was among the first to take out TV projects when the strikes ended, landing multiple sales, including Made Up Stories’ The Good Daughter, starring Jessica Biel, ordered to series at Peacock; and two projects from Comins’ Creative Engine, Lena Dunham’s Covers, which went to to Netflix, and The Holdout starring Amy Adams, now in development at HBO in collaboration with Bond Group.

Selling amid industry contraction

The push to reduce costs by the media companies has hit the volume of originals and their price points. Already underway before the strikes, the trend has only gotten stronger after production resumed.

“We definitely feel more pressure, seeing everyone feel pressure on budgets,” Rice said. “That’s, I think, an inevitable continuation for at least the next year or more. Or maybe forever.”

Added Hipps, “You really have to justify if you’re going to market with something that is high price — whether it’s big IP or big stars — it’ really has to warrant the big spend.”

Rice argues that “we will still see big budgets and big above the line. I think it’ll be the way the movie industry has been for the last 15 years, that sort of blockbuster, big star big marketing push. I can’t imagine that disappearing from an Apple or an Amazon or other places.”

Still, there may be fewer high-end packages that find a buyer — something we are starting to see right now — “or the things in the middle may be squished a lot,” Rice said.

Streaming’s distribution opportunities amid shifting models

Fifth Season’s predecessor, Endeavor Content, started off as an international distributor on The Night Manager (subsequently acquiring a minority stake in the series’ producer The Ink Factory), and that remains an important part of the company’s business, with the distribution portfolio including such series as Woman In the Wall, Monsieur Spade and Killing Eve.

The new shift by media companies which have started prioritizing streaming profitability over subscriber growth “means more of a view on flexibility around deal structure” that could be advantageous, Rice said.

“Maybe two, three years ago, all of these companies wanted to buy all rights that they could in as many places as possible, regardless of whether they had good penetration in country X or country Y,” he said. “For a company like ours that has all the different tools of financing and distribution, that creates opportunities, both for creating value for ourselves and our partners at the show, but also for the networks that we work in. Because if we can monetize international rights for a particular network better than they might monetize internally themselves, that’s, a win-win situation for everyone.”

As streamers are starting to rethink “this sort of older model of we’re going to pay a premium to everyone for everything… we’ve certainly seen them and premium cable networks being more open to taking restricted rights or restricted territories and finding ways to partner on our distribution side,” Rice added.

Fifth Season has been doing that for some of its own series. Nine Perfect Strangers and Tokyo Vice sold domestically to Hulu and Max, respectively, with Fifth Season distributing internationally, and Wolf Like Me with Australia’s Stan is at Peacock domestically with the indie studio selling around the world.

In October, Fifth Season signed an international distribution deal with Roku to sell the streamer’s unscripted originals outside the U.S., Canada and Latin America.

And last month, Fifth Season started selling more than $1B worth of Apple TV+ content including Jason Momoa-starrer See, Nicole Kidman‘s Roar and M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant, in second window to local linear networks.

The company is expected to start exploiting the linear rights of its own original streaming series as they become available after an initial exclusive window.

“I think we’ve always had this balance of cost-plus deals, and in those cost-plus deals like a Sony or other companies like that, we’re keeping linear rights, DVD rights,” Rice said. “So a lot of the things we’ve been making for cost-plus buyers, we’re launching for the linear market now this year, and we’ll keep doing that in the coming years.”

CJ ENM, Toho synergies

Following WME’s deal with the WGA that called for agencies to divest ownership in affiliated production companies, Korea’s media giant CJ ENM in early 2022 closed a $785M deal with WME parent Endeavor to acquire a controlling 80% stake in Endeavor Content, which was subsequently renamed as Fifth Season.

“Obviously, Endeavor has been a great partner for a long time and continues to be but CJ couldn’t be at a more exciting time around Korean culture in general,” Rice said. “TV, obviously is having the biggest push but film, music, food, all of it is is having a huge play in the U.S. and around the world.”

The collaborations with new parent company are going in multiple directions.

“We’re taking their formats and bringing them into the U.S., Canada, UK, Australia,” he said, noting that there are projects in development in all four territories.

Additionally, “we’ve taken formats from our stable back to Korea to be developed for local content, we’ve optioned IP together to make as more Korean-centered shows, more U.S. centered shows,” he said. “We’re working on some American shows with Asian American connections that they’ve been used to in the storyline, characters that they’ve partnered with us on.”

This past December, Japanese studio Toho, producer of current box office hit Godzilla Minus One, acquired a 25% stake in Fifth Season for $225M.

The new investment, designed to fuel further growth, also brought in instant synergies — the stages where Fifth Season films Tokyo Vice are owned by Toho.

Looking back at tough 2023

Fifth Season went through two rounds of layoffs last year, reducing its workforce by 2% in April and by another 12% in August, the latter tied to the impact of the double Hollywood strike.

“I think you will struggle to find a company of any size that didn’t do that,” Rice said. “Because primarily, we are a production business, and there was of course five months, no production. That obviously has consequence on our business. Those kinds of decisions are horrible decisions to make and just not at all fun.”

TV still a growth business

TV market has been tough amid a major contraction as the industry is adjusting to the post-Peak TV era.

“We hope that the business is going to return not to peak craziness but all the media analysts are predicting 7% growth in content spends each year for the next three years,” Rice said. “There’s tailwinds in the business, people will keep buying and making great films and great television shows, and we are positioned better than almost anyone else in the independent space with extraordinary infrastructure, a great slate of development projects, and incredible talent partnerships.”

Taylor also is cautiously optimistic about the future coming off 2023.

“To put a button on it, last year was hard. And I think we’re like, Thank God, we’re past the strikes and we feel shot out of a cannon with cautious optimism about things stabilizing/getting better in 24-25,” he said. “So to Chris’ point, it doesn’t have to return to 2019 Peak TV. It’s a growing business, there’s tremendous opportunity. I think if we stay focused on high-end, original storytelling, which really is our focus across film, TV, doc, distribution, etc. we think that it’s always going to be a space that’s worked for 50 years vs. playing to the middle.”

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