December 1, 2021

Banijay Rights Boss Cathy Payne Unveils Distribution Strategy, ‘Black Mirror’ Future (EXCLUSIVE)

When Banijay closed its $2.2 billion takeover of Endemol Shine earlier this summer, it became the largest independent production player outside the U.S. The formation of the super-group, during a pandemic no less, raised questions about how it might leverage a monster 88,000-hour catalogue, and what its plans were for super-brands like Endemol Shine drama “Black Mirror” and Banijay’s iconic “Survivor” format.

In her first interview since assuming leadership of Banijay’s distribution arm, Banijay Rights, industry veteran Cathy Payne tells Variety that the combined business hopes to be “the world’s best producer and distributor of content.” And while there’s certainly enough scale in the library to support its own VOD offering, OTT plans aren’t yet in the cards.

“At the moment, we’re focusing on production and distribution,” says Payne, who acknowledges that a clear brand proposition for consumers is needed for major SVOD platforms like Disney Plus and HBO Max — criteria that’s a way away for a company still finding its footing. For now, Payne will package and deliver in other ways.

“We serve all those platforms, and we’re also very active in looking at channel propositions in the digital area that can work on AVOD, syndication and so forth. When you’ve got such strong franchises, as we do in the catalogue, it’s easy to build audience propositions around them.”

The former CEO of Endemol Shine International, who officially boarded Banijay in April, is the first to admit that closing the deal for Endemol Shine, an Anglo-Dutch group twice its size, amid a global crisis “probably wasn’t the most ideal time,” but that the combined entity is “coming together well” despite the expected restructuring of senior leadership.

The group’s dizzying array of headline IP includes “Survivor,” “MasterChef,” “Temptation Island,” “Mr Bean,” “Peaky Blinders” and “Big Brother.” Another brand-defining title is “Black Mirror,” the dystopian drama anthology created by Charlie Brooker.

For the last year, there’s been a question mark around the show’s future, given Brooker and creative partner Annabel Jones broke away from their Endemol Shine-owned production banner House of Tomorrow to create Netflix-backed company Broke and Bones, leaving ownership of the show IP with Endemol Shine, and now Banijay.

Payne confirms that the “Black Mirror” seasons originally produced for U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 and then Netflix “are part of the Banijay catalogue — both the format rights and finished tape rights.” While Netflix hasn’t yet renewed the series for season 6, Payne makes clear that the license relationship is very much with the streaming giant. Rumors have swirled that Netflix would try to buy Banijay out of the “Black Mirror” IP, but Payne insists the company would “like to continue working together on that franchise.”

So, would Banijay then produce a season 6? And where would that leave Brooker and Jones? “I think there could be all different models, the way we work these days,” says Payne. “We’re exploring a few options.”

There’s a push elsewhere to grow new scripted offerings into global super-brands. Kudos-produced comedy “Two Weeks to Live,” starring “Game of Thrones’” Maisie Williams has “caught a lot of attention,” says Payne, while the executive also hints at a “huge, huge, huge” scripted deal freshly secured with an SVOD partner. As well, international co-productions, despite ongoing travel restrictions, are still in the works. HBO Max, for instance, has boarded Channel 4’s James McAvoy-narrated entertainment series “The Bridge,” produced by former Endemol Shine brand Workerbee.

Payne’s leadership at Banijay Rights is a homecoming of sorts for the well-respected Australian executive who had worked with many of Banijay’s senior leaders, including CEO Marco Bassetti, at Endemol Shine during her decade at the company.

She describes her gameplan for the combined distribution outfit as a “very editorial and territory-focused strategy” in which executives in specific markets are empowered to engineer production and distribution deals. “From a distribution perspective, the sales executive who’s in Australia will drive our distribution strategy in line with the production business, production goals and formats,” says Payne, noting that a “lot of the big productions” are sold in territory.

Currently, Payne’s focus is on ensuring she’s got a pipeline of product to work with — quite a feat given the pandemic’s months-long hiatus on production.

“What’s been challenging for us as a distributor who funds programming is when scripted had to go into a hiatus and reschedule, because not only do you have production hiatus costs, but then you’ll have the additional costs of implementing COVID-19 protocols in shooting — and they’re significant additional costs,” says Payne, noting that “many shows” have shifted to 2021 delivery schedules, while some 2021 production have moved into 2022.

Shows such as “Survivor” require massive crews and international travel, and can’t be scaled down easily. “There will be a delay around when production can restart,” admits Payne, “but then, you’ll have something like ‘MasterChef,’ where we come up with great ideas of how it can get back into the studio faster.”

Focus has also shifted to shooting some shows in the U.K., to allow productions to take advantage of the industry’s new indemnity scheme, which will soon open for applications.

In the meantime, the COVID-19 period has given Payne an opportunity to immerse herself in the catalogue, and figure out the hidden scripted gems that could be refreshed for a new generation, or the decades-old entertainment format that needs a makeover. As in her Southern Star International and Endemol Shine days, the executive is laser-focused on the clever licensing agreements that simmer away in the background, generating unforeseen revenue for distributors. At Banijay, Payne’s got plenty to work with.

“When you’ve got a great catalogue, and a lot on the shelf, you can have that time to think, ‘I can rework this,’” says Payne. “In a time when there’s a lot that’s not so exciting in the world — and there’s been a lot of contraction in our industry — it’s nice to be with a company that’s forward thinking and ambitious.”

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