Imagine’s Justin Wilkes on Pushing into Premium Nonfiction, How Streaming Deals are Changing and the Double Strike Impact on Indies

Imagine’s Justin Wilkes on Pushing into Premium Nonfiction, How Streaming Deals are Changing and the Double Strike Impact on Indies

August 2, 2023

About six years ago, Imagine Entertainment went on a diversification push to add top-shelf documentary and nonfiction content to the company’s roster, as well as kids and family entertainment and branded creative marketing, among other content-related businesses.

The timing was spot-on. Imagine has been able to grow along with the boom in demand for original content from platforms, not just in the U.S. but other major worldwide territories. All of that activity, fueled by private investment funds, is positioning the company extremely well for the industry’s next phase as networks and platforms slash costs, as Imagine Entertainment president Justin Wilkes explains on the latest episode of Variety podcast “Strictly Business.”

As an independent outfit, Imagine is naturally attuned to the shifts in the marketplace. The larger conflict that has led to strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA is a result of major changes in the way TV shows are produced for streaming platforms. Wilkes senses that still more change is afoot in ways that will be positive for Imagine-sized production outfits.

Until about a decade ago, “for the most part it was pretty well defined in terms of how you’d make money in this business,” Wilkes says. “More often than not, in success you would make more than you would if (a project) wasn’t successful, which seems like a pretty good tradeoff that aligned a lot of incentives.”

But the sharp rise in the volume of new content moved the guardrails for those incentives. After a few years of unrestrained spending by networks and platforms, the trends are shifting again in a tough macro-environment for Hollywood.

“Now there really is this moment of reckoning, which, unfortunately, this strike is not going to solve because it’s a much larger issue than what’s being discussed in terms of the deal points of the strike,” he says. “It’s a moment of reconciliation that all of these media companies are going to have to ultimately contend with, which is how do we accurately report either the success of something, or the failure of something? And how do we come up with a way of incentivizing people to be able to create for us and not have to overpay for it upfront? And until that real moment happens, it’s still going to be a little bit of the Wild West.”

Imagine’s track record over 40-plus years opens a lot of doors for the company. The demand for seasoned producers who can deliver on time and on budget is more prized than ever.

“We’re starting to see some cracks in what was impenetrable armor at places like Netflix, at places like Disney, at places like Amazon and places like HBO,” Wilkes says. “We’re starting to see that as an independent company that has a facility to deficit-finance, if we believe it makes sense, or co-finance. It’s going to require a few more [platforms] coming to the table to really see if that’s a trend we can count on. But like everybody else on the producing side, we’re certainly looking for opportunities to either be able to retain rights, to be able to have some meaningful participation in upside and future revenue streams.”

“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify, Google Play and SoundCloud.

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