Originals, Ad Pacts on Starz’s Horizon

Apr 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In an effort to become more competitive with fellow premium networks HBO and Showtime, Starz has adopted some creative measures to bring more original programming to its 16 multiplex channels.

Starz has created a “media placements” post and charged the executive with bringing advertisers to the network as co-producers for some of their new original projects.

The network is also launching several unsponsored “microseries” consisting of 10-minute episodes that can be used as interstitials between theatrical films, as well as distributed on the Internet, mobile phones and other portable video players.

“We’re trying to look at the game differently and reinvent the premium category,” said David Charmatz, senior VP of Starz Entertainment Group. “We’re not going to jump into the deep end and spend millions to compete with HBO and Showtime. So we’re looking at how the marketplace is changing and how we can be a leader in it.”

Courting advertisers is the network’s biggest-and trickiest-move. As a premium service, Starz’s contract with cable and satellite operators forbids the network from running commercials or having sponsored programming.

Instead, the network is offering what Mr. Charmatz dubbed “partnership opportunities” in exchange for financing for original programming efforts. Starz already experimented with the notion last year, when the network teamed with BMW to produce short dramatic films featuring BMW vehicles shot by A-list directors such as Tony Scott and John Woo.

The BMW shorts started running on Starz’s flagship service in November. The channel also recently announced a reality series called “The Volvo Ocean Race,” on which its partner is Volvo. As was the case with the BMW films, production for “Ocean Race,” about a group of actors who enter Volvo’s around-the-world boating competition, is partially funded by the automaker partner that in turn gets exposure via the series.

In January, Starz promoted Doug Hartling from senior director of on-demand promotions to the newly created position of executive director of media placements. Mr. Hartling’s marching orders are to find more advertiser partnerships.

“We know where the lines are-our legal team reminds us on a regular basis,” Mr. Charmatz said. “But we want to do partnerships that help with our production costs. We’re not going to do a 30-second spot. What we want to do is subtle, creating original content that helps both parties.”

Tom Weeks, VP and director of entertainment for media agency Starcom, said remaining subtle is definitely key-not just for the channel, but for potential advertising partners.

“It would have to be a very subtle integration that is woven in the fabric of the show versus anything that stops traffic-and that’s difficult to pull off,” he said. “I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend [such a partnership] to clients. The viewing public is used to seeing advertiser integration on shows like ‘The Apprentice,’ but in the context of a free service. The consumer might feel this is protected space and not a welcome environment for their message.”

Microseries, Macro Value

Among the microseries in the works is a reality series called “Stand Up or Shut Up” that Mr. Charmatz billed as a stand-up comedy version of “School of Rock,” the 2003 film starring Jack Black as a substitute teacher who turns his class into a rock band. “Stand Up” and “Looking for Stars,” a microseries that follows aspiring actors through their first auditions, both are expected to debut this summer. Starz is producing the microseries in-house. They’re both expected to run on the flagship Starz network.

Starz has long focused on acquiring theatricals over producing originals, partly due to the Liberty Media-owned company having several long-term exclusive premium distribution deals with studios such as Walt Disney Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Before the BMW films, however, the service began edging into the production space, starting with long-form movie-centric documentary efforts such as “Bullets Over Hollywood.” The strategy with projects like “Bullets” was to find original programming that increased viewer interest in Starz’s theatrical acquisitions, such as the upcoming documentary “Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film.”

Many of the newer productions, like “Pieces,” are easily divided into several short segments so the film can be used as interstitials, as online shorts and for use with other new media services. The programming is designed to have multiple purposes in order to get the most use out of every production dollar.

Unlike the feature-length documentaries, the new microseries are not geared toward any particular like-minded theatricals. But they are intended to be just as easy to move between platforms. “Stand Up or Shut Up” is a 10-part weekly. “Looking for Stars,” is a 14-part project.

“We figure this is a multiplatform era, so having series that are shorter helps fit across all our platforms,” Mr. Charmatz said. “Microseries is an area that a lot of people are talking about, but nobody has taken ownership of it.”

Starz reported subscriber growth last year of 7 percent, though its earnings were relatively flat. Last month the service launched its two newest multiplex channels, IndiePlex and RetroPlex.

Starz also recently rebranded its theatrical online download service Starz Ticket into Vongo, which offers users unlimited access to more than 1,000 movies a month for $9.99.