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Hardly hard up

By Jonathan Webdale 27-02-2017

Here’s the pitch: an A-list Hollywood star at the top of his game embarks upon a passion project into which he pours his own money. He ropes his father into it too. It’s a family saga. He spends years trying to get the project off the ground, brings in one of the hottest writers around and one of the most celebrated directors.

But despite the calibre of talent and the blood, sweat and tears, the resulting show fails to break ratings records. The Hollywood star, one with a troubled past but who it now appears can scarcely do wrong, loses millions. And, get this – his name offers the perfect opportunity for a pun that sums up this tragic tale in a short, sharp, witty one-liner.

‘Tom Hard-up’ was the headline that ran in a certain UK tabloid newspaper in January, mid-way through the first season of Taboo, the period drama co-created by actor Tom Hardy, his father Chips and Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight, with Ridley Scott among the exec producers. According to said story, Hardy set up a few firm called Taboo Productions to handle finances for the eight-part series in which he stars as a man who returns to England from the ends of the earth in 1814 with a grudge to bear, having been at the sharp end of corporate colonialism.

Tom Hardy in his passion project Taboo

Taboo Productions accounts reveal Hardy “lost £2m” (US$2.5m) on the project, the report claimed, with the show costing £10.4m but only generating £8.4m of revenue.

“Insiders believe that Tom, who is reported to be worth an estimated £12m, will hope to recoup his losses through DVD and digital sales as well as flogging the series around the world,” said the paper.

Notice the insinuation here. “Flog” is a word often used pejoratively, as in the colloquialism ‘to flog a dead horse,’ suggesting either the purveyor is in some way desperate to sell a product, deceitful about its true worth or both.

The company responsible for “flogging” Taboo is US-based Sonar Entertainment, which backed the series from the outset when the BBC announced the commission in 2014 for Ridley Scott’s Scott Free London and Hardy’s Hardy Son & Baker. US network FX boarded the project six months later, making its own undisclosed financial commitment as part of an advancing coproduction strategy.

“As well as being aired in the UK and in the US, Taboo has already been sold around the world in the likes of Spain, Portugal and Russia,” the report notes, further quoting its source as saying, “Tom will hope to eventually make the money back through DVD sales, downloads, streaming and syndication rights.”

Deals for Taboo have, in fact, also been struck with broadcasters and SVoD players in France, Germany, the Middle East, Australasia, the Nordics, Eastern Europe, Latin America and more. And this is only in the first window.

So, is it right to say that Hardy has “lost £2m?” The short answer is no. The show, whose finale aired in the UK at the weekend, is a long way off completing its sales cycle. Hardy’s investment is what those in the business call deficit financing – something that’s been a requirement of film and TV drama for decades. Leave out this crucial fact, however, and the story loses its intrigue; indeed, it isn’t really a story at all.

Taboo’s high-profile cast also includes veteran actor Jonathan Pryce

In an era of so-called ‘fake news,’ it’s sometimes hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Few journalists would subscribe to US president Donald Trump’s view that mainstream media is “out of control” but, even in the TV industry’s narrow little corner of the globe, reports like this that offer a presentation of facts rather than the complete picture are dangerous.

The article is syndicated, disseminated, it seeps into public consciousness and becomes part of the narrative around the show – a minimal impact on sales, surely, but misinformation nonetheless.

The fact is that Hardy, who garnered even more headlines recently for having the temerity to label modern action-movie hero roles “boring,” is among a growing number of high-net-worth individuals getting into the game of high-end TV drama financing. There are plenty of others – take the UK’s richest man, industrialist Len Blavatnik, and his new venture Access Entertainment, for example, or Peter Gerwe, the CTC Media founder whose StoryFirst investment vehicle is helping bankroll the recently launched Pinewood Television.

Taboo is just one example of a project where those behind it are passionate and wealthy enough to put some of their own money where their mouths are in order to achieve their artistic vision. Overnight ratings and a single fiscal year of receipts are not the end game.

Despite all the talk of a drama overload, the demand for scripted series continues to boom and the number of new entrants willing to finance them proliferates in parallel with an expanding market of buyers.

The long-term return from licensing is worth it. And the half-life enjoyed by high-quality IP is only lengthening. But there is also the fact that the sheer breadth of creative potential television now presents is, to some extent, reward enough for many.

The truth is that almost every single drama starts out in the red until the costs of production are amortised, and some may well never make a profit. Is Taboo one of those? It’s unlikely.

The truth is also, however, that every boom does indeed tend to be followed by a bust. There are, therefore, genuine questions that need to be asked about where the industry is at right now – the sustainability of the financial models behind it and the strategies being employed by those dealing with rapid structural change. These challenges and complexities cannot be encapsulated in a tabloid headline. Tom Hard-up? Hardly. I like the pitch but I don’t really buy the story.

The C21Pro 2017 Global Drama Trends Report, produced in association with C21 sister title Drama Quarterly, explores some of the above issues and others top of mind this year for those at the fore of the international TV business. First up, Oliver & Ohlbaum founder Mark Oliver offers his take on peak TV.

today's correspondent

Jonathan Webdale Editor, & FutureMedia C21Media

Jonathan Webdale is a journalist with more than a decade of experience covering the international television business. He joined C21Media in 2004 after four years at New Media Age and oversees C21's online and social media presence, audiovisual output, daily news operation and special reports, plus the FutureMedia print magazine and annual conference.