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MRC Television’s Elise Henderson On Indie Studio’s Ramp-Up, Lulu Wang & Cynthia Erivo Series Among New Projects, ‘The Outsider’ Future

·18 min read

When Elise Henderson joined MRC as President of Television in April 2019, the company had one series on the air, Netflix’s Ozark, was about to start production on HBO limited series The Outsider and had just finished a pilot for Hulu’s The Great.

Two years — and a pandemic — later, MRC Television has eight series, the most the indie studio has had at the same time: Ozark, The Great as well as the upcoming The Terminal List at Amazon Prime Video, starring Chris Pratt; The Shrink Next Door (limited series), headlined by Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd, Shining Girls, starring Elisabeth Moss, and Hello Tomorrow!, headlined by Billy Crudup, all at Apple TV+; as well as Rian Johnson’s Poker Face, starring Natasha Lyonne; and Ted, a prequel to the 2012 movie, with Seth MacFarlane, at Peacock. Additionally, I hear Taika Waititi’s Time Bandits is nearing a series order at Apple TV+.

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All of the upcoming series had been sold by MRC Television with the A-list stars attached in the kind of high-profile packages for which the company has become known.

MRC Television has several new series in development that it is getting ready to take out including:

Family Meal, a half-hour comedy-drama written, directed and executive produced by Lulu Wang and produced by Temple Hill with Civic Center Media, which is examination of race, gender, class through the microcosm of a high-end restaurant.

The Ballad of Ron & Dorinda, produced by Civic Center Media in association with MRC Television, is a limited series written by Jessie Nickson-Lopez based on the Esquire article by David Gauvey Herbert, who is executive producing with David Klawans. It tells the true story of Dorinda Lopez, a career criminal who met the love of her life, Ron McIntosh, in California co-ed prison, and the two staged a daring escape for 10 romantic days on the lam until they were recaptured and stood trial.

Drama The Bird’s Game, written by Liz Hannah and produced by Brittany Kahan Ward through Echo Lake, centers on a washed-up attorney and a hungry young reporter who team to expose a far-reaching conspiracy in 1980s Tennessee.

They stem from the number of overall and first-look deals MRC Television has with writers, producers, directors and actors such as Nickson-Lopez, Hannah, Richard Price, Dave Erickson, Noelle Valdivia, T-Street, Elle & Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning’s The Great co-lead Nicholas Hoult, The Outsider‘s Erivo, Ozark‘s Julia Garner, FamilyStyle and Civic Center Media which is MRC’s joint venture with UTA.

Modi Wiczyk and Asif Satchu launched Media Rights Capital in 2003 as a film production/financing company designed to give filmmakers and stars more earning power and ownership of their projects. Among the company’s first projects were the multilingual Babel and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno.

Five years later, MRC ventured into television with a time buy for the CW’s Sunday night, which was filled by lower-cost scripted and unscripted series. The experiment was short-lived, with the network pulling the plug over low ratings. MRC produced several comedy series for broadcast and basic cable networks that were quickly canceled until it made a strategy shift in 2011 with David Fincher’s House of Cards. The company took out the premium drama project, with Kevin Spacey attached to star, attracting multiple offers, including a pilot order from HBO. It opted to bet on a newcomer in the original programming space, Netflix, in a mega two-season deal worth $100 million. The pact was a game-changer for Netflix, which announced itself as an original content player in a major way, and it set a new course for MRC, which has produced exclusively for premium cable/streaming ever since.

In an interview with Deadline, Henderson, a former UCP executive and WMA and UTA lit agent, spoke about the indie studio’s premium focus, packaging projects before going to market, the company’s business model, overall and first-look deals and its development slate, overseen by Ken Segna, which also includes a drama project produced by and starring Erivo. She also addresses the potential for building franchises, including possible Ozark offshoots, further exploiting MRC’s film library, as well as whether there may be a second installment of The Outsider.

DEADLINE: What was your strategy when you took over MRC Television?

ELISE HENDERSON: The thing that drew me to MRC was the quality of the shows that they’d always created and put on the air, and so, when I set about taking the reins, it was more about how do we grow the business, that thing that makes MRC so special, and scale that. It was obviously about getting more shows on the air, but then thinking about what was our strategy for getting those things out there while still maintaining the quality of what we did. A lot of what I’ve done in my career led me to believe that having a script, having a package put together, having a production plan, a budget, all those things really help you with creating less confusion in the marketplace when you go out. People know what they’re buying. People understand what it is the show that you’re selling, and then you can get a really good idea of whether or not the platform that you’re selling it to is creatively aligned with what your goal is.

DEADLINE: You mentioned packages. Even before you started at MRC, the company’s House of Cards and Ozark were packaged with big stars attached, and it feels like all big recent sales included A-list actors. Has that been key for you to get series orders at major streamers?

HENDERSON: I think it always helps. I think for us what it really was is a lot of the things. When I talked to Modi before I started [it] was, how do we really elevate original material, or material that’s based on IP that maybe isn’t an enormous property. But the thing that we’ve found is that artists, especially actors, are looking for a great role, and so, the ability to develop that script in-house, to be able to show them what that script is, and who the character that they’re going to get to play is, gives you the ability to attract that kind of actor to the role. So, yes. I think it’s all part and parcel of the whole, but I think that the strategy was let’s go create great scripts that attract big talent, and then you go out to market, and, of course, it’s more attractive to platforms.

DEADLINE: MRC got its start in television on broadcast and basic cable, with an ill-fated CW Sunday block and several sitcoms. Since then, the company has only done shows on streamers and premium cable networks. Is this a conscious effort? Are you even pitching outside of the premium/streaming universe?

HENDERSON: We pretty much keep to premium cable and streaming. I think it tends more to have to do with the talent that we work with. A lot of them, their preference is to go to either a streamer or a premium cable outlet, and our material, to be totally honest, is more geared toward that. I think as we look to grow the business, we certainly are looking downstream and seeing if similar to the way that our film division has brands that make sense and film niche markets and audiences that those specific projects fit. I think we are always looking for how we can continue to be ahead of the curve in where we’re selling things, and how we’re utilizing the rise of AVOD and things like that, but our core MRC business lives in the premium and streaming world.

DEADLINE: As an independent, is it working for you financially to be mostly in the cost-plus model?

HENDERSON: The short answer is yes. This is a model that works really well. I would say that we love owning international and have several shows that we do own international on. I think that’s part of our model, as well as to keep both inside of our portfolio, but again going back to the packaging of it all, a lot of the strategy is developing something that a number of platforms are going to want, and when you have that, you have the ability to drive the market up enough to make it profitable for us.

DEADLINE: Some streamers are getting insular, buying primarily in-house. Having big names attached certainly helps, but is it still a doable task for a third-party supplier to get a show on the major streamers?

HENDERSON: Yes. For sure. I think the reason why MRC as an independent works so well is our internal bar is high, and the external bar is high. So, that matches well. I was at a lunch, and someone made a comment that I think is a little apt in this moment, which is that the platforms and streamers, to create their own shows in-house, they have to put in their own R&D, and they have to make bets, and they have to develop more than is actually going to go. It’s a little bit similar to the idea of buying a plot of land versus buying a fully done house. There’s an additional cost to that fully done house, and that house better be great, which is always our goal, but that cost is actually worthwhile because you didn’t have to take the risk, and you didn’t have to spend the additional money — and obviously, we run production on our shows and maintain efficiencies for those networks. So, I think there is a very real place for independents in the streaming model. You just have to be of value, and I think our shows and our ability to produce those shows are certainly worth the additional cost.

DEADLINE: For the size of the company, MRC Television has a high number of overall and first-look deals signed since you started. Some of the talent already was involved in MRC projects, but how are you able to sustain such a roster and the overhead costs involved?

HENDERSON: We look at each project and each deal we enter into, and we look at it from what’s the value that we can potentially get out of it. I think where you start getting into trouble are deals that don’t necessarily have the ability to create the value of what you put into it. So, for us, the writers that we’re in business with are writers that we really believe are going to create television shows, and the actors and producers that we have first-look deals with, we have real creative alignment in terms of what we’re all trying to do. We’re not a volume development business, so we’re not looking for any of our deals to create a roster of 10 to 12 shows; we’re really focused. Whether it’s a writer or an actor or a producer, all of those deals have the same paradigm of put together a script, add a director, add an actor, and then we go to market, and I think because we’re so consistent those have been really productive for us.

We have a deal with Cynthia Erivo, and there have been a couple of really amazing projects that we’re excited about that I’m hoping to go to market with soon. One is a period piece with a complicated female lead who is a fiercely ambitious woman in a high-octane and dangerous profession dominated by her male colleagues (like many professions during that era). We love that it is a role that exploits Cynthia’s ability to convey intellect and emotional depth while also being – for lack of a better term – a badass.

We just closed the deal with Liz Hannah two or three months ago, and there’s already an original idea project that we are working on with her that we are very excited about. Dave Erickson is doing The Jaunt for us, which is a Stephen King property, and there are a couple projects we are circling for Richard Price.

And then on the flip side, we look for writers that aren’t looking to be locked into deals, artists that we feel are auteurs, people who have something special to say, and we track them. We explain to them why it’s great to be in business with us, and then we look to have one project with them that we can help them bring to the television screen as opposed to just a slate of a bunch of shows that are never going to see the light of day. One of those, when I first started, I think The Farewell had just come out, and Lulu Wang had an idea for a television show. We sat down with her, it was special and unique and truly personal to her, and it’s a little inspired by her brother and his experience in the restaurant scene, but it also was different and didn’t feel like anything we’d ever seen before. I just knew that she was this incredible filmmaker and a wonderful writer, and we ended up waiting. We waited awhile because she was so busy, but she just delivered a script on that a couple months ago, and that’s something we are putting together and getting ready to go to market with as well. I think both of those models are working for us at this moment.

DEADLINE: With this particular project, are you looking to attach on-screen talent?

HENDERSON: This one is actually an interesting one, because it is truly an ensemble piece, and we have Lulu as the writer and as director. So, this one is going to be without talent. It’s almost hard to describe why it’s so special, but this is also, I think, one of the things that we look for when we talk about what is an MRC project. We talk a lot about the fact that television is still entertainment, and we love artists who aren’t scared of the fact that we have audiences who enjoy watching their shows. What Lulu has done and created is something that is really fun and entertaining, but also the flip side of that is there is nothing that we are going to do that doesn’t have something thematically resonant, something that has something to say, and so, inside of this show that is entertaining and crazy and insane and fun, there’s also a real statement on race and gender and class, and it’s just special.

DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the relationship with Civic Media. How is it working for you, and has it evolved over time?

HENDERSON: This one has been incredibly productive, and they’ve been really spectacular at identifying talent that’s newly ready to enter the TV space, and so incredible about putting together impressive packages and working with us in a partnership. It’s evolved to a place where they really understand what we need in order to be successful, and we are working and continue to work on how we use them in order to access talent and woo the people that maybe have been reticent to work in television, or artist that are new to them and new to us. It’s just been incredibly fruitful, and we’ve enjoyed the partnership.

DEADLINE: One of the new projects that you’re taking out, The Ballad of Ron and Dorinda, is with Civic Media. How did it come about?

HENDERSON: This article came to us, and when it comes to true stories, we talk a lot about that fact that the actual story is out there, why do you need underlying material because it does exist in a public domain space. Anybody who’s a good researcher could go figure it out. So, underlying material for us has to be a specific tone or specific framework of how you tell a story that we are then going to also use in our television show for it to be worth optioning. And this article that David Herbert — I don’t think I’ve read an article that is as crazy and wild and oddly romantic, but also absurd and then emotional. We got really excited about it, and then Jessie Nickson-Lopez, who’s the writer that we have an overall deal with, just had a wonderful way to take his article and turn it into a limited series that felt special and different, but also fun and unexpected.

DEADLINE: Besides Civic Center Media, are you exploring any other partnerships with companies that have access to talent?

HENDERSON: Certainly, Civic Center Media is the only agency partnership that we’re involved in. We’re always looking for ways to access talent. Obviously, we have a deal with T-Street, which is Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman’s company, and they have been a wonderful place to find artists of all different types, we have an adaptation of Don Winslow’s A Cool Breeze on the Underground in development with them. Again, as an independent studio, you want as many access points possible, and I think a lot of our strategy is just being user-friendly to those places that represent talent, and they know that when they send someone to us, we’re going to take care of them. We’re going to produce something that’s quality and premium, and it’s going to be a good experience. I think that’s another thing. Television can be grueling, especially when you’ve never done it before, and being number one on the call sheet on a television show is a very different experience. We’ve done that a lot, we know how to help guide people through that, both on the talent side and then also the filmmaker’s side. It’s a very different thing to be a director in television than it is in film. MRC has an incredible history of working with filmmakers who do both.

DEADLINE: Going back to the origins of the company, one of the things that set MRC apart at the start, particularly in film, was that it was an indie promising a different deal structure with a lot larger profit participation for the talent. Is this still part of the DNA of the company and your business model?

HENDERSON: It’s absolutely still a part of it. I think that MRC started from the idea that when studios make money, artists should make money. I think the other thing that hopefully sets us apart is that we’re really transparent with our talent and our artists about the deals that we’re making and how they work. The first thing we do when we have multiple offers on something is we look at the creative, because if a platform is really aggressive about something but doesn’t understand the creative one sees, they’ll never really help us. We talk a lot about all things being equal, what makes the most sense for everybody financially, and then we try and find that perfect fit. But yes, I think one of the things that, having been a representative early on in my career, I love the most about our company is that we truly do believe that it’s not a black box. There’s transparency, there’s conversation and communication, and we all win when one of us wins.

DEADLINE: MRC is a young company, but it has been building, little by little, a library. You haven’t so far expanded a series to create franchises. Several House of Cards spinoffs were explored and scripts were written before Kevin Spacey’s exit from the mothership series. Are you looking at potential Ozark offshoots as the show is headed to its final chapter or other spinoff possibilities?

HENDERSON: With Ozark specifically, what I will say is the show is just honestly getting better and better. I think the Season 3 was one of its best, and Season 4, the final two installments also so excellent. I think what we want first is to make sure that we preserve that creative project. If there is something additional beyond that, of course, we’d be open to it. We have incredible executive producers on that project. They’ve really created something special, and we would obviously look into it, but nothing certainly right now.

DEADLINE: What about House of Cards? Is there still a chance for a spinoff series?

HENDERSON: We would always be open to that, especially what Robin Wright did in the last season. It was just a tour de force by her, and she is such an incredible part of the MRC family, and I think you guys know that she’s directing for us on Ozark this year. So, if there were an opportunity to work with her again or something in that universe, absolutely, but there’s nothing that we have right now.

DEADLINE: Before you started, MRC tried turning the movie The Dark Tower into an integrated film-TV universe and a TV pilot was produced for Amazon. Peacock just ordered a Ted series based on the hit MRC movie. Are there any other film titles that you’re looking to potentially bring to TV?

HENDERSON: There isn’t anything that we are specifically circling outside of Ted, but we have a very open line of communication between TV and film so whether it’s exploiting our library of content in a different way – or optioning a piece of IP across both TV and film – we are always open to those opportunities as they present themselves.

DEADLINE: What has been the impact of the pandemic on your production?

HENDERSON: We had just wrapped The Great when everybody shut down last spring, so we were able to start right around last June figuring out how to get back into production on our shows that were not scheduled to start until the fall. From a scheduling perspective, we had a little bit of a push on some of our shows, but really our production team led by Jennifer Watson, we had a monumental task, and we had amazing consultants, and we had great network partners, and we were back up in production on three of our shows in November of 2020, and then we had a fourth show, The Terminal List, started in March of this year, and now we have another show going. So, we’ve gone through it.

DEADLINE: Coming out of the pandemic, there has been a sentiment about networks and streamers seeking lighter, more escapist fare. Have you noticed that and have you been shifting your development accordingly?

HENDERSON: We very rarely try and hit targets of what the marketplace is looking for because our process is a little bit longer to develop everything in-house, and I’ll end up missing if before we head out there. What I’ll say is that I think certainly our industry, but probably our whole country, feels like there’s an appetite for things that make you feel better and not worse. That being said, I think escapist fare and entertainment lives in all different kinds of packages. I would argue that The Outsider was just as escapist, because people love horror. People love to be scared. I do not love to be scared, but lots of people love to be scared. So, we just really respond to television shows that make us think or make us feel joy or happiness, and that kind of comes in all different shapes and sizes, but definitely, I do think the marketplace out there right now is looking for that, and I’m looking for that.

DEADLINE: Speaking of The Outsider, is there still a chance for a second installment?

HENDERSON: We still have one potential buyer that we are exploring right now. It will either pan out or it won’t, but I will say we loved that first season and felt like there was a satisfying ending. There’s more to tell, especially with Cynthia’s character, but we’ll see. I think it’s still a little up in the air.

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