When Vanessa Shapiro founded Nicely Entertainment at the beginning of 2020, she couldn’t have imagined how the pandemic would upend the television industry and everyone’s lives. One positive aspect, however, has been the increase in viewing and demand for the type of feel-good movies and series Nicely produces and distributes. Today, the CEO of Nicely, and formerly an executive at Gaumont and MarVista Entertainment, Shapiro knows both the TV-movie and series businesses well. She talks about financing models, the impact of Covid-19 on production and serving linear and nonlinear platforms with a diverse slate.
WS: How have you seen TV movies evolve in subject matter and production values?
SHAPIRO: Trends are always changing, and as a small company, we focus first and foremost on quality stories. Diversity and inclusiveness were major talking points this year, but we were already developing several great projects that organically had ensemble casts. For example, in our brand-new Christmas title Baking Spirits Bright, we have an Indian-American family making traditional Indian fruit cakes paired with an African-American lead. We loved the script because it felt so genuine with the blending of international cultures in a fun and romantic way; it also tapped into a larger discussion about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness that was currently taking place. But for us, it was just a great film we knew would work in the market.
As for production values, I think the quality of movies is getting better and better. But I must mention, Covid has made production very challenging for everyone, not just for us. The testing required to keep casts and crews safe and the overall protocols create a significant increase in production costs, but so do all the other pandemic-related issues and delays such as travel and all. Two of our movies were impacted this year. On one, we had to stop production for 48 hours because we had a Covid case. Covid is adding a lot of unknowns and costs. The other day, I was talking to a production partner who asked, ‘Why don’t we do two movies back-to-back?’ This is not something I would do today because of the unknowns created by Covid. You now need at least a couple of months between two productions. You don’t know if someone is going to get sick and if you’re going to have to stop production. I can’t commit to a second movie five days after we wrap the first one and just go into production with the second. Production now requires much more planning and is definitely more expensive.
WS: Once, TV movies were the mainstay of linear channels, commercial and public broadcasters. Are they now in demand across nonlinear platforms as well?
SHAPIRO: Yes, absolutely. For a distributor like us, the rise of nonlinear and VOD platforms has presented two amazing opportunities. First, we get to see our catalog of library movies enjoy a second life across a variety of outlets, especially as the initial holdbacks against these titles are ending. But second, as VODs—especially AVODs—are coming to the forefront, smaller distributors now have a brand-new set of direct-to-consumer outlets to present new projects.
Years ago, we would just release digitally on EST and TVOD, but it was really tough to make an impact without major titles or a massive marketing campaign. But now, distribution opportunities are expanding to all these AVOD platforms. I know those AVODs are looking to expand into Europe as well, probably in 2022, which will create new opportunities for indie distributors. But right now, the AVOD market is active and significant in the U.S., and because of cable cord-cutting in the U.S., they’ve grown even more. When you cut the cord, very often, you don’t have access to the traditional basic cable channels anymore unless you subscribe to their digital SVOD platforms. As a substitute for cable, you now can turn to the new AVOD platforms to access your favorite programs and, of course, all the SVOD services like Netflix, Paramount+, Disney+ and HBO Max, to name a few. But I feel like AVOD has grown even more during the pandemic because people were stuck at home. Some lost their jobs, cut costs on the cable side and turned to free alternatives. The boom of AVODs in the U.S. has been huge in the last 18 months, and I think it’s here to stay.
It was critical for us as a company, on the U.S. side, to exploit rights and make deals with the AVOD outlets. We have our first slate of movies in the U.S. that will be going through AVOD for the first time in Christmas 2021, including A Christmas Wish in Hudson and Christmas Lovers Anonymous, which will both premiere on Roku exclusively. We hope to be as successful on the digital side as we have been on linear.
We had a couple of movies that premiered on Netflix this year as well. That’s also very significant. We love working with Netflix and doing worldwide premieres, like with the romance movie shot in Australia, This Little Love of Mine, and A Second Chance: Rivals!, a kids’ and family gymnastics movie that launched on Netflix on July 23 during the Tokyo Olympic Games. We work very actively with the linear channels, but the nonlinear world is extremely important. Our business is now split almost 50-50 between the two.
WS: Besides the holiday titles, what other types of movies does Nicely sell?
SHAPIRO: We want to be known for feel-good movies. This certainly includes Christmas titles but also includes romantic comedies, family and even the occasional thriller. In 2021, we’re releasing seven Christmas movies and three new romance movies. On the distribution side, we recently acquired the international rights to the Shannen Doherty Lifetime original thriller Dying to Belong, which will premiere in October. On average, we’ll continue to release at least one thriller per year; there’s still a strong market demand for thriller content. Additionally, we’re expanding our family co-viewing offerings and are actively developing new kids’ and family TV series. Our first YA series, Dive Club (produced in Australia), was just released on Netflix, and we’re working on another kids’ series going into production this [month] that will be announced very soon. We’re looking at expanding our family and kids’ offering on the movie side as well. A Second Chance: Rivals! was the first kids’ and family movie that we released, and we recently acquired the inspirational family film Adeline that we’ll be launching at MIPCOM.
During the pandemic, people were trying to escape. We could see this in our movies that popped with audiences. A very good example is our film This Little Love of Mine, which premiered on Netflix on July 7. The story is set on a tropical island; it’s so beautiful and provides that escape and mini-vacation that we’ve all needed—getting away from this reality we’ve all been going through. The feel-good movie space works very well for us, and we’re going to continue concentrating our efforts there.
WS: High-quality movies cost money. Some you acquire, some you produce. What kind of financing models do you use?
SHAPIRO: As a small company, every single project we’re involved with has a different financing model. The finance plans generally depend on the partners. But in most cases, it’s a hybrid model. There are movies for which we are purely working as a distributor. But many movies are independently financed, so either we have investors, we co-finance or movies are presold directly to the networks. In some cases, there is a combination of investment money and tax credits. For example, movies filmed in Australia or Canada allow us to tap into major tax credits, which allows us to expand the production value of our movies.
Nicely also invests money in productions with our trusted partners. We either co-produce a lot of these films, where we share the costs, or we serve purely as the distributor, like with the Lifetime original Dying to Belong. With some of our smaller movies, we can act as co-financiers or come in for gap financing. In all cases, we come in early at treatment or script phases and stay involved at all stages of the production process, from development and throughout the movie’s release.
WS: Are you also increasing your production of series?
SHAPIRO: Yes. It’s very important for us to grow the TV side of the business. The series Dive Club just launched on Netflix, and we have another one starting production [this month]. We’re also in different stages of development on half a dozen new TV projects. We’re setting up these TV projects as co-productions where we partner with different production companies to find the story, develop, package and raise the financing, which will trigger the green light for production. In addition to being a co-pro partner, Nicely then acts as the worldwide distributor for the final product.
WS: What upcoming titles would you like to highlight?
SHAPIRO: We’re launching a slate of ten new movies at MIPCOM, including three new Christmas films premiering on Lifetime this holiday season: Baking Spirits Bright, A Christmas Family Reunion and Writing Around the Christmas Tree. We’re also thrilled to be expanding our relationship with The Steve Jaggi Company in Australia as we just completed production on our next romance movie, Love in Bloom with Susie Abromeit. We’re also launching the Lifetime original thriller Dying to Belong with Shannen Doherty, which premieres this October, and the new inspirational family movie Adeline with David Chokachi.