Three Years in, Michael Wright Continues to Grow Epix

Michael Wright joined Epix in 2017, just six months after MGM assumed control of what had been a joint venture between the studio, Lionsgate and Viacom by buying out its former partners. Since then, the premium cabler has grown its linear distribution, built out SVOD subscribers, and increased the breadth of its original programming by multiples of hours. Wright is pleased to now be seeing three years of work come to fruition — but not too pleased.

“At the risk of sounding like a cliched football coach, I would describe myself as pleased but not satisfied,” Wright says. “Less than two years ago, we were only available in about 40 million homes and had a handful of very high quality shows with little awareness. And today, we’re available literally everywhere.”

Of late, Epix has been steadily gaining creative traction with dramas such as “Perpetual Grace, Ltd.,” starring Ben Kingsley; “Pennyworth,” a Batman offshoot from “Gotham” creator Bruno Heller; and “Godfather of Harlem,” starring Forest Whitaker.

The network has also cut a path for itself in the documentary space with projects such as “Laurel Canyon,” about the legendary Southern California music scene; and “Slow Burn,” based on the popular political-history podcast. The former garnered three Emmy nominations last week — the first for the network, including one for documentary or nonfiction special. On July 26, Epix premiered the series-length doc “Helter Skelter: An American Myth,” about Charles Manson and the murderous Manson Family.

“Michael Wright has that rare combination of being both extremely well informed while also being very open to new creative storytelling techniques, which makes him the ultimate creative partner to collaborate with,” says Lesley Chilcott, director of “Helter Skelter.”

Epix was born in 2008 after Showtime failed to strike new output deals with Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate — which instead opted to band together and launch their own premium service as a joint venture. (It was a particularly nasty jab at CBS by Paramount parent Viacom, as the two companies had just recently been split in half, with CBS getting Showtime in the divorce.)

But along the way, strategies changed, and in acquiring Epix outright three years ago, MGM struck at an opportune moment. Lionsgate had closed its acquisition of similarly positioned premium cable service Starz and Viacom was looking to lower its debt amid a tortuous lead-up to its eventual re-combining with CBS, leaving MGM to take over Epix as its own distribution platform.

Epix last year launched Epix Now, its direct-to-consumer app. But its recent growth has come largely through old-school maneuvering. When he came aboard in 2017, Wright — a veteran cable executive who spent a long tenure at Turner before a stint in feature film heading Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners — proposed a new direction for Epix to his new bosses at MGM.

“Epix was spending a lot of its time and resources almost exclusively into building out its digital efforts, which were great — we’ve benefited from that,” Wright says. “But there was a business strategy that we wanted to lean into, which was to turn Epix into the high-quality, lower-cost alternative to some of the other premiums that we were competing with, such as HBO and Showtime and Starz.”

Wright was and remains clear-eyed about that goal. “You’re not going to chase down HBO’s brand quality and top it,” he says. “So when we looked at it, we said, What lane can we occupy that will allow us to grow?’”

That lane was one that positioned Epix as a challenger to Starz, which in the last decade had gained traction by positioning itself as a challenger to Showtime. When Comcast and Lionsgate last year engaged in a highly contentious carriage negotiation, Comcast announced that it would replace the later in its Xfinity packages with the former.

As happens in most carriage spats, Comcast and Lionsgate came to an agreement in the 13th hour. But Epix has continued to grow its footprint by emphasizing — “somewhat counterintuitively,” as Wright puts it — its value to MVPDs (and dispelling any pie-in-the-sky thinking that it could grow into a Netflix competitor via magic or force of will). To do that, it had to shift its programming emphasis from one focused almost exclusively on an antiquated movieplex model to one that embraced a balance of Hollywood features with a healthy handful of quality originals.

That strategy has paid off. Through new carriage deals, Epix has gone from being available to roughly 40 million cable subscribing households in 2017 to being available to roughly 85 subscriber households today. (Epix declined to make actual subscriber numbers available.)

But Epix’s future is clouded by questions surrounding the fate of MGM, a likely acquisition target whose tires have reportedly been kicked by Apple, Netflix, and others. Though historically troubled, MGM has been slowly nurtured back from its bankruptcy 10 years ago by a group of hedge fund owners that includes Anchorage Capital, Highland Capital and Solus Alternative Asset Management. The studio still boasts the valuable James Bond franchise, and it has grown its television library with awards contenders such as “Fargo” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Should another media company make a play for MGM, Epix may not make a great fit for a new parent that would likely be motivated by the need to feed content to its existing distribution platforms. But Wright is unperturbed by the uncertainty.

“I don’t know anything more than anybody else knows, and that’s a true answer,” Wright says of MGM and its potential as an acquisition target. “It’s a great asset.”

In the meantime, Epix is still growing. Wright prides himself on the deep audience research done in the wake of his arrival and of the work put in to tailor the service based in part on the findings — which showed that the viewers who came to Epix for its movies find appeal in a mix of ambitious original dramas.

“I’m a big believer in addressable markets,” Wright says. “I don’t believe in randomly acquiring content hoping to find an audience after the fact. You need to figure out who’s out there, who’s likely to spend money on your service, and program to them.”

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