Steve Foster (pictured) is the head of original content at Adaptive Studios, overseeing development across the company’s television, film, publishing and digital arms.
Before joining Adaptive, Foster was Director, Development at HBO Films, responsible for helping shepherd projects through the development and production process. While there, Foster’s roster of films included Confirmation, starring Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce, and Greg Kinnear, helmed by Rick Famuyiwa and written by Susannah Grant; Clear History, written by and starring Larry David with Greg Mottola directing, and also starring Jon Hamm, Kate Hudson, Danny McBride, Michael Keaton and Eva Mendes, and worked on such films as “Behind the Candelabra,” directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon; Bessie, written and directed by Dee Rees and starring Queen Latifah; the Phillip Noyce directed “Mary and Marthastarring” Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn; and the upcoming “Paterno,” directed by Barry Levinson and starring Al Pacino.
This we caught up with Foster to discuss Adaptive Studios’ strategy of breathing life back into screen plays that have been abandoned by studios. The industry veteran discusses the challenges of finding creative ways to stay true to the essence of the material while spinning it off in a more interesting, cutting-edge direction.
Adaptive is in the habit of taking projects that have been abandoned by studios and then revamping them. When selecting projects to bring back to life, how do you decide which medium the project fits best in (i.e. digital, TV, Film)?
There are no hard and fast rules: it’s more a matter of deciding what format best supports the material. Long-form series can ideally allow a deeper dive into both the story and the characters, offering more opportunities for the narrative and the relationships to evolve and creating a more complex emotional journey as each season progresses. And even though long-form has seen a creative renaissance over the past decade or so, digital series can be even more inventive and cutting-edge in its subject matter, simply because the financial risks are not nearly as high. But movies still have their own secret sauce – the ability to transport viewers to big, unique worlds; a deeper aesthetic in terms of its variety of visual styles; and done right, a powerful way to tell a self-contained story that still packs an emotional punch. Simply put, you evaluate each piece of IP on a case-by-case basis. If it’s a more self-contained story, then it’s probably a feature, but if it can sustain a longer, more complex examination, it’s probably a series.
Usually, there is a very good reason that projects are abandoned by studios. Because of this, revamping dead IP has to have its challenges. What are the common obstacles Adaptive faces when taking on an abandoned project, and how does the company react to such hurdles?
There are a host of reasons why projects are abandoned by the studios – on the merits, internal politics, or simply bad timing. Was there a competing project that got to market first? Did the studio landscape or mandate change? Did a crucial piece of talent drop out? None of these issues affect the quality of the material, but it does affect the decision to move forward to production. But at one point or another, a studio or network saw something special in the project, whether it be the initial concept or the underlying IP. So the trick becomes how you take this abandoned project and breathe new life into it. How do you make it more timely? How do you give it more emotional depth? How do you thicken the characters? And most important, how do you find creative ways to stay true to the essence of the material while spinning it off in a more interesting, cutting-edge direction? There is no question it can be challenging to wrestle this problem to the ground, but I think Adaptive’s unique approach, in which we convert old IP to other formats (books, graphic novels, etc.), offers us the opportunity to take a more objective, holistic approach to the material and find ways to lift it to new
Adaptive takes old screenplays and adapts them into novels, which after hitting shelves across bookstores, are then adapted for Film, TV, or digital. What type of data is derived from the content’s time being on the bookshelves? And how much of that data is used when adapting the content for video?
Adaptive uses both quantitative data, for example book sales, and different qualitative data on characters, plot, etc. to collect valuable information around how readers respond to our IP. This feedback loop helps the studio lean into specific aspects of a story as we tweak and adjust for upstreaming.
Financially speaking, the short-form video market is still in its infancy (from a commercial perspective), and many companies producing short-form content (especially for social) have been hit with layoffs as a result. How does the current climate around short-form content impact the studios decision when diving into a new project?
While the short-form market has experienced growing pains over the last two years, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in this kind of content from major players like Hulu and Netflix. The landscape will continue to shift, but Adaptive’s approach isn’t going to change fundamentally. Perhaps going forward we’ll be a little more introspective in terms of the number of digital series we produce, but over the past couple of years, we’ve been financially and creatively successful. We are proud of the robust digital slate we have produced, having distributed our content across several platforms including BlackPills, Shudder, Complex, Eko, UMC, all of which are still very active in the space. Our short-form series have debuted at film festivals like Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca, and we appreciate the special bond our studio has with incredibly talented, emerging voices. And because we’ve also been fortunate to work with this great talent, our core approach will remain very much the same – to collaborate with these emerging filmmakers to create provocative, entertaining new content.
The industry has shifted significantly since you started at HBO in 2011. What has been the biggest change you’ve seen emerge in the entertainment industry and what’s your prediction on how it will change next?
Although there have been many developments over the past seven years (not the least of which is the push for greater diversity, which will hopefully continue to give rise to new and different voices), the biggest change I’ve seen is the rise of the digital streaming services. When I started at HBO, Netflix had endured their price hike miscalculation; Amazon had just created their nascent original content division; and Hulu was mostly a place to stream old television shows. Now each of them have built a vast library of original content, are competing for both Oscars and Emmys, and are recognizable brands that help drive the cultural conversation. Of course, HBO still has something to say about all of that, but they are no longer the only game in town. And in many ways, the streaming services’ push into original content has helped fuel the explosion of original programming industry-wide, and as a IP-based content studio, this expansion means exciting opportunities. That being said, I don’t think you need a crystal ball to see that the industry, especially the television industry, is due for a contraction at some point over the next few years. As more consumers cut the cord and more providers go over the top, there won’t be the sheer number of buyers we have now because the market simply can’t sustain that many content providers, especially in the basic cable space. But hopefully, the short-form arena will soon fill the gap by finding a way to consistently monetize its content, which in turn will provide its own explosion of original series and original content opportunities.