Universal Studio Group Exec Hopes ‘Baby Reindeer’ Phenomenon Jumpstarts TV Marketplace: ‘Playing It Safe Isn’t Where We’re Going to See Success’

Available to WrapPRO members

Universal Content Productions President Beatrice Springborn also tells TheWrap her thoughts on the future of limited series and what she looks for in overall deals

beatrice-springborn-seriesfest
Beatrice Springborn speaks onstage during her Innovation talk during SeriesFest: Season 10 in Denver, Co. (SeriesFest)

You are reading an exclusive WrapPRO article for free. Want to level up your entertainment career? Go here for more information.

Beatrice Springborn was blown away by “Baby Reindeer,” the Netflix limited series that went from quiet release to worldwide phenomenon. And she hopes Hollywood is paying attention.

Aside from unnecessary tabloid fodder — which had not reached Piers Morgan levels at the time of this interview — the president of Universal Content Productions and Universal International Studios said she admired the show from creator and star Richard Gadd for effectively executing “a crazy” idea, and proving that risky television is still worth the investment at a time of Hollywood contraction.

Her studio even tried to snag the show, which follows a fictionalized retelling of Gadd’s experience of being stalked in his 20s, but lost out to Netflix’s studio and guaranteed streaming home. “To me, ‘Baby Reindeer’ is a shining example of what [studios] should be doing and what we should be open to,” Spingborn told TheWrap at SeriesFest on May 3. “It wasn’t an expensive show, it wasn’t an obvious show… I hope that it opens up the doors for buyers to be less risk averse.”

Industry figures talk about how slow it’s been for TV production to start back up since the Hollywood double strikes of 2023. Five months into 2024, Hollywood higher-ups have acknowledged they need to recalibrate their expectations for streaming profitability, which has led to a slowdown in buying. TV distributors want more cheap-to-make, for-sure hits like “Suits,” and the limited series seems poised for a time on ice. The pilot season has become a thing of the past as studios opt for year-round development of fewer projects.

But Springborn — who worked on hits like “Ted,” “Dr. Death” and “Apples Never Fall” and currently oversees production of over 40 shows across UCP and UIS — is optimistic about the future of the business. “We’re trudging toward something that’s going to look different, and we have to figure out a way to work within it.”

The television executive, who worked as head of originals at Hulu for over six years before hopping over to work under Universal Studio Group chairman Pearlena Igbokwe, spoke with TheWrap about why she still bets on the limited series genre, how she approaches overall deals at her studios and her message to Hollywood buyers.

beatrice-springborn-innovation-talk-seriesfest
Springborn speaks onstage at SeriesFest: Season 10 in Denver (SeriesFest)

TheWrap: Where are you feeling the crunch of the Hollywood contraction the most across your studios?

Springborn: I think it’s more about trying to figure out what buyers want. That is a question that no one seems to be able to answer because it’s constantly changing. The mandates are changing. So all we can do from a studio perspective is control our own destiny as much as we can. We have to develop things that we believe in… and hope that they will resonate with a buyer.

My biggest question right now is: How are platforms thinking about their audience? I’m on the seller side, so I don’t have that control. But the audience is telling us. Successes like “Beef” and “Baby Reindeer” prove that you can do things that don’t feel obvious. Playing it safe 100% of the time isn’t where we’re going to see success.

It seems like the streamers are trying to find the next “Suits,” and the next procedural. But then there’s also writers saying on social media that no one is buying any projects. So can you go to a streamer and sell them a project that you’re passionate about, and get them to buy it?

Part of our job is selling that there can be a great show from a great idea. I think you’re able to do that when the project is well executed. Where you have a script that’s great, or you have a proof of concept in a book, or a showrunner who knows what they’re doing. So there is a bit of a scaffolding you have to do in order to get a buyer to see that.

But I do believe it’s important to dedicate a percentage of your slate to things that don’t feel obvious, whether you are a buyer or a seller, because the hits come from that. The reverse-engineering of success has never worked… I’ve never seen a show be successful out of that reverse engineering.

But we are seeing a contraction. We’re seeing fearfulness from buyers. How do we get through that? Get them to realize that there’s success in the unknown and in taking risks.

We talked a little bit about “Baby Reindeer.” You told me before you wanted the show when it went into the market but Netflix scooped it up. How does that work?

A lot of times, producers or writers want to know that they’re at a home. They’re like “Great, I’ve already sold it to someone…” The advantage of a studio is that [once the project is produced] you can go sell it to everyone. Here, we can work with them on propping up the project through production, you can write another script, put in additional money on development and go out to everybody and have a competitive situation.

But I think a lot of people want to know they have a home for the show from the start.

Plus the producer, Clerkenwell Films, had already done “The End of the F***ing World” for Netflix, so there’s a shorthand there already. But yeah, we went after “Baby Reindeer” but Netflix put in the series order.

How much of a role does being on Netflix play on the show becoming a cultural phenomenon? Could a show go viral like “Baby Reindeer” if it was being distributed on another platform?

With “Baby Reindeer,” if someone pitched you that idea you’d be like, “What is this? What am I watching?” But it was the execution, Richard Gadd’s point of view, his acting. Jessica Gunning, she was amazing. Everyone across the board was amazing.

So you take a crazy idea, and you just execute it really well. To me, “Baby Reindeer” is such a shining example of what we should be doing and what we should be open to…. It’s doing so well. It wasn’t an expensive show, it wasn’t an obvious show… I hope that it opens up the doors for buyers to be less risk averse.

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in "Baby Reindeer"
Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in “Baby Reindeer” (Netflix)

Limited series, like “Baby Reindeer” or UCP and UIS production “Apples Never Fall” starring Annette Bening, have been a big draw for cablers and streamers to get big names for a shorter project, but those types of shows seem to be the last to be bought now. Where do you think the limited series genre goes from here?

Miniseries are hard because they don’t have multiple seasons to capitalize. But I also see that so many of the buyers are getting awards recognition for them, and that brings more people to the platform to watch other things. There’s a halo effect for limited series that I don’t think can be denied and will continue on. It’s cyclical. Six months from now, I’m sure buyers will be saying they want more success of things like “Baby Reindeer” or “Apples.”

We’re all hoping that in this environment, some of these success stories open up the doors to there being a change in mindset and a change in approach.

What do you think about the state of the TV marketplace right now?

The state of the TV marketplace is TBD. I really do think it’s too soon post-strike, and too soon in this changing world of technology [to know where we’re going.] But I’m buoyed by the success stories we’re talking about, and by the fact that it’s a cyclical business. Even when you have downturns there’s an opportunity for shows that are well crafted.

I’ve been here long enough to know that what buyers don’t want now is what they want desperately tomorrow.

How important are overall deals to your studios these days?

Looking at the overalls we have (which include Seth Macfarlane), we’re looking to do it with someone who’s not just one thing. A lot of the writers that we have deals with are also amazing producers. They can manage multiple things. They have relationships with other writers, and know how to craft series that aren’t just the ones they’re attached to. It’s not about massive volume, but you also have to know how to run more of the business side versus just working on one side.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.