Skydance TV Expands: Doubles Series Output Amid Industry Pullback, Sets First-Look Pact With Undisputed Cinema (2024)

It’s been less than two years since TV exec Matt Thunell left Netflix to become president of Skydance Television. And in that time, Thunell — who previously ran spectacle and event programming at the streamer — has completed his first major assignment from Skydance boss David Ellison and chief creative officer Dana Goldberg: doubling their TV series output.

Today, Skydance has five series in active production: Amazon’s “Reacher” and “Cross,” Netflix’s “Fubar,” Apple TV+’s’ “Foundation” and “The Big Door Prize,” as well as five new series orders setup across Amazon, Apple TV+ and Netflix, including a comedy, a YA series, an action series starring Octavia Spencer and Hannah Waddingham, and a bull rider project led by Tim McGraw.

Skydance Television has also signed a first-look TV deal with filmmakers Gina Prince-BythewoodandReggie RockBythewood’s Undisputed Cinema. The partners are about to sell their first series from the producing couple, with “The Woman King ” and “The Old Guard” director Prince-Bythewood set to write and direct.

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Thunell has no shortage of drive to expand Skydance Television through a “virtuous cycle” of growing its outpout.

“When I walked in the door, Dana and David said to me, your goal is to double the slate. And I’m really proud to say that we did that in a little over a year,” Thunell told Variety. “What that means for us on the business side is that we get to reinvest all of that back into what we love to do, which is make things and tell great stories. I look at that success as just our ability to continue to do new first-looks and overall deals, to invest in scripts, to invest into IP. So it’s this virtuous cycle of every new show we get on the air means more that we get to invest back into the business, supporting artists, developing projects, selling them and then building and building and building.”

Skydance prides itself on its talent relationships and matchmaking skills. The company paired “Terminator” star Arnold Schwarzenegger with “Reacher” helmer Nick Santora when Schwarzenegger came to the studio to tell them he was ready to commit to a scripted TV series, and they produced Netflix action-comedy “FUBAR,” which is now shooting its second season.

Skydance TV Expands: Doubles Series Output Amid Industry Pullback, Sets First-Look Pact With Undisputed Cinema (1)

“From the beginning, David [Ellison] and I have always discussed the fact that we wanted Skydance to be one-stop-shopping for talent,” Goldberg said. “To bring really talented people into the company, retain that talent, but not pigeonhole them in a specific division. Meaning, if you’re in front of or behind the camera and you want to do a movie, great, come do it with us. If you want to do a television show, great, come do it with us. You want to be a voice in an animated movie? That’s fantastic, you can do it with us. And now we have even more divisions to spread that talent across. And I want to really credit David with creating a structure at his company where our divisions are not siloed off and don’t speak to one another. By nature of the structure that I oversee creative, I have the ability to move talent from division to division.”

Thunell, who shepherded “Stranger Things,” “13 Reasons Why” and Skydance TV’s “Grace & Frankie” at Netflix, came into his new role at Skydance in November 2022, a very awkward spot in Hollywood after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and just before the Hollywood strikes. Skydance itself has been much in the headlines in recent months as it pursues a complicated marriage with Paramount Global and Shari Redstone’s National Amusem*nts Inc. Thunell’s focus on the mission of growing Skydance Television’s output has impressed his bosses.

“You have to have an incredible leader with a real vision to be able to pull off the level of success that this division has had, particularly in a post-strike world, when most companies are just talking about the constriction of the town,” Goldberg said. “He’s made incredibly strategic hires in bolstering the division as a whole, and bringing everybody together with the vision. We have very lofty goals here at Skydance and some people could be daunted by them. And one of the wonderful things about Matt is he walked in and he grabbed a hold of that and was challenged and excited by those ambitions.”

The assembled Skydance TV leadership team includes Carolyn Harris, executive VP of current series; Shelley Zimmerman, head of development; Drew Brown, chief of physical production; and Jeff Hegedus, executive VP of business & legal affairs. The marching orders for that band of execs is to diversify, both the genres and formats that the company produces as well as the platforms that carry Skydance shows.

Skydance TV Expands: Doubles Series Output Amid Industry Pullback, Sets First-Look Pact With Undisputed Cinema (2)

“We were founded nearly 10 years ago on the TV side to be a slight counterpoint to the feature group, which is largely focused on gigantic action, adventure, sci-fi and fantasy films,” Thunell said. “And the TV group, from the beginning, has strived to be genre agnostic. Of course, we’re going to make great big action, adventure, sci-fi, fantasy series — but we will be broader than that. And so the effort now is to continue to broaden the slate, the genres that we’re playing in, and then also add to the distribution partners we’re working with.”

Yes, that means Thunell is looking to make some network TV: “We have remarkable business with Amazon, with Apple, with Netflix, and we’ve had some great experiences with other distributors. But we would love to deepen our commitments with other streaming companies and with other linear networks. That has been a big drive for me: continued diversification of our business on the TV side. Both in terms of the types of shows that we make and the partners we make them with.”

During Netflix’s upfront presentation to advertisers May 15, one of its splashy announcements was a series order for a Tim McGraw-led bull rider drama from Skydance Television. It’s popcorn fare aimed squarely at the “Yellowstone” audience, much as Skydance is known for on the film side. Thunell describes the still-untitled show as a “contemporary cowboy saga” that marks McGraw’s first starring role in what is meant to be an ongoing series. (McGraw and wife Faith Hill starred in “Yellowstone” prequel “1883,” which was a limited series.)

“This is modeled to be a very long-running show on Netflix,” he said. He also cited it as an example of the company’s focus on developing shows with a very specific target audience in mind. “After spending so many years as a buyer, I was obsessed and preoccupied with connecting with audiences and pleasing them. So this is an example of the heartland audience being one that we feel has been underserved for too long,” Thunell said.

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Goldberg seconds Thunell’s approach, noting this “applies to all divisions of Skydance.” “We don’t think of ‘commercial’ as a dirty word. We unabashedly want as many people as possible to see our movies, to see our television shows, to play our games. That’s the space we’ve always existed in and the space we will always continue to exist in,” she said.

As Thunell and Goldberg are stocking Skydance’s TV and film pipeline, other discussions are happening above them that could dramatically affect Skydance Television’s future.

Recently, Paramount Global has been in talks with Ellison and backers to bring Paramount and Skydance together. But an exclusive 30-day negotiating window for Skydance and Paramount lapsed earlier this month without resulting in a deal. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures and private-equity giant Apollo teamed on a proposed $26 billion offer for Paramount Global, butword also surfaced late last week that Sony and Apollo are cooling on the idea of an aggressive pursuit of Paramount Global in its entirety, CNBC and others reported. Does that open the door wider for Skydance to get Paramount to the altar? Only time will tell, per Goldberg, who has been with Skydance since its launch in 2010.

“Here’s the God’s honest answer, which is, that’s probably a conversation to have with some other folks,” Goldberg said. “But we are focused on the day-to-day of Skydance. And I’ll be honest, the day-to-day of Skydance for me is about a 27-hour-a-day job. So that’s what I’m focused on and it’s business as usual.”

Skydance TV is looking beyond the status quo to make sure its portfolio maintains the right ratio of splashy titles based on existing IP and original ideas that are artistic passion projects.

“We’re in an environment where the conventional wisdom is that only things based on giant IP can get made and connect with an audience,” Thunell said. “And half of the 10 series we have committed right now are original ideas purely born out of the brilliance of our talent partners, and I want to continue doing more of that. We love IP, but we want to continue to be a home where really amazing talent can come and get their original idea made.”

(Pictured: Skydance TV’s Dana Goldberg and Matt Thunell)

Skydance TV Expands: Doubles Series Output Amid Industry Pullback, Sets First-Look Pact With Undisputed Cinema (2024)
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