During the recent reality television boom, small-time producers that were once “the Rodney Dangerfields” of Hollywood sold their companies for hundreds of millions. Now many are looking for second acts, and for ‘Pawn Stars’ creator Brent Montgomery, that involves a high-stakes “VC to TV” business, Jimmy Kimmel and an invite-only L.A. “incubator” (just don’t call it a party house).
Bob Saget has had Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss cornered for more than an hour. First near the kitchen island, where grilling maestro Adam Perry Lang carves strips of charred short rib for Joel McHale, then outside by one of the seven bars, not far from a cannabis entrepreneur nursing a spliff the size of a hand roll. That’s when Kathy Griffin interrupts. “The gays upstairs want to know!” exclaims the recovering political pariah, demanding the GoT producers reveal which characters survive the upcoming final season.
This bizarre amalgam of a Hollywood house party, at a Spanish villa on a quiet street just outside of Hollywood, seems to have everybody and everything: Jimmy Kimmel kvelling over Martin Short, a former NASA engineer, “Compton Cowboy” Randy Savvy, artist Shepard Fairey, Jon Hamm introducing himself as “Jon from St. Louis” and a 22-year-old who’s worth $60 million after coming into a payload of data that can tell companies how many Visa holders order Domino’s before watching The Big Bang Theory.
It’s an absurd tableau that Bill Hader might have conjured as SNL‘s Stefon, but it’s no joke. The mansion and its monthly weeknight fetes, one extravagant prong in an unusual business proposition, are being bankrolled by the guy who made $360 million (yes, $360 million) largely off the reality show Pawn Stars.
Brent Montgomery, 44, received perhaps the biggest windfall of the unscripted television consolidation boom of 2013 to 2015 when he sold his production company Leftfield Entertainment Group to Britain’s ITV in 2014. The former camera operator who struggled in the industry before he landed his first series became one of more than a dozen independent reality TV producers who hit the jackpot once foreign companies took notice of their ability to feed the unscripted programming pipeline to the then-greenlight-happy cable networks. Together, these producers quietly reaped payouts summing nearly $2 billion by selling to mostly U.K.-based media conglomerates, including ITV, FremantleMedia and Tinopolis.
The succession of events was wild. Jersey Shore producer SallyAnn Salsano, who started as an intern for Howard Stern, sold 75 percent of her 495 Productions to Fremantle in 2014 for north of $50 million. Tinopolis then paid $100 million each for majority stakes in Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth’s Magical Elves (Top Chef) and American Ninja Warrior producer Arthur Smith’s eponymous shingle. Mark Burnett, the industry stalwart (Survivor, Shark Tank, The Voice) with a rare chokehold on broadcast TV, saw his more sophisticated operation consumed by MGM for $400 million. Craig Piligian, an eclectic reality TV elder statesman whose roster includes Ultimate Fighter, marked the end of the wave in 2015 when he offloaded half of his Pilgrim Studios to Lionsgate for $200 million.
Now most of these initial contracts, under which the acquired have been churning out new series while attempting to keep their successes alive in a more cutthroat TV ecosystem, are set to expire. Montgomery, who stepped in as ITV’s head of American operations in 2015, had been prepping his next move since well before his January 2018 exit.
That second act is The Wheelhouse Group. Montgomery pitches it as modern Hollywood networking and influence-peddling on amphetamines. Through the monthly parties that one attendee describes as “an L.A. influencer’s Instagram feed come to life” and a daily open-door policy (for those in the know), Montgomery introduces producers, directors, actors and athletes to brand reps, investors and executives with greenlight power.
The face of the operation will be a slate of unscripted programming to air on traditional networks and streamers. But the broader mission, launched in earnest in January, involves divisions devoted to marketing and a suite of startup investments — the latter ideally bankrolling the entire operation. Yes, it sounds like an elaborate scheme to write off a party house. But Montgomery has a financial model and legit industry players in his corner — even if the guests who pass through Wheelhouse’s doors don’t always arrive with the tightest handle on what the hell is going on. “I’m not exactly sure what he’s doing, but I wouldn’t bet against him,” is a common refrain.
The confusion likely has something to do with the fact that Wheelhouse is, at its core, a VC fund — backed by both Montgomery and (he hopes) outside money. Wheelhouse’s team of 38 employees identifies appealing startups — Venice Beach bike brand Sole, Instagram-friendly athleisure label Rhone and female-focused toy company GoldieBlox among the first — and invests in them. Equity in these companies means Wheelhouse is then willing to make it cheaper for platforms to buy shows related to those brands.
Montgomery explains it this way: What if, before HGTV behemoth Fixer Upper was made, producers had invested in the company at the heart of that show — Joanna Gaines’ burgeoning lifestyle empire Magnolia — before it blew up? They could have extended a piece of that stake to networks for smaller episode costs. Long-term profits, for both parties, would have been explosive. “Networks are more open to subsidized content than ever,” explains Montgomery. “Buyers that we’ve walked through this say this sounds like the best thing ever. ‘Now go prove it.’ “
Producers and networks taking pieces of brands featured in their shows isn’t new, but incubating businesses and bringing them to TV is novel. To that end, the houses (there’s also an outpost in lower Manhattan) are meant to serve as sceney incubators. “The biggest issue we’ve had is people being like, ‘Is this just some rich guy being a rich guy?’ ” says Montgomery. “Once they experience it, they get it. But we’ve stopped trying to explain it. Come to an event and you see worlds collide that never would.”
Tonight, a chilly (by L.A. standards) Thursday in January, the married father of three spends the six-hour party making introductions: GoldieBlox founder Debbie Sterling gets an audience with Kimmel and the partners of digital marketing group Portal A (she met LeBron James and his producing partner Maverick Carter here a few weeks back). “We won’t be included in everything that comes out of here, and that’s OK,” says Montgomery. “We like to pretend that this is Soho House, and we’re the maitre d’. People like to be nice to the maitre d’. That’s the long-term play.”
Kimmel met Montgomery at the urging of his longtime agent James “Baby Doll” Dixon, and the two initially bonded over a practical joke executed in Montgomery’s home base of Old Greenwich, Connecticut (Kimmel advised Montgomery to steal his friend’s Dodge Charger and leave an identical matchbox car in its place). The ABC host was immediately drawn to the producer’s open mind about the types of people they could build shows — and businesses — around. “I’m the guy who made a career plucking a security guard from the parking lot and making him my sidekick,” says Kimmel. “I’m into inventions and apps and the people you find if you look around your own life. What I find most rewarding is helping talented people figure it all out.”
Kimmel boarded Wheelhouse as a partner in November, swapping equity in his own operation for a stake in Montgomery’s and launching his own content hub, Kimmelot. (It’s the first production pact of its kind for Kimmel, who is diversifying his business, including a recently announced comedy club in Las Vegas.) The host’s only requests as an investor have been that a pizza oven be installed at Wheelhouse LA and that its upstairs shower be turned into a podcasting suite. “Some people come in thinking we’re trying to sell them on a time share,” says Kimmel of the 3,300-square-foot house that Montgomery paid $4.4 million for. (No one sleeps in the house, for that matter. It has no beds — a conscious move to make it a safe space for a community rattled by #MeToo.)
“Jimmy spots and attracts talent,” says Montgomery. “He could be the world’s best casting agent if that’s what he decided to do.”
Working my way to the door around 11 p.m., I’m confronted by another partygoer who appears almost on cue to try and validate Montgomery’s master plan. “I just came up with a show with [producer] Tom Forman’s wife,” announces A&E exec Amy Savitsky. “And Brent is going to fund it.”
Few reality producers find themselves at the center of such a quintessential Hollywood scene. While networks treat scripted TV producers like artists, those same outlets want unscripted producers to be content factories. “We used to be the Rodney Dangerfields of the industry,” cops Montgomery. Then the megadeals began happening.
“I started reading those articles … ‘This company is selling for that? They’re smaller than us!’ It was outrageous,” recalls Steve Michaels of Asylum Entertainment (Beverly Hills Pawn), who sold Asylum in 2013 to Legendary for $160 million. “You think you build a company to leave to your children one day, and then you realize they don’t give a shit about what you do.”
As recently as five years ago — before Netflix and other streamers upended the model — cable TV channels were thriving on inexpensive unscripted shows, many that hit big after the 2008 recession. (In 2013, Duck Dynasty was bringing more than 9 million weekly viewers to A&E.) At the same time, foreign media companies were looking to boost U.S. distribution — and their stock prices. With reality suddenly the most valuable commodity in TV, it seemed almost anyone could sell his or her shingle in the high-eight-figure range with a long-running show and a few good relationships. Almost none of these deals included any sort of library, which usually belonged to the networks that aired the shows. Instead the buyers settled for profits from the shingles’ current and future productions using the increased EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) to boost their own valuations. Sellers like Montgomery were brought in-house to drive sales for their new parent companies. The more they sold, the more they made.
“The Lakers don’t own LeBron, they get his services for a few years. It’s the same principle,” says Noah Pollack, a veteran unscripted producer, now a consultant. “Rent a star producer for five years and hope they can make more hits while under contract. It’s a strategy that fails more than it succeeds, but if you don’t do it, you’ll lose anyway.”
Montgomery, a Texas-raised Army brat, graduated with a degree in journalism at A&M before moving to Brooklyn in 1998. That is to say, he looks like the type of guy who might dream up Pawn Stars during a Las Vegas bachelor party, which is how the show was born. Set in a Vegas pawn shop with the folksy Harrison family at its center, the series proved to be the bellwether of blue-collar reality when it launched in 2009. At its height in 2011, it brought in an average 7.6 million viewers. Leftfield has produced 522 episodes for History and the show has spawned nine spinoffs. Early episodes cost a mere $160,000 to make, so Montgomery quickly used his initial profits and a round of financing from Barclays to buy up smaller shingles like Sirens Media (The Real Housewives of New Jersey) and Outpost Entertainment (Car Hunters).
“None of these other independents were part of groups,” says Thomas Dey, CEO of ACF Investment Bank, who brokered Leftfield’s acquisition and those of many Montgomery contemporaries. “Brent didn’t just sell Leftfield to ITV, he sold an infrastructure and a bunch of other companies he’d already purchased.” Montgomery ultimately brought 10 executives with him, eight of whom remain — including ITV America CEO David George.
“It was all about getting scale,” says Endemol Shine North America CEO Cris Abrego. Like Montgomery, Abrego got his start in the trenches as a camera assistant on The Real World before becoming an independent producer and selling his 51 Minds shingle (VH1’s The Surreal Life) to Endemol in 2008 for $200 million. “Now, if you’re not related to a bigger partner in-house, it’s hard to survive.”
The question of whether some of these acquisitions were truly worth their massive price tags is a muddy one. “Distribution was a big factor in a lot of these deals,” notes one agent, party to several of the negotiations. “The problem is, that part didn’t always play out. The market here changed.”
Adds one unscripted exec, still skeptical over some of the sales, “A lot of these buyers were just looking at the books, not talking around to the community and asking if these were respected producers.”
ITV saw its stock price triple over the three years it went on its buying spree, becoming one of the biggest suppliers of unscripted programming in the U.S. But not every purchase worked out. In 2012, ITV bought a 61.5 percent stake in Deirdre and Scott Gurney’s eponymous shingle, an overnight success thanks to Duck Dynasty, for $40 million. But the series flamed out due to racist and homophobic comments made by a castmember. ITV then sued over allegations of cooked books and misconduct, and the Gurneys filed a $100 million countersuit. As a former Gurney collaborator sums it up, “Some of these people were always assholes. Now they’re just rich assholes.”
As many of these megadeals are set to expire, reality TV is at a crossroads. The genre is not the wide-open playground it once was. Broadcast remains a crapshoot, dominated by aging franchises like The Voice and The Bachelor. Virtually no one forecasted the success of Fox’s spin on Korean import The Masked Singer, currently the Big Four’s top launch of the 2018-19 season. And cable, which fueled the reality boom, is plagued by reluctant executives and prolonged development. “Reality shops make money on margins and volume,” says Pollack. “As networks scrutinize every penny and what kind of infrastructure is justified, it’s hard for producers to make more than their 10 percent producing fee.”
The genre is now largely reliant on big-name talent, either on or behind the camera — leaving producers who didn’t build wealth before the consolidation boom shut out.
On the other hand, A&E series like Live PD and Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath have brought ratings and higher sale prices to producers who can break through. Netflix’s buying spree and its zeitgeisty reboot of Queer Eye haven’t hurt either. “[It’s a great time] if you want to stop producing crap like I Love New York and take a gamble on high-end documentary — and you’ve got a longer burn rate if you got one of those payouts,” says a top unscripted agent, forecasting more deal exits and new companies, like Montgomery’s, for some of reality’s wealth class.
Going independent again may prove a necessity for some. Producers whose output hasn’t matched their initial contractual promises — blame the decline in orders from cable — face an uphill battle in getting their secondary payouts. J.D. Roth likens this problem to the mortgage crisis. The unscripted veteran, now partnered with Scooter Braun at GoodStory, sold his 3Ball Entertainment to Netherlands-based Eyeworks in 2006 before that portfolio eventually sold to Warner Bros. for $273 million in 2014. “No one wants to be creatively and financially handcuffed, and that’s what happens when you can’t [get] the rest of the money you thought you were going to make at these big corporations,” says Roth. “If it costs you money to sell your house, you say ‘screw it’ and mail the keys to the bank. Go buy another house.”
As for Michaels, he is a unique case in the consolidation story. When his five-year deal ended in 2018, he bought his company back from new Legendary parent Wanda at a fraction of the original selling cost. (Michaels won’t discuss financials, but sources paint the updated price as low as 1 percent of his 2013 payout.) He emerged with his team in place. “Anybody starting a production company from scratch today is crazy,” says Michaels. “There’s a lot of overhead. We pay over a million a year just in rent. So much of our overhead doesn’t hit the production budgets.”
Lauren Lexton, an industry stalwart producer behind Toddlers & Tiaras and the recent TLC reboot of Trading Spaces, re-upped at Endemol-Shine after the initial five-year deal that earned her and partner Tom Rogan $60 million. But when time came for a second renewal, she bowed out, using her money to fund a travel newsletter called Your Oyster.
“I hope [these veterans] don’t retire to some beach,” says Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive vp and head of programming at reality-focused A&E. “There’s a reason they got to where they are. They’re idea people. We need them to innovate for the next round.”
Wheelhouse LA looks much different the morning after the party. A team dismantles tenting from the night before, letting sunlight flood the pool deck, adjoining bungalow and pingpong garden. Furniture has returned to the living room, a comfortable space with plush couches where glitterati such as Magic Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and Tobey Maguire have taken meetings. In the kitchen, private chef Francesco offers omelets to anyone passing through.
Montgomery, who lives not at this party house but in Pacific Palisades when he’s in L.A., is finishing breakfast with top lieutenants Ed Simpson and Sean Cohan. He’s aware some people are having trouble seeing beyond these trappings. Gathered around a table, the trio attempt to clarify that they’re trying to build an empire — not a party pad.
“The houses are meant to be a loss leader,” says Montgomery. “But the deal flow that’s come out of them has been incredible already.” The company has put projects into the works with Netflix, Disney+, AMC, HGTV and Discovery and produced a Ford-subsidized documentary about Detroit for History. It is now pitching an Alex Rodriguez-fronted unscripted series produced by his mogul girlfriend Jennifer Lopez as well as a Dwayne Johnson-produced series about British collectibles emporium Forbidden Planet. Kimmel is working to set up a project for NASA alum turned internet prankster Mark Rober.
Simpson, Wheelhouse’s chief creative officer, describes the company’s gambit of investing in non-entertainment partners this way: “If someone says, ‘Make $5 million worth of content for us and you’ll end up owning part of a business worth $100 million,’ do you make that bet? Of course. That blows the profit margins from TV production out of the water. If these houses were our only business model, I’d be shitting myself.”
Of course, even Montgomery’s windfall can only pay for so much. Most of his staff took pay cuts to join this Hollywood hedge fund. To keep the lights on and help identify new investments, the company is currently in talks for $60 million in initial seed funding.
”The biggest mistake we can make is acting like we know these worlds that we didn’t grow up in,” says Cohan, president of Wheelhouse’s entertainment division, aware that he’s in uncharted territory. “We need to find the best-in-class partners.”
In the meantime, an invite to one of the houses remains among the more coveted on either coast. Amy Poehler, Pharrell, Kylie Jenner, Jada Pinkett Smith and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have used one of the addresses (regularly scrubbed from the internet) to host events. Montgomery, their maitre d’, is betting big it will all prove the foundation of something more than he could have ever accomplished with just reality TV.
“People ask me why I’m even still working,” he says. “I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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