Film Business Lecturer Emma Topping brokers Netflix deal

18 February, 2021

Emma Topping – Executive Producer (EP), Agent, Entertainment Lawyer and Film Business lecturer at Screen and Film School Brighton – recently brokered a TV series and feature film deal with streaming giant, Netflix.

Emma has twenty years of expertise covering many areas of the entertainment industry. Among her many credits, she is the EP on the Peter Rabbit feature film franchise. Her most recent success saw her negotiate a complex deal between Netflix and Penguin Random House UK for the rights to the beloved Redwall book series from British author, Brian Jacques.

The Redwall catalogue consists of twenty-two books and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Emma has managed all non-publishing interest in Jacques’ creative estate since 2015. Here, she provides a candid glimpse into some of the key considerations and responsibilities when negotiating contracts with one of the worlds’ foremost content streaming platforms.

Congratulations Emma! Can you describe the feeling you get when signing the dotted line on a deal of this magnitude?

Overwhelming achievement! It is the culmination of many months – years, in fact – of hard work. The work includes identifying the right partner(s) for the project, listening to pitches from interested parties, liaising with the author (here, the author’s Estate) and one’s own internal bosses who hold the rights. There are many conflicting interests and having to manage expectations, along with dispute resolution, is as much a part of the process as negotiating the best terms possible.

How did you first come to be involved in the world of Redwall?

At Penguin Random House I managed all of the legal and business affairs for non-publishing rights. So, all queries came through me. For Redwall, I was involved initially to review some queries that had come in for the rights and I fell in love with the book series. There aren’t many true film specialists (if any) in publishing companies and given my background, which was not in publishing but working for the likes of Disney and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Really Useful Group, I was able to speak the language of those that wanted to secure the rights – and then negotiate the best possible deal most effectively with my specific industry experience.

Emma Topping
Emma Topping

Can you provide us with a rough outline of the Netflix deal itself?

I can’t go in to the detail of course, but I can say – as with all properties such as Redwall and Peter Rabbit that have had prior iterations (eg. stage productions and television series) – that there is never just one deal, but a series of complex arrangements. Having to preserve the integrity of those prior arrangements and iterations is critical from a deal as well as from a creative perspective.

Any book option deal is tricky: standard USA studio/streamer deals run on average to a minimum of 40- 50 pages of small print. Book options relating to much-loved and hugely popular books such as Redwall and Peter Rabbit bring with them a high level of pressure and careful management.

The Redwall books have sold over 30 million copies worldwide. What considerations does an EP have to make to ensure that both the fans and the creators are happy with the end product?

When the news hit last week, #Redwall was trending on Twitter in the USA and Netflix’s Twitter post had over three million impressions on the day of the release, so there are a lot of vested interests out there! The key thing from my perspective, is to ensure that the best possible people are involved in the process. That process should be collaborative and open, but it must also respect the role and strengths that each party brings to the creative table.

You have to be additive and know when someone else has a different – often better – suggestion. And listen to it!

“It’s hard sometimes, but you have to take your ego out of the equation and do what is best for the brand.”

How long does this sort of deal usually take to broker and how do they tend to get finalised?

It really depends. Sometimes you are reactive – i.e. someone approaches you for the rights, or you are proactive – i.e. you go out selling the rights. My approach for Redwall was a combination of both, with over seventy suitors over the seven years that I managed the brand prior to signature of the deal. And interest was still coming after signature!

What are the most common obstacles you encounter as an EP?

Overly aggressive and entitled suitors, especially in a competitive pitch situation. As my then CEO said to me during the negotiation process: “How someone behaves when they don’t get what they want says so much more about them than when they do.”  – Very true!

Another all-too-common obstacle I hear more often than I should is the old industry line “These are standard terms, we’re not negotiating them.”

If there’s one way to get my back up, it is to hear that! There is no such thing as standard. Especially when I have sat on their side of the table.

Collaborating is at the heart of any deal, particularly in film and I view the holders of a stubborn stance like that view problematic given the deal is just the start of the relationship and the journey. It’s a red flag.

What are your golden tips for any aspiring EPs at Screen and Film School?

Understand who the players are in the industry, by which I mean not just in a film production, but for example, in television, publishing, consumer products and stage production. To be an effective EP you need to know – and respect – the roles of the talented team that you are a part of. And of those teams that you are not part of.

Listen, learn and collaborate. If you are an EP of a franchise that has had prior iterations and/or is based on a book – devour them all so that you can assess and speak to the strengths, weaknesses and directions the new opportunity might take.

Mostly, enjoy the ride!

 


 

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Headline image – REDWALL – Visual development art by Pierre Breton. Cr: Netflix © 2021

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