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What Is Indie TV? How Mark Duplass Is Using His ‘Morning Show’ Paychecks to Launch a New Model for the Small Screen

Mark Duplass was feeling insecure.

At one point in his career, he would get greenlight after greenlight for the TV projects he pitched on behalf of Duplass Brothers Productions, the beloved indie banner he founded with Jay Duplass in the late ’90s, when the duo was focused on feature films. But recently, he and company president Mel Eslyn noticed a problem.

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“All the executives who used to buy all of our stuff before we could even open our mouths were passing,” he says. “We were like, ‘Have we lost it?’ And then we started talking to all of our friends. They were like, ‘It’s not you. It’s us too.’ We started sharing these war stories.”

The war they spoke of was the decline of Peak TV. For nearly a decade, Hollywood was producing and distributing more television than ever before, thanks to the exponential growth of the streaming economy. But that trend began to slow around 2020, with studios warier of the niche fare they previously bought up with ease.

“These companies that started up and created this wonderful boom are contracting and merging. They’re chasing certain things that keep their shareholders happy, and I understand the business, but it’s not the best thing for unique storytelling,” says Duplass, whose TV credits include HBO’s “Togetherness” and “Room 104” — acclaimed among critics, but not exactly franchisable hits drawing millions of viewers a night.

“Mark and I get very impatient,” Eslyn adds with a laugh. “We always want to be making something. So rather than spinning our wheels, spending all this time on a pilot and then trying to sell it, let’s take a gamble on ourselves.”

At South by Southwest 2024, Duplass Brothers Productions is presenting — and hoping to sell — a showcase of pilots from four series that the company financed itself. Some of that money did come from a studio, but not in the way you’d expect.

“I can go back to ‘The Morning Show’ and make a really nice paycheck, then come here and use that to subsidize what we really want to do,” says Duplass, who plays Chip Black in the Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon-led Apple TV+ drama. “It’s worth it for me.”

Duplass and Eslyn weren’t just tired of having ideas turned down; they were unwilling to compromise their creative vision. Of the four titles screening at SXSW, only a coming-of-ager called “Penelope” was ever shopped to studios ahead of production.

“We started to inch our way out, then quickly got nervous that people wanted to change this special thing we were doing,” says Eslyn of “Penelope,” which she showran and directed. “So we held it back and said, ‘We’ll do it.’ It’s the flagship of this operation.”

And since they aren’t seeking production funds, Duplass and Eslyn can focus instead on striking up short-term domestic licensing deals that leave them in control of their IP.

“Test it on your service. If it’s successful, we can be rewarded with a longer license,” Duplass says, explaining the strategy. “If it isn’t, we didn’t make you risk too much. I can go sell in eight other territories around the world to get whole again financially.”

Even the latter scenario represents a win for the emerging talent involved in these projects. As put by Kevin Crotty, the CAA agent selling the titles at SXSW, the Duplass brothers often act as “shepherds of a lot of voices that don’t know where else to go in a business that keeps getting smaller and smaller.”

This indie TV model also helps the brothers evade every creator’s biggest fear.

“Here’s the cool part: We become the studio, and no one can cancel us,” Duplass says. “A couple of people can say, ‘I don’t want to relicense you.’ That means we just have to go find another buyer. It removes the situation we have now, which is ‘I gave my heart and soul to this place, and they canceled me!’ Or God forbid: They made it, and didn’t even fucking release it.”

When asked whether they’d consider selling a title like “Penelope” to a distributor and accepting funds to produce a second season on the condition of giving up their rights, and therefore becoming cancellable, Duplass and Eslyn can’t say yes or no yet — this is uncharted territory.

“We’re having these conversations with our agents right now, and they’re like ‘I don’t know!’ This hasn’t been done before,” Duplass says. “[Licensing] is a scenario that we really like because it does put us in the driver’s seat, but let’s face it: We’re talking about how brave and cool we are here, but we’re also insecure and scared. If somebody does come and say, ‘I want to own your show and have control of it,’ when all these people worked on our show for reduced rates after a strike, and we can pay out all these people and ourselves, we’re going to have to consider that.”

Adds Crotty, “There’s only so much they can make, so if they’re going to take on something they don’t own at the end of the day, it has to be financially worth putting all the other stuff that they’re looking to do to the side.”

The TV industry has never had an indie scene nearly as robust as that of the film industry, but Duplass remembers when indie movies were just as hard to make. To pioneer a different way of doing business, it was necessary for creatives to take a leap of faith and hope that buyers would eventually leap with them.

“There was such a lovely model in the ’80s and ’90s with independent film. That business started to contract, and it created this whole incredible ecosystem. New distributors sprung up around it,” he says. “And while this isn’t our first time dredging up the concept of making TV independently, this is the first time we feel like it’s necessary, or else something important is going to die. So we’re going all in.”

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