Introducing The ‘Way Upfronts’: Producer Michael Sugar And A Roster Of Hollywood Talent Set Out To Engage Brands In A New Marketplace

In early May, sandwiched between the NewFronts and the traditional broadcast (and now streaming) upfronts, a new showcase for pitches to major advertisers will make its debut.

Billed as The Way Upfronts, the series of virtual presentations slated for May 7 and 8 is a hybrid of the annual springtime spectacles of ad-supported television and the supercharged energy of a festival marketplace. Plans call for making them quarterly, in-person events, with next month’s launch edition meant to increase visibility at a time when talent will already be making the rounds and fully emerging from a strike-impaired 2023.

More from Deadline

Oscar-winning producer and manager Michael Sugar’s company, Sugar23, is leading the new initiative, which has secured attendance from brands representing some $120 billion in spending. Those Madison Avenue dollars are drawn to the talent in the Zoom. While organizers have not shared the names of presenters to the public, the host committee for the event includes Scarlett Johansson, Colin Jost, John Legend, Tom Brady, Elizabeth Banks and Steven Soderbergh.

There will be 20 slots for presenters, with a roster of top producers and stars pitching films, TV shows, documentaries and books, most in early development stages.

Sugar’s credits include the Oscar-winning Spotlight as well as notable series like 13 Reasons Why and The Knick. Sugar23 already has made considerable inroads over the years in its efforts to work with top brands.

In an interview with Deadline, Sugar said the aim is to create a new paradigm allowing for easier connections between talent and advertisers. “It’s closer to the way Hollywood pitches on a daily basis,” he said. “Pitches, sizzle reels, ideas, packaged scripts, whatever. What we’re creating is a marketplace. What I believe will happen is we will sell some shows. … I have seen what’s coming, and it is good.”

The new marketplace will ideally be beneficial to all stakeholders, Sugar said.

“We want distributors to win,” he said. “That’s key. We want the studios to win, we want the talent to win, we want the brands to win. We want every leg of the stool to win here. What we want to do is to augment the opportunity flow for everyone by bringing trillions of dollars that are spent on media and marketing into a new medium to spend it on.”

The economics of the event will be naturally more variable than those of a traditional upfront, given that linear advertising still relies on 30-second spots, whose rates have been steady despite audience declines. Six-figure investments will likely be the starting point for certain projects, but far heftier outlays will also give brands ownership positions in projects. Having a stake, Sugar believes, is more desirable to them than merely gaining impressions, looking to integrate their products on screen or activating sponsorships around programming.

The Way Upfronts will coincide with a notable shift in the streaming landscape in 2024, which will be reflected during the upfront presentations being held from May 13 to 15 in New York. Joining the legacy media companies for the first time with in-person shows will be Amazon and Netflix, which have recently been making major pushes into the video advertising business. Disney, NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Discovery, meanwhile, will be touting their ad-supported streaming offerings. And then there is YouTube, of course, which occupies its own unique but very wide lane.

Ad-supported streaming “is a very important piece of the puzzle and I don’t think we’re trying to disintermediate that,” Sugar said. At the same time, he added, “There are question marks around advertisers only reaching consumers that are normally across a pay wall through an ad tier that may or may not represent who they’re trying to get.”

Talent agencies have long represented both celebrities and blue-chip brands and have been insisting for decades that the two strands of business must eventually become more intertwined. Some media buyers have also moved toward more direct give-and-take with talent. Acknowledging that history, Sugar said he doesn’t claim to be the first to hit on the basic concept. “What is different about what our angle is,” he said, “is that we’re leading with the IP. We’re leading with the makers, not the transactors, not the relationship brokers. And that solves the execution challenge because even if a brand were sold this concept by their creative agency or media buyer – ‘Hey, we should do entertainment!’ – they would not know how. They would rely on the wrong people to come up with ideas.”

Without an effort like the Way Upfronts, Sugar believes, “Brands would see the things that couldn’t get over the hump in Hollywood,” as opposed to the “premium” fare his showcase will deliver. “What we’re taking brands are the Glengarry leads,” he continued, nodding to the titular plot point in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. “The opportunity to get involved early.”

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.