Funny You Should Ask: Byron Allen Is Ready to Conquer the Movie Business
Byron Allen is always game for a good laugh and an even better business deal.
After purchasing The Weather Channel in March, the Entertainment Studios founder, chairman and CEO is now focusing on becoming a major player in the movie business.
“We’re looking to acquire, we’re looking to produce and we’re looking to really be a major supplier of motion pictures worldwide,” Allen said during an interview at the company’s sound stages in Culver City, Calif.
Among the properties catching his attention are the Landmark Theatres, currently co-owned by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban. Such a move would provide a distribution opportunity for the theatrical division of Entertainment Studios. While Allen says his company doesn’t need Landmark to meet its goals, the theater chain would be a welcome acquisition.
“We’re looking at a lot of assets because we’re very inquisitive at this point. That’s just one of the assets,” he explained. “Nothing has been decided on Landmark in any way, shape or form.”
Allen invited Fortune to the set of his comedy game show, Funny You Should Ask, to discuss his past and where he wants to go in the future.
The daily game show features a panel of comedians who provide funny answers to questions, which two contestants competing for cash, must decide are right or wrong. It airs nationally-syndicated on television and on Comedy.TV.
As the production crew and show host Jon Kelley prepared to tape five episodes, Allen provided the laughs by performing the warm-up routine for the studio audience.
“I’m going to meet you in the parking lot and give you some cash. I know it doesn’t feel legal,” quipped Allen to the attractive crowd of mostly millennials (hired by a local casting company).
Even with an ever-expanding schedule, and a reported net worth of $400 million, Allen had no problem entertaining the audience before the regular warm-up comedian arrived.
“I go and I warm up the crowd,” Allen explained. “Once you’re a comedian, you’re always a comedian.”
The comedian-turned-media mogul then took his seat on stage alongside Saturday Night Live alum Jon Lovitz, comedian-actress Sherri Shepherd, Comedy Central veteran Natasha Leggero, Baskets Emmy Winner Louie Anderson and stand-up comic Gabriel Iglesias.
“I used to watch him late at night, he was always interviewing people,” Iglesias said about Allen. “At the time, I didn’t know he was a comedian and it was one of those things that through the years we crossed paths.”
The media mogul, now 57, got his start in showbiz at age 14 with a lot of encouragement from his mom, Carolyn Folks, who serves as an executive producer on the game show and was also on set.
One night when Allen was doing a stand-up routine at the L.A.’s famed Comedy Store, a writer from Good Times heard his act and got him a job writing for the show’s star, Jimmie Walker.
Allen launched Entertainment Studios from his dining room table in 1993, starting with the weekly series, Entertainers with Byron Allen, which featured interviews with celebrities, including Sherri Shepherd.
“I remember him when he was doing press junkets because he would interview me for the various shows that I had,” Shepherd said. “To see Byron in this place, as an African-American man in a position of power… I’m incredibly proud of him.”
Allen employs 600 people and owns eight 24-hour HD cable and broadcast networks, including Comedy.TV, Pets.TV, Cars.TV and The Weather Channel, which he acquired for about $300 million.
“It’s an American institution,” Allen said. “A lot of good people depend on it—farmers, pilots, the government, on and on and on. We just want to make sure that it’s the best 24-hour news and weather service.”
In recent years, the cable channel has slipped in popularity as consumers turn to the internet and mobile apps for weather information. Viewers also criticized the channel and its previous owners, Comcast/NBCUniversal, The Blackstone Group and Bain Capital, for airing too many taped docu-series instead of live weather forecasts.
Despite the criticism, Allen said he has no plans to make major programming or management changes at the cable channel.
“I think they have it right in terms of being a best in class weather news service,” he said.
After acquiring The Weather Channel and TheGrio, a news and entertainment website for the African American audience, Allen hopes his next big moves will be in the movie business. He says his 2015 acquisition of film distribution company Freestyle Releasing, now called Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, is just the beginning.
“We’re trying to feed an audience—not chase it—and deliver what’s important,” he said.
Last year, the company released the Mandy Moore shark movie 47 Meters Down, which earned $44 million on a $5 million budget. The company also distributed the critically-acclaimed Christian Bale Western Hostiles and Kennedy family drama, Chappaquiddick.
“We really just want to put out good movies and tell great stories,” Allen said.
The Freestyle agreement came with a Netflix output deal that guarantees the technology giant will stream its films. The way the deal works is the films are released in theaters first, then they go to DVD, Netflix and television.
“They’ve given us indications that they want to continue on,” Allen said about Netflix.
Allen was coy about what he considers his dream acquisition. But he did offer a bit of advice for aspiring content producers.
“People have an enormous opportunity now because I didn’t have the internet 25 years ago. Now, you have global distribution at the tip of your finger. You can create and produce content and be global,” he said. “Believe in yourself and believe in your vision. Don’t waver.”