Exclusive Interview: Sonar’s Thomas Lesinski Talks Premium Content


PREMIUM: Sonar Entertainment CEO Thomas Lesinski talks to World Screen about the company’s focus on premium content, attracting top talent and diversifying its offering.

WS: Has a focus of yours been to move away from TV movies and miniseries and more into long-running series?
LESINSKI: That has been a key focus. When we originally started the company, we acquired a library that consisted largely of TV movies and miniseries. We have completely changed the company’s strategy going forward and are aiming to become a top creative scripted television company. We are well into that planning cycle because we saw that was where the industry was headed and that was where the demand was. Fortunately, we picked the right strategy, and we have been executing it for almost two years now. And we have some great shows and a really strong pipeline going forward.

WS: Tell us about some of your shows.
LESINSKI: We are partners with Scott Free London and Hardy, Son & Baker on Taboo, which is on BBC One in the U.K. and on FX in the U.S. It certainly qualifies as a hit show; in terms of the audience, it has delivered in the U.S. and the U.K. and has been sold in many major markets such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain. It’s the kind of show that sets up the positioning of Sonar as a premier, premium scripted, independent company. We just completed The Son, which will premiere on AMC in April. It’s an epic story that is really about the birth of Texas. It’s part of our overall strategy of marrying feature film talent with the television business. We worked closely with Ridley Scott, Tom Hardy and Steven Knight on Taboo. The Son stars Pierce Brosnan and an incredible cast. As the market continues to look for shows that can capture an audience and drive subscribers, we are positioning ourselves as a go-to company, and that is exciting. The third show is Mr. Mercedes, which was written by David E. Kelley and based on a best-selling book by Stephen King. It features Brendan Gleeson and Mary-Louise Parker. It is directed by Jack Bender, who also worked on Lost and Game of Thrones. We are assembling [content] that becomes must-see programming, helps brand networks and creates the kind of stickiness that platforms want for retaining audiences and attracting subscribers.

One of the things we decided to do two years ago was push our focus on international co-productions, and the most significant one that we’ve already greenlit is the next chapter of Das Boot, the critically acclaimed feature film and book. It is a co-production with Sky Deutschland and Bavaria Film. It’s one of those cult movies that was highly distinguished, and the chance to turn it into a television series is proving to be exciting. Our relationship with Sky is really good. In addition to that, we have the second season of The Shannara Chronicles, which is our big Jon Favreau production, based on a Terry Brooks book, with Al Gough and Miles Millar serving as showrunners. We are shooting that now in New Zealand. It was a big success for MTV and a variety of international distributors last year. As a relatively small independent, I think it’s notable that we are managing five shows and are looking to make five more in the near future.

WS: Are you looking at different financial models for the projects you are developing and producing?
LESINSKI: We want people to understand that what makes Sonar a unique platform is that we are willing to finance things in lots of different ways. We are willing to finance 100 percent of a production. We are willing to be a co-producer. We are willing to look at every show in a completely different way to make sure that both the talent and the platforms are all invested in a project and uniquely incentivized to have it succeed. We don’t have a hard list of what needs to get done regarding the financial models. We are flexible. Catalyst Capital Group is our owner and has been very supportive; it has provided us with the wherewithal to not only incentivize talent the right way but also bring a lot of capital to the table, which allows us to get projects off the ground quickly without worrying about any third-party financing.

WS: What has contributed to your ability to attract A-list talent?
LESINSKI: It’s a number of things. The first factor is the creative culture that we have at the company. We wouldn’t look to be in business with people like Robert Downey Jr., George Clooney, Tom Hardy and others if we didn’t have the right culture, which is highly collaborative and allows talent to achieve their vision. The second factor is that we have capital and deploy it, and we work with the best talent both in front of and behind the camera. We are not just attracting great talent; we are also marrying it with great writers, directors and showrunners. Finally, the way we structure our deals attracts talent. A lot of the big studios have hard and fast rules about how they structure talent deals. We are much more open to creating deals that incentivize talent to work with us, give them greater ownership in the show and allow them the creative freedom to make the show they want to make—which they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do in a larger, more bureaucratic setup like you see a lot at the studio level. That kind of flexibility, which involves both creative and financial capability, has become attractive to some of the biggest talents in the world.

WS: Are you looking to diversify Sonar’s product offering?
LESINSKI: We made a commitment to diversify beyond premium scripted drama and do comedy, unscripted and kids’ programming, and even occasionally the small independent feature film. We want to be a home for our talent, regardless of what their interest is. We want to be flexible enough to meet their needs and provide them with the same financial support. In that way, any of their visions can be executed at Sonar.